The door to the orphanage opened silently, its well oiled hinges issuing no complaint. Outside the soft yellow of a waning day lit the earth. The wind carried the smells of the changing season, warm with life but with an almost sickly sweet undertone of decay. The air cradled the fragrance of the soil, the horizon held the color of turning leaves, and the sky spanned a cloudless blue across the sky. A warm day, a day to relax and let the world turn softly underfoot.
Ardwen ran a hand through his hair and blew out a sigh. It was an amazing day for lazing about and here he was at a commorancy for children as a way to win goodwill from the locals and because one of its residents was apparently afraid of the dark. Why anyone would be surprised or alarmed that a small child should be terrified of shadows was beyond him. He tugged at his gloves and stepped across the threshold.
No sooner had his boot thudded on the immaculate wood floor than he was greeted by two people. The first was a small white-haired toddler who clung to his leg and shouted his name. The second was a fresh-faced young lady who wore what looked to his eyes to be a habit. Her head, however, was bare. He had no idea what the latest fashion among the devout was, but in his day uncovered hair meant an unmarried woman. At least, it meant that usually. Sometimes. It was generally still best to ask.
He worked his mouth into a smile and knelt down next to the small boy, "Hello Elerus, did you have fun?"
The child returned his smile with a grin, "Yeah! I played house!"
Ardwen smiled again, then frowned, and then scrunched his mouth up, "That's great, I guess? What were you?"
He placed both hands on Elerus' shoulders, gently. "El, you worry me."
"My lord Ardwen." The women said softly. "We are so glad you could come this evening and help our little problem. I understand the praetor himself spoke to you and we were thrilled when we heard of your acceptance."
He patted Elerus on the head and gave him a nod before standing up. He walked closer to the lady and sniffed the air. He leaned in closer, sniffing as he went. "My lord--" she said slowly.
"Ardwen," he said, "just Ardwen."
"You have found a smell that offends you?"
He leaned back. "Not at all, I just smelled vinegar, thought it was a little strange."
The young nun smiled in understanding. "I see," she said. "You'll have to forgive me. I was assigned to the kitchen today. We prepare full meals for all the children here each day."
Ardwen cleared his throat. "I'll get to business with you, but first let me attend to my own." Without another word he knelt down and scooped up Elerus. The little boy threw his arms around his guardian's neck. He carried the little Dar outside to a waiting coach. "You had fun today, then?" Ardwen asked again.
"Then I suppose Crecia's idea to let you get out and socialize had some merit. The woman grinds on my good graces though, Elerus, and those are worn like old stones in the rain. Do you like her?"
Elerus turned his head and tucked his chin. "Yeah. But um, Ardie?"
Elerus pointed at the orphanage, "There's a girl in there and she's sad."
"Yeah, she's scared."
He squeezed Elerus. "I know. When the preator approached me about this place I almost killed Crecia. I might still."
The boy crossed his arms and frowned.
Ardwen grunted. "I might settle for maiming. In any case, you're going home now and I'm going to work. Be good for Crecia and remind her that I care for her only because she cares for you and that's the sole reason for her continued existence."
"OK!" Elerus said cheerfully.
The older Dar rolled his eyes and placed Elerus in the cabin of the stagecoach. He trusted the driver, and had paid him generously for his two short trips today. As a matter of precaution, however, he still knew where the man and his family lived. Crecia would accuse him of acute paranoia. He preferred to think of it as a highly developed and sophisticated grasp of reality. Once the omnibus was on its way he walked back inside the orphanage. The same woman from before was waiting for him, hands folded in front of her.
"Your pardon." He said with a slight bow. "It is getting late and the nature of the problem is as I understand it delicate. I never caught your name, by the way."
"Melasas." She said with a smile that did not uncover her teeth.
"Hmm," Ardwen said while drumming his fingers on his fore arm. "Bit of an old-fashioned name for one so young."
Melasas smiled her thin smile again. "You are one to talk, Ardwen? Old high Dar in origin, yes?"
"I am impressed. I see your order does not spare any expense with education. Now, lead on."
"Of course," Melasas said. As the two walked she filled Ardwen in on the details. "The praetor takes great pride in maintaining an ordered city governed by rule of law. He believes in state oversight and management."
"You mean over-regulation and bloated administration - typical bureaucrat."
"It is not my place to comment, but surely you find this city to your liking? You allowed your own child to spend the day here. You own an estate right outside the walls."
The sound of their two footfalls was the only thing that greeted her question. She glanced over at Ardwen, who seemed to be staring off into the distance. The silence grew until it became awkward. "It's nice." Ardwen lied.
