Chapter 5
The Razing of Arita

Arita, Byrn; Anno Regis 1285

"War brings out the worst in men. Anger, fear, hate, aggression... For many, it's the heat of the moment that bring out these lesser qualities, but there are some whose innately wicked nature are only enhanced by warfare. These are truly the most abominable examples of our race."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The city of Arita was no stranger to war. Two hundred years ago, it felt the brunt of the conflict with Gladius. After being brutally sacked and plundered, it languished in occupation for years before its liberation in the last days of the war. However, the memory of those harsh years was eroded by the flow of time. The unwitting populace would soon be reminded of the terror of those days.
The townspeople went about their business as always, totally oblivious to the recent attacks on the border posts. No one knew they were facing a second invasion from Gladius, an invasion meant not to conquer but to destroy. The herald of their fate was a lone man walking down the main avenue: Tariq the Assassin. The villagers did not know what to make of the foreign visitor and the road was cleared for his passage. His peculiar dress, dark skin and unusual curved sword drew whispers, but there were none who dared to approach him.
Stopping near the center of the town, Tariq scanned his surroundings. The spectators drawn to his arrival kept their distance and some were taking shelter in their homes. He did not see much prospect for a challenge in such a timid lot. He drew his sword and raised it high in the air. In a loud voice he addressed the people.
"I am Tariq ibn Khalid ibn Adil al-Hassani! Surrender and I will spare you. But if you dare, come at me!"
The people stared at him blankly. Tariq had used Bannish, but he would have done just as well to speak in his mother tongue. Although Byrn had once been the Kingdom of Ban, the older language had been abandoned hundreds of years ago. The blood of the Bannites had grown thin and there were few who remembered the language than had once united humanity in the Great War.
It seemed that at least one person was able to recognize the language, because a villager soon appeared with a monk and a couple soldiers of the garrison in tow. Tariq lowered his blade, but did not return it to its sheathe. The two soldiers warily kept a hand on the hilts of their swords, though the monk motioned for calm.
"Greetings, traveler," the monk said in Bannish. "What brings you to our land?"
"You understand the Bannish tongue?" Tariq asked.
"Yes, I do."
Tariq raised the point of his sword to the monk's neck, prompting the two soldiers to draw their weapons. They shouted at him in their native tongue, but he ignored them.
"I have need of a translator," Tariq told the monk. "You are now my captive. Serve me well and you will keep your life."
The frightened monk held up his hands. "Th-there is no n-need for violence," he stammered.
"You are mistaken," the Assassin countered. "There is much need for violence. Randwulf, King of the Gladians, has declared war on this land. Five hundred men surround this city and many more are on the march. Your people have no hope of victory, but some may live if you surrender. Who commands this city?"
"The city is administered by a council of six boyars and the Father Abbot."
"You will take me to them," Tariq demanded, "so they can surrender the city to me."
"They will never agree to that," the monk said.
Tariq narrowed his eyes. "Then they will die. But they should be given the opportunity to refuse me."
Though he was clearly afraid of Tariq, the monk mustered the courage to ask, "Who are you to make such demands?"
Tariq was all too happy to boast of his heritage. "I am Tariq ibn Khalid ibn Adil al-Hassani, called the Assassin. I am descended of Abdullah ibn Abdur-Rahman of the Eight Stars. For eleven generations my family has served as Elemental Knights. Now I am sworn to Randwulf King to lend my sword in this venture. Who are you to challenge me?"
"I am Klement Kasparov of the Order of Saint Arita," the monk replied hesitantly. "I am no one to decide the fate of our city. Since you wish to parley, I will take you to the council hall."
"Your prudence serves you well," Tariq said. "Lead the way."
Although he had the monk Klement's surrender, the soldiers had not understood a single word that had been exchanged. Klement began to explain what had transpired, but he did not get very far--not far past the mention of Gladius, Tariq reckoned--when the two men became very agitated. Much to their folly, they must have thought they could overcome the Assassin and somehow avert the impending disaster.
