Camilla Draymarch has been a writer since first grade when she began writing and illustrating a book of stories about Rapunzel and her adventures. Though she wasn’t born in Texas, she came as soon as she could and has been living in Buda for seven years now. As a life-long lover of the library, she has won awards in the youth reading program for numbers of minutes read.
Camilla Draymarch has a Lulu account and is slowly attempting to break into the publishing world. Her short story, Carnelian’s Hunt, ties into a larger universe that she is expanding as we speak with such titles as the currently published Last Man Standing: The Formation of Ceol, and the upcoming novel Seeker. She can be found on Twitter @CDraymarch and on Patreon.
Camilla Draymarch would like to state that she would never have managed any of her successes without her muse, Sylvester, or the support of her grandfather.
Carnelian's Hunt by Camilla Draymarch
Quinn Wang rushed through the deep forest as if a demon was on his tail. For relentless power and determination, he might have been right. A woman stalked him through Ishteardiil and across the Colonial Empire. It seemed as if she had been chasing him all through Combuttia.
Quinn spotted the woman for the first time in Kirell, attempting to carry out a contract on a member of the Ironwood Company: The ruthless Guildmaster, Micheal Krauss. It had been the perfect time to strike. The Ironwood Academy had been undergoing its graduation ceremonies and strangers and relatives had poured in to witness the duels that would define who graduated and who would be joining the Company as enlisted men.
Having crept in with the crowd and slipping off to find a nook, Quinn had been in a perfect location to take a shot at the Guildmaster when his son had come up to face his opponent. The Guildmaster was sitting on an elevated platform with six other, premier members of the Company, one of which was Sil’ron Zem. A famous adventurer and the reigning Grand Champion of the Imperial City Arena.
Quinn lifted the bow and sighted down along the shaft. Drawing it back, he prepared to take a shot, safe in the knowledge that he was entirely invisible behind his boxes.
Suddenly, there was a disturbance in the crowd. A blonde woman wearing a long-coat and leathers in the style of Beikirk’s Royal Guard leapt to her feet. “HEY! HEY, QUINN! HEY!” She screamed above the crowd. Quinn was so startled that he let his arrow fly, above his target. While all eyes turned to the woman, jumping up and down and waving her arms as if she was having a fit, Quinn slid down behind his boxes and began creeping away, frightened by the sudden calling of his name and the misplaced arrow. Someone was bound to find it and his contract was going to be blown.
If he had kept his head up a little longer, he would have noticed the Guildmaster’s son falling to the planks, outside of the circle that had been drawn as a boundary. He might also have seen Sil’ron Zem leaning down to pick something up from behind her chair and stowing it away in her quiver.
Naturally, there was no reason to stick around the Academy. Quinn made a retreat into Kirell to reconsider and watch to see what would happen next.
Meanwhile, Sil’ron Zem sidled up to the blonde woman as she stood in the stables, brushing a black horse larger than any of the others in the stable. “So… What was that all about, Carnelian?”
“You know me, Sil’ron. I have a thing about assassins: I foil them.” Carnelian turned to face Sil’ron Zem. Her eyes were a focused blue merging into green. “But that’s another story. I need a favor.”
“A favor? What kind of favor?” Sil’ron Zem leaned on a stall door. The Runemder’s bright red hair was like a beacon in the dark stable and her eyes like glowing coals beneath. Though it seemed as if she should stand out, even in the darkest darkness, most found it difficult to look directly at her, though Carnelian was managing.
“The kind of favor you like: The kind that earns you some gold.” Carnelian tossed a jingling purse to the adventurer.
“I’m listening.” Sil’ron weighed the purse in her hand. “I’m listening intently.”
“I need to borrow your compass. I need to track someone down.” Carnelian replied, picking up her saddle and tossing it up over her stallion’s back.
“Ah. And your friends in… interesting places can’t help you?” Sil’ron Zem referred to Carnelian’s supernatural ally and the source of the Minister’s rather unique powers.
“Alaric is being unusually reticent and unhelpful, though what else is new?” Carnelian snorted.
Sil’ron Zem nodded slowly. Minister Carnelian had been a childhood friend, though the Runemder’s nature was to wander and Ishteardiil her home. They had met in rather… unique circumstances. Two princesses not destined to rule, nor embodied with the talents for it. They had been kindred spirits from the start, when Sil’ron Zem was sent to Beikirk to “Get this wandering out of your system and a proper education.” Of course, Carnelian’s… unpredictable nature made things difficult occasionally, but never so much that they lost their friendship altogether. Especially now that Carnelian had calmed to a degree. “I see. So, you need my compass. You know, it doesn’t always work the way we want it to.”
