Chapter 1: The Sixty-First

Secrets. They are amongst the most peculiar things spoken by the public. Probably because they can be either a burden or a joyful surprise, and they can come in any shape or form whatsoever. They can be minuscule, and they can be gargantuan; they can be exceedingly convoluted mazes fit only for the greatest of minds to decipher, and they can be as simple as one-word answers.

But wherever there are secrets, there are one of two things lurking behind them: brilliant euphoric filled surprises, or horrid revelations. And call it coincidence, but we start our story with, perhaps, one of the largest secrets ever conceived. Monstrous minds, from even the darkest corners of the world, couldn’t hold a candle to the secret we start with tonight. A secret so important that if known, it would affect the balance of the world in the most grandest of ways. Be it for the worst, or the best. Yes, secrets are indeed powerful things – mirroring the strength of lies almost entirely. Lies, you see, are identical to secrets in almost every way. Every way except for one: with a lie, you can protect yourself through more lying. And there is, after all, no limit to how much one can lie. So it comes as no such surprise that to keep the most secure secret in the world, you would have to lie one way or another. And that’s exactly what happened … or rather is happening again.

We start this magnificent hybrid of both lie and secret in the southern most end of Sera. In a quaint little town called Watsonford, which refers to itself as the last town one could hope to seek refuge before hitting the Seran sea, where nothing but miles of open ocean separates Sera and the next country, Fringrad. Watsonford, upon its conception as a village, held only seven small cobble-stone paths surrounding an average sized village square, the rest were simple dirt paths – worked dirt paths, mind you, but dirt paths nonetheless. But that didn’t stop the village builders from creating fantastically large and weird and architecturally wonderful houses upon the villages founding. Houses, of which, ended up being gifted to the families of each of the said builders as a token of appreciation from the village’s minister. After all, they had enough streams of incoming resources from all the greatest cities in the country; a few houses being gifted wouldn’t go amiss. The minister only hoped that the new railroads being created would eventually reach them; all their needs were currently met by nothing more than a horse and carriage – not quite up to the pace of locomotives.

Now, several decades on, the village had spread around these large houses and grew to the grand splendour of a thriving town. So it held the normal amenities like a sweet store or a bakers or a café. Even a court house, though one wouldn’t refer to that as an amenity.

Getting back to those original houses though, sat nestled in the middle of the group was one house in particular. You could call it even more of a singularity seeing as it was built using a colossal oak tree as support for one of its sides. It held five jigsaw-like flights and on the upper most two, balconies worked into the trunk of the tree could be seen. The builder whom held the deed for this house evidently let his or hers imagination run wild; large stone pillars held up the third highest jigsaw floor, and below that, the second was just one large circular level atop the ground floor, which was a simple square in shape.

Yes, this was a unique home. One which held the complete and undivided attention of two people. Though, they weren’t what you would call ’normal’ people, by any means. One was of the legendary race of witches and wizards. The other, of the dark and powerful race of the ghouls. Two of the more prominent species in the world – behind humans, of course. And these two, specifically, were of a more notable importance. The witch was apparently young, an old experienced face hiding behind thirty or so years of age at least; if the snow white hair, small scar on her upper left cheek, experienced grey eyes and small coy smirk were anything to go by. Though she showed no sign of old bones or frailty, she leant gently on a small vinyl black cane. She adorned sleek robes that held a mixture of black, grey and lavender all under a long leather overcoat she wore proudly.

The other stood far more regally in satin black robes that were hidden under a thick black hooded cloak. The shape of a sheathed sword could be made out from under said cloak. His hair, gleaming auburn, was tied back to hide it further, and one could make out the slight hint of a lightly coated stubble chin sitting with a perfectly shaped face under the hood.

They were both staring at one of the large houses. The mage, with a face of boredom; the ghoul with slight content. They had both been standing there for quite a time, if the quarter moon high in the night sky was anything to go by. That, and the golden clock tower in the middle of town having just past striking eleven at night.