They charged at him together, ignoring a cry of protest from the monk. Tariq batted aside the sword of one and exchanged a few blows with the other until he found an opening to take his head. As the body fell, he parried a slash from the survivor, severing an arm and a leg in the follow-through. The still-living soldier fell screaming to the ground. Klement and the onlooking villagers watched aghast as blood sprayed the cobblestones. Not one to leave an opponent to die slowly, Tariq raised up the soldier by his collar and bent him over to decapitate him more easily. Hacking off the head with a single, professional blow, he dropped the body and shook the blood off his blade.
Terrified at what he had just witnessed, the knees of the monk Klement gave way and he fell on his rear. Unsympathetic to his captive's fear, Tariq seized him by his collar, not unlike the soldier he had just killed, and lifted him up.
"On your feet," the Assassin ordered. "Lead me to the council hall and bring your leaders to me. You will witness much worse if this city does not surrender."
Though his steps were unsteady, Klement took Tariq to the council hall. Since his captive translator was too valuable to let go, Tariq impressed several nearby townspeople to fetch the desired leaders. While he was waiting, a mob gathered around council hall in protest of the Assassin's brazen killing of the two soldiers. According to Klement, they were calling for Tariq's head, but none had the courage to enter the hall and seize him.
It was only a matter of time for the garrison to be drawn to the site as well. The garrison commander, flanked by ten of his men, burst into the hall with swords drawn. Tariq could imagine what the commander was saying, but he allowed Klement to translate for him anyway.
"He says that you are under arrest for the murder of two of his men," the monk said. He seemed as afraid of incurring Tariq's wrath as the commander's. "You are to surrender to him. You will be taken to Dragova and put on trial for your crimes. If you resist, they will kill you."
Tariq tried to suppress a laugh, but failed. This unnerved the garrison commander, who was already on edge from the mob gathered outside. The Assassin could not believe the commander was ignorant of the Gladian troops encircling the city. At this rate, the main force would be there before the town could raise its defenses.
The garrison commander began to shout at him and Klement, eager to avert further bloodshed, desperately tried to defuse the rising tension. Tariq let them chatter in their language for a while. He was in no hurry, but he made a point to keep a hand on the hilt of his sword.
Once Klement had succeeded in calming down the garrison commander, he turned to Tariq. His alb soaked in sweat, the monk was clearly unaccustomed to tense situations.
With a pleading look in his eyes, Klement said, "I suggest you surrender, traveler. You cannot hope to prevail."
"Ten men are hardly enough to best me," Tariq replied. "Tell him to surrender to me. Tell him that the Gladians will soon overrun this city, that there are already enough men to take it. It will go better for him if he keeps the rabble in line until Randwulf King arrives."
"I-I cannot tell him that."
"You are my captive. If you value you life, you will do as I say."
With considerable trepidation, Klement relayed the message. The garrison commander reacted predictably, flying into a rage and ordering his men to attack. Although Tariq was loath to wield the powers of the Elemental Knight, he would be taking a needless risk meeting steel with steel outnumbered ten to one. Yanking Klement out of the way, he loosed a blast of wind with the draw of his blade that flung the ten soldiers and their commander against the far wall.
His opponents were not quick to rise, giving Tariq the chance to pick up Klement, who had fallen down from the forceful pull that had spared him any graver hurt.
"If you want to save their lives, tell them to lay down their swords."
Klement obeyed and made the plea to the soldiers. Not surprisingly, it went unheeded. Their will to fight was still strong, but the soldiers made a critical error. Instead of attacking together, they charged at Tariq as they recovered. Coming at him in twos or threes was no great challenge. However, the Assassin kept his head and did not allow himself to get bogged down in hand-to-hand combat when others could join in at any moment.
He loosed another blast from his sword, this one so focused that it could cut as well as an iron blade. Much to the Assassin's disappointment, the soldiers' armor absorbed the attack. Had they been unprotected, the wind blade could have sliced them in two. Charging his sword, Tariq loosed several wind blades at once, striking both the soldiers on their feet and those still on the ground. The number of wind blades allowed Tariq to exploit the weaknesses in their defenses and a few soldiers lost a lightly armored limb or two in the exchange. One particularly unlucky individual was cut deeply across the face. He would not live long, but his last moments would be especially painful. The Assassin would have put him out of his misery, but the footing was still too uneven for such luxuries.
