Shadows: Ascension

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Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1-5

Submitted: November 15, 2016

Reads: 254

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Submitted: November 15, 2016

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Chapter One

Raven

 

I had been kneeling beside the pool in the cavern of darkness for several minutes when the old man finally entered through a side door, flanked by two huge guards in silver plate armour. He was wizened with a great white beard, a bald head and hard, serious  eyes and wore ropes of pure black. In his right hand was a staff of gnarled wood that he raised every time he moved. I kept my head low as he approached and waited until he was looming over me before I dared look him in the eyes. He looked back at me with an unchanged expression. I feel like nothing more than a scared child again.

 

“Rise, my son” the old man, the Zaharek, said. I obey and soon I’m towering over him. “You have trained your whole life for this moment. Are you ready to make your committment to our order?”

 

I reply without even considering any other options. “Yes, enlightened one”

 

The Zaharek nods and smiles coldly “Good. You have rehearsed your vowels?”

 

“I have, enlightened one”

 

“You may recite them”

 

I breathe in, trying to steady my nerves, and said “I hereby solemnly swear by the wings of Tenerbrisis to honour our sacred order, it’s members and it’s glorious leader, the great Zaharek, by offering my eternal servitude”

 

“Very good” said the Zaharek. One of his guards produced a large goblet of pure gold that was studded with emeralds and rubies at the hilt and handed it to him.

 

The Zaharek roared as he plunged the goblet into the murky pool “By the wings of Tenerbrisis, the dark lord of demons, darkness and death I proclaim you, Raven Darkfire, chosen of the dark god, the instrument of our order’s will. I proclaim you “Manos Vindrax”, High Wraith”

 

He handed me the goblet and I take it in my steel gloves. I catch my reflection in the water, my vivid purple  eyes and my shaggy white hair that came down to my jaw and hesitantly I drank. Some had said that drinking from the pool caused a burning sensation. Others has claimed to have felt a strange coldness. But to me it tasted and felt like a regular cup of water.

 

“Thank you, enlightened one” I said as I handed him back the goblet and tried to blink back my tears. It was true what the Zaharek has said; I had trained my entire life, or rather since I was seven, twenty hours every day for fourteen years. I had become a walking weapon with unlimited stamina, a ridiculously high threshold to pain thanks to regular beatings to “toughen me up” and an in depth knowledge of how to kill anyone with anything from a fork to a battle axe.

 

“By drinking from this goblet and offering your eternal service, you Raven are now immortal” proclaimed the Zaharek.

 

I sighed with relief. Immortal. Or rather frozen in time as I would never age, never feel the aching in my bones I’m sure the Zaharek felt. Perfect.

 

The Zaharek went on “But be warned my son. Though you shall never naturally die you can still be killed by blade or bullet”

 

Even better.

 

“Then when my time comes I can die with a sword in my hands and a prayer on my lips enlightened one” I said.

 

“As any Wraith should” the Zaharek said with an approving nod “Now go; reveal in the admiration of your peers and await my summons”

 

I bowed once more “As you say enlightened one”

 

I started down a small staircase of ten steps and pushed open a large double door made of oak to reveal a wide corridor full of my fellow Wraiths, the assassins of my order. They were dressed like me in a black,tight fitting, long sleeved tunic made of the strongest and lightest leather over and our  in trousers made of a similar material. Our hands were encased in thin leather gloves with thin,cat like claws made of steel on the ends. The sleeves of the tunics were pulled over the gloves from the wrist down. In their hands they carried the defining feature of a Wraith, the black steel mask that was shaped like a skull. These were my soldiers, my immortal brothers and sisters, and I was their captain. They looked at my eagerly, silently begging me to keep them in the dark no longer.

 

“Brothers. Sisters. I, like you, am now blessed by the dark god. With his blessing I will lead you as your captain in our struggle for glorious salvation” I loudly declared.

They came forward, some cheering others clapping, and the chant “Long Live Lord Darkfire” was taken up. I felt myself blush.

 

“Enough, brothers, enough. Disperse and prepare; sharpen your blades, say your prayers and rejoice in the thought of bathing in the blood of our enemies. For we, at last, are on the warpath”

 

Chapter 2

Isaac

130 years later.

 

“Fuck you Isaac”

 

I smiled as my brother, Quinn, held his wrist as his wooden practice sword lay discarded on the cobbled ground of the courtyard of Castle Umbara.

