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In the Midst of a Killer
Gray, puffy clouds rolled over the evening sky, warning the quiet city of seventeenth-century Paxton of possible rain. A young man, and ex-soldier of the Imperial Guard, strode up to an old manor built in a Tudor-esque style. He checked a letter he had received from the count who owned the edifice, making sure that this was the right house. It seemed a little odd that the count would invite him to the manor, considering that he had once insulted the man. But perhaps the count had decided to forgive the young man, and thus extended an invitation. With a satisfied nod, he entered the building, finding that the other five guests were already standing in the lobby and chatting whilst waiting for this young man to show.
Among the guests were an older woman, two young ladies, a rather portly nobleman, and an edgy man who looked like he had just been swept up off the streets and dumped here. They were each chattering, save for the jumpy man, who stood by himself. The ex-soldier walked up to the older lady, who smiled and chatted politely with him, giving her name, as well as introducing everyone else.
“Evening to ya, young’un,” she said. “What be your name?” The young man returned her smile and introduced himself as Johann Strauss. The woman nodded thoughtfully, then told him her name, following up with everyone else’s and gesturing towards them. “It’s nice t’meet ya, Johann. I’m Carla Mae. The two youngsters you see over there’re Chelsea Simmons, the blonde one; and Alexa Irving is the mousy-haired one. Then th’nobleman there’s Sir Adam Burnet, and the odd’un is Jeffry Price.” Johann nodded as he mentally attached a face to each name.
“Well then, since the last guest has finally arrived, I say we get started on our little treasure hunt,” huffed Chelsea. Others of the group nodded, save for the nobleman, who yawned and muttered sleepily that he was going to go take a quick nap. The guests had been invited to a treasure hunt by the count of the estate. Located somewhere in the house was a chest with money and the only provided key to the exit. Each of these people had agreed to be locked in until that chest was found. And some were quite eager to start. They were already telling each other where they were going to go first.
“I’m going to go look upstairs,” Jeffry said, after Sir Burnet had walked up and closed a door. Alexa smiled at Strauss, then made a similar statement, soon to be followed by Miss Simmons. The others dispersed to look on the first floor. There were plenty of rooms to canvass, from parlors to studies to rooms without a clear purpose. The situation was much the same on the second floor, and in addition, there was a basement. The group was quite well spread out, though even like this, they would have difficulty finding their objective.
After ten minutes, the guests on the first floor regrouped in the foyer, and chatted idly before Alexa came tearing down the staircase, looking terrified.
“Burnet is dead!” she shrieked, then looked back up towards the stairs as Chelsea and Jeffry followed, each looking horrified. But Price began to rationalize.
“He might have had a heart attack, or something. Maybe some medical condition killed him,” he said, glancing quickly at each of the congregation. Johann kept his eyes on the man who had been so on-edge earlier. Something seemed off about him. But at least his rationalization calmed the group.
It took a couple of minutes for the guests to get a grip on themselves and prepare to split up again. They decided to cover one hall, but to pick different rooms to investigate thoroughly. It was hardly five minutes before Johann heard a knock on his door. He jumped, still uneasy after the death of the nobleman. But he regained his composure swiftly and opened the door. On the other side was a very shaken Alexa, who looked close to tears.
“Alexa? What’s wrong?” Strauss asked concernedly. She glanced over her shoulder, then murmured in a quivering voice,
“Carla Mae is dead, too… I-I just found her body… and…and…” Her voice trailed off for a moment as the young woman inclined her head to calm herself. “There was blood pooling around her body, Mr. Strauss…” she whispered, looking up into Johann’s eyes, her own brown eyes shining with terror. “There’s a killer here with us in this house. But who is it…? It’s not you, is it?” she asked, wringing her hands anxiously. Johann shook his head.
“It isn’t you, either, is it, Miss Irving?” he inquired. She shook her head, abruptly turning to look down the hall. Jeffry was coming towards them, glancing at them nervously before walking towards the foyer. His eyes looked frightened. The ex-soldier picked up on that fact. “I wonder what’s got him… Let’s go see,” he said, taking Alexa by the hand and walking towards the only room with an open door.
Approaching slowly, the two peeked in. Strauss let go of Miss Irving’s hand to keep his hand near the short sword he kept with him at all times. Alexa nearly screamed, and Johann was thunderstruck at the sight that met their eyes. In the middle of the floor was Chelsea; or, rather, her bleeding corpse. She had been stricken in the back with a small blade; a wound that the ex-soldier had learned to recognize on sight.
