VIEW PLOT In through the towering, rainbow-hued glass windows spilled the amber evening sun. It shone from the polished sword hanging faithfully at the queen's hip and glowed like dull coals in the hammered gold of her breastplate. The waning light cut deep clefts of shadow in her tight and drawn face far too worn for a woman her age. The sun was setting on unresolved troubles that weighed more heavily on her than all the metals and jewels of her regalia combined. Her throne room, decked in crimson and gold, was empty. Queen Amilah slowly lowered herself down onto the throne and closed her eyes. The scouts had brought her the news earlier in the afternoon. All five caskets of the goddesses were poisoned. Scattering them across the worlds had done nothing to remove them from the influence of the darkness and the purification ritual had failed. Now the poisoned darkness in them was spreading to the worlds they rested in and they had used up the last of the sacred herb in the ritual. More would not grow for fifty years. Rather than purify the caskets the ritual had instead imbued scattered beings with the ability to, possibly, purify the caskets. The matter was, then, to find them and get them to perform their duties. And there were only a select few people she trusted to do that. Wordlessly Queen Amilah summoned a small white ball of light and sent it to retrieve Shola Rehau, a guard who had served under her father's reign and who now loyally served her. Beyond loyal Shola had proved to be capable and there weren't many Amilah would trust this mission to. The latest rescue, the Purifier Dante, was of questionable loyalty but immense skill. "Your highness?" came a soft voice and Shola emerged from the shadows of the hall's pillars. She wore the traditional uniform of the Royal Guard, her dark blue, loose shirt and pants overlaid with a crimson apron on which the royal seal was printed. She had no reason to wear her armor then, but Shola wore it often and it was strange to see her out of it. Shola dropped to one knee before the Queen, crossing one arm over her heart. "I have answered your summons, my queen." "Shola, rise and approach," she replied out of habit and Shola came up the crimson steps, her brown and worn boots silent on the marble. "The ritual has failed us. The caskets have not been rid of the poison and now instead of a purifying ritual, it appears that the power to purify the caskets has been placed into people, not a spell. I am charging you and Dante with seeking them out, but you must be hasty: the darkness over the ocean grows larger by the day and the monsters grow more plentiful. I fear only the lingering grace of Kirimbal protects the ocean province now. " The queen stood and tucked her arms behind her back, gliding down the steps and motioning for Shola to follow. "From their readings we suspect Purifiers may also be able to, on some level, detect other Purifiers, although to what extent we're unsure. Imal thinks it may be very low-level. Shola… You have long been trusted at my right hand. This mission ranks far beyond any I have ever asked of you, irriam. My trusted friend. If this mission fails, our world and all of the worlds that have come from this one fail. There is a Purifier in the Wolfshead Tavern." ********************************************* It wasn't her custom to enter without knocking, but as the night came on Shola stepped over the threshold of Dante's quarters and cleared her throat. "Dante, orders from the Queen. We're heading out at once; I'll be waiting for you at the palace gates." "Fucking knock," he groused and rose from the chair he'd been half out of from the sudden opening of the door. Just that quickly she was gone and headed down to the massive golden gates, brushing back the glowing night flowers that crept over the pillars and gates of the courtyard. In the bright moonlight the lush garden was softly illuminated. Shola hurried up the stone path and slipped into the procession arena. Shola crossed her arms and leaned against a marble planter, waiting for Dante to appear. As per his usual habit he appeared from the shadows of the other end of the gates. Shola had never been comfortable around Dante. He was a soldier without a leader, an adept killer with a deceptively lean body and a cold, chiseled face. His eyes were bright green and his hair was cropped closely and deep black. His clothing was strange, all black and close-fitting with various pockets and straps all over it. She imagined his seemingly endless supply of weapons came from them. "Where are we headed?" he asked and Shola raised a friendly hand to the guards who began opening the gates. Dante flinched away from them and glanced around before following Shola out and down the cobblestone street. "We're headed to the Wolfshead Tavern. A Purifier is there and the Queen's priestesses have picked up agents of the Dire Queen headed there. We need to find the Purifier and head them off." "We going into a fight?" "It is very possible." He nodded and discreetly palmed a small knife, frowning. Shola pointed to the tavern entrance and slipped inside, holding the door open with her heel for Dante. He paused at the entrance, took a deep breath, and plastered on a smile before stepping in. Shola had already drawn a lot of attention by showing up to a tavern in her royal uniform and so Dante was able to slip in relatively unnoticed. Discreetly Shola motioned to the woman doing tattoos in the back and Dante assessed her quickly before leaning on the bar near Shola, but not facing her. "You get her to leave and I'll keep watch. She probably wouldn't leave with me. The last thing we want is a scene right now, it'll draw the wrong kind of attention," she murmured. "She a civvie?" "To the best of my knowledge." "Good," he replied and pushed off from the bar, smoothly striding over to her table with a warm smile. As soon as she noticed his approach he let a calculated hint of teeth show through an adorably lopsided smile and extended his hand. "I'm Dante, new in town." He swung a chair around and effortlessly straddled it, leaning his chin on his arms. The low light of the bar made the color of his eyes murky and his smile almost predatory for the barest of flashes before he corrected it and gave a shy laugh. "I hope I'm not bothering you, but I couldn't help but see that you do really incredible work. I, um, well… I've never gotten a tattoo before but if anyone's going to do my first, I think I'd love for you to do it. How much do you charge?" "Hey! Back off!" Shola hissed from the bar and shooed a tall man away from her with the bottom hem of her apron and Dante suppressed the urge to roll his eyes, fixing the smile more steadily on his face. "So what do you say--" He didn't get to finish his sentence. The man Shola had shooed away gave a garbled cry and his head blossomed into a gaping, reaching black void. Panic broke out in the bar and a flood of people began scrambling for the front door. Shola hit the creature with a violent electric shock and it staggered back, shrieking as smoke poured from it's maw. Almost instantly the warmth was gone from Dante's face and it was as cold and hard as the steel of the knife he'd drawn. In one fluid motion he yanked her up from her chair and put the tip of the knife to her throat, his grip on her wrist a hopeless vice. "We're leaving, now. Fight me and you'll do it unconscious. Your choice."