James Davis: Circle of Skulls

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James Davis Circle of Skulls
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    Circle of Skulls
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James P. Davis

Circle of Skulls



Dason stood at the corner of Diamond Street, knees slightly bent, one arm held at his back, the other resting lightly upon the pommel of a well-notched rapier. He scanned the wide avenue, the very picture of a steady soldier at the forefront of danger. At length, he peered over his shoulder with a grin, raising a sly eyebrow to the young woman waiting several paces behind him. She returned his grin from over crossed arms.

A slight breeze sent snow swirling through the streets, gusting through the night's shadows and dancing in the yellow-orange glow of the street lamps. The days were getting colder, and many inhabitants of Sea Ward had already become scarce after sundown, leaving the chillier evenings to those with the hot blood of youth.

Clearing his throat, Dason straightened and waved the woman forward with a dramatic bow. He didn't have to see her face to know she would be smiling broadly and stifling a laugh at his heroic antics, placing a graceful hand over her mouth to hide the expression lest she encourage him to greater shows of bravado.

"Milady," he intoned deeply as she passed, unfolding his tall frame. "The way is clear."

"Indeed, young Master Dason," she replied with no small amount of humor as an older woman waddled toward them, burdened by a heavy sack thrown over her shoulder. "Clear as market at highsun, would you say?"

Dason smiled sheepishly as they turned up the street, making way for the old woman who seemed in a bit of a hurry, unlike him and Alma, who'd made the journey from North Ward last far longer than perhaps it should have. He brushed a few flakes of snow from his shoulder and fell into step beside Alma, straightening his back and attempting to appear more important next to his noble charge. Though he had dressed well for the evening, he was no match for the Lady Marson, a vision in silver-embroidered white, a soft cloak of fine fur resting across her shoulders and folded with her arms against the evening's chill.

"I daresay that I judged the way clear of danger, fair lady, not inhabitation," he said, smiling and nodding to the old woman as she passed, though his smile faded a bit at the manic look in the woman's eye, quick breaths steaming from beneath her piled-high scarf. Narrowing his eyes, he studied the lane a bit more closely, careful not to alarm Alma unnecessarily, but his jesting caution put aside for the moment.

"Ah, I see, Master Dason," she said and patted his hand gently, her touch nearly derailing his attempt to find what might have alarmed the old woman so. Little shocks traveled up his arm from where Alma's fingertips had brushed against his wrist. He nodded sagely, speechless as he focused and listened for any disturbance. Though Sea Ward was relatively quiet at night and usually well patrolled by the Watch, he hadn't seen a single patrol since they'd crossed into the ward three blocks back. Alma had attended a gathering at the Raventree Manor and Dason insisted she have an escort to and from her outings among the other nobles and wealthy families of Waterdeep. Even on nights she spent alone, he would engineer some excuse to come calling.

Alma never questioned his devotion to the task, enjoying the company of a childhood friend, though he was neither a noble nor wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. As they'd matured such differences rarely mattered, the fine line between friendship and something more blurring each time they were together. She had sought out his company more frequently in the past few tendays, the unexplained disappearance of her parents leaving her alone in a large home with naught but the remaining servants to see to her well-being.

"Shall we take the long way 'round again tonight?" Alma asked, breaking his concentration, but not before he spotted what appeared to be movement in the shadows of the next intersection, clinging close to the high walls.

"Not tonight, I'm afraid. I…" Dason paused, still not wishing to alarm her and unsure of his own growing sense of unease. "I must be awake early on the morrow. Your uncle has promised me a tour of the Westwall prior to my training with the Watch."

"Ah, it would be just like Allek to ruin a perfectly good evening," she replied.

"Mayhap, but he worries about you, as do I. Has there been any news of your parents?" Dason asked, spying glittering pinpoints of light among the trees near Ivory Street ahead. Swiftly he turned Alma's elbow to the western side of the street and cast a quick glance south, still hoping to catch sight of Watch lanterns approaching or passing through. Though he was handy with a blade, there was no reason to risk a confrontation if help were nearby.

"Allek doesn't say much really: 'They're doing all they can.' 'I'll be the first to know.' But I can't help wondering if he knows more, if perhaps he's protecting me from something?" Alma's voice lowered in thought. Dason knew the subject was difficult for her, but she'd not spoken at all the first few days after they'd gone missing, terrified of what might have happened.

Dason eyed the well-lit entrance to an alley along the south wall of the Saerfynn Manor and directed them toward it. The figures among the shadows of the east wall were unmoving but surely watching as he and Alma evaded them. He gripped his sword tightly, leading Alma ahead of him and wishing he had eyes in the back of his head.

"Rorden Allek is a keen-minded man. If anyone can find your parents, it's him," Dason replied and glanced back to see if they'd been followed. The alley closed around them and the evening's mist seemed thicker between one street lamp and the next. Dason held Alma's elbow a little tighter, drawing her close and no longer hiding his concern as he made out the shape of a figure leaning against a darkened wall.

"I know this place, Dason. I've heard stories-" Alma stopped, noticing the figure as well and gasping as it shuffled from its place and into a patch of light. Unwashed hair hung in thin strands around the man's unshaven face, wild, bright eyes peering at them from beneath a bushy brow. Dason angled them away from the wretch, the stench of the transient's torn, unwashed robes particularly sharp and pungent. One unsteady step set him leaning closer toward them, and Dason braced himself, drawing half a hand of his blade from its sheath.

"Move along, saer," he said forcefully, affecting his best version of the typical Watch order to such interlopers in the wealthier neighborhoods of the city.

The man straightened and paused, raising an eyebrow at the couple then wordlessly scanning the area with a confused expression. Dason noted a strange symbol, faded and worn, on the man's left sleeve.

"Aye, young master," the man replied in a whispering, wheezing voice with a feral smile of yellowed teeth, his pale eyes flashing dully as he bent forward in a graceful, mocking bow. "I cry your pardon."

Dason relaxed only when the strange man had continued on several paces behind them, though he kept a white-knuckled grip on his rapier as he recognized the alley. Its far end opened onto Flint Street and the House of Wonder, a place of wizards that few save other magic-users ever visited, and in alley along its side, beneath the house's looming towers, ghosts were said to dwell.

'"Tis Pharra's Alley," Alma said breathlessly, her eyes wide with excitement.

"I am sorry," Dason said, "perhaps we should not have come this way."

"Nonsense," Alma replied, pulling him toward the House of Wonder with a mischievous grin. "No harm done and perhaps we shall spy a ghost or two."

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