A unexpected crash of thunder jolted the two frightened onlookers out of their horrified reverie. They looked at each other and agreed to go back to the foyer. Johann was confused. Who was the killer? Despite Alexa’s claim that she was not, the former soldier had not entirely ruled her out. But far more likely was that Price fellow, he decided. The man had been tense since Johann had arrived. However, the ex-Guard remained unsure on who was the real killer as they rendezvoused once more in the foyer.
Words were not spoken as they split up one final time, each one going somewhere different. Johann decided he would check the basement, as no one else had opted to do so before. Alexa decided to sweep the upstairs one more time, just to make sure they had not missed anything. Jeffry chose to look around the foyer itself. The basement door was annexed to the foyer, so Strauss did not have very far to walk. A storm was out in full force outside, but the young man found himself descending into silence as he walked down the stairs and began to search the place.
Without warning, a scream shattered the silence, and Strauss ran up from the cellar to investigate. His heart was pounding in his ears, and his palms were sweaty as he threw open the door to see Jeffry Price standing over Alexa with a drawn knife. Her eyes were wide with fear, and her right arm was held up in a defensive pose.
“Johann! He’s the murderer! He’s going to kill me!” she shouted, her terrified eyes begging the ex-soldier to help her. Jeffry looked at the young man with a crazed look in his eyes, using his knife to point at the girl.
“No! I’m not the murderer, she is! She’s been playing us all against each other!” Strauss paused, grimacing, unsure of who was honest and who was not, his hand once again hovering near the hilt of his sword.
“Johann, can’t you see he’s lying to frame me?” Alexa pleaded tearfully. The man turned and snapped at her.
“Shut up, you filthy wench! I should kill you for what you’ve done!” He raised the knife above the young woman’s chest. The ex-soldier snapped out of his stunned state and rushed Price, knocking him over and wrenching the knife out of his hand. “You fool! Are you in league with that wretch?!” he spat, drawing another knife from a hidden sheath and slashing viciously at Strauss. The blade barely missed the ex-soldier’s skin. “I’ll kill you both!!” the suspicious man shouted.
“No you won’t! I won’t let you murder anyone else!” the former Guard shot back, his eyes wide with a fearful determination. In a fit of panic, he drove the knife deep into the shifty-looking man’s heart, and scrambled back to his feet. The realization of his action then hit him. “Wha-What have I done…?” he wondered aloud.
“You… You saved me, Johann… Thank you…” panted the young woman, slowly getting up and approaching her savior. He looked to her, staring straight into her beautiful brown eyes as she came towards him. She smiled gently, stopping her approach only when there was less than an inch between them.
“You’re welcome, miss… Um…” His voice trailed off as she ran her hand over his hair, letting her graceful fingers rest on the back of his neck.
“Allow me to bestow a token of gratitude upon you,” she whispered tenderly. He shivered slightly as she brought his face closer to hers. Closer, closer, till their noses were almost touching. Her smile spread a little wider, and then her soft lips parted slightly. Johann found himself utterly entranced by those bewitching eyes.
But then he felt a cold, excruciating pain in his stomach. His hand immediately went to the area, and found a dagger, buried in his flesh up to the hilt. He slowly looked down, and back up at the young lady before him, his features twisted into a mask of astonishment and agony. Her smile… No, her entire expression had changed. Her brown eyes were cold and merciless, and she bared her teeth in a mirthless grin. Irving violently yanked the blade out of him, then used it to cut open the dress she was wearing, which revealed the sleek, black leather armor beneath. Emblazoned across the chest of her cuirass was a vertical red dagger symbol, perpendicularly silhouetted by a silver crescent moon.
“It… was you… all along…” Strauss gasped, stumbling backwards to the wall, his gaze locked upon the Lunar Syndicate assassin before him. Then, he realized that there had been no treasure, no key, and no escape. This had all been a setup by the count. Alexa merely grinned, and approached once more, her hand gripping the bloody dagger. In one swift slash, the ex-soldier saw a flash of his own blood, and fell to the floor, his features frozen in a mask of utter terror. The Lunar Syndicate assassin then left the manor, her mission seen completely through to its dark ends. The count would be pleased with the Syndicate for this.