Twenty hours had passed since our last meeting with every fresh moment carrying the weight of days. At the twenty-four hours mark the task would be considered closed- participants unaccounted for. The chill in the air had vanished on the whim of the breeze leaving a piercing silence behind. Normally silence would be peaceful, but tonight it merely posed a challenge. Any rustle of leaves would do; a faint call even. Anything to fill the void over that of a lifeless automobile. The key of which was so tightly clenched it was on the verge of breaking skin when the muffled crunching of leaves and snapping of twigs finally broke the air.
Two male figures emerged from the growth; one tall and lean supporting a much larger one on their arm. As they came into focus my attention fell on thing, “Volsung.” The name came out in a whisper; a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding escaping me as I rushed to meet them. “What happened? What took so long?”
“He had to shift earlier than planned. That’s what.” The lean one’s tone was clipped, a chilled hand snatching the keys while unloading his companion on me in one fell swoop. His trek to the car was brisk leaving Volsung and I to lag as he opened the back door. “Get him in.”
It took a moment of mental chastising to keep a rebuttal to myself. Climbing in I helped Volsung lean back against seat; ignoring an all too familiar impatient huff as the door shut behind me. Heavy panting filled my senses as I looked over his state. His face seemed so large in my hands, sweat emphasizing creases framing tired chocolate eyes. They were easily his softest detail in stark contract with such weathered features. Following the trail of stubble down his jawline my gaze came to rest on a fresh gash starting at his collar. “What happened?”
“An alarm was breached and they sent a brigade.” Nikolai replied irritably. “Gunslingers. Hounds. Everything.” The car gave a sudden jerk as he pressed the gas. “The big guy shifted early to help lose them but left us straggling later.”
“You know it’s painful for him to shift back and forth. He can’t help it.” I kept my voice quiet, brushing damp locks from Volsung’s forehead. “Were you successful at least?”
“She’ll be pleased. I’ll leave it at that.” A smug grin framed his features, grey eyes briefly meeting mine in the rear view mirror.
There were several reasons why I wasn’t particularly fond of Nikolai. Aside from his pompous nature and sheer opportunistic tendencies it was his treatment of peers that was truly unbearable- especially Volsung. It was as if he merely deigned to engage with us because it was her will. On the other hand, he never failed to see a task through to the end. When you paired that with his narrow bone structure and dark features it was no wonder so many said he reminded them of a failed aristocrat.
The remainder of the drive commenced in silence with Nikolai fixated on the road and Volsung resting his head against my own.
Twenty minutes of irrefutable silence passed before we reached wrought iron gates standing guard of the estate. A graveled pathway led to a single lavish building eight stories in height with three more below ground. Large windows, imposing columns, and ornate detailing make up the structures outward appearance putting it at odds with the indifferent stances trees held from far edges of the lush expanse. Rumor has it the estate was modeled to resemble an opera house, but for whom was always the question.
Nikolai brought us to a stop at the main entrance making quick work of stepping out and up to a pair of large double doors. I gave Volsung a light squeeze before following Nikolai’s lead. The pain Volsung was experiencing was noticeably visible in the slight furrow of his brow and prolonged movements, but the drive had done him well. Another annoyed huff sounded off earning no attention as Volsung and I closed the distance. Nikolai merely gave a dismissive look and pushed the twin doors open to reveal a grand foyer. Marked by shiny flooring the first thing to come to sight is a wide staircase rising up to the first level before splitting off to the reach the second. If you looked up you could see a large portion of the upper levels; mainly closed doors and others milling about. There was a soft hum of activity with a few giving us nods as we passed. Instead of taking the stairs we continued forward and boarded an elevator to the sixth level where we were met by a blond man. Tevin exchanged a brief set of glances with Nikolai before he led us down a corridor through another pair of doors into a study.
Stuffed bookshelves lined three of the walls with a leather couch and accompanying chairs placed around a plush, shag rug towards the center of the room. This space is far from unfamiliar with many nights having been spent spread out on the rug with a book in hand. The fourth wall is marked by a large window with curtains pulled back and sizable maps hanging on either side. In front of the window stands an imposing mahogany desk topped with open books and papers next to which stood a large globe. It is there where the three of them were waiting- two standing with one perched on the edge of the desk.
As soon as they took notice of us their conversation ceased.
“We were beginning to worry.” The woman on the right greeted us first. Ambrosia. She’s currently overseeing the Northern division and easily one of the highest-ranking elders. She stands taller than the others with fair skin and silver hair pulled back to reveal faded green eyes accentuated by soft lines. Adorned in a simple gown she exudes an air of elegance.
“There is no need. I always deliver.” Nikolai responded.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve been sent out for this.” The maiden opposite Ambrosia spoke up quietly. Faynir is one of the few remaining Fae; a race commonly summed up as magic capable Elvens in closer appearance to humans. They possess amazingly strong magic with many drawing their likes to witches. Faynir herself is noticeably younger than Ambrosia with a fuller frame and dark chocolate tresses cascading past her shoulders, only slightly lighter than her eyes. Her position here is more by association rather than rank.
