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“How did they find out so quickly?!”

News had spread across Pherae. The Imperial Church of the Preservation and Sanctity had sent a guard to Castle Pherae. Officially, they arrived to supplement security while the Pheraen knights were stationed in Etruria. To the budding librarian/novice adventurer, it seemed just a bit too coincidental. They arrived right after she left for her journey, after discovering the burnt copy of Ostia’s lineage.

After she discovered the name of the Emperor.

Paige was currently in a village not far from the castle. It was a familiar place: she and several others had helped save it from a bandit attack. Many of the people knew her face and welcomed her presence in the local tavern. Despite the warm welcome, she kept a low profile. Wrapped in her cloak, her presence was quickly forgotten in the evening rush for drinks.

She was fortunate to have many allies from the past few days, but they had all since moved on. As far as she knew, Shad and Wolfram were continuing towards Bern. Kalin was off searching for her brother. The merchants were probably long gone. Not even her friends in the castle could help her now. Paige was alone at a time she needed the most help. That was why she was here. Following Kalin’s advice, she was looking for a mercenary to hire as a bodyguard of sorts. Someone that could get her out of Pherae in one piece and (somehow) to safer environs.

It had to be quick though. If the Church was truly looking for her, they would be in the village in no time.
"You've had worse ideas."

This one thought rattled around in Shad's mind as he strolled back into town, wearing the same hooded cloak that wore last time he was here. "If the damned church didn't barge into Pharae so quickly, it wouldn't have to come to this." The young lord, his uncle, and his bodyguard were once united in Pharae, but after helping Paige one day, they were forced to scatter the next. As a mage with tons of precious texts in his possession, Wolfram left during the night, before the Church had time to settle in. In Shad's weakened state, he ordered Marcus to go without him to his sister's side in Bern. Marcus protested, but relented to his lord's command. Shad hid away for a day or two in his room until his limp went away and left as soon as he was able.

"Knew you'd come back." A voice called out to him, just off to his right. It was Alice again. It was getting a bit disconcerting with the frequency of their meetings. Never on his terms, just whenever she wants to appear, Alice is there. "Come to check up on the village?"

Shad looked away for a second before grinning abit. For someone who knew so much last time, it's surprising she hasn't guessed the motive this time. "Is there an idiot spouting about revisionist history in the square?" he joked. A pronounced shaking of the head from Alice gave him his answer. "Then my job is done."

"Checking up on Paige then?"

Shad's head turned almost immediately at that comment. "Wait. Paige is here? Right now?" He turned his head and looked at the dirt below him. "Why isn't she in Pharae looking for mercenaries? It would be almost impossible to find help here. Could her being here have something to do with the Church arriving in Pharae?" That's when it dawned on him. "The Church of the Preservation of Sanctity works for the Emperor and we just discovered his name. They may have even heard about the incident here, or they will soon. Shit, this is not what I need just now."

Alice saw Shad's eye's racing after that comment before she replied. Something must have happened, and he might be involved. "She's holed up in the tavern. It's the building with the slight singe from that last meteor. I saw her go in a while ago, but I haven't heard anything about her since."

"Thanks, Alice, I owe you one," Shad said as he took a couple of steps. He turned back to her and put his hand out. "Can I get my ring back?" He asked. She rolled her eyes and materialized Shad's signet ring and dropped it back in his hand. "Are we going to do this every time?" He asked rhetorically before running off to the tavern.

"Until you give it to me," Alice said under her breath as Shad disappeared into the village.
Damned persistent, aren't they? Ambrose thought, leaning against the dark corner of an alley in a small town in Pherae. His hand lingered on his sword's hilt beneath his cloak. It was night, and hopefully, no one related to the church would find him. Especially not in this tiny, unimportant place. Peering this way and that, and making sure to keep an eye out for Church-related persons. His eyes were covered in the shadow of his hood, and his face was wrapped in a scarf. Not that it was particularly chilly, but it kept him from being recognized.