“No, but it works, and I need something that can at least keep me on the right track.” Carnelian replied. Cinching the saddle into place, she faced her old friend. “Come on, Sil’ron. I know we didn’t part on the best terms last time, but you owe me one and I’ll get you your compass back before I return to Beikirk.”
“I’ll give it to you on one condition.” Sil’ron began unlatching the straps that held the compass onto her wrist, where she could easily use it.
“Name it.” Carnelian grinned, eyes melding into green.
Sil’ron Zem wiped the smirk right off of the Minister’s face with her question. “Who’s little prince Ceol to you?”
Carnelian snarled, eyes going to blue at once, and her answer was ground out between her clenched teeth.
Quinn made it safely away from the Ironwood Academy and back to Kirell, a small city, but bustling, especially with the graduation going on. With his ears open, he sat at a table in a public house and drank from a mug of watered-down ale. Surprisingly, there were no whispers about an attempted assassination, though there was plenty of gossip about the Guildmaster failing his own son from the Ironwood Academy. Quinn was almost offended that no one had taken even passing notice of his attempt.
Then, Quinn looked up and spotted the blonde woman again. She must have come in while his back was turned and was at the bar, listening to Quinn’s landlady gabbling on about something or other. Quinn stiffened slightly, but forced himself to relax. It was a coincidence, nothing more. These things happen in the grand scheme of life.
However, just because these things happened did not mean Quinn was comfortable with it happening here and now, just after this woman had shouted his name and ruined his shot. He forced himself to finish his watered ale and to set a heavy coin on the table beside the mug before he got to his feet and went upstairs. Rooming on the third floor, just below the roof, had its advantages. He gathered up his backpack, always kept together and ready to run if necessary, and opened the window. With a leap, he was on a windowsill on the building opposite. Reaching with care, he gripped the edge of the roof and pulled himself up onto it. Climbing the shingles, he reached the ridgepole and got to his feet. Balanced, he ran along the ridgepole and towards the next building.
There was a call behind him and he turned to find that the blonde woman- sans the long coat- was following him. Not on the ground, as another might, but right up onto the roofs. Well, that clinched it for the Assassin. This was a huntress.
Quin began racing and leaping away across the roofs in earnest. His sharp eyes were peeled for any kind of advantage that he could use. Dropping down to a single-floor house, he disappeared from the woman’s view and counted down the seconds before she would find him again while racing into the market.
Kirell’s busy market, full of trade goods and farmed goods alike, was a perfect place to hide. Deliberately, Quinn overturned a weaver’s cart and bent down at once to help the young girl manning it to gather up the spilled textiles, acting as if it was all a terrible accident.
The woman moved out into the market and walked right past him towards the stables. After she had disappeared, Quinn let out a breath of relief. Standing, he trailed his way through the market and towards the stables as well. He needed to pick up his horse and get out of Kirell before the woman tracked him down again.
Quinn had a bolthole for such emergencies. Several of them, in fact. As an assassin, he had to be paranoid and to take care. There was a ruin of a fortress about fifty miles from Kirell that he had taken for his own and kept well-supplied. It had once been called Point Helleda, for the village that had lain below it, but the village and the tower had been abandoned as Astorian pressed the Colonial Empire out over all of Combuttia and beyond. It had served its purpose and been abandoned.
Quinn had chosen the place because it had a heavy, iron door with an unbreakable, unpickable lock: A Morpheus and Bradlow lock.
Morpheus and Bradlow had been lock makers before the Empire had formed. Together, they had developed an unbreakable lock with intertwined tumblers and gears that would break normal lockpicks. Seemingly out of nowhere- though it was later proved that he came from Beikirk, Morpheus had arrived in Combuttia. Even after Morpheus’s death and the loss of the plans for the lock, they were kept much the same way any family heirloom would be and installed into new doors when necessary.
It was surprising that the door’s Thief Ward- as they were colloquially known- had not been removed and installed in another door. It was a valuable piece of equipment to simply abandon. More surprising, he had been able to locate a key for it. Well, he had located several keys in the ancient fortress, but with trial and error, he had found the Morpheus key.
