Hunted by the Past - Part One
by John Wick
"If you're lucky, the past only haunts you.
If you're unlucky, it hunts you down."
- Berek's Proverbs
Prologue: Twenty-Seven Seconds Ago
Cowan sat as still as the shadows and just as silent. He wrapped the pommel of his sword with his tunic so it wouldn't reflect any light from the lanterns heading down the corridor toward him. He took a single long, deep breath and shut his eyes tight. Then, he opened them and let the breath go.
The torches came closer. They spilled light into the darkness, revealing tiny details of the room where he was hidden. A globe in the center of the chamber, surrounded by strange artifacts he did not recognize or understand. Of course, Margaretta would.
He shook his head, trying to free his mind from the memory of her. Not here, he told himself. Not now.
But the memory insisted. In the span of a moment, every second of the last few days flooded into his head like the light flooding into the room, slowly illuminating every detail with the fury of a storm, just in case he thought he could forget.
One Week Ago
His shoulders and arms ached and his fingers were sore. Even with the gloves, he was certain he tore off the callouses he earned yesterday. If he took off his gloves, he was also certain he'd find a few new ones.
"You're not concentrating, Tyro," the figure in the fencing mask and gear before him said.
"Yes, Dominie," Cowan replied.
"Then let's begin again. Take second position."
Cowan followed instructions and felt his body almost reflexively fall into stance.
"Very good," his Dominie said behind the mask. "Let's see how you move."
Swords and knives clashed, filling the hall with the sound of steel. Cowan retreated from his Dominie's attack, trying to keep up with the slashes, cuts and ripostes. He would fail, but the test was to see how long he could fight before his Dominie could gain a hit.
The blades before him danced quickly around his parries and thrusts, working their way closer to his heart. His footwork was good, he knew that much, but his riposte needed...
Cowan cursed under his breath. "Forgive me, Dominie."
She took off her mask and smiled. "You are forgiven, Tyro. Swearing like a sailor is a vice I think the Order can live with."
Cowan put the sword and knife in his left hand and slid the mask over his head with his right. "What am I doing wrong?"
"Nothing," she smiled. "You just need more practice. You know the moves, but you don't understand them yet."
"How much longer?"
She put her hand on his shoulder. "I think, Tyro, that you are the kind of man who would go out and hunt down patience."
Cowan nodded. "I think so, too."
The door to the practice hall opened and both of them turned. A man dressed in a black tunic bearing the Seal of the Order entered. Both of them shifted their stance, standing at attention.
The old man shrugged. "No, no. No formalities here." The two relaxed.
Cowan had seen this man before, but had never heard him speak. His voice was as old as he expected, but somehow sweet as well. He walked with a short limp in his left leg and now, as the man drew closer, he noticed a long, white scar on the man's neck, starting behind his left ear. His eyes were clear sky blue and his beard as thin and white as his hair.
"Senior Corbitt," she said. "What brings you here today?"
He shook her hand. "Wandering Adara." Cowan noticed the flash of something between them. "You're apprentice does well, I imagine."
She flashed a smile at Cowan. "He learns quickly for a Tyro."
Corbitt turned to him. "What say you, Poor Cowan? Any wisdom for an old man, today?"
Cowan shook his head, still trying to catch his breath from the lesson. "The only wisdom I know, Senior Corbitt, would be tainted by my foul mouthed sailor's tongue, I'm afraid."
Corbitt smiled. "Sailors have their wisdom. 'The Sea takes back her own,' eh?"
Cowan felt a smile grow on his lips and the old man noticed. "My grandfather was a fisherman, lad. We're not all rich spoiled brats here." He turned back to Adara. "But some of us still are."
"I still have two more hours with my Tyro, Senior," she said, a hint of amused anger in her voice. "Is there something you need?"
Corbitt nodded and turned from them. "Aye. Indeed." He paused for a moment, just long enough for Cowan to look at his Dominie. She was only a few fingers taller than him, strands of her black hair stuck to her face from the sweat. Her dark eyes watched the old man, but they flashed back to Cowan and he put his gaze back on the Senior Knight.
"An... unfortunate circumstance." He hesitated again. "I know your apprentice has not yet finished his training. He is not required."
"With all due respect, Senior Corbitt..." he began.
"... he knows you're right," Adara finished. Cowan gazed at her again, but this time her dark eyes glared at him.
"Do not contradict me, Tyro," she whispered. All he could do was nod.
"No," the old man shook his head. "You will need him. And he is ready. I've watched. I know."
"He is still..." she began.