"Here we are." Melasas said as they paused before a nondescript wooden door. "Her name is Lucia. She's been complaining of nightmares for weeks now. The only time she sleeps is when she passes out from exhaustion. She's become withdrawn and frightened."
"Night terrors." Ardwen said with a shrug. "I still haven't been told why the praetor thought I needed to be informed on this matter."
"Because you're a member of this community now as well, because you placed Elerus here to meet other children - and have thus made use of our services if just for a day. Finally, and this is my belief as well, there's only so much the sisters can do. We think the situation may require a man's perspective."
Ardwen arched an eyebrow. "You mean . . . like a father?"
The nun nodded.
The Dar rubbed at the side of his jaw. "Fine, I'll do what I can. No promises."
"That's all we ask, and thank you." She pushed opened the door and watched as Ardwen stepped inside. With a slight click she closed the door behind him.
The little girl sat on the far corner of her bed, back against the wall. No sooner did Ardwen enter the room than she pulled the covers over her head. Ardwen pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. Why him? Lowering his hand he decided he had to at least try. Walking softly over to the bed he knelt down. "Hey there. I'm Ardwen. They said your name was Lucia. Maybe you want to talk with me?" The mound of covers didn't move. "Elerus said there was a scared young lady in here, he asked me to help."
Slowly the child lowered the sheets to the tip of her nose. Ardwen could see an unruly mop of deep brown hair on her head and sharp green eyes. "You're Ardie? Elerus talked about you."
Ardwen placed a hand on the edge of the bed. "You know Elerus?"
The tangle of hair bobbed. "He was our oven. He's silly."
Ardwen ran a hand over his mouth and chin. "Yes." he said. "He can be. Thank you for spending time with him, I'm glad to see he's making friends."
"A lot of the kids laugh at him, but they do it to be mean." She said.
Thoughts of a different era stampeded through Ardwen's mind. A different culture, a different court, highborn lords and ladies. But there was snide laughter there, as well. The acerbic chortling of those so elevated that everything beneath was tiny and distant enough to appear comical. Was it the same here? Here? Now? He shook his head.
"Yes, fine." He said. He looked over at the window, the sunlight outside was diming. "So I guess that means I owe you one, yeah? You're friends with El, and I'm his friend. So you can tell me why you can't sleep, right?"
Lucia seemed to pale, she tugged the sheets up to her eyes. For a moment Ardwen was concerned that he'd spoken too directly, set off her defenses. After a span of heartbeats though she moved one small hand out from underneath the sheets and motioned for Ardwen to come closer. He leaned in, craning his neck to hear her voice. "My room breathes."
Ardwen had expected to hear many things from the child. Anything from witches at the window to a monster underneath the bed. Any of these would have given him assurance that the only thing he had to do was try and calm and comfort a child's overactive imagination. He had been prepared to do that, and afterwards he'd even had designs to go and cave in the praetor's skull for wasting his time.
This was different. Ardwen cupped his hands around her tiny fingers, his gloves swallowed her digits. Lucia was older than Elerus, certainly, but she was still a frightened little girl. He hesitated. He had to treat this delicately, but he had little experience with children. He did, however, have experience dealing with fear and the despair of everyone dismissing your terror. Ardwen lowered his voice to a confidential hush; his tone was somber and serious. "Now, this is very important. I believe you. You've got to tell me everything you can remember."
The child's gaze roved around the room. For a span of seconds she said nothing, but then she spoke, "I don't think it's the room. When I lay down at night, right before I go to sleep, I can hear when I breath in and out. In and out. OK?" Ardwen nodded but did not interrupt. "But then, I start hearing someone else breathing, but there's no one else in the room. Even when I hold my breath I can still hear it."
"Where is it coming from? Can you hear that?"
She nodded slowly and said, "It moves." Her voice quavered. "But it's coming closer every night."
He squeezed her hand gently. "Could you see anything? Can you see what is making the noise?"
"No," she said. "I . . . sleep with my head underneath the covers."
Ardwen removed his hands and stood. His gaze locked on the small child. There was every possibility that what he had just heard was the result of nyctophobia and exaggeration. It was obvious the little girl had a desire to be accepted, and his humoring of her had probably served to encourage her to embellish her story.
But, she had been Elerus' friend, even if just for a day.