 

“You need to work on your guard Quinn” I said mockingly. I raised my own wooden sword “If this had been real you would now be bleeding to death very quickly. The brotherhood doesn’t need dead assassins you know”

 

Quinn lowered his hand and said with a raised chin “If this had been real you wouldn’t have seen me coming. You may be a better swordsman than me little brother but I’m much quieter than you”

 

Little brother. We could have passed for twins with the same brown hair and eyes but he’d been born two years earlier than me. And he was a lot quieter than me. Not wanting to admit the truth I scoffed “Bullshit”

 

“I’m sorry but I’m pretty sure that during our last night exercise I got the jump on you and had a knife on your throat before you knew what was going on”

 

“You got lucky”

 

“Right”

 

Rolling my eyes I let my sword dangle by my side as I strolled a couple of feet away from Quinn, who’d was heading to the infirmary to get his wrist checked out, and joined the heavily armed crowd watching my friend Tharos Windbane duel Mayana Uzan. They’d opted not to use training swords and so the ring of steel on steel echoed between the high walls of the castle. By the looks of things Mayana with her flame patterned, long hilted  greatsword had the upper hand over Tharos and his two Elven blades.

 

“Stand still you High Elf bastard” swore Mayana as she came forward again with a downwards swing. She was from some land across the Eastern Sea and as a result had been blessed with olive coloured skin, black hair and a foul temper. She looked terrifying in her grey hooded tunic and trousers.

 

Tharos, pale and blonde, side stepped with the speed only a High Elf could have been graced with and swung both his swords towards Mayana’s head, silver cape billowing. But the space where her head  should of been was suddenly empty as Mayana ducked and used her left foot to sweep Tharos’s legs from under him. He fell ungraciously to the floor. I laughed as Mayana  placed a boot on his chest to hold him down and placed her sword against Tharos’s golden locks, tucked neatly in a bun.

 

“Surrender Elf” hissed Mayana “Or i’ll cut your hair off”

 

Tharos looked up at her with such horror that you’d have thought she’d threatened to cut his nuts off and shove them down his throat. His hair was his pride and joy.

 

“You wouldn’t dare” he challenged.

 

“Oh you idiot Tharos” I muttered “You never say never to Mayana”

 

Fortunately Mayana seemed to be in a good mood after her victory. She removed her greatsword from his hair and hoisted him to his feet. Tharos nodded his gratitude and moved next to me once I had been seen.

 

“That looked fun” I said sarcastically

 

“Did it really?” replied Tharos. “I’ll tell you now Isaac it really bloody wasn’t”

 

“I’m not bloody surprised. What impulse made you think facing Mayana a good idea?” I asked

 

“The impulse to be the best. You don’t improve unless you face those better than yourself”


“You could have asked to spar with me. I’m less inclined to kill you than Mayana”

 

“That would be implying that you’re better than me” Tharos pointed out.

 

“I am better than you”

 

“Maybe. But you’re not better than her”

 

“Says who?”

 

“Says everyone”

 

“Really? In that case lend us your swords” I said with my hands outstretched

 

“You can’t be serious?” Tharos said. “You’re going to duel her?”

 

“I am”

 

“Why can’t you use your own sword?”

 

“I left in my room” I explained “Come on. Don’t be an arse”

 

“Fine fine. It’s your funeral anyway” Tharos chuckled as he handed over the curved blades. I marveled at how light and well balanced they were as I twirled them, earning myself a dirty look from a nearby assassin as one past worryingly close to her arm.

 

“Be careful with them Isaac” warned Tharos “I want them back intact”

 

“I’ll certainly try Tharos” I promised as I pushed my way through the crowd. “Mayana Uzan. I challenge thee”

 

Her eyes narrowed as she saw me and her gripped tightened on the hilt of her sword.

 

“Isaac Tivioli” she said, her voice as hard as Iron. “At last a challenge”

 

A murmur rose from the crowd and someone called out “One week's wages on Mayana”

 

“I’ll second that” someone who sounded like Tharus replied.

 

Ignoring them I adopted a fighting stance with my left foot in front of my right and my swords by my waist. Mayana smirked, a terrifying sight, and came forward casually. When she was a couple of feet away the huge greatsword came crashing down towards me as fast as lightning. I swung my left hand sword to meet it and managed to knock it downwards. Seeing an opportunity I propelled the right hand sword down so that, if unblocked, it would cut into Mayana’s left shoulder. However, she managed to get her sword off the ground and the two blades screeched against each other a couple of inches above.

 

“Nice try” she snarled, shoving me back and raining blows upon me, each one harder than the last.

 

I managed to parry every blow but arms were now on fire and felt like dead weight.