He loosed another barrage to keep the soldiers down before moving in to finish them off. Up until this point, the walls had escaped any significant damage because the wooden planks were reinforced with stone. The door, however, was just wood and a wind blade cut clean through, tearing into the mob gathered outside.
The more fainthearted among them fled at the sight of the maimed and killed, but the fury of those who remained increased tenfold. They tried to storm the council hall, but Tariq's wind blades mowed them down like dry grass. Wild as they had become, the mob was not crazy enough to be slaughtered wave after wave. Taking a new tack, they assailed the walls and the roof to attack him from all directions at once.
"Why have you brought this upon us!?" Klement cried.
Tariq laughed at the monk's panic. "It is a question you can ask Randwulf King when he arrives."
The Assassin was not too worried. If he unleashed his full power, the mob would be wiped out, but it could throw the attack plan into disarray. He would do well to bide his time until it was absolutely necessary.
The tenacious townspeople were starting to make headway prying off the planks of the roof. He was not so foolish as to attack them with his wind blades, for he knew they would cut through the rafters and bring the whole roof down on him. He could afford to wait a while longer.
He walked over to the fallen soldiers and proceeded to behead them one after another. Part of the reason was to put the wounded out of their misery. Tariq realized the value of keeping the town's most belligerent inhabitants in a single place, so he also wanted to further incense the mob. Some of those trying to break through the walls and ceiling could see what he was doing, but for the benefits of the rest of them, he tossed the severed heads out the open door.
The plan worked like a charm. He could only imagine the curses being heaped on him by the rabid townspeople. Klement had gone pale at the sight of his bloody work and was on his hands and knees dry heaving in the far corner. Tariq grabbed the monk by his alb and dragged him to the center of the hall.
"They will kill you if you let them get their hands on you," he warned.
Klement could only stare at the Assassin in a mix of fear, disgust and outright hatred. Tariq was not trying to endear himself to the infidels, so he paid little heed to how Klement felt about his conduct. Still, the monk was useful to him, so he had incentive to keep him alive.
As for the mob, they had not yet opened a breach large enough to enter the hall, but a couple enterprising members of the rabble threw torches through the holes in the roof in an attempt to flush out their quarry. Tariq quickly smothered the flames with his cloak before they got out of hand. While he was putting out the flames, a rock grazed the side of his head. While the mob continued in its efforts to break into the hall, a fair number had started flinging stones and refuse through the holes that had already been opened. He was not in any mortal danger, but the hall was becoming more and more inhospitable. He could not stay any longer.
Shutting out the world around him, Tariq channeled energy into his blade. As the wind whipped about him, the gems in his sword and armor glowed, bathing the hall in golden light. The walls began to tremble, but not from the mob outside. The timbers groaned, but not from the weight of the dozens of townspeople crowded on the roof. Having gathered all the energy he needed, Tariq released it with a powerful swipe of his sword.
A rumbling in the distance rose to a deafening roar. Tariq took hold of Klement and threw him to the ground just in time to save him from being torn apart by the wall as it was ripped from its stone reinforcements. The Assassin crouched low to avoid the debris picked up by the massive wind sweeping over the city. He watched with no small satisfaction as the people of the mob were cast screaming into the sky.
After a few minutes, the wind subsided and Tariq was able to assess the damage. Any wooden structures within a furlong were flattened and many of the stone buildings did not escape unharmed. A number of bodies were strewn about with many more doubtlessly trapped in the wreckage all around him. Words cannot describe Klement's terror of his grim captor.
"You, you fiend... you devil..."
Tariq struck the monk for his impudence. "Watch your tongue," he growled, "or I will tear it out."
Klement was quiet after that. Tariq was thankful for it, because he would not have noticed the crossbow bolt aimed for his heart. He dodged the missile and loosed a wind blade at its source. Surprisingly, it was not a soldier of the garrison, but a normal townsperson, possibly a huntsman. It made him aware of the many survivors of the mob who were regrouping to launch a fresh assault on the Assassin.