The witch shifted slightly in her stance and swapped her cane to the other hand before speaking.

“If this turns out to be false, I’ve got a few choice words for our late friends,” she rumbled in a low voice. She wasn’t one for speaking often, but when she did, it was always with an intent which rarely went unfulfilled.

The ghoul moved his head slightly, and with marvellous emerald coloured eyes, peered at the witch.

“Have faith, Florence. We would not be here if I had any doubt,” he told her polity before closing his eyes. The ghoul spoke with a stark contrast to the witch. Light, lithe, and undeniably holding back a molten hot resolve which could inspire anyone.

The now named Florence waved him away.

“I’ve got plenty faith, Arnaro,” she bustled in an irritated voice. “But that doesn’t mean I have any qualms about standing for hours on end for nothing. How long has it been now, I wonder? Hold on, let me just check my watch – three hours! I dread to think standing here for anything past five.”

“And we won’t,” the now named Arnaro stated with slight annoyance. “The fact of the matter remains, we must conclude our findings to be correct before leaving. If you wish to take your leave, fine by me. Just be sure to drop by at some point.”

Florence huffed and they both fell back into silence. This was the way they both conferred with each other normally; as friends to the ends of the earth they were, they sometimes found each other extremely, if not hilariously, irritating. Though, that could be in part to the quite unusual predicament they found themselves currently in. Now, obviously, they both didn’t doubt that the other held nothing but wise words to give; after all, who would doubt the words of a wise sorceress or an ancient immortal ghoul. But given the current circumstances they were in, even the words of kings and queens would be like holding a candle to the sun.

The witch squinted her eyes and searched the open window of what must have been the living room of the house before them from her slightly hidden position. The street lamps lit by gas flames gave the impression that the two were shrouded, standing just off the street and slightly into a small woodland area. Florence was thankful for that due to the fact that she couldn’t be bothered with the countless asks of her magical prowess which would undoubtedly occur if she were seen – she was well known in the world. The same could be said for Arnaro as well. He, too, was well known and if anybody caught sight of the ghoul lord they would undoubtedly have a police force around them in no time. Though, that thought didn’t worry the ghoul lord in the slightest.

“What do you think?” asked Florence suddenly. Her eyebrows knitted together in concern as she looked sidelong at the ghoul.

Arnaro shifted slightly but kept his eyes lightly closed.

“I cannot say for sure, as of yet. Perhaps Sosfin will hold answers,” he told her.

“Let’s hope,” replied the witch and they both fell back into a comfortable silence.

It had to be said, this was the first time for Florence. She evidently felt a slight niggling of nervousness bite at her mind here and there, and her stomach did flips from time to time, and she was normally so good with her nerves; but that didn’t stop them running rampant tonight. She could take standing around for hours on end, she had actually waited about half a day during one of Warbrins coronations a couple years back, but even that paled in comparison to this. That was just a simple coronation, this was something far more. And even though she still didn’t hold all the pieces of the puzzle, she held just enough to realise what they’re being here tonight meant.

Florence’s eyes flickered slightly when movement came from within the house they were staring at. A woman, moving very slowly holding the hand of an unsteadily walking toddler, was making her way into the front sitting room of the oak-tree-built house. It didn’t take a ghouls eyes to see the small child struggling to stay awake, his eyes held a heavy tiredness in them. The woman moved slowly towards a warm armchair, being mindful to keep her watchful eyes on the child’s every step. She helped him into the chair and she sat next to him. The boy, aside from his weariness, seemed to brighten up as his mother took a rather vibrant purple-crimson book from the shelf next to them. She started reading from where they last left off, placing the wooden-dragon book mark back on the shelf.

Now, one would be forgiven for being rather bewildered or confused upon seeing these two ancients watching carefully a simple mother with her small early years old child. But there was a very good reason for that: the interest they held came not from the mother, but from the child she sat alongside. It wasn’t every day that a child attracted the attention of high end people, let alone a ghoul lord and a Secretary of State witch. But this particular one did.