 

“I can’t take much more of this” I realised “It’s time to go on the offensive”

 

The next time Mayana swung downwards I crossed my swords above my head in an “x” shaped block. Mayana’s sword was caught in the middle and a look of actual surprise rippled across her face. Our eyes were only a short distance apart. In her dark pupils I saw nothing but cold fury.

 

My turn.

 

I drove my forehead towards her nose and they connected with a sickening crack. Blood exploded from her nose but I’d barely acknowledged it before I launched a savage kick at her stomach. Mayana cried out, staggered back and dropped to her knee with her head bowed.Her sword lay discarded next to her . Panting as I watched I blocked out Tharos’s urges for me to take advantage of the situation. That wasn’t my style.

 

When Mayana raised her head someone close by gasped. Her nose was was at an unusual angle to the side. Crimson blood covered her face from the nostrils down. Tears grew in her eyes.

 

“Are you able to continue?” I asked.

 

Slowly,  she licked away the blood running onto her top lip.

 

“I am”

 

Her hand snatched up her greatsword and she sprang to her feet faster than she should . I prepared myself to attack. This time, however, Mayana stood rooted to the spot, her sword held out in front of her.

 

“Three weeks pay on Isaac”.

 

Quinn emerged from the crowd. My eyes flickered to him and he nodded. I felt almost bad for hurting him earlier.

 

I strode forward, swords cutting deadly, glittering arks through the summer air. As we danced the balance of power swung to and fro almost regularly; I would attempt to feint with my left sword and strike with right only for her to block it and use the momentum to thrust towards my shoulder. Fortunately I was too quick even for this attack and I parried to the side.

 

After a while I sensed that she was starting to tire. Her attacks were losing some of their tenacity, her blocks a fraction off of being too late. The huge,heavy greatsword was starting to take it’s toll. Sensing blood in the water I went in for the kill. I began swinging the two blades rhythmically and towards all parts of her body. Left right left right, head ribs leg stomach. Mayana could hardly contain me.

 

There it was; a strike to her legs that managed to through. The tip of my sword cut a fine red line across her shin. Blood started to trickle out.

 

“Fuck you” Mayana screamed. Now she really was crying. Tears ran down her cheeks and mixed with the blood, giving her the impression of a banshee.

 

A red mist must have covered her eyes because she swung wildly towards my neck. I spun out of the way as a matador would do with a bull. The attack caused Mayana to momentarily over balance and I capitalised on it by stamping on the back of her right knee. She buckled and dropped, her back now facing me. Almost lazily I placed one of the blades against her neck.

 

“Surrender. You’ve lost” I said.

 

Mayana did nothing. She just kneeled there, her breaths deep. The huge greatsword lay on the ground once more but her hand was still tight on the hilt. I feared she may be foolish enough to attempt to start fighting again and although this was supposed to be a practice match Mayana may want revenge.

 

After a few tense seconds Mayana at last let go of the hilt. Her shoulders sagged and now she openly wept.

 

“I yield” she whispered.

 

Satisfied I turned and walked into the crowd, accepting the pat on the backs and congratulations of my fellow assassin’s. Some moved over to Mayana to console her and escort her to the infirmary. I watched her go, two of her friends flanking her, and then headed for my room in the castle’s main keep.

 

As a child I always thought Castle Umbara was built like a fortress of legend atop a peninsular overlooking a beautiful freshwater lake. The high outer wall was made of sturdy and smooth grey stone but was only about a hundred meters long due to the fact that the path leading to the castle had sheer drops either side. A gatehouse with two portcullises was the only way in or out of the complex. Between the wall and the keep was the courtyard in which we trained and where the castle’s reserve of gunpowder was stored in a featureless wooden building. The keep looked down upon all like some unmoving overlord ,engulfing everything in its gargantuan shadow. Four circular towers stood upright at each corner of the keep like the sentries that manned them. A giant oak door marked the entrance.

 

“Oi. Isaac”

 

Wrenched from my thoughts I turned to see Quinn and Tharos jogging towards me with huge grins on their faces.

 

“What are you so happy about?” I asked, handing Tharos back his blades and watching him sheaf them.

 

Tharos’s smile seemed to grow as he pulled a football sized bag from within the folds of his cape. He shook it and from within came the unmistakable clinking of gold coins.

 

“You little brother have made us very rich” said Quinn.

 

“Bloody hell. How much is there?” I exclaimed

 

“About twelves week’s wages”

 

“Twelve weeks?”

 

“That’s right. Four weeks each” Tharos declared.

 

I frowned at him.

 

“Didn’t you bet on Mayana?”

 

Tharos’s smile curdled like sour milk.

 

“No. Definitely not”

 

“I think you did. I distinctly remember hearing you bet a week's wages on her” chipped in Quinn.

