The hall of records was a mass of papers resting in an organized chaos. Stacks of leather-bound books stood so high that it was a wonder they didn’t topple over when someone walked past. The lighting was dim and made it almost impossible to make out the cramped handwritten names and dates that filled the page of every book. Amongst the monotony, a human-shaped splash of orange stood out to the point of ridiculousness. Despite wearing such gaudy attire, the man looked imposing and dignified, even while frantically shifting through a stack of papers. Next to him, a tall wooden shelf rose up the ceiling, with the golden letters ‘RI’ adorned along its side.
“It’s impossible,” he muttered as he held a birth certificate up to the light.
It was for a Johnathan Riley, dated almost eighteen years earlier. He was a young man who had appeared from nowhere, but still had a birth certificate, records proving his release from basic training, induction into the Knight Order, and of his recent promotion to Lieutenant. There was no record of any family, and other commoners with the last name of Riley had no connection to this boy. The man in orange knew this because he had checked. He had put on his other face and chatted up every last one of them. None of them had ever heard of a Johnathan Riley.
He slammed the leather folder shut, a scowl adorning his face. It kept the record keepers far away from him, and his subordinate at the edge of the hall, where the man in orange had ordered him to stand. He rubbed at the bridge of his nose as he slipped the folder back onto the shelf.
Johnathan Riley was a mystery. He was reportedly from the Public Quarter of Zaphias, but no one there knew him. The group of recruits he’d supposedly gone through training with didn’t know him either. In fact, the only people who were actually familiar with the boy was the unit he’d had command of before his recent promotion. It was as if he’d just been slipped into the ranks. Though he left impressions where he was just one month previously, and he was making waves currently, he had left not a single imprint in the past. Those documents were the only proof that Johnathan Riley had ever existed before last month.
The man stormed down the aisles until he came to the shelf marked with an ‘OL.’ He skimmed the names listed on the leather folders until his eyes landed on one labeled Oltorain, Schwann. He pulled it down and threw it onto a nearby table. The folder was thicker than Johnathan Riley’s, as the man it belonged to had lived longer and had more to show for it. The birth certificate was dated for almost thirty five years earlier, and there were similar records of an induction into the Order. Other documents outlined an involvement in a war from a decade ago, and the sudden promotion to Captain at its end. The lines of text carried on to show that Schwann Oltorain had gone on to obtain the coveted position of First Captain. Just like Johnathan Riley, Schwann Oltorain hadn’t made an impression in the past. The only thing that proved he had existed before the war ended were the papers sitting on the table.
Schwann pulled himself away from his own records with a sharp and mechanical motion. His mind was racing, and he had to fight to keep his hands from shaking. Schwann knew why he didn’t have a concrete life before his promotion to Lieutenant. It was because he had died, been brought back again by unholy means, and given a new name entirely. With each passing day, Schwann became more and more certain that it had been done again.
He would have told me if there was another one, Schwann reasoned as he gathered up the records. He would have let me in on his plan. He owes me that much. A sharp bark of a laugh escaped his lips. What am I thinking? He doesn’t owe me anything. He slipped his folder back in with rest.
“Sir!” The voice of his own Lieutenant disturbed the unnerving quiet of the hall. He stood in a perfect salute at the end of the aisle.
“At ease.” Schwann managed to keep his voice even and calm. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant Leblanc didn’t shift his out of his salute, instead he fidgeted before almost shouting, “Permission to speak freely, Sir!”
Schwann almost didn’t grant it. Almost. “Granted.”
Leblanc visibly relaxed, finally dropping his arm. “Are you alright?” Concern spread across his face.
Schwann made an effort to look stern. “Why wouldn’t I be alright?”
“You’ve been coming here often. It’s obvious something is troubling you. If you tell me what’s going on, I could be of use.”
Schwann raised his eyebrows. He had every right to berate his subordinate for being presumptuous. Instead, he shook his head. “What distresses me is not an official matter, but a personal one. I will deal with it on my own. Your concern is appreciated, nonetheless.”
Leblanc frowned deeply in worry but didn’t dare press any further.
“I admit I shouldn’t be pursuing personal matters while on duty.” Schwann smiled wryly. “We both have work we must return to. Thank you, Lieutenant, for keeping watch while I fretted.”
Leblanc flushed. “Of course, Sir!” He went into another salute.