Arnaro slowly opened his eyes and took a gander up at the moon, figuring out exactly what time it was. He preferred this method over using the clocks being widely used in the world, such was his love for the old ways. He returned his eyes back to the window with a non-existent smile.

“Won’t be long now,” he said patiently.

Florence sighed with relief.

“Glad to hear it. My legs are starting to get stiff,” she said, swapping hands with her cane again.

“Just out of curiosity,” started Arnaro, as casually as he could, “do you think it’s true? Do be honest, too, I rather like having another opinion to play with.”

Florence looked up at the ghoul.

“I’m … not so sure,” she said after a pause. Florence really wasn’t the one to be asking for this sort of stuff and, quite frankly, she hated the aspect of people putting their trust in her – she despised the idea of letting the countless who did, down. “I really cannot say. I mean, I hope it is. I wouldn’t like to think we need to restart our global search again after getting so close. That’d be a killer.”

“Yes, it would be,” Arnaro hummed in agreement. Though, he turned to her, a smirk finding its way onto him, and lightly nudged her shoulder and asked, “Really? Nothing? A Secretary of State doesn’t have a real answer?”

Florence shoved him in return.

“Grow up. I can’t help it if I’m at a loss when it comes to this,” she said while scowling, though it didn’t do much in terms of looking aggressive. “Give me a Cabinet meeting with the other Secretaries over this any day.”

“What about the Monarchies?”

Florence returned a deadpan stare.

“I think I’d rather keep my sanity, thank you. There’s already enough Kings and Queens in that city, getting them all into one room alongside the Ministers of the State; that’s a concoction lethal for anyone.”

They both, however, stopped dead and suddenly lurched back further into the shadows when some of the locals were headed towards them. Apparently it was someone’s birthday because these three were rather merry in their talking, probably due to the alcohol which both Florence and Arnaro could smell.

“Can’t believe it, won’t believe it, never will!” said one loudly, almost tripping in his walk.

“Well, get used to it. They’re taking him,” said another one, a woman.

“Idiots. What’s the point-”

“Because they were good friends with his family.”

“What’s … what’s the little guy’s name?” asked a third while hiccuping. The woman slung a hand over his shoulder for support.

“Hern, from what I heard.”

“Well, good for h-him. Now let’s try to get home safely,” said the first man, putting a hand on his belly, “I don’t think my stomach liked that sherry.”

“Sounds like you said lightweight!” laughed another, and they walked on round the curving street and vanished.

Florence and Arnaro, who had been all but silent during the exchange, each took a slow step forward. The ghoul seemed to mentally tut at seeing people in that state. Being of the regal and highest of ghouls, he generally didn’t hold with such nonsense. And it irritated him how similar they were to some of the ghouls back in the capital during certain events. Florence, however, let a warm chuckle escape her lips.

“Humorous, these people,” she said, gently turning to look at the ghoul. Having been friends with humans and discovering that they were extremely intelligent as a race did only good things for their appearance; windows, gas lighting, steam machines which could do countless things, trains! They were by far the best in the ingenuity of brewing inventions. It was something which Arnaro found to be one of their only redeeming traits.

The ghoul nodded plainly at the witch’s words.

“That, they are. Much the same as all humans, I expect.”

“The mistake ghouls make,” started Florence condescendingly, “is thinking that all humans have the same mannerisms and same thoughts and feelings. They’re just as different as you and me.”

“Let’s not sully the evening, dear friend. I had a rather abrupt conversation with the Lord Minister of Banifell during my recent visit,” said Arnaro indifferently.

Florence perked at this.

“Jacqueline? I expect much the same as the time before?”

“I was rudely expelled and, myself specifically, prohibited from ever setting foot within the borders of the city again by her own words, yes.”