 

“How the fuck would you know? You were getting your bruised arm looked at. Isaac do you really think I’m that much of a lowlife that I would bet against my best friend?”

 

“Yes”

 

Red faced, Tharos looked from me to Quinn. My brother shrugged. The sea blue tunic he wore rustled slightly.

 

“Alright, fine, you bastard” said Tharos, throwing his hands in the air “So I bet on Mayana. The odds weren’t in your favour Isaac. She’s never lost and until a couple of minutes ago I would have eaten you for breakfast. Forgive me if I side with logic rather than luck”

 

Tutting I said “Tharos. Tharos. Have you learnt nothing? I defy logic”

 

“Clearly” said Quinn

 

“I’ll be taking our winnings now” I said.

 

“So I get nothing?”

 

“Nothing.”
 

“Even though I leant you my swords?”
 

Taking the money bag from Tharos I opened it and pulled ten gold coins from the overflowing bag.

 

“Wow Isaac. You’re so generous.”

 

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit Tharos”

 

“Right. What exactly am I supposed to get with this?”

 

“If you try hard enough you might be able to pay for a woman to finally rid that pixie dick of yours”

 

“Fuck you”

 

Despite himself Tharos smiled as he took the gold and slid them into his trouser pockets.

 

“So what are you two going to do?” he inquired

 

“I’ve got to sharpen my sword” I said.

 

“And I’ve got to see the Grand Master . Apparently he has a contract that he feels I’m best suited for” said Quinn.

 

Tharos made a face “Sounds amazing. I think I’ll go back and see how much more I can win and hopefully keep”

 

“With ten coins?”

 

“I’ve won with less”

 

With that Tharos left us. I resumed walking towards the keep. Behind me I heard Quinn following.

 

“You never said anything about the Grand Master having a contract for you” I said over my shoulder.

 

“You never asked and it didn’t come up in conversation” Quinn said.

 
 

By now the oak door was looming over us. I pushed it open, blinking to help my eyes adjust to the sudden change in light. Inside was a two meter high stone corridor, completely bare save for half a dozen torches on the wall. Their red and orange flames cut ever changing patterns into the inky black shadows.It was much cooler in here thanks to the stone. I started forwards.

 

“Any idea who the unlucky bastard is?”

 

“Probably some noble who stole one too many sheep from his peasants”

 

“What is it with you and the nobility?” I sighed.

 

“They live in huge castles, built from the ridiculously high taxes they impose on the common folk, wining and dining all day while their peasants live in huts of wood or straw and fight over scraps of food. It’s hardly fair”

 

“Life’s not fair Quinn”

 

By now had arrived at the base of a huge staircase.

 

“I know that Isaac. If it were ma and pa would still be alive”

 

That stung. Our mother and father had died when I was five and Quinn seven of a fever that had gripped our home town of Malas that spring. We had no other relatives, at least not to our knowledge, so we had to spend the next three years living on the streets. It was a hard life. You had to fight to survive and fight we often did until the Brotherhood of Shadows had found us and trained us.

 

That had been ten years ago but still the thoughts of that feral existence made my skin crawl.

 

“I’ve got to go” went on Quinn “It doesn’t pay to keep the Grand Master waiting. I’ll see you later?”

 

“Yes. Have fun.”

 

Quinn turned to go.

 

“Quinn” I blurted “Don’t you dare come back dead”

 

“I won’t. Farewell.”

 

“Farewell”

 

Feeling rather sad, I once more went off to my room.

 
 

Chapter 3

Raven

 

In the cavern once more I presented the head before the Zaharek like a gundog presents its master with a pheasant; on my knees besides the pool and held out in front of me with both hands. The head was that of a young man. He’d had a head and beard of bright orange hair and pale blue eyes that were now glazed and lifeless. The muscles in his face were contorted in pain. My two swords, currently strapped to my back as they always were when not in use, had seen to that.

 

“I take it he gave you no trouble” the Zaharek asked. He still looked exactly the same as when he blessed me with immortality. So did I.

 

“Of course not enlightened one. He never knew what hit him. Which was a pity” I said grinning.

 

The Zaharek shifted uncomfortably. Most people did when I smiled. Apparently it made me look even more insane than I already was.

 

“I’m sure it was” the Zaharek said. He took the head from my hands and held it up with one hand so he could look into those lifeless eyes. After a while he tossed the head into the pool where the dark water fizzed and bubbled before disappearing completely.

 

“Another target eliminated Lord Darkfire. Most impressive”

 

“Thank you enlightened one”

 

“No doubt you’re eager to rest after being away for so long?”

