The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 2 – Playing with Shadows

Jyl crouched several feet back from the edge of the roof doing a remarkable impersonation of a gargoyle. Her protege however was vibrating with barely suppressed nerves.

“Shouldn’t we do something about this?” Pelay asked, her voice pitched higher by nervous terror.

Down below them a princess of the realm and her assassin were being pursued by a trio of were-rats. As members of the Queen’s Guard, Jyl and Pelay were responsible for more than just the queen’s welfare. The health of her adopted daughters and sons was also part of their remit. In theory that duty also included the Queen-Consort as well but Jyl was reasonably certain that anything which posed a threat to Daelynne Akorli was a foe she couldn’t meaningful help defend against.

“No,” Jyl said. “Iana has this covered. See how she’s directing them down that alley?”

Iana, the princess in question, mentioned something about taking a shortcut at just enough volume to sound like speech yet be heard from the rooftops. Jyl wouldn’t have taken a bet as to whether Iana knew she had a pair of guardians present and lurking above her, but she was certain the girl could handle herself under the circumstances.

“That’s going to leave them cornered though,” Pelay said.

As a Pact Knight, Pelay had demonstrated above average skill, but that was a given for someone brought into the Queen’s Guard. Technically she was still provisional in the role, but Jyl had spent enough time training the new recruit in the Guardian’s Hall that some practical fieldwork felt like a perfect next step in testing Pelay’s aptitude for job.

It was, admittedly, Jyl thought, a little cruel to make Pelay’s first assignment one where the life of the heir-apparent to the crown lay in the balance. Given that Jyl’s first real assignment had been the historically unheard of overthrow of another realm though, she was only worried that Pelay might be starting with too easy of a task.

The three were-rats took the bait and followed Iana and her companion down the narrow alley, and moments later cries of shock were following by muffled screams of pain.

To Jyl’s amazement three different groups of people emerged from the buildings around the alley moments later and proceeded to venture forward to check out the disturbance.

People didn’t do that.

Or at least they hadn’t in Jyl’s experience.

She motioned for Pelay to hold her position and watched as the citizens of Highcrest apparently became involved in their community? The people weren’t forming a violent mob, and weren’t a group of drunken ruffians. They were just normal folks who reacted to a problem in their neighborhood by banding together and investigating it calmly. The idea boggled Jyl more than chasing after a royal heir who’d escaped the palace with her own assassin.

Highcrest was the royal capital of Gallagrin, but that didn’t mean it was well patrolled or defended in all quarters. Like any great city, Highcrest grew and grew until it had absorbed all of the available land. Thanks to Gallagrin being what it was, Highcrest then began turning unavailable land into habitable living spaces.

Just because you’re surrounded on all sides by mountains doesn’t mean you can’t expand. It just means that you have lots and lots of building material to work with.

Under Queen Alari’s reign, the royal treasury had never sat idle. The damage from the civil war that placed her on the throne had taken wealth to fix, and the damage inflicted by her father’s ruinous misuse and neglect of the realm had required even more. Even the war against the Green Council, successful though it had been, had not brought in piles of new wealth in any liquid form.

All that added up to mean Highcrest was not the opulent and overly endowed jewel of the realm it had once been. It wasn’t a cesspool of despair and misery by any stretch of the imagination, but things weren’t particularly easy for everyone either.

Jyl watched as the citizens carried three prone bodies out of the alley. They were all were-rats. Iana and Yuehne emerged on their own, walking beside a half-giant woman and a dwarf.

“They had these,” Iana said and passed a trio of clubs with nails in them over to the dwarf. She repeated the trick of speaking just loud enough to sound like she wasn’t shouting while at the same time projecting her voice so that the crowd (and the rooftops) could hear her.

“She absolutely knows we’re here,” Jyl said, not bothering to suppress her grin.

Officially, Iana had left the palace grounds without informing anyone. Rumors were circulating that she had been kidnapped by agents hostile to the queen but only a select few had been allowed to hear those rumors at first. Since they were started by Queen Alari, Jyl had questioned them from the beginning. She’d also questioned Wylika, Iana’s former second-in-command and still closest confidant.

Wylika didn’t come right out and say that Iana had told left a note to explain her departure. Given the illiteracy the two were still working to overcome an actual note was unlikely, but Jyl had seen them communicate with symbols on a far deeper level than most people would have imagined to be possible.

From Wylika, Jyl gathered that leaving had been Iana’s idea and was part of a grander plan. Alari concurred with that assessment and made the leap to join her adopted daughter in the idea of uprooting the conspiracy of harassment that had been plaguing them for more than a year.

Iana had an asset of the conspirators which they’d never had access to before; one of the assassin’s themselves. Alari and Dae believed in their daughter but, wisely Jyl felt, chose not to leave her completely on her own. Thus, the assignment to shadow Iana and assist her as much as, and only when, needed.