“Thought as much,” said Florence, brushing a floating leaf away from her. “You will never get through to the race of humanity when you go barging in and proclaiming that the ghouls can help them and that they need it.”

“And knowing our past brutality as a beast-like race won’t help much, I presume,” Arnaro stated.

Florence grimaced slightly.

“They’ll come around. Getting back to the point; humans are stubborn and won’t accept help if they don’t think it’s necessary.”

“Something which I cannot fathom,” said Arnaro, betraying a little annoyance, or confusion, or a little of both.

Florence sighed and put a hand on the ghouls shoulder.

“Perhaps I could be of assistance in your next visit? You know what I’m like with these things.”

The ghoul smiled genuinely at her and mimicked Florence by putting a hand on the witch’s shoulder, too.

“I would be overjoyed at your presence.”

They shared a moment before returning back to the matter at hand.

Peering back in the window, they could see the woman still pleasantly reading the purple and crimson book with the child who was now just starting to nod off next to her. Another child had appeared as well now, an older girl staring curiously over from her own seat. She, too, held her own book but where the others were reading what was most likely a fantasy novel, she was studying relentlessly from a book which probably took an entire tree to make it had so many pages. In all, your general picture of perfect serenity.

The witch and ghoul watching were about to start talking again, courtesy of Florence, but stopped upon hearing two light thumps from behind them. They spun round to meet the sight they were here for. And about time, too. Standing before them were two more ghouls – the ones they’d been waiting patiently for. They were similar in stature to Arnaro and indeed in clothing also. They even both had the same serene faces, though one seemed far friendlier than the other. But what put them apart was their hair; the one on the right had oak coloured brown hair which tumbled down to his shoulders, while the other had onyx black hair slightly shorter, just past his ears. If one were to look deeper into the shadows behind the two newcomers, you would find five more ghouls hidden from the outside world. Nothing much could be determined of them other than they all adorned the same armour. All of them, however, held the same vivid emerald coloured eyes.

Arnaro spread his hands slightly with an open smile.

“Welcome. I trust your trip was unperturbed?”

The ghoul on the right – the more unfriendly looking one with black hair – shifted in learnt sync before speaking, “No, my lord.”

“Still flustered at the presence of Arnaro, Maleph?” chuckled Florence.

The ghoul, Maleph, shifted and stayed in trained silence. Apparently Florence was correct.

It was then that the ghoul on the left – the friendlier looking with oak coloured hair, spoke.

“He’ll come around within the decade, I think,” he said with a pleasant chuckle.

“I should hope so,” started Arnaro. “I can’t have a ghoul rising through the ranks that has an inability to refer to myself with my given name when not in the company of others.” He let his steal emerald eyes remain on Maleph before looking at the other. “It’s good to see you, Sosfin.”

The said ghoul seemed to wave away Arnaro with a honey warm smile.

“Come now, I’ve only been gone three weeks. What is that to us?” Sosfin told him good naturedly. Sosfin always spoke with warmness and kindness. Florence noted that he was by far the most pleasant to speak too, and the other ghouls were on to that and started trying to imitate him; all to no avail, obviously.

“Of course,” said Arnaro before gesturing to the house. “Please, join us. We’ve just been observing the child in question.”

“I see,” murmured Sosfin in a silvery voice, taking a position beside Arnaro. Maleph stayed put and clasped his hands behind him, ready for anything.

“So?” asked Florence in a careful voice. One word which held a great deal more than a simple question.

There was a baited silence. A silence which felt like standing in thick fog. The witch hated thick atmospheres and was about to break it when she got an answer.

“Yes,” Sosfin told them plainly.

“And you’re certain?” Arnaro asked carefully. This wasn’t something to be so casually answered, and the ghoul lord wasn’t about to let any mistakes lumber passed him. “You need to be completely and utterly sure, Sosfin. Any mistake, and that’s it-”

“My conclusion is well, Arnaro. That is him,” said Sosfin as kindly as he could manage without leaving room for argument.