“Each time I have returned with something in hand.” Nikolai ground out with a thinly veiled irritation I knew all too well. He promptly retrieved papers from his jacket and approached the woman sitting on the desk. “I think you’ll be pleased.”
Marishka is the leader of our faction, having held power for as long as I can remember. With cinnamon skin and piercing hawk like eyes she is the shortest of the three, yet easily has the strongest presence. Inky curls fall just below her bust partially covering a somewhat ornate ensemble. This is the one who raised me. She took the papers and quickly explored their contents. “You found the new location.” Amber eyes lit up at she scanned the page. “How soon?”
“The Primum is already on site- moved two weeks ago, thanks to our increasing pressure in the North East.” Nikolai’s grin was smug. His hands clasped behind his back.
“The others will be pleased to hear it.” Marishka noted, exchanging glances with her counterparts.
“I will call a meeting between the elders.” Ambrosia remarked with small nod at us before making her exit.
There was a moment of silence as the door shut. Marishka’s golden gaze returned to Nikolai. “You did well.” Moving from her position on the desk she placed the papers down behind her. “You never cease to deliver.”
“If there is anything else, don’t hesitate.” Nikolai emphasized whilst taking a step closer to her. At the sudden proximity the room grew tense with Tevin’s expression darkening and Marishka’s gaze flickering from Nikolai’s chest to his face.
“He’s wounded.” Faynir interjected causing all eyes to shift towards Volsung and myself. I immediately straightened up, suddenly keenly aware of our close proximity. Glancing over at him it became obvious what had caught Faynir’s attention. The blood from his wound had soaked through the linen of his shirt producing a sizable stain.
“What happened?” Marishka’s tone dropped as she left Nikolai in her shadow to approach us. Nikolai made a move to follow, but was blocked from his course by Tevin.
“There was a slight hiccup in our-”, Nikolai began, attempting to speak for the group as usual.
“A slight hiccup?” Faynir’s brows shot up as she cut him off.
“Yes.” Nikolai hissed. “The alarms were tripped and there was an entire brigade, but I was able to steer us with minimal casualties.” His words caused Volsung to tense.
“So they know they’ve been infiltrated.” The words were bland on Marishka’s tongue as she took a closer look at Volsung’s wound.
“…Yes.” Nikolai admitted rather begrudgingly.
“I see.” Marishka fell silent for a moment, holding a long gaze with Volsung before turning on her heels. “Forces need to be equipped in forty-two hours.”
Nikolai perked up. “I’ll have a team gathered and ready by the forty hour mark. We won’t disappoint.”
“We?” Mariska glanced in his direction. “You won’t be taking part.”
“W-why wouldn’t I?” A thin veil of confusion over simmering outrage was clear in Nikolai’s voice. “I have been tracking the Primum’s location for years. I have always stayed as near as possible and have more than proved-”
“Their hounds have your scent.” Marishka deadpanned. “You will be recognized the moment you enter the vicinity. The elders have made their requirement of the Primum quite clear if any progress is to be made. Your scent could cost minutes and I won’t risk it.” She ran her fingers over the globe on her desk. “Neither you or Volsung shall be participating.”
Faynir could be seen struggling to keep a smile from forming just as Nikolai struggled to maintain his own composure. “Your team has done well and will be awarded appropriately, but I will take it from here. I will call for you if needed.”
“Of course.” Nikolai’s words were forced through gritted teeth. With a strained polite gesture, he silently made his leave. Even as he passed I could see the spasms of his jaw and ivory knuckles of clenched fists.
Marishka wasted no time in turning to Tevin. “Have the troops assembled.” Tevin gave a brief nod before following in Nikolai’s footsteps out the door. With them gone Mariska turned her attention onto us once more. I fidgeted under her gaze, beginning to move ever so slightly from the large mass next to me only to stop in my tracks when she raised a hand in protest. “There is no need.” Her expression grew calm as she approached. “You look worn.” Placing a hand on my shoulder she scrutinized my appearance, “You both do.” She decided before turning to silently engage Volsung. “Take him to rest.” Amber eyes shifted back to me. “You deserve it.” A brief smile was cast my way to which I simply nodded.
“There are aid kits already in his quarters.” Faynir called gently while I held the door for Volsung to pass. When the door clicked shut I could still faintly hear Faynir’s voice; “Will the elders be able to convene in time?”
“If they require their beloved Primum they won’t have the option…”
When we arrived at his door Volsung wasted no time in slamming a hand against the wood, popping it open just before I could reach the handle. Unlike many in the estate, he had been granted his own room and done very little with it. With a single window illuminating the center of the room he kept a large bed against one wall and a series of trunks lining the other. There was a closet with a few things in it, but they merely gathered dust. A large carpet had been put in at a friends’ request to liven up the room, but it did little.