He had already dispatched many of them, but he was still sorely outnumbered. He could not fight them off in all directions at once and there was little chance of him reaching shelter unscathed, especially with Klement in tow. He did not like his options, but he found salvation from an unexpected direction.
Plumes of smoke rose up from the west end of the city, intermingled with the screams of the townspeople. It could be only one thing: General Leifson had arrived with his detachment and was laying waste to the city. Few men reveled in death and destruction quite so much as the old Marauder. No doubt the men encircling the city would take Leifson's attack as the cue to advance. Any hope of securing an orderly surrender was lost. All that was left was to fight.
Normally, Tariq enjoyed a pitched battle, but since he had to keep Klement alive, he was thankful there were few who dared to challenge him. Under General Leifson's command, the Marauders were killing everything that moved. It was not the sort of combat worthy of a knight and the Assassin would take no part in it. Instead, he watched the Marauders go from house to house, carrying out plunder after the screams inside had been silenced. It was dirty business, but such was the true face of war.

* * *

Giles the Savage, General of the Pikeman Division, was furious at General Leifson for sabotaging the plan he and Tariq had devised. Instead of an orderly transfer of power to the King, the city of Arita was plunged into chaos. Rampant killing and looting went unchecked, no doubt encouraged by the bloodthirsty Leifson.
With considerable effort, Giles rallied a hundred men to manage the prisoners he had taken at Watchpost Fyodor and those claimed in Arita. Although they were clearly disgruntled about losing the license to do whatever they pleased, none of them dared to challenge the authority of Giles and his subordinate officers. He marched the prisoners to the abbey on the north side of the city, quite possibly the best place to hold the prisoners.
More than forty Marauders were having their way with the place when he arrived. He noticed a man of the Swordsman Division pinning a nun on the ground. Running up to him, Giles gave the swordsman a swift kick to the ribs. Thrown into a rage, curses streamed from the swordsman as he scrambled to his feet and reached for the hilt of his sword. He quickly came to his senses when Giles steadied the point of his pike at the swordsman's throat.
"General Giles!" the swordsman exclaimed.
"What do you think you're doing?" Giles growled. "We're the Marauders, the proud army of Randwulf the Conqueror, not a pack of common bandits. Now fall in, soldier."
"Ye-yes, sir!"
Giles turned to one of the lieutenants in his group. "Take twenty men and assemble all the Marauders here. Claim any plunder they have. It'll be redistributed after His Majesty arrives and we secure the city. Remember, you only have authorization to kill those who resist. Everyone else will be held in that cathedral over there."
"Yes, sir," the lieutenant replied.
Giles knelt down to the nun who had been assaulted by the swordsman. Her vestments were torn and she was bleeding from several minor wounds, but she had been spared any grievous injury. Understandably, she shrank from him as he reached out to her.
"Don't be afraid," he said. "Yes, we have come to conquer this city. You are now our prisoner, but at least you are alive." He gently took hold of her wrist. "Come, join your countrymen."
Giles brought the nun to her feet and led her to the other prisoners. She had apparently sprained her ankle, for she walked with a limp. Once she was among the prisoners, he issued new orders to a nearby sergeant.
"You there, take two squads and march the prisoners to the cathedral. I'll send more troops to reinforce you once the grounds are secure."
"Yes, sir."
Leaving a captain in charge of abbey and giving him twenty men to back up his mandate, Giles left with twoscore that remained to claim as many prisoners as he could before they were slaughtered by wanton Marauders following General Leifson's lead. He was sickened to see all the women, children and aged butchered throughout the city, but for the time being, there was nothing he could do except order any man he caught to fall into formation. He wanted to see them punished, but he had to settle for limiting their excesses.
He called off his search at sunset and dispatched most of the men that were with him to perform roving patrols in the city. With little more than three squads supporting him, he escorted nearly four hundred captives to the abbey. The number would have been impressive if not for all the needlessly slain civilians he saw along the way.
Although he was weary from the day's work, his attention was drawn to the sight of smoke rising from the abbey. Leaving his men behind, he ran to the scene. He stared in shock at the cathedral set ablaze with scores of voices screaming inside. Seeing the captain he had entrusted the abbey to, he seized the man by his collar and shook him violently.
