Neal sat in the Hall of Elders, going over some paperwork on the big table.  He enjoyed working in the big space during the day:  its size was good for working on multiple projects, and it was also conducive to meetings as the need arose.

            Lamb wandered through and peeked over his shoulder.

            “Anything interesting?”

            “Not really, mostly just busywork.  I have some notes to go over before a meeting with Owen and Evan about trade through the valley.”

            “Where is Owen, by the way?  I didn’t see him at breakfast.”

            Neal raised an eyebrow.  “I haven’t seen him all day, myself.  I know that he had some business in the village yesterday and the day before.  I just assumed he slept in at breakfast, tired from all that riding.  But it’s strange that I haven’t seen him around the tower.  I wonder if he’s taken ill.”

            As if on cue, a soldier knocked on the doorframe at the entrance to the hall.  Neal waved him forward, and he marched with military precision to stand at attention a few feet from his chair.  While his posture was impeccably precise, some strange emotion was at play on his face.

            “Report,” Neal said.

            “Sir, thank you sir.  My captain directed me to the Citadel to report a situation of the utmost importance.  I don’t know how to tell you this, sir, but I have dire news concerning Lord Owen.”

            “Dire news?” Lamb asked.

            Neal’s brow furrowed.  “Continue.”

            “He’s dead, sir,” The soldier gulped.  “Murdered.”

            “What!”  Neal slumped back in his chair, feeling as if someone had kicked him in the stomach.

            “How?  Who did it?” Lamb leaned against Neal’s chair, his hand on his heart.

            “We aren’t sure, sir.  The corpse was cold, he’s been dead at least a day.  The sight was… gruesome.”  The soldier visibly paled at the thought.

            “I never even thought to wonder where he was…” Neal whispered to himself, rubbing his face.  He suddenly felt very, very tired.

            “There was a message,” The soldier continued.

            “A message?”  Lamb asked him.

***

“It begins now.”  Alexander read, staring at the wall of the shack.  Golden afternoon light filtered in through cracks in the wall, highlighting dust motes that were floating in the air like constellations.  He ran his hand across his mouth, trying to compose himself.

            “There’s so much blood,” Neal said quietly.

            “At least they moved the body,” Lamb whispered to Alex.  “There’s no need for him to see his best friend like that.”

            Neal stared at the message on the wall.  He clenched his fists, and Alex watched his jaw flexing.  Neal was grinding his teeth.

            “It’s that name again, Alex.” 

            “I know.  The same one.”

            “It’s a person.  I want him found.  I want him nailed to this wall and tortured until he begs our forgiveness.”  Neal was shouting.  “I want his blood!  We’ll see who gets the message then, you ASSHOLE!”

            Alexander moved to put a comforting hand on his cousin’s shoulder.  Lamb pulled him back with a cautioning nod.  He timed it well, for a moment later Neal whirled about and stomped through the door, slamming it open so hard that it cracked and fell off its hinges.

            “Give him time.”  Lamb looked at Alex.

            Neal rode back to the Citadel at an almost punishing speed, leaving his horse a sweaty, shaky mess in the courtyard as he raced up the stairs towards his apartments.  He left the over-worked animal for the stable boys.

He locked his door behind him, and stormed around the room before collapsing at his desk.  Neal shook with rage.  Resting his head in his hands, tears falling down his cheeks, he blocked out the world. 

He must have dozed off, as when he opened his eyes the sun had set and stars winked through his windows.  Neal lit some candles and sat back down at the desk, running his hands through his hair.

That was when he saw it.  There was a piece of paper on the desk, addressed to him.  Neal reached for it and began to read the parchment.  Ethan had outlined a report of his investigations over the weeks since Genevieve had left.

            “DANIEL!”  Neal bellowed, standing up so quickly his chair fell over violently.  He stormed out of his rooms down the corridor towards Daniel’s wing.  He passed Alex’s rooms, and then Jay’s, his cousins coming out to see what was wrong.  They saw Neal with dishevelled hair, still wearing his riding clothes.  They had never seen Neal so enraged.          

            “DANIEL!”  Neal growled, banging on the big man’s door. 

            “What’s wrong, Neal?”  Alex asked.  His cousin did not answer, simply handing him the parchment as he knocked louder on the wood.  He was beating his fists against it, trying to make it open.

            Alex read with wide eyes and then handed the paper to Jason.  Jay read, feeling his heart lurch.

            “Daniel, come out of there, you bastard!  I’ll have your head for this!” Neal yelled through the door, his fists clenched.  He started kicking the heavy door with his bare foot, oblivious to the pain.  Alex pulled him away.

            Awakened by the ruckus, Evan had shown up by now.  “What’s going on?”

            “Daniel’s been kidnapping women and paying guards to hide their bodies when he’s finished with them.”  Alex said, his voice dripping with disgust.  Jason handed Evan the report.  “Ethan found out for Neal, and now Neal…”

            “Neal’s gone ballistic.”  Jay said, as their cousin broke free of Alex, shouldering the door and knocking it open with a loud, splintering crash.  They followed Neal into the dim apartments, wondering why Daniel had not answered.

            “Oh, God!” Neal said, falling to his knees.  He was shaking with emotion and exertion.  Jason caught up to him in the bedroom, and then knelt down himself, vomiting as he saw the bodies on the bed within.

            “Not again.”  Alex said, staring at the wall after he recovered from the gruesome scene.   Written there in blood were these words:

            “See you soon, boys.  Your friend, Reza.”

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