They say the city never sleeps
Footsteps pounded hard down an alleyway, the stone walkways echoing each step as they raced through them.
Then why does it now?
The torches ahead in the street burned brightly leaving nothing but the shadows to fill the alley beyond.
Why do they sleep!?
The chattering of an inn full to its brim with patrons drowned out the shouts from the darkness.
Hear my warnings!
The echos steps of the others each fade in turn, one by one.
I'm here! I'm so close! Hear my calls!
The steps approached the flickering lights of the street. A hand reaches out to the light, his footsteps hammered faster spurring him forward.
The city must be woken!
The footsteps suddenly lighten, the hand grasped at the air reaching for the light. He struggled forward, and for the briefest of moments the tip of a finger broke the shadows. Only to slip silently backwards into the darkness from whence it came.
His eyes grew wide, shock written on his bloodied face.
I was so close…
He saw nothing, could do nothing, his struggles feeble as the darkness engulfed him.
They didn't hear me…
His footing disappeared, a fog of shadows choked his voice. His hearing brought him little sound but the flutter of wind rushing his ears. His mind went numb, as he felt himself drifting through a river of darkness. His moments became minutes as he fell for what seemed an eternity.
I couldn't wake them…
Suddenly he was free, free of the darkness that bound him, free of the gentle drift that brought him to a fate he knew to be sealed. Yet no hope returned to his heart, for his journey was at its end. Like bird stuck suddenly by a stone, he fell. The rushing sounds that had filled his senses intensified quickly only to stopped as suddenly as his weightlessness. He crashed upon the stones of the city streets, like the river at its end crashed upon the rocks below. The stone unforgiving upon his already weakened body.
He lay in pain, gasping. The breath of his body had left him to choke on the air. He could feel his broken state. There was no hope left to him. His arm mangled, a broken ankle, his ribs cracked heavily. He would die here, in the darkness, among the night. His body begged for the pain to end, for him to lie there and be still. Still he struggled to rise, despite all this pain, he must rise.
They couldn't hear my calls.
He struggled off his back, blood dripping from his wounds. He could feel now the slashes deep in his legs. He knew now why he had faltered so close to the light. Slowly he rose to his knees, stifling his pained cries to the night. They would do him no good here.
The hunter has moved…
A shadow moved forward, it's sides floating lightly in the night's slight breeze. He looked upon it defiantly, cradling his broken arm to him, his breath laboring and his broken leg twisted out awkwardly beneath him. Anger, laced with fear, filled his eyes as he looked upon the blackened shape before him.
And they will not be safe for long…
The form held out its hand, it was still for a moment before a spark suddenly ignited. A small flame no bigger than a candle hung above it. It's light nearly blinding him as he stared at the form he faced. His eye's held a barely contained rage in them as he stared upon the man before him.
"They will stop you. You cannot win this battle." He said, trying to keep his voice steady between short gasps.
The man stood silently above him, the flame he held in his hand revealing his garments to his prisoner's eyes for the first time. He wore a deeply hooded cloak, lightly woven and black as the night, which billowed out in the breeze. Beneath this he wore a robe bearing a design, half covered by the cloak he wore. He didn't need to see the full emblem to know whom it was he faced. He could see the staff he held in his free hand, black and heavy, it was crowned with a large stone. His eyes locked upon it in the silence, or what he could see of it in the flickering light. The stone its self seemed to be made out of the darkness, leaving an emptiness to hang about the air, the feeling surrounded both the stone and the man who wielded it.
Ripping his eyes away from the man he stared into the darkness. He could see them, standing beyond the light of the flame. They were nothing more than shadows from here, but he knew them to be the men who had captured him. The ones who had made him listen as the footsteps of his men each disappeared during the pursuit, one by one.
"Do you hear me you bastards!" He shouted out to the night, his voice ragged "They will never let…" His shouts choking in his throat as he began coughing, flecks of blood coming with it. His world began to spin and he doubled over in pain, coughs heaving from his broken body, his eyes closed tightly as he fought the temptation to pass out.
I can't give in, not yet. I must find a way to warn the guardians! I must!
"And how do you plan to warn them? They have been blinded to the signs. No word you send of this shall reach their ears. Sharp as they may once have been, even they can't hear your cries of warning." The sound of his captors voice, a cold whisper like first breath of the winters wind, caused his eyes flash open. Slowly and painfully he raised himself back to his knees. His eyes fixed on the hood that still hid his captors face from his eyes, the darkness acting as a mask.