 

“Indeed”

 

“Unfortunately I have another mission for you that must be dealt with immediately. My apologies”

 

“There is no need to apologise enlightened one. I’m eager to kill” I said but inside I was cursing. The promise of a soft bed had urged me to ride day and night. “Who is the target?”

 

“Not target my lord. Targets. A group of Tivian nobles are meeting with the leader of a Elmorian rebel movement during a month long masquerade ball and jousting tournament at Kranriver Palace in Kranriver three weeks from now. This rebel plans to lead an uprising against the Tivian king and wishes for the nobles to lend him funds to support the movement.”

 

“Forgive me enlightened one but why is this any concern of ours?”

 

“One of my servants is the warden of Elmoria” That made sense. The Zaharek had the loyalty of hundreds of high level officials. He even claimed to have the ear of the king himself. Of that I had yet to see any proof. “He has served me well for many years. If this rebel succeeds in gaining support then I fear for his life.” said the Zaharek. He withdrew a handkerchief and dabbed his eyes. “You are to meet one of my agents, Kaspar Niedhal, at Fox and Hound Inn on the River Road. He will give you the full details on your targets. Now go; kill these traitors. Bring me their heads”

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Outside in the stone corridor I was greeted by my Second and friend, Pypar Black. He was as tall as me with yellow-blonde hair, deep blue eyes and an ability to get on with almost anyone, a trait I myself lacked.

 

“Welcome back my lord” he greeted.

 

“Thank you Pypar but I fear my stay will be short lived. The Zaharek has given me another mission.”

 

“Already? You’ve only just got back” said Pypar his face grim.

 

“My thoughts exactly”

 

“Thats a shame. Some of the lads were planning to share a drink with you. You have been gone for three months after all.”

 

“It felt much longer old friend” I said clapping him over the back. “But there's no reason why we can’t share a drink. The River Road is three days ride at a stretch. I don’t have to leave right away.”

 

“Perfect.”

 

Pypar lead me through dozens of similar corridors, all cold and sparse. Unusually sparse. Where was everyone?

 

I got my answer when Pypar opened the door to the Wraith’s private underground dining hall and a wave of yellow light and hearty cheers came out. Inside the hall it appeared that they’d managed to squeeze fully half the Wraith’s onto the long wooden benches that ran parallel either side of the even longer drab granite table. Gammon and lamb and beef and all manners of fruit and vegetable were piled high on plates of silver while drinking horns were being held in the air and constantly refilled with wine or beer by sombre looking servants in white robes carrying jugs of gold. Torches hung from the walls.

 

By the looks of the red faces and semi glazed eyes they’d been drinking for a while.

 

“Soldiers of Tenerbrisis. Our High Wraith has returned to us”

 

“Hail” the Wraith’s cried, slamming their drinking horns rhythmically on the table “Hail. Hail. Hail”

 

Smiling I raised my hand for silence.

 

“My fellow Wraiths.Eternal servants of Tenerbrisis. After three months I have succeeded in the mission the Zaharek, the instrument of the dark god's will, gave me”

 

I paused for effect and drank in the eagerness in my warrior’s eyes before slowly making my way to my grand chair at the far end of the table, placing each foot in front of the other with deliberance. Pypar followed.

 

“My target” I went on “Had betrayed our order in favour of gold. He fed the Zaharek false information which resulted in the death of one of our own, Firion Vexx.”

 

A chorus of hisses echoed off the high walls.

 

“The Zaharek, obviously distraught, wanted to send one of you to bring this traitor to justice. But I insisted that I should have the honour. Any man who betrays us, I said, should feel the wrath of Raven Darkfire.”

 

“I almost feel sorry for the bastard” Pypar said. There was a murmuring of agreement.

 

“I chased the traitor all over Tivia, from Tavok to White Mountain to Dranso. Through forests and deserts, over mountains and ravines the traitor fled. He hid in remote taverns, abandoned castles. When I finally caught him he’d crawled into the Xyblos sewage system like the rodent he was. He died surrounded by a thousand tonnes of shit”

 

Before my chair I saw that a horn filled with blood red wine had been placed next to a plate of steaming hot gammon. I picked the horn up slowly, treasuring it as though it was made of glass.

 

“He ran for three months, down every path he knew, to try and escape our vengeance but he ultimately failed. It seems he had forgotten our words” I raised the horn up to my eyes.“Kujas Zharen ne julis. All roads lead to death.”

 

“Kujas Zharen ne julis” the Wraiths echoed.

 

I drained the horn, savouring the strong taste. I feel into my chair, a great wooden thing, and dug into the gammon. Pypar took his place to my right.