"Do not contradict me, Tyro," he said, his voice just above a growl.
She lowered her head. "I am sorry, Dominie."
Suddenly, Cowan knew the connection he saw before.
Corbitt was silent for another moment. Then, he turned from them, speaking so softly, Cowan could barely hear him. "This is not a matter for the Order. It is a... personal matter."
They listened quietly.
"An old vendetta has come back to haunt me. Hurt me. I am too old. I... need your help."
Adara fell to one knee. Cowan followed suit quickly.
"I am and shall always be your servant, Dominie."
The old man turned, saw both of them at their knees and caught his breath. Cowan thought he saw a small tear in the old man's clear, blue eyes.
"Very well. This is what I ask you to do."
Five Days Ago
They spend the better part of the night riding their horses to death. Adara didn't speak the entire way. They finally stopped to camp just a few hours before sunrise. Cowan set up camp and prepared the food while Adara sat silently before the fire. When they were done eating, he rubbed down the horses' legs and groomed them.
"You have demonstrated great restraint, Tyro," she said, her features lit by the fire.
Cowan smiled. "You would tell me soon enough. You always do."
She almost laughed. "It's the reason I tolerate your impatience," she said. "I know the trait all too well." She motioned to a log sitting beside the fire. "Come here, and I will tell you."
He left the horses and put himself by the fire. It was warm. A bit too warm. He pushed back a little.
"Senior Corbitt was my Dominie. He trained me. Saved my life more times than even a Prophet could count, I'd wager."
Cowan nodded quietly and waited for her to continue.
"He was a powerful man when he was younger. The son of a Vodacce merchant prince. Heir to a fortune."
She paused. Cowan couldn't wait. "What happened?"
She poked the fire with a stick and kept her gaze on the flame. "The same thing that happens at the beginning of every tragedy. He fell in love."
Adara kicked a small twig into the fire. "He was arranged to marry one girl, but loved another. He told his father. That was his first mistake. He tried to run away. That was his second mistake. When his father found him, he refused to return. That mistake gave him the scar you were eyeing."
Cowan felt a cold chill go down his back. He pushed himself closer to the fire.
"He never showed up to the wedding. Instead, he joined the Order."
"But what about his love?" Cowan asked.
Adara shook her head. "When he ran away, when he earned that scar, she was with him. They took her away. He never saw her again."
They were both quiet for a moment. Then, she spoke again. "Just two days ago, he received a letter written in a young girl's hand." Cowan began to realize where the story was going. Adara saw the flash in his eyes and she nodded.
"Yes. It's his daughter."
Cowan had seen many things. As the son of a sailor, he saw men missing more limbs than they were able to keep. He'd seen illness and disease. He fell asleep on a hill once and saw the Sidhe court riding across the hills. The sight turned his eyes grey.
Having no relatives, he was raised by jennies until he was old enough to steal for himself. He'd lived most of his life in squalor until his father served on Berek's ship for one year and brought home enough treasure to buy his son a place in the Order of the Rose and Cross.
But here he was in Vodacce. Buildings taller than he ever imagined. A vast webwork of bridges where women in dresses as black as a nightmare walked high above the common women so far below.
The courtesans smiled at him as he passed them, and all he could do was smile back. Their lips and eyes were all that showed, but that was enough.
"Put your tongue back in your head before you trip on it and fall into the canal," Adara whispered.
"I'm sorry, Dominie."
"Don't be sorry, be respectful. I don't know what the rules are in Avalon, but looking too close here will get you in trouble."
They walked on for an hour. Finally, she stopped, looking up at the reaching structure. Cowan strained his neck trying to see the top. "It looks like building atop building atop building."
Adara nodded. "That's exactly what it is. And that's where our young lady is." She pointed upward. "At the very top."
Cowan shook his head. "How are we going to get up there? With rope?"
She smiled. "No. With cunning."
Twenty Minutes Ago
A knock on the door.
Five men looked up from their supper, all with suspicious eyes. One of them, a large ugly man named Liborio, grabbed a candle from the table and walked toward the door.
"Eh. Who's there?" he asked.
"Open the door, idiot," a foreign man's voice said from the other side.
Liborio slid aside the lock and peeked out. Standing there in the darkness was a young Avalon man. Standing beside him was a woman with dark eyes and dark hair. He couldn't make out anything else for the black veil across her face.
"Idiot, let me in. It is cold and I am hungry."
"You isn't comin' in here," Liborio said. "Nobody comes in here."
The foreigner flashed a Swordsman's pin. "I am here for the girl, dullard. Now step aside before I cut you in half and step through you."