He walked, slowly to keep any pursuers from getting suspicious, to the inn. He ambled in, peering around. No one important-looking. He sat in a corner table, one that was not completely occupied, and leaned his seat back against the wall, keeping an eye on the door.
Just as the merriment of the day’s end was getting underway, the air filled with the sound of armor. Villagers gasped as a dozen men clad in Imperial armor marched towards the town square. The last man quickly followed on horseback and stood in front of the rest of the party. People started gathering in the center of town to figure out what the commotion was about. None of the soldiers took off their helmets, not even the leader who addressed the townsfolk.

“Citizens of the Empire,” the leader started off. “Saint Elimine requests your aid! A blasphemer hides amongst you!”

Two of the soldiers began posting wanted posters on nearby buildings for all to see. Clearly, the artist took liberties in his caricature: the supposed blasphemer had a lion’s mane and a wicked hooked nose upon his weathered face.

“This man is responsible for the deaths of two of our own. Righteous men, they were. The death of a righteous man is punishable by death! It is your duty as citizens to report this man to us! Those who help bring justice shall be rewarded handsomely in gold!”

“Those not involved in the search should remain at home, for your safety.”

The crowd quickly dispersed to go to their homes, leaving the town to the soldiers to search through.

The message to shelter in place during the manhunt spread across town. The warning was enough to break the jolly mood of the tavern goers. Paige was initially confused as the building began to empty and talked to the bartender for details.

“Ay, miss. There’s a manhunt going on. Not to worry; it’s not like they’re after you or anything-”

Her worried look and cloaked appearance told the bartender otherwise.

“The fence in the back corner is still in need of mending,” the bartender finished, alerting Paige of a possible escape route. She quickly joined the exiting crowd, trying to act casual as she headed to the upper end of the village. Unfortunately, a soldier was patrolling around the road that led to her escape route. Judging from the wanted poster, they weren’t actively looking for her. Paige didn’t want to risk finding herself wrong, so she turned around to find an alternative.

That was when she ran into a familiar face.

“Shad?!- Chad!”

Paige had nearly run into Shad, but stopped short. Her head tilted to alert her firend of the soldier behind her. Fortunately, he wasn’t paying attention to their interaction.
As he ran through the village, he recalled never seeing the tavern Paige would be at. He considered asking someone where it was when he saw people heading to the square. That was the last thing Shad wanted to see. It had shades of the last time he was here. He sighed, grabbed a couple of rocks and went to confront the brigands that must be there. Before he tossed a rock at the brigands, he saw just who brought them all here.

No...Thats...An Imperial cavalry unit? What do they want? He thought, dropping his projectiles as he approached the crowd.

"--A blasphemer hides amongst you!”

Shad went wide-eyed at the statement. These guys work for the church and they might know he's there. He looked around and saw the boy from the other day. He crept over to him and tapped him on the shoulder. Before the boy looked and said something he placed a finger on his lips, signalling for him to be quiet. "Where is the tavern?" He whispered to the boy and he pointed him in the right direction. He took out a couple of gold coins and placed them in his hand as he made his escape.

He knew the general direction of the tavern but had to keep to the darkness, making sure he wasn't being followed. He needed to make sure that a Imperials weren't on to him so he took a longer route than he should have taken. He ran when he was able but suddenly saw someone familiar. He stopped right in his tracks as Paige looked right at him. She called his name and Wolfram's alias for him. That's when he saw the soldier farther down the road.

That's when Shad picked up another rock. He slowly approached, making sure to not make any significant noises. He noticed her wearing a cloak as well. "I'll explain later."
Paige was hoping Shad did not plan on antagonizing the soldiers with the rock he had picked up. She remained where she stood, watching as Shad sneaked towards the guard. Fortunately, said guard was preoccupied with personal matters.