 

“What has happened while I was gone?” I asked him.

 

“Well for starters we have some new recruits”

 

“I noticed. They’re the ones closest to the door correct? The two wood elf twins and the berserker looking one?”

 

Pyapar blinked.

 

“That's them. It never ceases to amaze me how you notice new people”

 

“I wouldn’t be a very good leader if I didn’t. Have they been initiated?”

 

“They have”

 

“I would like to meet them then.”

 

“I thought you would”

 

Pypar whistled so loudly it cut through dozens of conversations. Three Wraiths at the bottom of the table rose once they’d heard it. Well, two rose. The other, a beast of a man with an orange mohawk and beard, attempted to get up but managed to trip over the bench and landed on the floor face first. He shot to his feet red faced and marched towards me and Pypar rather stiffly.

 

“These two lovely elf maidens are Rhian and Annas Redtree” announced Pypar when the trio arrived. The two elves, identical except that Rhian had a small mole on her cheek,had been blessed with chestnut hair, hazel eyes and skin as deathly pale as my own. Their physique was slender and they seemed to float rather than walk. On their backs they each carried an Elven wind bow, their upper and lower limbs lined with silver, and a quiver of arrows with nasty looking steel heads. By their sides they carried a pair of Kopis’s, slender and deadly.

 

“And this drunken oaf is Faas Skorson of the Northern Isles”. Faas was a terrifying specimen. Not only was his hair and beard bright orange but he also had a network of scars on his naked scalp either side of his mohawk. One of his eyes was sky blue but the other was a golden brown.

 

“Who you calling an oaf you son of a pig fucker?” the huge northerner slurred. He was what I like to call completely and utterly shitfaced drunk. Beside him, Rhian giggled.

 

“Do you think it is wise to use such language in the presence of your captain?” I asked.

 

“Would you rather I dropped to my knees and offer to suck your cock for the love I bear you?”

 

“Not particularly”

 

“Then I suggest you get used to the language my lord”.

 

Rhian burst into open laughter then and had to lean against her sister to stop herself from falling. Annas looked thoroughly unimpressed.

 

“Forgive her my lord” she said “She’s had one too many horns of ale”

 

“So I can see”

 

“With your permission I would like to escort her back to her room before she embarrases herself further”

“Of course”

 

Annas bowed and wrapped her arm around her sniggering sister before frog marching her out the hall with as much dignity as she could muster.

 

“Drunken bitch” scoffed Faas. He grabbed a jug full of wine from a passing servant and downed it in three mighty swallows. The purple liquid ran through his bushy beard, staining it beetroot. “If we are done here my lord I would like to return to my seat”

 

“By all means”

 

I watched the northerner stagger back to his place at the end of the table, nearly knocking over another poor servant. Pypar,I saw, had buried his face in his hands.

 

“Well. That was interesting”

 

“My lord I am so sorry. If I had known that they would behave the way they did….” His voiced trailed and he had to gesticulate with his hands to finish.

 

“Nonsense Pypar. As long as they are loyal, can fight and treat the Zaharek respectfully I don’t care how they act around me”

 

“They can fight my lord. Believe me. Faas is a demon with an axe. And the twins! I’ve never seen anyone shoot an arrow so accurately”

 

“They’re wood elves Pypar. Chances are they were using bows before they could walk.” I said. My throat felt dry so I signaled a servant and he refilled my horn with a sickeningly sweet honeyed wine.

 

“Even so”

 

I waved the subject away with a hand.

 

“Anything else?”

 

“Nothing that springs to mind”

 

“Where's Klios? Does my Third deem my return not worth his presence?”

 

Shifting slightly, Pypar whispered “Klios is dead”

 

A beat passed as I digested this new, foul tasting information. I could my anger building up within me, begging to be released like a leviathan. My left arm shot across the table and grabbed the collar of Pypar’s tunic before I yanked his face so close to mine our noses were almost touching.

 

“Explain.” I hissed “Quickly.”

 

Fear shone in Pypar’s eyes as he started babbling.

 

“The Zaharek sent him on a mission a few weeks after you to assassinate an Elmorian man called Antoine Tybos. He was a member of the Red Hand, a group dedicated to fighting for Elmorian independence and based in Qurth. It appears that though Klios managed to kill Tybos, he still raised the alarm and was overwhelmed.”

 

I searched Pypar’s face for any sign of deceit. Thankfully I found none.

 

“And this didn’t spring to mind?”

 

Fear was replaced by a burning shame. Good. I released Pypar and sat back in my chair.

 

“I want you to go to Qurth” I said “Take your new recruits. Now's as good a time as any to bloody them.”