Liborio shook his head. "Nah. Seniore Vestini didn't say nothin' about movin' the girl tonight."
"Change of plans," the foreigner said. "Rose and Cross Knights are in town."
That made the men at the table sit up and take notice.
Liborio shook his head again. "No movin'. Seniore Vestini..."
Suddenly, Liborio shook, shuddered and dropped his great mass to the floor. Before the men at the table could put down their forks, the foreigner and the witch had pistols in hand, each one pointed at a separate head.
"Gentlemen," the fate witch said through her veil. "I don't believe there will be any desert tonight."
With all five of them on the floor, tied together in a series of sailor's knots, Cowan looked up at Adara in the black dress and smiled. "Somehow,
it isn't very complimentary on you, Dominie."
"My mother thought so, too." She lifted the veil and looked at the stairs.
Cowan reached outside the front door and grabbed their weapons then shut it and locked it behind him. He handed Adara her sword belt and she strapped it across her waist. Then, she hiked up the skirt and tucked it under the belt.
Cowan spent only a moment gazing at the long legs that came from under that dress as she slipped her tall, black boots over them. "Really, Tyro," she said, smiling. "It looks as if patience isn't the only virtue you lack."
He saw her smile and dared his own. "Nor yourself, Dominie."
She stood and drew her sword and knife. "I lost my modesty a long time ago. Left it in a building not too far from here, in fact."
Cowan grabbed a candelabra from the table. "Another story?"
She nodded. "Another time." Then, she pointed to the stairway. "Shall we?"
carried the candelabra. Adara slid up the spiral stairway, her back against
the wall as they went. The building was quiet. Dead quiet.
The stairway kept curving upward, until finally, Adara stopped. She turned to look at Cowan. She shook her head three times.
He nodded that he understood.
A voice came from around the corner. He saw Adara's fists clench around the pommels of her weapons. Her legs tensed. She looked back at Cowan and looked at the candelabra. Her knife-hand turned and thrusted forward. Again, he nodded that he understood.
He moved forward passed his Dominie and head a chair scrape against the floor. Footsteps moved closer.
He moved fast, pushed forward, throwing the candelabra at the first thing he saw. The hot wax and flame fell into a man's face. He screamed.
Before he even knew it, his sword and knife were in his hands. Five more men charged him. He dodged the first one, parried the second, smashed the third in the face with the pommel of his sword, shoved his knife deep into the hip of the fourth, kicked backward at the fifth, swung about, slicing the first in the face, leapt up on the table in the center of the hallway, leapt backward and pinned the second one against the wall with his sword.
At the corner, Adara stood with her hands on her hips and a smile on her lips. "You've been practicing."
Cowan suddenly realized he needed to take a breath. He almost fell over, but caught himself on the table.
She pulled him back to his feet. "Very impressive," she said.
He smiled. "I had a great teacher."
For a moment, their eyes met. Then, she looked away. For two years he'd been looking at those eyes. For the first time, he saw them falter.
"Come now. We need to find Corbitt's daughter."
She pushed the table aside and moved down the corridor. "Grab that, Tyro" she said, pointing at the candle on the table.
Cowan watched her walk away, then grabbed the candle and followed his Dominie.
never thought just walking up stairs could be such a strain on his stamina.
Adara didn't seem to be effected by the climb.
Finally, another platform. They slowed to a halt. This time, she pulled two pistols from her belt. She looked back at him and her eyes said what needed to be said.
No more games. This is the Lion's Den. No room for mistakes.
He nodded and set down the candle. His own pistols were in his hands.
Cowan felt his muscles tensing, shivering under his skin. Adara's legs tensed again, ready to jump. Cowan clenched his teeth.
A moment more.
Across the dark room. No sound. No sign of movement.
The door at the far end. Shut tight. One of them on either side. Cowan caught a glimpse of the room as he moved. Pedestals. A globe in the center. Windows on the ceiling, letting the stars shine down their dim, silver light.
Adara made a movement.
She burst through the door. The sound of pistols throwing fire and lead. One went by Cowan's head. He threw himself to the right, spinning out of the firing arc.
A scream. A woman's scream.
He moved forward. Heard her voice call out.
He looked at the doorway and the light shining through. The light flickered. Faded. Died.
Her voice again. This time panicked.
Cowan looked at the dark doorway. Looked at the stairs they climbed up to this strange room. Looked at the windows up in the tall ceiling.
He jumped, bounded off a pedestal then the wall, and found a perch on the windowpane. And waited.
Just the shadows.
Continued in the Rose+Cross sourcebook