"My death will not go unnoticed you fool, they will know of this!" He said. His mind whirled, had he spoken aloud of the guardians?
"What use is learning of the dead, should the killer go unnamed? Of what death will they learn, should you vanish with the night?"
"My birds have flown! Your name goes with them!" The man gasped out, unfazed by the threats.
They can't all be stopped, they know the routes.
His anger had taken over his emotions but his mind was with his men and the message each of them carried with them. They had been given orders to flee should the need arise, and he knew each them had knowledge of the hidden routes through the city. Some of them would be able to slip through, of that he was sure. His claim was met by silence as the two men faced one-another. He could feel his captures eyes surveying him, pondering his words carefully, and waited for him to speak.
"A bird without wings can not take flight, surely, even you know that." The prisoners face hardened at this, his labored breathing wheezing as he tried to keep himself steadily facing his captor.
"Your birds are forced to walk the same paths as the beasts of the land, the same paths my beasts stalk this night." The voice was thin, and harsh. It held no warmth in them as it spoke, cruelly, mockingly, to the man who knelt broken before him. "So tell me, Crow, when the birds are made to walk the path with those that hunt them, which survives the night? The bird? Or the beast?"
The mans face contorted in anger at the words, and his heartbeat with fury. His mind flicked away for a moment as he thought of the men he had sent to their deaths.
"You, bastard!" He rasped out, "The order-"
"Your order is broken. Your purpose, forsaken." The figure said sharply cutting him off, the words spiteful and cold as the voice that spoke them. The man raised his staff high above his head, his cruel voice dripping with contempt as he brought it down to point at the man who still stared back in defiance at him. The Crow's eyes darkened as the voice continued addressing those out beyond the flickering light. "When the dawn rises the world will know fear. For tonight we claim the first of the Masters. Brokenclaw, the Crow of the western perch!"
It seemed to happen as the staff was lifted away. The darkness that surrounded the pair seemed to be pressing in now, growing closer to them. He could sense it, there wasn't any hope left to him and his final moments were fast approaching.
It seems that I've failed you once more then…
There was little he could do, his mind raced but nothing came to him, save the faces of those he had lost today. Men he had fought for, whom had become brothers to him. Men who had followed him to their dying breaths. In this moment of reflection his mind settled and turned to what he had hoped not to resort to.
Please, forgive me, I could not hold to the promise I gave you. I hope you understand one day, this was the only way…
Never had he thought he would be forced to play his hand like this, to unleash both his pride and fury in it's most ferocious of forms. It was something he had never used unless desperate, and even then never had he allowed for it's full power to be exerted. Until now only one had ever seen the true might of this technique, and it was he who'd warned Brokenclaw against it's use. A warning the Crow had long adhered to, for even while wielding it, he felt fear bubble within himself at the power that it held. But it looked now as if his final card had been dealt, and he had no option left to him but this.
He began to gather what little strength he had left, remaining calm and still as the darkness that pressed in on him threatened to shake his concentration.
"Do you see them Crow? Be the first to bear witness to what awaits your fellow guardians." Came the mocking voice of his captor. "No? Then here crow, see what the darkness has hidden."
With a flick of his wrist the small flame shot up above them, growing larger into a massive fireball which casted it's light onto the men who had waited out in the darkness. Thirty of them in all, each bearing the same crest upon their sleeves, a moon blotting out the sun. It was then that the Crows face split into a grin for the final time.
"Such a fool." His voice shook as he spoke in a whisper, but it carried behind it a power that all could hear resonating from him.
He was using more energy than he had left to him. His life force was becoming a part of this spell, a dangerous and likely fatal way to gain extra power. But it was the only strength he had left to draw from now. He stared to the face hidden in the darkness of the hood, his eye full of fire and defiance. "It's a pity I won't be the one to kill you, but I hope you'll honor me with one request."
The hooded mans hand twitched at the insult but he made no move as he listened to the dying man before him.
Only a moment or two more…
"When you return to your master, tell him that it was Brokenclaw, Crow of the western perch that took these men from his command." He spat out, each word dripping with all the hate and anger he could muster.
The hooded man was said nothing for a moment, and the silence weighed in heavily on all present. It pressed in, crushing out all sound as the party waited for his response. Finally the silence was shattered as he spoke two words, sealing Brokenclaws fate.