 

“What would you have me do my lord?” asked Pypar.

 

“I want you to find every single Red Hand member in Qurth and I want you to kill them. Kill them slowly and painfully and when they’re dead, skin them and hang them from the city walls. Show no mercy and leave no witnesses. If anyone sees you, kill them as well. I don’t care who they are; rich, poor, male, female, strong or weak. I. Want. Them. Dead. Is that understood?”

 

Pypar risked a small smile.

 

“I understand perfectly my lord.” he answered.

 

“Good.” I rose then. “If you’ll excuse me I must prepare for my mission now. Have my horse prepared as soon as is convenient. Good night Pypar.”

 

“Good night my lord and good luck.”

 

“Thank you Pypar”

 

I began walking when a thought entered my mind.

 

“Oh Pypar. One more thing; If you fail me in this matter I will skin you and wear you hide. Do I make myself clear?”

 

Watching Pypar’s face pale was answer enough for me and I left him there, contemplating his future.

 

Chapter 4

Isaac

 

A week after my fight with Mayana I was laying on my bed in my chamber reading some book I’d picked up from the castle library called “A Military History of Tivia”. I’d always been interested in history and reading about how legendary warriors like the Soldier Kings of the Kriegas Dynasty, Sir Wilhelm Tylas and the Iron Duke Artur von Klass conquered most of the known world and fought against the old human kingdoms, the High Elves of Llyria, the Wood Elves of Elnish, the Dwarves of Drazak and the Orc and Goblin tribes of the wastes of Oras was just as fun as sparring with a very angry foreigner.

 

A knock at my chamber door made me put my book down.

 

“Who is it?”

 

“It’s me.” replied the high pitch voice of young Jack Meerson ,the Grand Master’s personal servant.“The Grand Master wants to see you immediately”

 

“Give me a minute Jack.”

 

After folding the corner of my page I hoisted myself up. I was wearing a open neck shirt of white cloth and black woolen trousers, which were a lot more casual than the stone grey tunic and trousers I wore while fighting. My boots, currently sitting besides the door, were worn but made of fine brown leather. I pulled them on before moving over to my wardrobe. It and my bed were the only pieces of furniture in my tiny, three by eight room. Inside the wardrobe were a dozen pairs of identical shirts and trousers and a large leather belt. Attached to the belt was my sword Flame, a holster with a flintlock pistol in it and several throwing knives in small pouches. I wrapped it round my waist and tightened the brass buckle.

 

“Ready” I announced as I threw open the door and beheld Jack. He was only fourteen and as a result he’d been cursed,like most teenagers were, with acne. His jet hair was shaved to stubble at the sides while on top it was angled towards his left eye. By his side, attached to his cotton trousers, was a small steel knife.

 

“Good. Follow me.”

 

As we made our way through the winding hallways of the keep I looked out of one of the many gothic windows and was suddenly made aware that it was in fact late afternoon thanks to the now pitch black sky swarming against the faint orange glow that was now confined to the horizon, atop half a dozen mountain peaks. In the courtyard below a precision of about thirty men mounted on top of fine horses had appeared. By the looks of things they were well equipped with shining plate armour on their arms and barbuta helms as well as all manner of steel weaponry. Grass green surcoats covered their upper bodies and a silver star had been sewed onto the chest.

 

“Who are they?” I asked.

 

“Elmorians” answered Jack “And before you ask that's all I know. They arrived about ten minutes ago and their leader went straight to the Grand Master’s chambers.”

 

“What he look like?”

 

“Don’t know. He was wearing a hooded cloak.”

 

“Whoever this is clearly doesn’t want to be seen”

 

“You think?” Jack said sarcastically.

 

I was about to reply when we rounded a corner and came face to face with the looming door of the Grand Master’s personal chambers. Jack racked his knuckles against the dark oak and stepped back as the door swung open and a figure appeared.

 

“I’ve bought Tivioli,Grand Master”

 

The Grand Master was a plain looking man in his late forties. His mahogany hair was starting to grey and the skin on his face was getting thiner and thiner. Bundles of expensive, onyx furs hid the fact his body was deteriorating as well.

 

“Good work Jack” said the rumbling voice of the Grand Master “You are dismissed. I shan't be needing you for the rest of the night”

 

“Thank you Grand Master”

 

He watched Jack run off before fixing me with his pale eyes.

 

“Come in Isaac” he said “We have much to discuss.”

 

The Grand Master’s chamber was much larger and more lavishly furnished than my chambers. Rugs of bearskin lay underneath a set of three blue velvet couches and a tiny, round table that sat beside a huge, roaring fireplace. In one corner stood a stone desk, covered in neat piles of paper and in another a Longsword lent against the stone wall.