The woman, whoever she was, would not be able to follow him into Point Helleda. Not through a Morpheus lock in a door made of iron, five inches thick. Unless, and this was a very large unless, she had one of three skeleton keys that Bradlow had engineered before Morpheus left for Combuttia. Three skeleton keys, in a continent that spanned almost a hundred thousand miles from east to west, as well as an archipelago of almost four thousand islands of varying sizes, and who knew how large and deep the sea or where it might lead, was a gamble he was willing to take.
Fate could be interesting, but it wasn’t often that interesting.
Carnelian tapped the compass, trying to get the arrows that marked her target to coalesce. “Well, that’s just grand.” Of course, Sil’ron Zem had warned her that the compass was unreliable and Carnelian had been foolish to hope that it would be a magical solution to her problem, but she could afford the luxury of a frustrated snarl down at the glass face.
“Alaric, if you’re going to do something at all to help me, now would be the time.” Carnelian muttered, sighing and patting Carrack’s neck as she saddled him up and mounted.
With a resigned shake of her wrist, she checked the compass one last time and stopped. A long, pointed shadow from a tower behind her had fallen over the compass. An oddity, as she was on the North side of town and facing into the sunlight. In other words, the shadow had reversed itself to fall specifically over the compass, giving her a clear heading.
“All right. Thanks, Alaric.” Carnelian took up the reins, pointed Carrack in the direction the arrow pointed, and snapped the leather straps. “Hah!”
The main Island of Beikirk was smaller than the Imperial City alone. Carnelian hated the slogging days of riding that seemed to make up her travels in Combuttia. She could take Carrack and ride from one end of Beikirk to the other in less than twelve hours, assuming they didn’t have to escort anyone. Alaric’s gift was a miracle worker for the Minister.
Still, even with his abilities, Carrack could not make their journey any faster than he already was. Thus, while the shadows pointed them onwards, up through the mountains above Kirell and towards the northern province of Norsecro, they had to ride, a shadow of horse and rider, moving over the land through the dark gaps where the sun could not reach.
It was three days before they reached the unrecognizable ruins of Sheasgull. Carnelian dismounted from her shade of a horse and patted its neck. The ruin was set above the Heartland Valley, named for its shape, which was a stylized heart with one flattened side. Carrack looked about them and shook his mane, bowing his head to the weeds to crop at them. He never had needed a tie-down and he did not need it now.
Carnelian patted her mount’s neck as she approached the ruin. Checking her compass, she found that the shadow of a wheeling hawk above her still pointed onwards, towards the ruined fortress. “All right, Alaric. I’m trusting you. This better not be some kind of joke.”
The ruin’s keep was still standing, with rooms open to the elements through broken walls and missing roofs. Moving softly and with sharp eyes peeled for any sign of movement, Carnelian searched for her quarry. As soon as she entered a room, she went into a three-phase sweep that she had trained into her agents and herself with great care. The first phase was a cursory scan, looking for anything alive or dangerous. The second phase was a careful examination of anything large enough to hide behind or mount an ambush from. The third phase was a detailed examination looking for clues as to whether anyone was currently inhabiting the space and when they would be back if they were.
So far, each triple sweep had yielded the same result for each room: A big, fat nothing. No human had inhabited this ruin since it was abandoned. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. There had been a recent fire pit in the shelter of a crumbling wall, but it was “recent” with the meaning “less than a week” not recent as in a matter of hours or the past day. Carnelian had considered that Alaric was leading her to a stop-off, a place where Quinn had been and would return, but the longer she spent in this place, the more certain she was that this was simply an abandoned fort, its dungeons and vaults long collapsed and filled in by the earth.
In other words, Alaric had lead her straight to a dead end.
The Minister of Intelligence felt inclined to an entirely unladylike huff and a sprawling flop down onto the edge of one of the more solid areas of floor to stared out at the sun and sulk. While her sisters would be horrified at her snit- “a princess, much less a minister, does not have TIME to be in a sulk”- Carnelian took a triumphant sort of pleasure in just flopping down on top of a derelict iron chest and thinking of how awful this whole search was for a long few minutes. Idly, she picked up her wrist and checked the compass again to see if the shadow arrow was still there.
Blinking, Carnelian studied the shadow. It was spinning, cast by a wheeling hawk above her. She leaned to the right and the arrow pointed left. She leaned to the left and it pointed right. With a slow tilt of her head, she turned her eyes to the chest she was sitting on. “Is this it?”
The chest was rusting and decaying away. It was easy to wedge it open with her sword and pry up the lid. Inside, she found a commander’s decayed and ruined felt cloak. Wrapped up in a corner of the stained cloak, a small metal key fell to the stone with a soft clink. With hesitant fingers, Carnelian reached down and picked it up: A Morpheus and Bradlow Skeleton Key. One of three known to be in existence.