"I don't know if Elerus told you," Ardwen said, making sure his voice was strong and confident. "But, I am a knight spurred and trained." As if on cue Lucia's eyes lit up and she leaned forward. The elder Dar knew all the fairy tales of knights and princess and long-haired warriors she had been fed over the years were working for him here. "As I am in your debt for your earlier kindness I shall pledge to you a mighty oath. In your time of need I will be near. No harm will come to you, and I will defend your honor with my life."
Lucia smiled, she finally moved out from under the covers entirely. "So, I'm like your princess?"
"Not like," Ardwen said. "You are. Do you accept my service, my lady?"
The child's smile grew, and she stood on the bed and gave a clumsy bow. "Yes!"
It wasn't the formal line of acceptance, but frankly he preferred it. "Then you are safe tonight, just remember my promise." He stood and walked to the door, bowing once more before silently exiting. Outside, Melasas was still waiting for him.
"I heard." She said with a gentle smile. She ran her tongue over her lips. "Quite the speech."
The Dar-turned-knight cleared his throat. "Well, all she really needed was some confidence. That's the issue here. She's scared of the dark because she thinks of all these harmful and negative things that could be hiding in it. Lack of self-confidence, probably due to a lack of parents in her life reinforcing her sense of self-esteem."
The caretaker touched a hand to her head and pursed her lips in thoughtful appreciation. "You are marvelously insightful in this matter, sir."
Ardwen shrugged. "Fear is the issue here, and that should be approached from a position of knowledge and understanding. I think I've done my part here. Put in a good word with the praetor for me."
Melasas nodded in assent. The Dar showed himself out.
Ardwen left the orphanage and immediately cut through the city streets to a nearby park. The daylight hours were almost spent. Ardwen figured he would have to wait until nightfall, possibly a few hours after that. Regardless, he would be pulling a late night. Crecia would kill him.
He drifted through narrow streets, keeping close to the orphanage. He wished he had more time to think, more time to plan. It always felt like he was a swimmer caught in a current when he got involved. Things were already in motion, events were moving, and he was left scratching his head and wondering. He knew he could be wrong, wrong about everything. He barked a scoff at the thought of being right, there would be no prize for being correct this night.
If I'm right, then whatever is in that orphanage is the least of my worries, Ardwen thought.
He wanted to strike a fire and poke it with a stick, stir the sparks and settle his mind. The city officials would frown on him starting an open flame in the middle of the city, and besides the park wasn't public. He crouched down on one knee and stared down at the ground. He could run. Just chalk this whole thing up to bad luck and unfortunate circumstance.
There was a certain appeal to the idea. What was he even doing here, anyhow? Making guesses, and pretending he had a family - that he wanted a family? He lived near a city that smelled of human sweat and horse shit. There were still wild places out there, he could just stand up, stretch his legs, and walk. He could make it, he knew it could, he'd done it before.
Ardwen squeezed his eyes shut and imagined a secluded hilltop, green canopies and the earth coated in the orange and brown carpet of previous autumns. He could build another little cabin, it wasn't so hard the first time. Sure the wind would howl through it and the roof really only served to trap rain inside, but he could practice and improve, surely. He could move when he wanted, and be rid of the problems of others.
There would be no recriminations, he wouldn't give anyone the opportunity. In the morning, Crecia would pace and talk to herself in worry, and she'd have to explain again and again to Elerus where he went. There'd be some questions at the orphanage too, of course. Another little corpse found in the morning. There would be no marks on her, and the physicians would nod their heads sadly and attributed it to some sudden miasma. Elerus would have to find some other child and pretend he was a coat rack or a desk with them.
That would be his legacy. He opened his eyes, and saw the world in darkness, daylight had faded. With a grunt Ardwen rose to his feet, he rolled his shoulders and stretched his legs. He had spent longer in thought than he imagined. He clenched his hands and opened them, clenched and opened. He hopped the fence and made his way back to the orphanage.
He retraced his steps, his eyes adjusting to the dark as he went. The city had not fallen quiet, but then it never did. Cats cried in the night, footsteps echoed on stone, somewhere overhead a man barked out a series of rattling coughs. Silently he made his way back to the orphanage's main door, he sniffed the air. The smell of stagnate water in gutters and dust ghosting over dry cobbles, but underneath it all the acidic odor of vinegar. He pressed against the door, it was locked. He had a torsion wrench and a hook pick in a pocket on the inside of his coat.
Ardwen heard a scream from somewhere inside the building, it was muffled and sounded faraway. "Don't know how to pick the damn thing anyhow." He muttered and grabbed the door knob. With a sharp tug he pulled the entire fixture from the wood. His boots thumped against the floor as he dashed to Lucia's room, the darkened interior of the building was a blur to him. He found the young girl's door open, and inside was exactly what he expected to see.
