Cold cobblestones, isolated from each other by water and blood. Tiny islands glistening in the light of a broken lantern. My breath misting along it all, rasping along my throat. This is not the first time I have been followed, but it is easily the most unnerving. Even considering how close I came to dying in Gromond.
My pack was on the hunt for a Daedric Slick rumored to be hidden within the city limits. It’s illegal in the Old Empire for Daedra to congregate, but urban sprawl is impossible to fully police, so we get intelligence most readily within a city’s boundaries. That’s not to say that finding such places is ever easy.
One thing we’re taught in the Scourge is to assume that no one is going to support our mission. Given the status of the Tetrarch in the Old Empire, many of us found this difficult to believe. Our instructors seemed cynical, and as soon as we were free to pursue our own methods many of us relaxed from our training. We traveled more openly, revealed ourselves for who we were in order to gather better information, and generally didn’t worry about being marked as Tetrarch when on the hunt.
Young pride. We wanted people to know who we were and fear us. Or love us. We simply enjoyed the attention we were given regardless of the emotion behind it.
The lesson was hard-learned.
Corbin, Tyri, Kalin, and Darent. The five of us had been together since the Scourge. We were inseparable. Tyri was like the sister I never had, and the rest like the brothers I always wanted. It’s still painful to think of them. Of all my surviving companions only Dionus knew them personally, so it’s easy to go without speaking of them.
Gromond wasn’t as friendly to us as the villages in which we had begun our careers. None of us had lived in the capital yet. To us, Gromond was immense. It seemed like it would dwarf any existing city.
It was late fall, cold, storming, and we quickly found the task before us to be a daunting one. There were some senior Tetrarch posted in Gromond to whom we were to report. They gave us the contacts they thought we would find most useful and then left us alone. They had other things to attend to and didn’t find our mission particularly compelling. It was the first time we were without direct supervision.
Those contacts they gave us were useless. Only two had any leads of which to speak, both of which proved faulty at best. We were left with the impossible job of digging through an entire metropolis on our own. Gromond is home to an innumerable population. Even if the census puts it over two-hundred-thousand, there is no knowing how many live in the slums at its heart or the shanty towns on its rim. A Slick like the one we were hunting might be hidden anywhere, comprised of as few as twenty people. There were hundreds of thousands in Gromond.
We decided to cast wider nets, asking for help and canvasing the streets. We were not as warmly welcomed as we would have liked. There are mandates from the High King giving the Tetrarch the authority necessary to carry out our duties, but these mandates don’t guarantee popularity. In fact many hate us for it. The reaction to the blue blade of the Tetrarch is warmer in the Nanten than I found it in many places within the Old Empire. This hostility was a fact we knew to expect but didn’t believe until Gromond. We were given bad directions, sent on fool’s errands, and eventually sold out to the very Daedra we were hunting.
They followed us for a few days before we knew they were watching. Even realizing they were a step ahead of us, we couldn’t avoid the ambush they set.
It was raining. We were told there was a butcher who had been saving blood and giving it to the priest. We should have known better when we saw the alley. We should have seen just how dark and narrow it was, how dimly the lanterns burned over the doors. We were young and frustrated. I don’t think we truly cared.
We didn’t make it half-way down the alley before they fell upon us. It was a brawl. I was the first to go down with a blow to the head. My pack killed our assailants, but nearly all of us were forced to seek medical attention afterwards. All except one. I remember lying there on my side, watching my blood mingle with the water trickling between the cobblestones. My breath misted over it all.
My precious breath. Head injuries are strange in how they dissociate you from the emotions you would normally feel. Ambushes enrage me, and the sight of my brothers fighting from the disadvantage terrifies me. Yet I could only worry about myself as they fought to protect me. All I could really think about was that it was my blood on those stones. My life leaking away. My breath covering it all.
Two of the Daedra survived. We made them talk. Rather, Corbin made them talk. Corbin was always given to cruelty, but he was exceptionally so to those bastards that day. They killed Tyri. I remember her blond hair matted against her face in the darkness. She died looking into my eyes, but I can’t remember the details. Her face has never been a clear memory for me.
Corbin never let another woman join our pack after that. Losing her was too painful for him, though I never fully understood his reasoning. He couldn’t do that, of course. The Tetrarch doesn’t differentiate the sexes in service, so Corbin refused any replacements at all. Perhaps he just wanted her seat to remain open forever. I suppose we all mourn in our own ways. We rarely spoke of her in front of him.
We learned from that experience. We hid ourselves, even in friendly company. We covered the blade on our armor unless necessity drove us to reveal it. We paid for silence from our contacts and we killed those who couldn’t be bought. We were hardened in Gromond in a way that was invaluable, but at unbearable cost.
The Nanten poses the same threat, but we don’t fully understand its mechanics. We have discovered friends in this place, but we don’t know how deep that friendship runs. Now that we are certain we are being followed, we don’t know to whom we could reach out, nor how to try and nip the inevitable ambush in the bud.
Perhaps we will be lucky and incur no such violence. My gut tells me that is wishful thinking.