Excerpt from The Angel Of The Grave (The Celestial Ways Saga: Book Two)

 

It was early evening in Hruute, the capital city of Corsc, a southern region of the nation of Galgran, which was almost centrally situated on the Watley Peninsula. It was there, outside of a drab barracks building, on land that was primarily used as training ground for their military, that two men were engaged in a fist fight. Torches were burning; whilst the other members of the Hruutian Guard watched in rapt attention, the dust flew through the air beneath their scuffing boots. After several moments of tense but lively cheering, one man’s jaw gave way to the other’s blow with a satisfying crunch as the whoops reached a fever pitch. The victor, a captain named Lester Matthew Grotney, reeled a couple of feet almost directly backwards and then straightened to recover his center of gravity; by that point, the entire left side of his face was covered in a streaking sheen of blood from a long break in the skin of his temple.

Lester was a portly brute of a man with a headful of curly, dark brown hair; he had huge cheeks and a big forehead. Shirtless for the purposes of the fight, sweat was coursing down his torso; he always wore a bristly, full-face beard, but it was not very long at that time. He was simply a hirsute man in general, his chest and back almost covered in sparse hair. The armored men that surrounded the two combatants were clad in dark, olive green cloaks; they parted, breaking the ring and then backed up immediately, so as not to block Lester’s way or interfere. However, the fight was undoubtedly over; his opponent was not going to get back up any time soon, at least not unaided. He approached the man hesitantly and stood there for several moments looking down at him, then wiped the blood off of his face with the wire-haired back of his right forearm. “Well, that’s that, then.” He turned around to regard the rest of the soldiers, who had all fallen silent by then. “I’d say it’s about due time for a drink. Who’s with me?”

A few hours later, after dark had completely fallen, and in another part of the city. The two women were walking side-by-side on a broken sidewalk, south-bound and down a curving lane, several rundown houses surrounding them on both sides of the street as they conversed. Their names were Evelyn Rebecca Smythe and Sadine Candace Cottrell; and they could well have been sisters, or even separated at birth, as they were both almost smug in their beauty, with very dark hair and features. As they walked, Evelyn glanced over to her left at her friend intermittently; Sadine had very classical features, with deep blue eyes and shoulder length, dark brown hair that was only half-tied back. Evelyn looked very similar, but in her own way; her eyes were most always narrowed, rather than just occasionally; she also had a more rounded nose, slightly arching eyebrows, and fuller lips. The two were also almost of a height, Sadine being only a couple of inches taller, and were both wearing black robed hoods over dark dresses, Sadine’s being purple and Evelyn’s blue; over white undergarments, of course.

“But, how could we be sharing a dream? Sadine continued an ongoing conversation they had been having. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips, as if she’d bit into a lemon. “I don’t think that’s even possible.” Evelyn responded. “You know as well as I do that dreams can be magickal in origin sometimes. Remember, the whole game has changed now that we’ve become full succubi; we aren’t the little girls we used to be anymore.” For a moment, her voice became a bit sardonic or teasing. “And don’t even try to tell me that there’s nothing like that in any of those books of yours. It could well be that someone is trying to send us a message of some sort, and they don’t know that we know each other in real life.”

Sadine grimaced over at her. “A message? If so, then from who?” But it was a rhetorical question at that point; Evelyn just faced forward as they walked, saying nothing; then, she started again. “Alright, then. So you’re absolutely sure that you’re in a graveyard?” Evelyn sighed heavily. “That’s just it, Sadie. I’m surrounded by these tombstones, I mean as far as the eye can see, so I would kind of have to assume that I’m walking through a massive graveyard. And as I continue further into it, from a distance up ahead, I see the biggest mausoleum that I’ve ever seen … it’s all covered in ivy and it’s the size of a one-story house. A black iron door with an oxidized handle is ajar on its side, but when I gather my nerve and walk up to it, I can smell death … but there’s no one in there; someone must have just simply left the door open. I don’t enter, of course. And then, when I finally turn around to go, my way is blocked by some woman who has come up behind me. She’s very fair, with high, dark brown eyebrows and long, light brown hair that’s up in a bun-”

Sadine looked off to her right, down a darkened, red brick alley. “But is she wearing a light purple dress?” Evelyn’s face smiled, but her eyes did not; she was being dead serious, and losing patience with her closest friend. “Yes. What have I been telling you for the better part of what, two hours? She’s wearing a light purple dress, a pair of white lace gloves up to her elbows, but the oddest thing is that her slippers are black. Also, she’s wearing a very ornate locket on a white and rose gold, alternating link chain around her neck.”

“This is impossible,” said Sadine. “Mine was almost the same. Right down to the chain and locket you describe. Yet rather than turning around, I go towards the open door and when no one is there, for some reason I take a right and walk off towards the treeline, and sure enough, there she is under the canopy of an elm, as if she’d been waiting for me. She opens up her arms as if to give me a hug, I begin to take one step towards her and then that’s it, I wake right up. Wait a minute, where the hell is this place?”