Schwann felt his smile shift into a broader one, before hiding it away again.
He would get to the bottom of this, and then, he would help Riley as best as he could.
A pounding on the door of his quarters almost six months later was the beginning of the end. Schwann had tried to reach out to Riley, but he had been blocked at every turn. The boy seemed to deeply distrust him. On top of that, Riley was impossible to get alone, and Schwann couldn’t dare risk asking outright about why his records didn’t match up in front of an audience.
The pounding began again, and Leblanc’s muffled voice wafted from behind the door. “Please, wake up!”
Schwann pulled himself from bed. The pounding started again just as he went to open the door. It swung open to reveal Leblanc with his fist raised for another knock. He wore no armor, and it appeared that he had pulled on his shirt backwards. A sheathed sword was held in his left hand.
“Schwann, you need to leave the city immediately.” Leblanc’s voice was strained.
“What’s the situation?” Schwann could count the number of times Leblanc had called him by his first name alone on one hand. Something was very, very wrong.
“Everything has come to light. Everything.”
“What?” Schwann felt panic spread through him. Everything? Does that mean they know about Raven?
“Knights will be coming to arrest you for treason any moment now. From what I overheard, they’ve already taken the Commandant right from his bed.”
Schwann turned from the door and pulled open his wardrobe. He pulled out the fancy clothes within, tossing them carelessly to the floor. He bashed open the false back of the wardrobe, grabbing a transform bow and Raven’s clothing from the compartment before taking off his nightclothes. He heard the sound of a throat being cleared behind him and peeked over his shoulder to see Leblanc turning around pointedly, his ears painted crimson.
“I have a way to smuggle you out of the city. I’ve had it prepared for months,” Leblanc said as Schwann finished donning his other face. His hair wasn’t quite right, but now wasn’t the time.
“I never asked ya ta do that.” Raven grabbed his knife from the nightstand drawer before heading to the door. Leblanc gave him an odd look, and Raven realized that this was the first time the man had seen him like this. “I thought ya said we were low on time?”
“Yes, I apologize!” Leblanc began rushing down the corridor, and Raven took off after him. “I know it was not asked of me, but I began preparations not long after you became so agitated,” he said over his shoulder. “I assumed you had uncovered something unsavory and that your life, and by extension mine, would be in danger.”
“The only thing unsavory was me and the Commandant. If ya spill yer guts about me ta them they’ll probably let ya off easy.”
Leblanc skidded to a halt at a large window that opened up to the castle gardens. He opened it and climbed through. “I could never do such a thing.”
“Yer a good man, then. A guy like ya doesn’t deserve ta get dragged inta this,” Raven said as he followed after.
“I don’t mind getting dragged into this. I would walk into hell with you, if you asked it of me.”
Raven felt a warmth in his chest and a churning in his stomach. Schwann, ya moron. All this time and ya never even noticed.
Leblanc sheepishly broke eye contact and took a step into the garden. He gasped as he stumbled back, his entire body going rigid. He toppled to the ground, his right hand clutched to his chest. Raven fell to his knees next to him. Cold ran through him at the sight of the crossbow bolt sticking out of Leblanc’s chest.
“No,” he murmured. Leblanc raised a shaky hand toward him, and he took hold of it.
A terrible pain rammed through Raven’s shoulder, and he was knocked to the ground next to his dying friend. That’s what he was. What he had been this whole time. One of the few people who gave a damn about you, and you barely even acknowledged him.
Now I got a bolt in my shoulder ta make up fer that, Raven thought in near hysteria. He clutched his wounded shoulder and forced himself to sit up. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that Leblanc had stopped moving.
Knights were marching up to where he sat, and even in the dark of the garden, Raven could see that Johnathan Riley led them. Riley was still a mystery. How could a mere boy be the one to bring down Alexei?
The young man halted just in front of Raven and raised his sword to Raven’s neck. “Your schemes end here, you monster.”
“Ya didn’t have ta kill him!”
“Who? Your deplorable master? He isn’t dead yet. He will stand trial before his execution.” Riley gave Raven a sharp smile. “I think a swifter end is in store for an abomination like you.”
“No, not Alexei! Ya can kill him fer all I care!” Raven spat as he looked over at the corpse lying beside him. “Why couldn’t ya have shot him in the leg or the shoulder? He didn’t deserve this. He was a true knight.”