"I've got to get that job in Ostia. Way better pay and none of these late nights..."
Shad moved as close as he could for the first part of his plan to work. He stretched his right arm a little bit and then threw the rock, over the guards head, to a part further down the street. The guard would have heard the rock hitting the ground no problem. Then phase two kicked into action. Shad ran towards the distracted guard. "Sir! Sir! I just saw him! He ran down that street over there!" He exclaimed, pointing towards the area his rock landed. His left hand went to his sheathed sword, obscured by his coat, as a back up plan. If the guard turned, but didn't run towards the noise, Shad was prepared to choke him out from behind. Please fall for it. Don't want to have to choke you out.
Ambrose scowled at the announcement, filing out with the last group. However, when he gave a last longing glance at what was supposed to be his night's rest, he saw another cloaked figure leave the place. The mercenary glanced this way and that, and decided to follow her from a respectable distance.

But, as his rotten luck would have it, a soldier was patrolling on the road the mystery figure was following. They saw it too, at which point she (undoubtedly a she, he could see now) turned around, and bumped into what appeared to be a friend. Ambrose rubbed his exhausted eyes. He hadn't even noticed the man.

Pulling his scarf up a little higher, he ambled over to them, trying his damnedest to keep out of sight.

"Pst!" he hissed softly. When they looked at him, he continued, "This the road out, by any chance?"
The sound of the rock hitting the street brought the soldier back into the real world. Before he could look around to find the sound’s origins, Shad got his attention. These townsfolk sure were kind, helping him out with the search.

“Hey thanks,” the soldier nodded. “But get inside! There’s a killer on the loose!” He proceeded to walk down the darkened road, fully expected the fierce murderer to jump out of the shadows.

While the soldier went to investigate the adjacent street, Paige was startled to hear another voice behind her. She turned to see yet another person hiding his face. Perhaps they weren’t the only ones thinking they were in trouble. Then again, maybe this was the guy the soldiers were looking for. Paige was a bit hesitant in giving him a way out, particularly if he was the “killer”. In the end, she too came here looking for assistance while potentially on the run from the empire. Who was she to judge him without evidence?

“Yes, it’s up ahead,” she replied to Ambrose. “We’re headed there ourselves-”

The next thing they heard was the shrill blow of a horn. Evidently, nerves got the best of the soldier: he decided to call for backup. What followed was the galloping of a horse in the distance. The sound became increasingly loud and was followed by footsteps. Those three were the only people on the street that weren’t part of the imperial unit. They would no doubt be questioned once the soldiers arrived. Paige was not so sure of her skills as a liar; she did not want to find out here.

“Oh no, they’re coming,” Paige said frantically. She quickly looked around for an escape route. Her eyes darted towards a wine cellar adjacent to the tavern they had exited.

“There,” she said to the others, running towards the cellar. Her hopes of a hideout were quickly dashed when she saw the lock on the door.

The galloping grew louder; the soldiers were close…
"Will do sir."

Shad headed back towards Paige and was greeted by the sight of another person obscuring their face. Either this is the guy they are looking for or he thinks he is as well. He had the physique to potentially kill some people, but Shad was shrimpy in comparison and has racked up his share of kills since leaving Ostia years ago. Hell, Marcus looks more like like a brigand than a loyal, stalwart knight due to his various scars. Worse come to worse, the pair should be able to outrun him if the knights chase them.

His head jerked back when the horn blew. "Should've knocked him out," he regretted. He heard the cavalry charging their way to where the soldier went. But considering they enforced a curfew...they'd have some explaining to do. Thankfully Paige had some quick thinking and led them to the cellar door.

He smirked a bit when he saw the lock. "Thanks Cassie," he muttered under his breath as he reached into a pocket in his coat. He took out a couple of tools and went to work. He put the tension wrench in, followed by the pick and tried to fish around the keyhole for just right spot. He heard the pin move and turned wrench and unlocked it. He put the tools back into his coat and took the lock for the mean time. He opened the door and motioned for them to get inside before he did the same.

((I'm assuming it was a pad lock. Just let me know if I assumed incorrectly.))
Paige quickly entered once the door was open. The cellar was quite cool compared to the outside air. The walls were lined with shelves holding various wines and spirits. A couple of large crates sat in the middle of the room, making for a set of makeshift seats. Once the door closed however, all the details of the room disappeared. Only the torchlight that managed to seep inside provided an outline of the room's contents.