Sadine stopped abruptly, and Evelyn quickly followed suit; she looked around warily at where they were, then pointed off towards the next intersection. “It should be right down here, on lower Wetlands Road. The place is called The Dying Wish. It’s just some grubby little hole-in-the-wall where he hangs out, literally like five days a week. Apparently he’s quite fond of the drink. Well, at least … that’s what the old maid said.” They banged a left, walking in sync, and then carefully looked right to make sure no carriages or coaches were coming before hopping off the walk and crossing the road. Then, as they headed due east on Wetlands Road, up ahead and on their right they espied a huge wooden tavern sign shaped to resemble a leprous-looking man’s head, with a painted bandage at an angle over its right eye; the left one was merely an “X,” traced many times over in fading black and red. Evelyn looked up at it. “Well, here we are.”

Sadine walked up to the door, grasped the handle and pulled it open. “She said that he comes here ‘all the time’? Those were her exact words?”

“The very same, Sadie,” Evelyn answered. So Sadine walked up to the door, grasped the handle and pulled it open, saying “Alright then. I mean, good …” and they entered.

About forty-five minutes later, Lester virtually stumbled into the tavern. He was completely on his own, and having taken a few good hits that afternoon, both alcoholic ones and otherwise, he just barely made it through the wooden doorframe. He first removed his helmet and laid it under his armpit until he could put it down, then strode down past the bar as if he owned the place, as he was wont to do every time he went there. Milton Wheels, the owner, also happened to be tending the bar that evening; he was a man of fifty-two years, dressed mostly in faded brown garments; he had a full head of hair though it was white, a double chin and a full figure. Milton turned about as Lester approached, having been in the act of wiping out a beer glass, with a characteristically doubtful look on his face.

“Lester Grotney. Long time, no see. What’s it been, two whole nights? You’ve been all around town already, haven’t you.” Lester sat down and steadied himself as best as he could on a wooden stool near the eastern end of the bar, placing his helmet down on the next one to his right. “Hey, Milt … you know I’m mister popularity. I have to put in appearances all around town … I mean my public awaits and all that, you know?” A few moments went by, he belched, and then they both began to guffaw loudly. A few moments more, and Milt was actually dabbing at his eyes, crying from laughing, before he answered, “Sure, Les. Sounds a likely story. The usual?”

Lester rested his head in his left hand with his elbow on the top of the bar. “You know it.” Milt turned about and fetched a tankard, beginning to speak before he turned back to find the ale tap. “So how goes the revolution? It even made the paper this week.” Lester smirked evilly. “Not so good. For them, that is. They’ve been so disorganized recently that yesterday we found the place they’d been using as kind of a base of operations. Brought one of those little trebuchets that we have right up to it, I mean like a block away.” Lester gesticulated at Milt wildly with his big hands. “Fragged the place with a flaming boulder; you should have seen it! The way the whole thing went down, only four or five of ‘em escaped. Good deal, all in all.“

“Then how’d you get that wound there, if you didn’t even go in?” Milt pointed at the bandage on the side of Lester’s bulging, stony forehead. Lester threw a few coppers onto the bar; they spun about a few times, then settled. “Well, like I said, that was yesterday. Today, I had a totally different, er, disciplinary matter to take care of. One of the troops kept giving me a bit of lip, if you know what I mean.” Milt looked him square in the eye, leaning palms-down upon his bar. “Sure. You sure are living the life, Lester. Thing is, though, yer not gonna be young forever.  Might just want to stop making so many enemies. Just sayin’.” Lester wasn’t listening at that point. He took a hearty swig of his ale, leaving several droplets of it caught in his beard when he allowed the condensation-covered tankard to fall back to the bar. “Yeah, yeah. You tell me that once a week, old man.”

“And I always mean it. You can sleep it off upstairs tonight again.” Milt gave a sigh, the sound of the long-suffering. “And you picked a good night to come back, too. Looks like we’ve got a couple of live ones here.” Lester straightened back out and scratched the back of his scalp, his long, dark, greasy hair dangling over his eyes as he did. “Live ones? What’s that supposed to mean?” Milt walked back over and slammed down the mug recklessly with an audible clack. “I mean, turn around and look. Just when I thought I was going to be serving the undead for the rest of my life …” He looked off wistfully over Lester’s left shoulder; so Lester turned around to his left to follow the other man’s gaze and spied them out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, there they were at a table over in the southwest corner; two women, both almost supernaturally beautiful and wearing dark dresses. They sat almost contentedly, sipping their glasses of wine once every few minutes and talking amongst themselves quietly. Lester watched them, sipping his ale, until Sadine finally noticed him; and how could she not? Finally she made a little beckoning motion with her right hand, almost imperceptibly; he approached their table.

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