"What are you doing!?"
"General Leifson's orders, sir," the captain replied. "I couldn't disobey him."
Giles pushed the captain away when the object of his anger came into view. General Sven Leifson was shorter than Giles, but bulkier, a mix of fat and solid muscle. One of the original Marauders, his age was starting to show with the streaks of grey in his shaggy brown beard. Still, he was not so old that he could not participate in combat and he had not lost much of his edge over the years. He was known to kill at the slightest provocation regardless of rank, but Giles was too infuriated to treat him with the usual caution.
"You animal!" Giles howled. "How could you do this!?"
Having fed his bloodlust so generously, Sven was not as easily angered as usual. "His Majesty's orders were to kill every last one of them," he said, "remember? What would he say if he saw all those Byrnans you picked up? You should thank me." He frowned when he saw the men arrive with all the prisoners he had gathered. "It seems you haven't learned your lesson. At least they're all gathered in one spot." He barked to a nearby officer, "Lieutenant! Take your platoon and kill those prisoners."
"Yes, sir!" the lieutenant replied with a salute. Turning to the platoon assembled behind him, he shouted, "Men, draw your weapons!"
"Belay that order!" Giles countered.
The lieutenant was now trapped between the conflicting orders of the two generals. True to protocol, he obeyed his most recent order and kept his men where they stood. Predictably, Sven was none too pleased to have his order countermanded.
"Lieutenant, you're not a pikeman. You don't belong to General Giles' unit, so you'll take orders from me! Now move out!"
"Don't you dare move, Lieutenant!" Giles snapped back.
Now Sven was really angry. His face turned red and a long vein in his forehead swelled. Even so, his voice showed an unusual amount of control, tenuous though it was.
"It'll go poorly for you if you disobey His Majesty's orders, General Giles. If you're too lily-livered for this work, you don't have to watch, but I'll be damned if I let you interfere with our duty."
"Duty!?" Giles scoffed. "You call butchering unarmed civilians duty? We're soldiers, not animals!"
"But we are animals," Sven countered. "We're wolves and wolf-feeders. The Wolf of Cygnus wants to feast and unlike you, I'm not going to shirk my sworn duty to feed him."
Giles knew it was wrong, but he was too angry to stop himself. His body acted of its own accord. When his fist connected with Sven's jaw, he knew there was no turning back. He made a critical error, though. He surrendered momentum to the axefighter and would suffer accordingly. Sven, hardly fazed by Giles' attack, met the punch with one of his own, knocking the pikeman back a couple steps. Unlike Giles, Sven did not hesitate, hitting the pikeman's face again and again with such force that he could not even raise his defenses. Punch-drunk and disoriented, Giles could not offer any resistance when Sven took hold of him and drive his knee into Giles' gut, a blow he felt through his armor. As Giles fell to his knees, Sven unhooked his axe from his belt and raised it high. The end would be quick.
Sven put all his weight into the deathblow, but his arm strained against some unknown resistance. He turned around to see the foreigner Tariq the Assassin holding the shaft of his axe.
"Don't interfere, foreigner," the general growled.
"If you kill him, it will be on the pain of death," Tariq warned. "The life of each and every Marauder belongs to Randwulf King alone. You should know this."
"It's not your place."
"Perhaps," the Assassin replied, releasing the axe.
Tariq's interference must have prompted Sven to reconsider. He pushed Giles to the ground and put his boot on the pikeman's neck to keep him down. Sven looked to the lieutenant from earlier.
"Do it," he said.
Giles could do nothing but watch helplessly while the prisoners were hacked to pieces. He tried to get up, but Sven responded by shifting more of his weight to the foot holding him down. It was easily within the axeman's power to snap his neck, but Sven's control was matched only by the excess of his men. Giles pounded the ground with his fist, the feeble gesture all the defiance he could muster.

* * *

Two days after the attack on Arita began, Randwulf arrived with the main force of the Marauders. They would not be moving on to their next objective for several days, so the men were free to pillage, scavenge for provisions and kill any survivors they could find. At the evening formation on the third day, the Marauders were assembled to witness the punishment of General Giles.