Paige fumbled around a bit until she found a crate to sit upon. Once there, she waited for her eyes to adjust before looking around for Shad and their guest.

"It looks like we'll be spending the night here," Paige said to the others. "How did I end up on the Imperial's wanted list..."

Paige of course knew why. Yet she tried to live a quiet life, avoid taking active roles in the unrest, and continued life as a librarian. All she did was research what was happening in the world. Now she was being hunted...or was she? She turned to the stranger, or tried to given what little light they had.

"You sir," Paige asked Ambrose, "What reasons do you have being down here with us?"
Ambrose knelt on the steps by the angled double door. "Shh...," he said in a whisper to Paige. "They're here." As the mercenary peered out crack between the doors, he could discern at least five soldiers, three... no, four of which carried lit torches. The soldier they'd konked out had come to, and was being questioned. Five or ten minutes of tense silence carried through the cellar as the muffled voices of the soldiers trickled through the doors. Ambrose didn't know how long it was, but eventually the group passed down the road, seemingly thinking that they'd gone and left the way they'd been instructed by the innkeeper.

Feeling his way deeper into the cellar, the mercenary felt a crate that he might be able to use to sit on. He sat down on the corner of it, then replied in a hoarse whisper, "I'm afraid I'm the reason you're here. There was a small uprising in a church halfway across Lycia, and during it, I killed a man and maimed another while I was inside a cathedral. I thought nothing of it, but I forgot who I was dealing with. Naturally, the Church wants a heretic like me dealt with as cruelly and publicly as possible. As soon as they got my location, they began hunting me. Doesn't help that I've been gathering dissidents to become a sort of assassin's guild."
The tense silence caused by the passing soldiers was a bit unnerving. Shad found himself very concerned about Paige during this situation. This kind of stuff he was used to since the occupation of Etruria. Granted, he was better off than most at first, but after leaving the protection of his keep, this had become commonplace. This was a new experience for the librarian from Pharae.

When the soldiers left, their companion finally answered Paige's question. He apparently killed members of the Church. "Don't take all the credit," Shad whispered back as he found a support to lean against. "I'll give you credit for leading them here, but the Empire's had it out for me since before it's Etrurian campaign. I wasn't exactly a help during the trade talks due to my lack of qualification. Plus there's the fact I'm a noble of a 'annexed' nation and a novice magic user." He paused after revealing all of that information.

"I don't think that has anything to do with why your here, though. Perhaps Wolfram's theory was correct and that's why the Church showed up right after you left Pharae," He tried to rationalize. "They must have discovered the book wasn't completely destroyed in that fire...and who else would save it but you?"
Paige had never had to hide from law enforcement; hiding from people that might do her harm was a completely new experience. That's when it truly hit her: she was a criminal. On one side was a murderer, the other a fugitive. As far as she knew, the Empire would treat her the same and punish just as severely.

After the soldiers had cleared out, the stranger began casually mentioning his crimes. Killing, maiming, assassin guilds. Those would certainly put anyone on a wanted list. Yet Shad countered by claiming that the Church must have known they had found something in that burnt book.

"I would agree that it's more than a coincidence," Paige replied to Shad. "They just don't know what I found. I tore the page out before I left. I still have it with me. I figured it might prove useful at some point, but I may have made things worse for myself."

Though her voice was calm, Paige's hands were shaking over how things had unraveled. She kept them hidden in the dark as she turned to the stranger.

