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Short Story Entry: A Murder of Crows - "Assassin's Grotto"


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A Murder of Crows - 'Assassin's Grotto'


We approached him silently, sliding forward without a sound as we slipped from the shadows. Lüthar; seemingly pinned down against the cold alabaster stone, lay vulnerable, and rasping for breath.


“I have seen you looking better”, I whispered. My voice carrying loudly though, sounding callous and sinister as it echoed off the stark walls of this long forgotten catacomb.


Blood spilled from Lüthar's mouth as he chuckled at my words. I watched as he struggled to speak. “Cabalthul, you have come," he gurgled through blood stained teeth. "I am grateful. It is not often that you leave the Shadow to visit me here in the Dregs.”


Slowly I circled the cold concrete slab Lüthar rested upon. “Indeed I have come. You do not believe I would pass up the opportunity to help my old friend Lüthar.. now do you? Lüthar; who is Yaga's chief emissary. Lüthar; who governs for her from the Eternal Kingdoms to the Dregs. Of course I came."


Lüthar pushed himself up slightly, peering into the darkness with a curious expression, "Do I sense another with you?"


I smiled, Lüthar still possessed a keen awareness. "Aye Chancellor, it is Slorish. Surely you remember Slorish. He too is of the Order of Shadow Assassins; Dreadlord of Carnage."


Lüthar smiled smugly, “Ahh yes! What is death without destruction!”, he laughed into the air, clearly amused by his own words.


"The waste of a perfectly good death?" Slorish chortled uncharacteristically; rushing to answer the rhetorical question. He joined in with Lüthar, their laughter drifting through the chamber and chilling the pitch black night air.


Moving closer I discovered the source of the sour stench of contaminated blood that offended my nose; Lüthar. “Look at all this beautiful blood going to waste!” Leaning down I sampled some blood from his chin to confirm my suspicions. "Hmm.. as I thought... metallic and sulfuric, your blood betrays you. Now who thought it wise to poison my dear friend Lüthar?"


He grimaced. "Forces that do not wish to see me complete a mission I have been tasked with."


"And might we know what that mission was, or who these forces are?"


"Well let us just say that seeing into the past, and into the future, is no longer satisfactory to Yaga."


"She wishes to be able to see the present!" I looked to Lüthar. "Why now?"


"I cannot say for sure Cabalthul, but my belief is that she fears being consumed by the Hunger. She is obsessed with the notion that she must be able to see the present to avoid it. You can now see why my... setback, has upset her. I must remedy the situation quickly. I need someone I trust to travel to the Grotto and meet with Atrathian. I've sent a runner ahead so he is expecting you. He will no doubt have an antidote for the poison, and I also require a means of dealing with these 'forces'. I will have my revenge. Tell Atrathian I want something sinister. I wish to toy with them first, before eliminating them.


I grew concerned at the mention of Atrathian. "I think the Crow folk may not suffer another visit from us Lüthar, and I believe you know why."


Irritated, Lüthar pushed himself up and rested on his elbows. "You know the murder of crows there will only deal with other assassins. And things only got heated last time because you refused to show him how to Shadow-step. Will you show him this time, if I promise a... future gratuity?"


Lüthar knew me all too well, and knew I would never teach Atrathian for free. "Yes, I do believe that is acceptable. Shadow-stepping is not an easy feat to master though, or even to become proficient at. There is much more to it, that, honestly, does not involve shadows. I hope he has the temperament for learning."


"How hard can it be, you can do it." Lüthar jested as more blood flowed from his mouth and down his chin. His mood though, quickly turned serious, "Please explain, I would try and understand."


"Well, Shadow-stepping requires manipulation of the arcane energies that surround us as we move through space. Moonbeams and sunrays must be figured into the calculations as well. Shadow-stepping requires the user to twist light just a certain way, to make others believe they see nothing, where someone or some thing actually exists. It also produces a rather impressive effect. When moving from shadow to sight the air molecules freeze for a split second before thawing. It produces the illusion that the person Shadow-stepping is transforming from misty shadow to solid form. Quite impressive if I do say so myself. "


I brushed the tangled bloody hair on Lüthar's face aside; his eyes telling me all I needed to know. We would need to hurry. "With your permission Lüthar, we will head to the Grotto."


Lüthar mumbled something, then motioned a dismissal with his hand as he lay back. Slorish and I slipped from view and into the shadows as we headed to the Grotto.


The Assassin’s Grotto; for assassins, by assassins. Operated by a murder of crows known as the 'Conservators and Wardens', or affectionately as 'CaW'. Initially their function was to enforce the rules of the Grotto, and protect its members and their goods. But as their reputation grew they were called upon as vigilante justice for the entire Crow race. They remain popular to this day and are revered. Their name is spoken both in times of distress; 'CAW! CAW!', and in times of contentment; 'caw'....'caw'.


The Grotto is an immense cavernous city, accessible only by water, or air; if you can fly. It is very much like any other city. There are Taverns, Inns, Apothecaries, Armorsmiths, Weaponsmiths; all the same establishments you will see in other cities, except these cater to assassins. There is also a rather unusual bazaar that is only accessible to the elite and renown. It is run by Atrathian; a curious Crow to be sure. No other name does he use. He is not Atrathian the Black, or Red, or the Feared, nor any other name you would think typical with someone in his line of work. Merely Atrathian, though he does have a patch over one eye.


