1 Prologue - Headed by a Snake
The biting chill of the starlit night dulled Barza's senses. He couldn't shake the foreboding feeling of being watched-- being followed.
"We shouldn't be doing this," Barza mumbled under his breath. His companions wouldn't listen to his gripes and worries. He had joined the group a fortnight prior and had yet to earn enough respect necessary to have a voice among them. Even still, he hoped at least one of them would listen to reason. Against his better judgment, words of complaint again found his lips.
"That guy said he was a noble! And we kn--"
Before he could finish, Barza felt a heavy shove. Unable to keep his balance, he slammed his elbow awkwardly and painfully against a brick wall.
"Shut up, Barza. A coward isn't fit to lead."
Half a dozen men moved in the shadows past Barza and each of them glared in varying levels of agreement.
"It was your bleeding idea to mess with him in the first place, idiot."
The rear man, Kevand, prodded Barza along, "Stick to the plan, Recruit. It ain't the first time we've robbed a noble. In fact, Baron Tavor encourages it."
The others grunted in agreement, only leaving Barza to swallow his words in silence. He had a bad feeling that he couldn't shake. He didn't want to cross the golden-eyed noble. Nor his giant, axe-wielding bodyguard.
But the noble youth had gold. Lots of it. They had glimpsed at his bulging wallet when they saw him use an entire gold piece to pay for his meal.
It was enough coin to pay the mercenaries' fare for at least a month. And so it was enough to risk capturing, robbing, and maybe even ransoming the youth. Barza took a deep breath to calm himself. Having a share of stolen coin would save him from worrying whether or not he'd have a place to sleep-- at least for a few weeks.
The unmistakable twang of a crossbow echoed through the night alleyways, sending the men into a panic. The men began to sweep their bullseye lanterns around them in an uncoordinated crisscross.
"Ambush!" "Check behind us!" "Where is he?!"
Denman was the unlucky man who took the first position in the line of thugs. His bottom lip quivered, his mouth agape in shock as he stared down at his chest. The bolt had pierced through his heart. He hadn't instantly died, like in the stories. But he knew death's sweet embrace would come for him soon.
And he would die for nothing.
In a sudden jerk of movement, the golden eyes of a predator emerged from the darkness, and a hand snatched out, gripping Denman's face.
"Denman!" "What the hell are you doing, kid!!" The men shouted.
Barza took a step back. "It's.. It's him." He knew what was happening. But he wanted so dearly to deny it, to repress the twisted gut-feeling of danger by using hasty prayers to any god that could hear him.
He could have begged. He could have pleaded for them to listen. He could have used his fists to convince them. He could have drawn his blade against the men he worked with, men directly under the employ of the Baron.
A man was dead and Barza keenly felt that he could have prevented it.
Tycon smiled the same gentle smile he'd showed them in the inn. Barza wanted to close his eyes and convince himself that nothing was amiss. He wanted to be back in the inn, warm, safe-- when everything was fine.
The sound of the gently smiling noble slamming Denman's head against a nearby wall, shook Barza from his reverie and brought him back to his waking nightmare. With two swift movements of his short sword, Tycon stabbed two bleeding holes in the side of Denman's neck and armpit.
"No!" Cutter shouted, able to scream, but not able to react. The golden-eyed youth swiftly and smoothly whipped his arm down, his expression unchanging. Cutter stood still, blinking like a fool.
"Oy. Cutter. Don't just stand there." Kevand said warily.
Kevand was the only man able to speak. Barza wanted to scream. He wanted to run. But he could only watch as Cutter's dagger clanged upon the cobblestones. And he watched as Cutter's hands tightly gripped at his neck as blood spilled unforgivingly through his fingers.
Tycon took three steps to the right, allowing Denman's corpse to slump against the brick wall and down onto the dirt. Two drops of bright red blood stained the youth's smiling face. Tycon pat Cutter's shoulder, like he was greeting a long-time friend. Then he ran his sword along the back of the man's knees, dropping him to the ground without ceremony.
Barza paled, "Two… Two men… Dead."
"W… Wh-..." Lean held his sword forward, granting him confidence, but not yet enough to speak under the youth's gaze. "We…"
Tycon grabbed his collar and pulled him close-- Lean was face to face with a cold-blooded murderer who screamed in his face at the top of his lungs.
"OUT WITH IT, BOY!"
The three other men took a step back, terrified. A young, beardless youth, barely past his teens and nearly half their size was grabbing a grown man and treating him with nothing but disrespect.