Undine had lobbied to take on the role of the princess’s silent defender but no one in the Queen’s Guard could compete with Jyl when it came to passing unseen and unnoticed. The only person she knew who could rival her in that arena was the current ducal heir to the Lafli family and Jyl was reasonably sure her sister had other issues to worry about than helping chase down a missing royal princess.

The crowd below parted as a pair of Highcrest constables arrived on the scene. They started taking testimony and deputized a few of the citizens on the spot. The deputies watched over the were-rats while the constables took statements from the crowd, from Iana and from the were-rats themselves. It was handled with such a lack of excitement that Jyl guessed the interplay between the law officers and the community was a common occurrence. Even the were-rats seemed to be aware of what their role in the proceedings needed to be. One of them shifted back to human form but the other two remained in their hybrid rat-human state, allowing the human form member of their group to answer all of the constables questions for them.

The situation on the ground was so calm and under control that Jyl almost missed what was happening on the rooftops with them. Pelay, for all her nervous excitement, did not though.

“We’re not alone,” Pelay whispered, indicating with a glance where their fellow rooftop skulker was.

Jyl narrowed her eyes and peered into the deep shadows that covered the building across the street from them. There was someone else watching the spectacle on the street. Someone in the sort of concealing, yet form fitting black garb which suggested they were not simple residents of the building.

“They’re good,” Jyl said. “How did you spot them?”

As an elf, Jyl’s eyesight and hearing ranges usually well exceeded that of her human counterparts. Pelay didn’t have that advantage and didn’t seem to need it.

“The shadows flicker but the clothes they’re in keep the area they’re standing in a shade too dark,” Pelay said.

Jyl nodded. It was one of the risks of working in stealth. Often the vantage point you wanted or needed was not the most concealing one available. The observer had selected their spot well but had been constrained by the need to watch the action below them.

“I think the were-rats are well in hand,” Jyl said. “Let’s go talk to our eavesdropper.”

Maneuvering to the opposing rooftop in stealth was a viable option, but it would require more time than they necessarily had available.

So, instead, Jyl leaped. Everyone thought of Pact armor as being bulky, heavy platemail. Few understand that the armor could be slimmed down to emphasize speed over power though.

Powered by pact magic, Jyl’s leap didn’t send her on a long arcing trajectory. She flew straight as an arrow from a bow and slammed into the other observer, taking the woman down to the ground as the two of them rolled across the rooftop fighting for control over the other.

Pelay landed beside as Jyl dragged her prey up to stand before them.

Her prey, the dummy filled with twigs and straw.

“That’s not possible,” Pelay said. “I saw her move just as you leapt!’

“What I hit was soft, but not this soft,” Jyl said.

They both stared at the bundle of clothes and then raced to the edge of the roof.

Iana was nowhere in sight.

Jyl didn’t so much drop to the street as fly to it.

Her arrival was met with astonishment. For the people who’d gathered, seeing a Pact Knight, much less one bearing the insignia of Gallagrin’s Queen was a momentous occasion.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Jyl said. “I’m looking for the girl who was accosted, did anyone see where she went?”

There was a flurry of questions from the crowd, but, maddeningly, no answers.

“I think I found something,” Pelay said, leading Jyl through the crowd and pointing to a sewer cover in the middle of the alley Iana had lured the were-rats to in order to fight them one at a time. “It’s been moved recently.”

Jyl saw the mismatch of the mold that grew on the sewer cover and the mold that grew around it. Whatever or whoever had taken Iana, they’d dragged her into the underworld beneath Highcrest. Aside from the sewers there wasn’t supposed to be anything down there, but the myths remained of whole communities that had fled from one unjust ruler or another and made their home down in the Deep Galleries.

“Is this part of the regular sewer system?” Jyl asked the half giant woman  who was nearby.

“I don’t think so,” the woman said. “It doesn’t back up when the others do.”

“Does it lead to the Deep Galleries?” Pelay asked.

“I’ve lived here for twenty years and I can’t say for sure,” the dwarf said.

“Only one way to find out then,” Jyl said and walked over to the sewer cover. “Pelay, report back to the queen, I’m going after them both.”

“We can have a report sent to Her Majesty,” Pelay said. “I think it would be good if I stayed with you until other backup can arrive.”

Jyl wanted to explain that sending Pelay away would make things easier since Jyl could focus on protecting herself and would be able to move at full speed, but then the dwarf spoke up.

“You’ll need a guide too,” the dwarf said. “I don’t know the sewers here but I know the specs they were built to. I may not be able to get you where you need to be but I can make sure you don’t get lost trying to find wherever that is.”

“I’d offer to go with you Brenn but I don’t think I’ve even fit through the hole to get in there much less be able to crawl around with you,” the half giant said.

Jyl debated for all of a single second. Taking two fledglings into an area as full of unknown dangers as the Deep Galleries was a huge risk, but it was the sort of peril she’d managed before.

“Thank you,” Jyl said. “We need to leave immediately though.”

“Yeah, that’s how adventures always seem to begin,” the dwarf said.

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