Florence hummed and they all took to examining the window. Simple brown curtains had been drawn shut, obscuring any clear sight. Though, for some reason it appeared that said curtains held little effect on the ghouls present, a slight blurring of the senses, maybe. Florence, however, inwardly cursed her normal eyes.

They didn’t say anything for a moment. Seconds ticked by while they all stared at the curtains, many a things running through each of their heads. Although Sosfin’s mind, humourlessly, settled on the many different kinds of tea he could brew and the different combinations he could try.

The lord ghoul seemed to take a moment before speaking, as if his next words held a weight behind them.

“It is the sixty-first time this concern has troubled us,” Arnaro told them with a sigh. “It’s a wonder we’re still here. Somehow, despite the centuries, Vinerin’s grip hasn’t loosened in the slightest.”

“I see,” Sosfin started, his voice unwavering and complacent. “Troublesome thoughts aren’t entirely good for the mind, Arnaro. You shouldn’t let it sit and thrive.”

Arnaro gave him an irritated look; of course it didn’t trouble him all the time, is what the ghoul lord thought. He shook his head before saying, “And it doesn’t. It merely concerns me every night we all do this-”

“Come on now, Arnaro, don’t lie,” said Florence. “This thing’s troubled you constantly for centuries.”

The mentioned ghoul closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He spoke as if he were addressing a rude child, “We never know when it will happen so forgive me for not taking this extended period of peace for granted.”

“Well then,” started Sosfin, smiling pleasantly. “It is true, though: it can happen at any moment. But that doesn’t mean to say we should live in a constant state of anxiety to that fact. Instead, we should continue living without worry. I truly believe that if Vinerin was about to show face again, we’d know it long before hand.”

Florence, and even the guards, agreed. Whenever Sosfin decided to speak, he always spoke with a sense of reason and logic behind him that no one could dispute, and given the current circumstances, everyone was more than grateful to hear what he had to say. All, that is, except for Arnaro.

The ghoul lord gave Sosfin a blank stare.

“You’re meant to be on my side-”

“Mind yourselves!” hissed Florence, backing quickly into the darkness again. The others followed quickly without question. They all instinctively snapped their eyes back to the window and saw the reason for the witch’s quick order: the mother within the house was up and looking through the curtains and out the window. Almost in sync, all of them stopped and became statues as the woman peered out for a moment before closing the curtains again, vanishing from their sight. They stayed put for a moment longer, daring not to move lest she decided to peek out again.

“Well, I believe that’s it,” said Arnaro once it became apparent she wouldn’t. “I will be heading home now. Are you, Sosfin?”

Said ghoul smiled and nodded.

“Home does sound rather good. Haven’t spoken with Flo or Galphino in forever past an age,” he said pleasantly before turning to the witch. “It was a pleasure to see you again, Florence. I hope we meet again soon.”

The witch looked dazed for a moment.

“Didn’t think we would be finished quite that fast,” she said more to herself. “I will keep check on him, then, shall I?” she added in more of a statement than anything else.

Arnaro, who was silently making his way out, turned before he was just out of hearing range.

“Unless you want one of us to do so?” he said with a raised eyebrow.

Florence chuckled to herself and shook her head.

“I’ll stop by sometime in the near future, then. Safe travelling, Arnaro.”

And with that, Arnaro swept his covered robes round and was gone. Sosfin gave the witch one last smile before he, too, disappeared, giving the other ghouls present an unspoken order and they then disappeared into the night as well, leaving the witch completely alone.

Florence hesitantly looked back at the house and her eyes glazed over slightly. Heck, she was actually happy, in the end, to be in the position she was. If it gave her the ability, and the responsibility, to be here, she wouldn’t trade anything for it.

She chuckled hollowly before saying, “Sixty-one … and counting.”

She turned and vanished into the night, leaving nothing of their intentions behind. Intentions which centred, for some reason, on one child.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2: A Town In Sanctuary