A lump on the bed beneath the covers squirmed, and another scream came from it, but the sound was wrong. It didn't sound like the girl was in the room, instead she sounded as if she were barely on the edge of his hearing. Beside the bed, hovering in the air, was a severed human head. Beneath the line of the neck was a writing and dripping mass of organs and viscera. Tendrils of arteries and tentacles of flesh snaked and squirmed through the air, hideously animated and unnaturally alive.
The head's face was turned away from him, intent on the child in the bed. Ardwen banged the doorframe with his fist. "Damn Melasas," he said. "You look better by daylight." The head spun and faced him. It wasn't Melasas. Ardwen frowned. "You're not who I was expecting."
The creature retracted its mass of gore and spoke, the voice low and breathless, like a man speaking after running a great distance. "As expected." Teeth tore into Ardwen's left shoulder, the cloth and leather barely blunting the bite. There was another of the creatures behind him. "The bite is fatal, a wasting poison is in you, you have minutes to live. The bang on the door was clever, but we can twist sound. No one else in this house has heard anything more than the creaking of floorboards. Die in silence while we feast."
The Dar fell to his knees, clutching at his shoulder. His face crumpled in pain, and his chest heaved with labored breathing. He fell to all fours on the floor, hands balled into fists. "Wait!" He said. "There's just one thing - one thing - I want to know." He paused, sucking in a shuddering breath.
The creature titled its head, an expression Ardwen would have found almost comical in any other circumstance. "You die and want answers?" The second creature hovered into view, Lucia remained huddled under her sheets. Ardwen noted neither one was Melasas, how had he been so wrong?
Another tilt of the head. "Ask."
"Why," Ardwen groaned and splayed his fingers. "Why didn't either one of you notice--" He stood up quickly and brushed his shoulder, when he spoke there was no pain in his voice. "That I ripped the lock out of the door, or that it's pitch black in here in the middle of the night but I could see your face." The two horrors said nothing, but their eyes met. Ardwen stretched his mouth in a smile that would make a wolf's snarl look kind. "There are three monsters in this room."
The warrior darted across the room, too fast for the two undead to react. He grabbed the one that had spoken first between his two hands. Slick entrails grasped at him, it opened and closed its mouth. Ardwen squeezed. The floating head's strength was supernatural, Ardwen's was greater. With a sharp crack the things features crumpled, its skull collapsed, bones snapped and splintered. It dropped to the floor with a damp smack. He had crushed it like a bloated tick in the span of a few heartbeats. Pivoting where he stood he called a blade into his hand, he turned into an overhead slice and felt the shock travel up his arm as the steel bit into the undead's forehead. Like the other, the creature dropped to the floor, it's levitation broken by true death.
Their ability to warp sound also perished with them, as Ardwen finally heard a proper scream coming from the hallway outside the room. He turned to look and saw Melasas, her head and body one, staring in horror into the room. The Dar warrior nudged the blade lodged in a skull with his foot. "Found your monsters," he said. "You can make yourself useful and help the kid, she doesn't need to see me like this." He dismissed the sword, it shimmered slightly before dissolving into nothingness.
Melasas snapped her mouth shut and rubbed her face. She adjusted a panel on the side of the lantern she was carrying to let out more light. He saw her eyes travel up and down his body, probably noting the blood that coated his hands and arms. "Are there more?"
Ardwen said, "I thought you were one." She paled. "But, you were serious about working in the kitchen. The smell of vinegar, that's why I suspected." He saw her brow furrow. "They use it to help shrink their organs to fit back inside their bodies. Yes, the bodies are still around, but the creature is the head. Without that they'll rot away come sunrise. When you find the corpses, burn them."
"You seem to know these things."
"Of course," Ardwen said. "We made them."
Ardwen admired Melasas after tonight. After his quip about making monsters she actually tried to bar his path. He had been forced to explain that he had meant his race, the Dar. While it didn't improve her mood, she had let him pass, citing that Lucia had suffered enough without seeing two monsters in one night. He agreed.
There was still the real issue for him to confront. He made his way home by walking, it took several hours. The distance to his home was not the reason why. When he arrived Ardwen saw exactly what he expected, an unassuming black coach and a row of soldiers to either side of his door. He was intercepted almost immediately after walking onto the property and informed that the praetor was expecting him and would see him - immediately.