"Tell me," Paige asked Ambrose. "What kind of name is Coran? I know this sounds off topic, but I assure you it is important. It is why I am down here with you."
"If anything, you two'd be bonuses," Ambrose replied to the etrurian. "As I said, this group is after me. I'm guessing you didn't see the wanted posters they're putting up." Coran... What kind of name is that? Why bother to bring it up? He turned to Paige. "I've no idea what kind of name 'Coran' is. This is the first I've heard of that one. I've heard of 'Cora' before, with different variations on the spelling, and a couple of times I've heard of 'Corwin,' but never that one. Why? And what's this about a book?"
Shad chuckled a bit at the man's first reply. He had that right. Imagine, they catch their killer and catch the pair of them as well. With them all in one place, that's three birds caught with one net. When he mentioned the posters, though, Shad turned his head away. He scratched the back of his head, "When I heard the word 'blasphemer', I...didn't stay to see the posters. I thought that applied to me, so I ran."

"As for Coran...and the book. The book is pretty straight forward. Its about a little known noble family, you might have heard of them. It details every recorded member of the Ostian royal family. Well, this book was a bit of uh...hot topic," Shad began explaining. "We were looking for it, but someone found it first. They wanted to take it check it out of the Castle Pharae library in a more permanent sense. But the book was saved, but was a little worse for wear. The name Coran was what we found to be the name of Ostia's current ruler. The Emperor."

He felt a bit like Wolfram there with that the amount of speaking. Since their companion elaborated as to why they are there, Shad figured he'd share a bit too. "Name's Shadrach by the way. Feel free to call me Shad though. Do you have a name or alias you want to share?"
Paige listened as Shad explained their situation with far too many puns she deemed appropriate given their situation. Still she nodded in agreement.

"My name is Paige. I worked as a librarian in Castle Pherae. I was trying to write a book on the history of the Empire, seeing that people know so little about it. The only information I could find was within a book on the Ostian Royal Family. The author had recently updated it with current events...shortly before passing away. The copy in the castle was taken and burned, yet I was able to find a page."

The librarian slowly pulled out a page she tore from the book. Though the damage obscured most of the writing, it was the few sentence fragments that would guide her journey.

"Just a few sentence fragments, but they reveal something. 'As of this writing…new era for Lycia…Emperor...Coran.' I don't know if it's a first or last name, but it's a start. I was hoping to travel to other towns to see if I can find another copy. But with the church posting forces at the castle and the situation here, I don't know if I'll get far without help."
"Hm. Interesting," Ambrose replied, taking in the information. "Now we have a name for the enemy. That's good. Proves he's naught more than a man." He pulled a pipe out of his cloak, stuffed a bit of tobacco in it, stuck it in his mouth. "Speaking of names, I'm Ambrose, but I prefer being called after my middle name, 'Fred.' 'Ambrose' is too easy to turn into a mockery. I was a mercenary, until recently. Does either of you have a light?"
"Count me in," Shad said without thinking. Paige needed help, Shad wasn't planning on traveling alone in Lycia, win-win as far as he was concerned. He wasn't planning to at first, in fact he was the one who suggested Paige find help in the first place. But the church and him not being at 100% threw a wrench into things.

Shad held back some nervous laughter after seeing Ambrose take out a pipe. A pipe was what was used to burn that book. Wolfram's last words to Paige had to do with a pipe, so it does raise a concern. This could be a set-up. H-he could be an Imperial agent, and we just admitted our crimes to him! He looked to Paige was a bit of a concerned look before looking back at Ambrose.

"Fred seems some much more mundane than Ambrose. It also seems like a weird middle name. Is that short for something?" Shad questioned, trying maintain his cool. He looked around and found a sconce on a wall. He noticed some others around as well, but fished around for one furthest from the cellar door. He pulled out his 'journal' and lit the torch with the spell. He took out a small piece of paper, rolled it up and lit the end on the torch. He walked over to Ambrose and extended his arm out to him. "That should work."
Paige turned to Shad just as he turned to her. She did remember Wolfram's warning, but at the same time, the pipe was left at the castle. Would the bookburner even have a pipe any more? She preferred to give Fred the benefit of the doubt; smoking wasn't exactly niche.

As Fred was lighting up, Paige delved further into their potential ally.

"So Fred, what happened recently?" she asked. He mentioned he was previously a mercenary. He also said he was starting an assassin's guild. There was a story on how he got from A and B. But did she really want to know?
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