When Sven Leifson brought the charges against his fellow general, no one rose to Giles' defense, not even the men of his own unit. Without any advocates, Giles had no real means of defending himself. Randwulf forbade trial by combat among officers, so it became a simple matter of Giles' word against that of Sven and all the junior officers at the scene. Surprisingly, Randwulf let him off for taking prisoners instead of following the order to kill everyone, but the pikeman could not escape the charge of striking an officer.
Stripped from the waist up, Giles was marched into the center of the ruins of the cathedral, still littered with the corpses of all the prisoners Sven burned alive. Waiting for him were Randwulf and Cadmus Martial, the latter holding a jet-black bullwhip. The King did not look at Giles. Instead, he addressed the Marauders.
"You became more than men when I made you my Marauders. Those who have served me since the beginning know this well. There are only two things I demand of you. The first is victory. The other is discipline. General Giles swiftly overcame the men of the watchpost and successfully besieged this city until the General Leifson arrived with reinforcements. This is why I spare him his rank and his life.
"However, in his quarrel with General Leifson he abandoned the discipline that maintains order in this brotherhood of warriors. If you do not respect rank, what order is there? What difference would there be between the Marauders and a mere rabble? I will not allow that order to be sabotaged. Know that not even the highest among you can escape judgment."
Since no one of lesser rank was allowed to lay a hand on a general, the task fell to Cadmus to mete out the punishment. The old cavalryman took no small pleasure in delivering the forty lashes Giles was due. To his credit, Giles did not cry out in pain. He scarcely flinched even while his back was being flayed by the cruel scourge. Still, his display of fortitude did little to erase his dishonor. Even though he had kept his rank, it would be all but impossible to lead men in battle after this day. For all intents and purposes, his military career was over.

* * *

The Dark Knight Vincentian had not seen much action on the campaign so far and at the rate things were going, his skills would not be put to much use. He had no interest in the public humiliation of the pikeman general, least of all the spectacle of his father putting his cruelty on display. Instead he walked the ravaged streets of Arita. Plunder meant nothing to him and he found no sport in hunting down defenseless civilians. Better to leave the animal's work to the animals.
"On the prowl, are we, Sir Knight?" a voice asked.
Vincentian turned to see the warlock's Byrnan apprentice. He scowled. It was one of three faces he did not want to see. Unfortunately for him, the apprentice took especial pleasure in tormenting him.
"Go away," the Dark Knight growled. "Go find some small animals to torture."
"What a horrible thing to say," the apprentice replied in feigned offense. "Here I was, about to share something with you, ungrateful creature that you are, and you treat me like some kind of monster."
Vincentian knew the apprentice would be less trouble if he played along. In this land, at least, the villain could do nothing to strike at his greatest weakness. Everything else mattered for little. A temporary annoyance was thankfully only temporary.
"Very well," Vincentian said with a faint sigh. "What is it, wretch?"
The apprentice stuck his nose in the air. "I'm going to pretend you didn't say that. With your upbringing, it's no surprise you haven't got any manners."
"Which part? Living under the boot of that monster of a father or being toyed with in all the experiments of your accursed master?"
The apprentice shook his head. "You're still complaining about that at your age? Come now, you really are far too ungrateful. My master has made you far more than your kind could ever be. A little more work and you'll transcend Death itself. No small feat, I'd say. And thanks to your beastly father, you're a prized knight of Old Randwulf instead of rotting in prison for all these years like you-know-who."
"Don't you dare speak of her!" Vincentian snapped.
The apprentice grinned maliciously. "A little sensitive for the man who's supposed to have a heart of ice, but I guess if there was ever a crack in that ice, it'd be her."
The Dark Knight gripped the hilt of his sword. "Fiend!" he shouted. "I'll cut you down!"
"Now now now," the cocksure apprentice chided, "you know you can't do that to me. Firstly, you can't thwart my powers. Secondly, the master would be displeased and would surely take his anger out on her. You don't want that, now do you?"
Vincentian grudgingly let go of the hilt. The apprentice responded with one of his maddening self-satisfied smiles.