The young knight glanced down at Leblanc disdainfully. “He was a conspirator. Another part of the problem, nothing more.” The sword was pressed harder against Raven’s neck, and he felt it nick him. “Now cease trying to distract me. I have been looking forward to slitting your throat for months.”
Before Raven could say a word the sword pressed in all the way, and he felt hot blood pouring from the wound in his neck. His life drained away as he fell back into the grass. He could see Leblanc’s pale face in the dark, and could feel the cold of the night and pain. So much pain.
It’s finally over.
The first sense he regained was touch. He could feel comfortable clothes enveloping him and a humid heat around him. Dahngrest, was his first thought. It was always humid there, even in the winter months. The smell of oak and mold and smoke began to fill his nostrils, but stronger than all those was the scent of wine. I’m a little buzzed, he realized. He opened his eyes, and his sight was returned to him. He was standing in the Altosk headquarters just behind Don Whitehorse’s chair, slightly into the shadows. The leaders of the Five Master Guilds were present, and it was apparent that Kaufman and Barbos were arguing, though Raven couldn’t hear what they said.
Raven was certain he was hallucinating, seeing parts of his life before his consciousness slipped into oblivion. Isn’t that what people say will happen? Yer life flashes before yer eyes? He’d died before, though, and he didn’t remember this happening. He didn’t feel very peaceful, either. He reached up to touch his neck, expecting to find a gruesome wound there, or maybe a gnarled scar, but the skin was fine.
That didn’t make any sense. He could clearly remember Riley killing him. It had just happened a moment ago.
“—tolerate your men acting as glorified bandits!” Kaufman’s suave voice cut right into Raven’s ear drums.
He felt himself wobble at the force of sound hitting him. He could hear the argument, but he could also hear Regaey coughing, and the Don tapping his fingers against his armrest. Everything was so vibrant, so real. Raven knees suddenly became weak, and he fell forward and was forced to grab onto the side of the Don’s chair, least he fall over. The Don noticed the movement and his almost bored gaze shifted into sharpness when he set eyes on Raven’s face. He pulled his pipe from his mouth and blew out a puff of smoke.
Kaufman and Barbos silenced almost immediately, both turning to face the Don.
“Barbos, I’ll give you a month to clean up yer guild, then I’m sendin’ my agents in to drag out any remainin’ bandits by their cocks. Kaufman, you need to tighten the checks yer people do on hired muscle. If they let scum rob them because of their own laziness, that’s their problem.” The Don emptied out the ashes from his pipe. “This meeting is dismissed! Any more complaints you have can be saved fer later!”
The other leaders and their right hands filed out, their conversations slowly fading as they walked down the hall. The Don rose from his chair, and Raven made to follow. His legs wouldn’t cooperate, though, and he stumbled. The Don grabbed hold of his arm before he could fall onto his ass.
“You alright there, Raven? You weren’t drinkin’ the whole time back there, were you?”
“Course not,” Raven mumbled. His tongue was numb, and his throat hurt.
The Don used his superior strength to guide Raven into his chair. “You look sick, kid. Yer not bleedin’ anywhere, are you? Someone didn’t decide to slip you poison when I wasn’t lookin’?”
Raven tried to get out of the chair, feeling embarrassed to be sitting in it. The Don usually knocked people on their heads, Raven included, if they sat in his chair.
The Don was having none of it. “I’ll make an exception to the rule, just this once. Now tell me what’s goin’ on with you.”
The Don might have sounded kind, but Raven still recognized an order when he heard one. What was he supposed to say? He thought he died, but now he was alive again? The Don would think he was nuts. Raven would have to agree with that assessment, though. He must have finally lost what was left of his sanity.
Raven shook his head and got his tongue working again. “I just had a crazy time last night, is all. Ya know how some ladies can get, and I’m not twenty anymore.” He gave the Don his most convincing wolfish grin. “I’m fine. Ya got other things ta worry about besides a lazy bastard like me.”
The Don gazed at Raven with a stern intensity that brought back distant memories of being scolded by his father a lifetime ago. Raven resisted the urge to look away and fidget, as he always did when faced with this stare when he was a kid. After a moment, a smile burst across the Don’s face, and Raven felt relief spread through him.
“Atta boy.” The Don smacked Raven’s shoulder with enough force to send him listing sideways in the chair. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off and recover. Don’t get smashed tonight, though. I won’t be so forgivin’ tomorrow. We have work ta do.”