'Rookies, the lot of them.' Tycon thought, 'Just this little amount of blood and they turn into mewling whelps. Dogs willing to use violence to herd sheep shouldn't be surprised to chance upon a wolf."
"We're… We're backed by Baron Ta--"
Lean wasn't able to finish his sentence, as a stream of smooth, crimson red began spilling from his mouth. With a swift shove, Lean fell backward, and the three remaining men dodged their fallen comrade in alarm. Barza's sharp eyes quickly identified a gaping wound in the man's gut.
Tycon casually whipped his sword in a sideward stroke, painting the wall a grisly curve of blood. He spoke calmly, a gentle teacher admonishing his students.
"A belated lesson, gentleman: Referencing your backers..."
With an unkind kick, Tycon flipped Denman's body face-up. The dead man's face was contorted into an open-eyed scream of horror at his own death.
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"...Is a tactic used best PRIOR to conflict-resolution."
The noble crouched down beside Denman, unceremoniously wiggling and pulling at the stuck crossbow bolt embedded in his chest. With the sound of tearing meat, a weak but noticeable spurt of blood spilled from Denman's fatal wound.
"For one, if I cared-- it's far too late. I have been attacked. And I have responded in... Self-defense." The noble shrugged his shoulders in apology.
"But-- that's-- But you--" Kevand began to argue back. Barza had always known him as the most level-headed veteran in the team. Hearing the uncertainty in his voice instilled Barza with a new feeling of dread.
"For a second point, which no one ever remembers, mind you-- No one cares! I can have you killed in your beds at night. I can kill you in a daytime alleyway, with only the rats to witness. I can kill every single one of you to save the hassle. Or if any of you whelplings run off, I can flat out deny ever seeing any of you."
Tycon bent over to grab the end of Cutter's cloak, using it to wipe his blooded blade clean.
"It's my word against yours. Look at you shameful lot. No tabards, no uniforms, armor that's passed down at best and stolen at worst. No one gives a shit about any of you peasants. And no one in this city's going to have the balls to keep me, a noble, arrested in one place on unproven charges."
The remaining men shifted around uncomfortably. They'd never imagined any complications to arise from this situation. And everything that was happening was one unwelcome surprise after another.
Tycon's face crumpled into a look of absolute revulsion as he firmly pointed at Barza with his sword.
"Mister Barza! What!? By the gods, man, WHAT?! ARE YOU DOING?!?"
Hot tears ran down Barza's cheeks as he looked to where Tycon's sword pointed. Revealed in the lantern light, Baraza had pissed the front of his trousers. He bowed his head in shame, "I'm… I'm sorry, Sir Tycondrius."
"You're… What? You're SORRY? Why-- Augh. Have some self-respect."
Tycon turned to glare at Kez, one of the three remaining men. "Third!"
Kez stared back, but his fear only turned to helplessness as he stared into glowing golden eyes with elliptical pupils. He wasn't staring at another man's eyes. He was staring at a monster's.
[Vexing Gaze activated.]
The man began to choke, clutching at his chest, unable to breathe. The man collapsed, gargling blood.
"S-spellcaster…" Barza collapsed to his knees. It was over.
But Kevand dropped his lantern, gripping both hands around his sword.
"Spellcaster! I'll cut you down before you have enough time to cast another spell!"
And with a promise of victory, Kevand, the last man standing lunged forward.
'Ah, blind fervor.' Tycon thought, 'If a man finds a single hint of familiarity, he can rationalize. And with rationality, he can have hope. And with hope, a man can struggle marvelously against fate.'
Barza hadn't realized when he shut his eyes. But his ears did not hear the sound of a blade cutting flesh. Instead, he heard the dull thud and rattling clangs of a longsword forced from a man's grip. Summoning his courage, Barza slowly lifted his head. Opening his eyes, he saw a vision of Death.
Death was a long white snake, its writhing mass thicker than a dozen men, illuminated by the glowing moon and the dancing embers of dropped broken lanterns. Kevand struggled. Kevand screamed. But soon, the screaming stopped, replaced by the soft arrhythmic song of bones being displaced in its casing of blood and meat.
Barza spoke softly, almost in reverence, "Th-third… What was… the…"
The head of the snake remained unmoving, staring deep into Barza's soul with its speckled golden eyes. And with the noble's voice, emanating from the white snake, it spoke.
"Third, predators needn't listen to their prey."