He was escorted inside his own residence like a thief to a court. The man in question was waiting for him in the main living room. Crecia was serving him refreshments as he sat in a high-backed chair, Ardwen's favorite, sipping a drink from some delicate little glass. His face was strong and severe, with lines bracketing his mouth and thick eyebrows that seemed to be knit in a perpetual scowl. When he saw Ardwen he raised his glass and motioned for him to sit.
"Ah!" Crecia said and motioned for him to stand when she looked at the blood splattering his clothing. Ardwen stood without protest, he was in enough trouble this night.
The preator smiled the precise amount to display amusement without mirth. "Then drape cloth over it, I imagine Ardwen wants to be comfortable in his own home." Crecia simply crossed her arms and glared. The lord of the city sighed. "You'll be recompensed, I will buy you another sheet." That seemed to satisfy her, and in moments Ardwen was sitting in a chair opposite the praetor. "You keep staff as stubborn as you are. Tell me, where is the boy?"
Ardwen said nothing, he kept his eyes locked on the man's face. "He's asleep," Crecia answered finally. "Believe me if Elerus wakes up you'll be compensating us for more than a ruined sheet."
"Indeed," the preator said. He took a sip of his drink. "I assume by your state you solved the problem at the orphanage?"
"The monsters are dead."
"Good. Tell me, did they give you any trouble?"
The only sound in the room was of the noble sipping his drink and the soft tink as he placed the glass on a saucer. "How'd you find out?" Ardwen said.
The praetor rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Maker's mercy Ardwen, what do you take me for? You send a boy with white hair and a wing coming out of his back to play at an orphanage and you expect me not to notice?"
"Damnit Crecia," Ardwen hissed. "I told you! I told you what would happen."
Crecia folded her arms and cocked her head. "And I told you I don't care. It's not fair to Elerus to keep him in this house like a prisoner because of your eternal paranoia. I don't care about the particulars, he's a child, and he should be allowed to make friends."
The preator cleared his throat. "Really though, I suspected when I read the field reports on you. So many willing to dismiss them as hyperbole augmented by the stress of war, or feats of battle rendered by exceptional skill at arms and training. Still, you were well rewarded for your service." He gestured at the house around him. He took another sip from the cup. "As for the creatures hunting the orphanage, in my studies I came across excerpts of Sarthalawin's 'Treatise on Obligatory Hematophagia.'" The room went completely silent. At length he continued, "You look at me with something I struggle to define as other than dread."
"Then you know how the penanggalan were made," Ardwen said.
"Not our term for them, that was what your people named them long ago. Sarthalawin simply classified them under 'defectives' in his paper."
The praetor set his drink down on a nearby table. "Yes, he exposed how they were a method to increase the lifespan of favored slaves, human slaves. Apparently they didn't all die out ages ago as might be hoped."
Ardwen leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees. "You have me, then. I'm a Dar, though I swear I personally had nothing to do with the creation of those things - or the other abominations described in his work. The wealthy owned slaves, I was not wealthy. So what's it going to be? You could drive me from the city with a word, and there's nothing I could do about it. I could kill you, but your proclamation would live on and I would be forced to take a woman and child into exile. I don't want that."
The nobleman nodded and tapped a finger against the back of his hand. "Your candor is appreciated, you have no idea how I tire of obfuscation and sycophants. Rest assured I have given the matter some consideration. I do not doubt you have your own share of sins, some of those old documents make mention of a figure with a name that is eerily similar to the one you're using now. Regardless, I am not here to condemn, only commiserate. I think we can come to an arrangement."
"Your offer?" Ardwen said.
"My primary concern is the security of my city and its populace. Now, you can attribute that to a genuine concern, or you can interpret it to mean it looks bad on one's reputation to have citizens dying in the night with no cause. We can certainly agree that regardless of my reasons unresolved deaths make people embittered and resentful - lack of closure and all that."
Ardwen arched an eyebrow. "Damn peasants getting uppity?"
The preator gave an exasperated chuckle. "Why did I figure you for a cynic? If you want to be blunt, sure, call it an interest in avoiding general unrest. Regardless, I must confess ignorance on how many more monsters stalk the night. I have an inclination though that there are more than just two floating heads hiding in an orphanage to worry about."
"A monster to hunt monsters?"
"Call it what you will, that's my offer."
Ardwen tugged off one of his gloves. Thoughts flashed through his head. He'd been cornered, outsmarted. He looked at the man sitting across from him. A fragile human, but one who was formidable. The praetor was in possession of the one weapon Ardwen feared, knowledge. "How could I refuse?" he said, vocalizing his thoughts and answering all in one.
The preator smiled and stood from his chair. "That's what I was thinking as well."