Atrathian’s bazaar is located at the innermost part of the grotto, and comprised primarily of nefarious individuals who peddle magical potions, weapons, spellbooks, armor, treasure maps; you name it and they probably sell it. Mostly these items are genuine. Often times powerful, and generally mysterious. Occasionally you will see a head smoldering on a pole by the entrance; a vivid reminder to any who might try and peddle inferior or counterfeit goods.


Slorish and I wound our way through the Grotto until reaching Atrathian's house. Magically warded, we were never able to penetrate it and remain hidden. As a consolation to ourselves we always find some unsuspecting soul nearby to materialize behind, and subsequently frighten. Sometimes we hear Atrathian laugh from inside; amused no doubt by our juvenile antics.


Atrathian is actually very amiable, usually. He is nice enough for someone in his profession, but he is not overly friendly, nor quick to trust; if ever. It is commonly known that he has a private cache of special stock; available only to those with great wealth. Our last visit had become heated and strained over the shadow-stepping issue. My hope is that today will be more productive; given Lüthar's promise of gratuity for tutoring Atrathian. 


“Atrathian”, I nodded politely as he came out to meet us.


“Gentlemen”, Atrathian bowed; his left hand firmly gripped on the hilt of the dirk tucked into his weapons belt?”


“Lüthar, as you know, is poisoned and needs an antidote."


Atrathian nodded.


"He also requires a means to silence, as he put it, 'forces'. He is intent on the solution being something devious that will allow him to play with his food, before the meal's conclusion. We are also to tutor you in Shadow-stepping."


“Yes, Lüthar's man informed me, so I've had a while to consider his requests. Please join me. ”, Atrathian entered his house, then motioned us to follow as he moved into a hidden back room.


I followed slowly, and only after surveying the room for other occupants. Slorish immediately turned after entering, blocking the way to any who might try and gain access.


Rummaging through a black highwayman's haversack, Atrathian withdrew an oddly shaped vial and tossed it over his shoulder to me. "A universal antidote I concocted some time ago. Tell Lüthar to drink it every day until the pain subsides."


Turning Atrathian asked, “Have you ever wondered why I have only one eye?” Pausing ceremoniously he leaned in until our faces were mere inches apart, “Then wonder no more.”


I had wondered, and drooled at the prospect of finding out, but said nothing and only listened.


Atrathian began; holding out a scroll for me to examine, “This parchment is actually the skin of one of Yaga's traitorous servants. She removed it from him after she had collected his final breath, then tattooed this spell upon it with a special mixture of blood and some unknown substance she had been experimenting with."


"She created it as an example to future servants; and any others, who might think to betray her. Given her mood at the time, you can understand why she weaved such a malicious spell. I was able to procure it, but not without great sacrifice," he said, pointing to the patch covering the eye socket where his eyeball used to reside.


I listened; circumspectly, and perused the symbols and markings on the 'parchment'. Some I recognized as arcane sigils; others however, were quite foreign to me.


“There is no written description", Atrathian explained, "So listen up! This spell contains three-parts; Containment, Curse, Carnage. The caster does not have to cast all three parts, and each part can be as severe, or mild, as the caster wishes. Lüthar's blood is the only catalyst needed. It will insure those he casts the spell upon will be bound to his blood alone."


“Casting 'Containment' puts the subject under his control immediately, and generally they are not even aware of the fact. They are free to move about, or say or do anything they wish. It is like they have an invisible aura that surrounds them; unseen and unrestrictive unless the caster tells them otherwise. Once 'Containment' has been cast the only way to remove it, is to kill the subject. Not even the caster’s death will break the spell. There is no countermeasure.”


“Curse”, Atrathian continued. “As a warlock you can probably appreciate the complexity. 'Curse' allows the caster to invoke multiple curses on the subject at one time, or in intervals. And although completely unnecessary, it will allow Lüthar to 'play with his food', as he desires.”


“Carnage!”, Atrathian smiled for the first time during his oratory. “Carnage is not your run of the flour mill, hundreds slaughtered and mutilated type carnage. I'm talking some deep seated evil intent here; mano a mano. Once cast, the subject finds that every action their body takes, inflicts pain and damage upon themselves.”


I shifted my gaze from the scroll back to Atrathian, I was intrigued.


“It begins with simple things; like moving their fingers, hands, feet. Even their eyelids will inflict pain as they blink. The damage level can be severe enough to kill, or mild enough to merely keep the subject in a constant state of pain; completely at the caster's discretion.


“What an exquisite spell." I marveled at the sadistic design.


"Yes Cabalthul, I believe this scroll will meet with Lüthar's approval. As for my shadow-stepping lesson... ", Atrathian continued as he escorted us back outside, "... that can wait until next we meet. Lüthar will need the antidote immediately."


Our business concluded, Slorish and I began twisting the light, and vanished with a final whisper, “Agreed.”

~ A man shows who he is... by what he does... with what he has ~

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