As they moved to him Brokenclaw acted. With a sudden move he raised his good arm high above his head. As he did a spark shot from it high into the sky, like an arrow from a bow. A burning crow forming as it went and growing larger by the second. Within moments it had lit the sky of the city with a fire so bright it looked as if the sun had risen. The cloaked man raised his arm, shielding his eyes from the light above.
Forgive me, my brother.
"Molon labe Boreanasted!" The Crow roared, his voice no longer wavering as the strength of the spell filled him as the spell was finally cast. He slammed his hand to the ground, the stone crumbling beneath his palm. He stared at the leader, his eyes no longer full of pain and suffering at the loss of his men, but sharp and deadly as a falcon before the kill, grinning savagely at the hooded man before him. From the flaming birds wings beat heavily, bringing down a powerful gust that roared to the ground. The wind slammed into the flames that hung above them.
His grin never left his face as the flames bloomed out of control and rushed down upon them all. Within moments the area was engulfed in flames, the men that had rushed forward at the hooded mans words screamed as they were consumed by the fire from above. A giant ball of flames melted stone and flesh alike, turning everything it touched to ash. Seconds later it was over, the raging fires of the Crows final act soon flickered and dying with the casters life. Nothing remained of the city street that they had stood upon but a charred crater, smoldering under the watch of a flaming crow that still burned brightly above.
A distance away a hooded man bearing a blackened staff stood, surveying the destruction from the city wall. He watched as people from all over the city rushed to the crater many pointing up to the Crow above screaming of black magic. He waited, pondering how the master had managed to release such power in his weakened state, as two shadows slipped up to him.
"And?" He questioned not turning to face his subordinates.
"The others are dead, we chased them down and made sure none of the birds escaped. But we have not found the…" He paused glancing to the other messenger before speaking "The item you've requested."
Without a word or glance to his messengers he turned and strode off to the city gates. As he passed the second man rose, shaking slightly as he addressed his superior.
"Sir, I have another message for you. Fr- from his grace." The second stammered quickly. The hooded man paused, waiting as the messenger lowered his head and bowing at the waist as he continued.
"His Grace requests your presence immediately. He's requesting your opinions on the Masters strengths and if their powers will pose any threat to his plans." He kept his eyes low as he waited for a response, after receiving none he raised his eyes slightly.
"My lord?" He quietly questioned.
"Tell me, if I am to report to his Grace with my response, what use have I for a messenger?" Came the deadly hiss, deep from the darkness under the hood. The messenger heart nearly stopped at his masters words, not knowing what to say dropped to his knee his mind working furiously for an answer.
"My lord, I suppose you have none." He said after a few moments of silence, his voice shaking as he responded. He lifted his head just enough to see his Lords hand flick forward, motioning to the unseen. Then he heard the whisper, cold as ice.
With that he moved off, the messengers heart hammering in his chest. A cold sweat dripped down his face, he remained still, kneeling to where his master had been standing. As the foot steps faded he stood, shaking and thanking the gods that he had been spared the Mages wrath. With a feeling of relief he turned to face where the second messenger, surprised that he hadn't heard him leave yet.
"The Gods smile on us friend, it seems that…" His voice trailed off as he took in the sight before him. The messenger's throat had been split wide and his panicked eyes already began to grow dim. His mouth moved wordlessly, a silent scream to the heavens as he lay there in a growing pool of blood with his neck still bubbling as the last of his breath escaped his lungs.
His own eyes grew wide as he felt his breath choke in his throat, a hand slipping across his face and locking down across his mouth. He felt the knife cutting its path deep across his throat and his blood spurting forth like a fountain on a midsummer's day. He dropped heavily on his back sputtering and spitting blood, as he tried desperately to breathe.
"The Gods smile on no man, least of all you" Came his response as his blood continued to poor forth around him. He saw a figure crouch low above him, his vision beginning to blur as he looked into the eyes of his killer. Hidden behind the mask of a snow leopard they smiled cruelly back at him as his life began to slip away. Tears stung his eyes as his vision went black. He heard her whispered song reach him through the darkness. The leopards lullaby carrying him to his endless slumber.
"The wolves, the bird, the dragon old
The cat, the bug, the bear of stone
Hide the sun, the plant grows cold
Whispers seek to seize the throne
Patiently, the leopard waits
fear sweeps across the lands
Watching prey, they take the bait
The leopard holds her hand."