After helping him sink down on the bed’s edge I quickly went to rummage through one of the chests with supplies. A dull breath sounded behind me catching my attention. “Just a few moments.” Dropping the supplies at his side I gripped him arm just as he attempted to lean back. “Not yet. We have to fix you up.” Ignoring his gaze, I set to work helping take off his shirt to reveal several minor injuries. His chest was littered in scars and from the look of this gash he’d be earning another one.
The first time I witnessed his transformation I cried. I was much younger then and struggled to see another person in so much pain. What was worse was no one offered to help. They’d simply left him on the floor to recuperate on his own. A man barely able to sit upright- who’d felt his bones breaking just moments prior…was then offered no assistance. I remember asking Marishka why no one would help him; tears streaming down my face as I tugged on her garment. She’d knelt down and explained that because of the type of being he was his transformations would always be excruciating for him. I hadn’t been happy with that answer and asked if there wasn’t anything we could do to help like bringing him food or water. Her expression had softened, and she took me to his room to gather clothes along with water and fresh food for him. When we returned he was all alone. I remember staring at him laying on the floor, unsure of what to do with everything in my arms. Marishka put the pitcher of water along with a large bowl on the floor before telling me she had business to take care of. I froze and looked at her with panic, but she just smiled and said it took a special type of being to actually go out of their way for someone else. When I looked at the door Tevin stood waiting and they disappeared leaving me with alone with Volsung. It had taken ages for me to sneak over to him; constantly trying to make sure I didn’t wake him, but he never moved. After working up enough courage I poured some water into the bowl and dabbed his forehead with a damp cloth. A rough hand had immediately gripped my arm and I found myself staring into a pair of tired brown eyes, frozen with fear…
It was strange to think of how far we’d come from that day. Now I helped clean him up after every transformation and there wasn’t a single thing about him that could even begin to scare me. In fact, the very huffs that used to scare me before only amuse me now. Once I was sure his skin was clean I let him lay back and climbed in bed next to him to apply the bandages. As I worked I could feel his gaze on me, but I tried to ignore it. “Almost done…” Biting my lip to focus I briefly met his eyes and offered a smile. “Go ahead. It’s okay.” He was clearly exhausted and there was no need for him to stay awake. After all, at this point I knew what I was doing.
Once the balm had been applied to minor cuts I was finally able to put the supplies aside and stretch. Sliding off the bed I gathered his clothes and pulled the curtains closed. The sun would be rising in a matter of hours and he would need longer than that. Glancing at his sleeping form I felt myself smile a bit before tiptoeing out of the room and shutting the door behind me.
“I was wondering if I was ever going to see you tonight.” A feminine voice sounded.
“Oh my gosh!” I yelled, immediately clamping my hand over my mouth. “You scared the crap out of me!” I whispered harshly, storming down the hall.
“Oh please, love. I thought you’d be off celebrating with Volsung after your big score.” A smirk could be heard in the air as the voice trailed behind me.
“Evangeline- please! Someone might hear you.” I whispered back, shooting her a look of warning.
“Hear what? That absolutely nothing’s changed? I’m sure they’ll really care.” The sarcasm was practically dripping as we walked.
“It’s not like that.” I muttered.
“Isn’t it though?” Evangeline replied casually, opening the door to our room with ease.
I immediately tossed his clothes in the hamper before peeling off my own. While not as dirty as his they carried the aftermath of his wounds. From the corner of my eye I could see Evangeline doing the same even though she’d spent most of the day inside. Evangeline was a female with very…generous assets and she knew how to dress them well. For her it was a requirement and while she’d surely spent the last few centuries trying to push that mindset on me…I’d successfully managed to keep her bay…somewhat. “I’m going to take shower. I’ll see you in the morning?”
“Of course, love. Back by sunrise.” Evangeline gave me a wink before turning back to her collection of garments.
No matter what time someone found themselves navigating the estate; it was never truly silent. There was always a steady hum of activity- even if you couldn’t see the beings behind it. For the longest time it put me on edge and made me feel like I should never rest or else I might miss something important. Eventually I learned the estate moves in a constant rhythm with residents on countless differing cycles. In a way the entire culture of the estate could change in the span of an hour with many having never crossed paths with others. The showers on this floor were rather quiet tonight with maybe a handful of others occupied.
As I stepped under the warm water I closed my eyes to relax. After decades of failed attempts, we’d finally found the Primum and for some reason it almost didn’t seem real. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to get my hopes up or maybe I was just so excited? Either way Nikolai and Volsung wouldn’t be in the next plan and I was glad. Nikolai’s use of Volsung was appalling and this way Volsung would get the rest he needed. I wondered if I would get called on, but highly doubted it. Evangeline might though.
By the time I returned to our room Evangeline was long gone leaving me to draw the curtains and climb into bed. When I finally woke up I was still alone and got ready for the day at my leisure. After getting dressed I noticed an envelope resting on the edge of my bed. Hesitantly I opened it to read its contents.
If you have received this letter you are to report to sub level one at 18:00 hours.