Carnelian collapsed into a criss-cross position. “You know, if you would talk to me occasionally, explain yourself, that would be nice.”
The shadows of the ruin stretched and reformed into a tall, thin man seemingly made of darkness itself, but for his pale skin. Pale as one who had been cut open and bled out. “But if I did that, what would you learn?”
“You take this whole eternal teacher thing too seriously.” Carnelian glared at him with hooded eyes, flashing a deep blue.
“But it is my role.” Alaric, Prince of Shadows, flowed closer to the Exception and blew out a breath of icy air over her. “I am the guardian and guide of human growth. If I made everything easy for you, you wouldn’t grow.”
“Yes, yes, as you’ve said a million times before.” Carnelian dismissed the statement. “And will say a million times again.”
Alaric folded his arms. “Time and again, I prove right in my actions. In disclosing or not disclosing what I will, I guide you down the correct paths. And yet you continually kick against me and question whether I have your best interests at heart.”
“I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t question.” Carnelian’s eyes briefly flashed to an amused silver-green.
Alaric smiled softly. “No, you would not.”
Silence fell between them and they seemed to become still as the stones around them. Carnelian’s eyes slowly shifted to a color between colors and blinked lazily. There was a peaceful quality to Alaric’s presence, though most found him unnerving.
Alaric traced his icy fingers over her side-braid. “You should move on. I brought you here to find the Skeleton Key, but you haven’t yet reached the end of your journey.”
“I know.” Carnelian raised the compass, tapping it. “Will this guide me truly now?”
“I will bring you to your destination without further delay, I promise. Call your noble dragonbred steed and be on your way.” Alaric responded, his feet and legs beginning to dissolve again.
Carnelian chuckled and whistled sharply, standing up and walking to the edge of the crumbling wall. Carrack trotted up below her and cast his dark eyes upwards with a questioning whicker. After a moment to judge the distance, Carnelian stepped off of the wall and landed in the saddle, catching her fall with her hands before settling into place. “All right, Carrack. We have what we need, let’s catch ourselves an assassin.”
Carrack tossed his mane and whinnied. With a lunge, he bounded off down the mountainside, hopping from shadow to shadow as they had going up. Carnelian turned her wrist and checked the compass. A red arrow had appeared, pointed towards the east and south. They had a heading.
Quinn hated sitting still, especially with a contract still open. He still had to kill the Guildmaster and the blonde woman made him more nervous than she had a right to.
Polishing his dagger, Quinn checked his reflection, saw the almost unhealthy pallor that marked an assassin. The only paler people were the Necromancers who spent their days underground in crypts and caverns. Standing, he returned the long, curved weapon to its case and surveyed his little hideaway. It was carefully arranged to make chase difficult and to herd pursuers around blocks such as benches, tables, and crates in the longest possible route. Of course, if they had assassin training, it would be simple to get over them, but if a knight in armor entered his hideaway, they would have to chase him around in loops and he could easily gather armor-piercing arrows and a bow and fill the man with them.
It was clear. He needed to return to the Ironwood Academy and finish off the Guildmaster. If the blonde woman appeared, he would dispose of her as well and he would not be surprised again.
A scraping sound of metal on limestone echoed through Quinn’s lair. His head jerked up as he realized that the Morpheus door was opening, easily and without being forced. With a thrill, his thoughts latched onto the blonde woman and how she had haunted him. He threw out a hand and grabbed his bow and three deadly arrows, nocking the first and aiming for the entry to the room. She would come. He would kill her. It would be over.
He would sleep well.
Quinn’s hand was steady in spite of his terror. His lips were firm and he was ready.
The blonde woman slid into view and Quinn fired. There was no contest. The shaft flew truly, aimed for one of her sparkling eyes, but when it reached its mark, she wasn’t there. She shifted forwards towards one of Quinn’s artfully placed tables and vanished. In the next moment, a cold blade laid against Quinn’s jugular. “Put down the bow.”
“What are you?” Quinn hissed.
“My name is Carnelian. I am the Minister of Intelligence for Empress Kommissar of Beikirk.” Carnelian flashed a grin full of white teeth like a bolt of lightning. “And I require your services.”
Quinn grimaced. “It doesn’t seem as if I have a choice.”
Checkmate. “No, you don’t. Now, I am going to speak, and you are going to listen… very carefully.”