"That's more like it," he said. "As you already know, I'm a Byrnan by birth. In fact, this happens to be my hometown."
"And you have no remorse for having a hand in its destruction?"
"Of course not. I care for only one thing in this world and that's me. I can't waste any energy on frivolous attachments to anything else."
Vincentian rolled his eyes. "The more I learn about you, the more admirable you become."
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Sir Knight. Stick to threats and violence. Anyway, as I was saying, this is my hometown. Why, just a few steps up ahead and we'll be at my old house."
The two approached the burned out ruins of a small mansion, but the damage was much older than the Marauders' attack on the city.
"This place fell a long time ago," Vincentian commented. "Your handiwork by any chance?"
"Don't get ahead of the story," the apprentice scolded. "Come around back, where the garden used to be."
Had it indeed been a garden at one time, there was no trace of it now. Grass and weeds had overrun the plot, but there were bare spots in a few places. The apprentice stopped at one of these bare spots and quite uncharacteristically knelt down and began to dig with his bare hands. As he was digging, the apprentice went into an unwelcome narration.
"When I was a child, my parents sent me to the abbey for my schooling, but I can't stand Wayfarers. Everything about them irritates me. Their superstition, their make-believe stories, their hypocritical self-denial... Downright maddening, it is. Well, it took a year, but I finally convinced them not to make me go anymore.
"They hired a special tutor to teach me, but he was a really unpleasant old man. Always telling me what to do, what was right and what was wrong. He thought he could make me do what he told me with a little switch he carried with him. I tried complaining to Father, but he encouraged it, said I needed discipline. Well, I wasn't going to leave it at that."
The apprentice's eyes lit up as he uncovered something white and round. Someone who did not know any better might have thought it was an upturned porcelain bowl, but Vincentian was familiar enough with death to know a skull when he saw one.
"Ah! Here it is!" The apprentice dug more eagerly until he was able to free the jawless skull. Fingering some dirt in the right eye socket, he continued his story. "I was only ten at the time, so I lacked the sort of finesse murder deserves. He liked tea in the afternoon, so I poisoned him. It took effect a little faster than I would've liked, but it was my first time, after all. I'd been working on this hole right here for a while and nobody thought anything of it. I was able to stow the body in no time at all and they never figured it out." He chuckled. "My father actually called on the Guard to hunt him down for shirking his contract."
The apprentice broke out in full laughter, but Vincentian did not find much humor in the sadist's early exploits. Once he had settled down, the apprentice wiped his eyes and started talking again.
"I got better with time and practice, thank goodness." The apprentice spread out his arms to draw attention to the ruins around them. "As you've probably noticed, this house burned down quite a few years ago."
"Your work?"
"How very perceptive of you," the apprentice replied with an appreciative smile. "Yes, my work. The end was quick for my father, unfortunately. A rafter fell on him and broke his back. My mother, on the other hand, escaped with some nasty burns and languished nine whole months. I was at her side the whole time. Everyone thought I was being a doting son, but not my mother. She could tell. I could see it in her eyes. She knew I was feeding on every moment of her suffering." Savoring the memory, he licked his lips. "It disgusted and terrified her... and I loved it. I learned how much better it is to hurt someone rather than kill them, to drag it out as long as possible. It's an art really, and you've been great practice, my friend."
"I'm no friend of yours," the Dark Knight hissed.
"Of course you're not. But if you were, it'd be all the better."
Although he did not think it was worth hearing the answer, curiosity prompted Vincentian to ask, "What did you mean by practice?"
"Everything I've done up until now has been practice. There's one man I want to suffer more than anything. It'll be my masterpiece and I'll be remembered for it for all time."
"You're mad," the Dark Knight said bluntly, not that it was anything new.
Brenok shrugged, tossing away the skull like it was nothing. "More than likely, yes, but the difference between madness and genius is simply a matter of success. I'm already off to great start. You'll see."
Vincentian would be quite happy not to, but he was not likely to have much say in the matter. If there was even a single grain of reality in the apprentice's delusion, the Dark Knight's icy heart was almost moved to pity the poor hapless fool who was the target of his inexplicable schemes.