Raven nodded and held a hand to his blastia. “I promise, I won’t drink a drop.”
The Don stepped away from the chair and began to leave the room. Raven’s limbs still felt like jelly as he resisted the urge to let out a quiet sigh of relief.
“And get the fuck outta my chair.” The Don turned to look back at Raven with a teasing smirk.
Raven flew from the chair as though it was covered in hot coals and forced himself to stay upright. “Yessir!” He made his grin mocking and received a chuckle in reply.
The moment the Don had disappeared from sight, Raven let himself go. He grabbed onto the chair to keep from smacking his head on the ground. He clutched onto the side of the chair with a white knuckled grip and swore. He hadn’t felt this terrible since—
--the pulsing terror of waking up and knowing it was wrong everything was wrong he was wrong and he had to get it out get it out GET IT OUT—
Raven slumped the rest of the way to ground and took a couple deep breaths. He hadn’t had an episode like that in years, but he just felt so raw. He stretched the neck of his shirt and peered down to see the blastia still humming in his chest as always. He touched his neck again, but the skin was as smooth as earlier. It was like Riley had never happened.
He was alive, but this time it had little to do with Alexei.
Raven wobbled to his feet. The weakness was passing and the raw emotions that reminded him of being twenty five again and so lost were slipping back where they belonged. Dead and buried in the outskirts of his subconscious, just like Damuron.
After just breathing for a long while, and then taking a few careful steps forward, he judged himself well enough to finally leave the damn headquarters. He burst through the doors and down the steps, nodding in recognition to his guild mates as he passed by.
A weedy boy named Davey was hovering off to the side. He was a new recruit, and awkwardness filled his every motion as he kept his eyes lowered to the floor. Raven had been making a point of asking Davey to go out for drinks every time he saw him. The boy would always turn beet red and sputter while Raven grinned. This time he needed to ask something else.
Davey didn’t look up, but Raven saw him tense in response to being addressed.
“What day is it?”
Blue eyes peeked out from black fringe. “W-what?”
“I asked ya what day it was.”
“Is this a t-test?”
“No,” Raven chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck in a practiced gesture. “I had a bit too much fun last night and can’t remember.”
That trade mark blush spread across Davey’s face before he answered. “I-it’s the tenth day of S-stormwind.”
Raven paused, his mind grinding to a terrified halt. It had been the middle of Stormwind when Riley had been promoted, and Schwann had started his mad search. Six months later, Riley had ruined everything.
“Thanks, kid.” His own voice sounded very far away, and he didn’t even hear Davey’s response.
He left the building on autopilot, his feet carrying him through winding streets. Dahngrest hadn’t changed. The buildings were stacked just as haphazardly as ever, and heavy chains hung over the city, supporting the main column of the barrier blastia. Raven weaved through the crowd in the central marketplace, his gaze set on the crystal clear barrier that rose above it all. The noise from the market was muted and subdued to his ears.
He was thinking he’d traveled through time, but something like that wasn’t even possible. He’d probably just had some kind of mental break, or a really vivid dream. There was no way Riley had actually happened—
An inn lay off to his right, and Raven walked through its doors. The front room was packed with a group of merchants, who looked like they’d just arrived in the city, their packs heavy with Imperial goods. He glanced at the calendar that hung behind the front desk and saw that the year was the same as he remembered. Of course it is. What did ya except, ya crazy old man? He turned and left the inn before stepping back into the crowd.
He stood in the center of the market for some time, being jostled and bumped by each passerby. He was only a few paces from one of the bridges that lead out of the market, arcing high over the rushing river that flowed through the center of the city. His gaze was focused on one of the stone railings of the bridge, his view shifting in and out as it was blocked by the moving crowd. It would be so simple to walk over and—
The sound of the market hit his ears in full force, and Raven turned away from the bridge. This wasn’t a dream. He was real and so were the people, the city, the Don. The tricks his mind was playing on him had set him back farther than he’d thought at first. He just had to keep himself focused. Focused on the moment, not the past or the future.
He turned towards the eastern side of the city, slowly making his way to a different bridge; one that would lead him to forests that eventually broke off into Heliord. He needed to get to the Capital. He had to prove to himself that Riley never existed. That those last few months had been the result of a drunken nightmare.