 

The couches, I realised, were occupied by four people but it took me a couple of seconds to adjust to the fact that Quinn was among them. He looked up at me as I entered, confusion written across his face. Two of the three others I recognised as friends of Quinn but their names had long since abandoned my memory. Both were human but one was a brown haired female who looked short sitting down while the other was male and of average height. The hair on his head had been shaved to stubble but it too appeared to be brown. The third person, however, I had never seen before in my life. Like Jack had said they were indeed wearing a hooded cloak but the mysterious person was a she rather than a he, a woman around thirty years old. And she appeared to be quite wealthy as the cloak she wore was made of good quality green cloth lined with silver and gold thread. The boots on her feet were caked with mud, as were the bottom half of her trousers. I couldn’t see the upper half of her body due to the cloak but even that could not hid the arming sword that she carried at her side.

 

“Please be seated Isaac”

 

I obeyed and soon found myself beside Quinn who was trying to keep his face neutral. The Grand Master sat on his own separate couch. He leant forward, hands in fists on his lap, and said “Isaac. Quinn. Wimarc. Orella. May I present Lady Roisia of House Lysander, Marquisa of Mont Saint Michelle.”

 

I couldn’t believe it. Of all the people I’d expect to be hired by, an Elmorian noblewoman was definitely one of the wilder suggestions.

 

“An honour, my lady” Wimarc said.

 

“The honour is mine” replied the Marquisa. Her voice was soft and proper and had the bearest of the Elmorian rolling accent.

 

“May I now ask why you have come?” inquired the Grand Master.

 

“You may.”

 

The Marquisa drew herself up and launched into a lengthy explanation;

 

“I am a member of the Red Hand, an organisation of Elmorian nobles and peasants fighting against Tivian occupation. Over the past few years we have made arrangements, all of which I am not permitted to tell you, that have definitely strengthened our position. However, my fellow conspirators feel that having support from a few sympathetic Tivian nobles would greatly improve our position so they sent me to meet a few who have made it known to our various sources that they are interested at a month long masquerade ball and jousting tournament that is to be held at Kranriver Palace three weeks from now. And that's where you come in.”

 

I said “Forgive me my lady but how could we possibly help you in this scheme?”

 

“For starters you can help me actually get to the bloody thing.”
 

“I saw your escort on my way here. They looked imposing enough thirty feet up. No one would dare attack you.”

 

“I wish I shared your optimism but past events have taught me otherwise” said the Marquisa, giving me a sideways look. “In any case your swords and skill will increase my chances of getting to my destination and surviving the month. The second task I require of you is to kill a certain…. Thorn in our side if you will.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Marquis Marcel L'eaubleue of Dechant. Also known as the Duke of Elmoria.

 

“You’re joking.” exclaimed Quinn. “Why would you want to kill one of your own?”

 

“Because the man's a traitor. He was the late King Louis’s uncle and commanded by his nephew to lead an army against the Tivian’s. Instead he bent the knee and changed sides. It was his soldiers that not only cut down the young king, his personal guard and his loyal lords but also King Elisio and Queen Lucrezia of Wanland who had come to honour their alliance with our country. For these actions I do not consider him “one of our own”.”

 

An awkward silence fell on us like a blanket after the Marquisa’s outburst.

 

“I see” the Grand Master said after a while. “So you want these four for the entire festival?”

“And the three weeks leading up to it. Seven weeks in total.”

 

“That’s going to be quite expensive my lady. Very expensive.”

 

“Cost is no issue I assure you.”

 

“I hope so. It’s going to cost about sixty thousand Imperial Jel’s.”

 

Wimarc swore softly under his breath.

 

“I see.” the Marquisa said, considering the offer “That is indeed a large amount of money. I was thinking more along the line of forty five thousand.”

“My lady, these are no ordinary people. They are highly trained killers, plucked off the street at a young age and pushed to physical perfection. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone as good as these.”

 

“Oh I have no doubt about that. I just don’t believe they’re worth sixty thousand. At a push, maybe fifty.”

 

“Sixty.”

 

“Fifty.”

 

“How about we meet in the middle? Fifty-five thousand.”

 

“Done.”

 

It’s an odd experience watching people argue about how much you’re worth.

 

“Excellent.” smiled the Grand Master. “When will you be wanting them?”

 

“Immediately. We have much ground to cover if we are to arrive at the festival on time.”

 

An hour later, all five of us were in the castle’s courtyard. I had changed into my assassins gear and had a small satchel filled with salted meat and biscuits hanging from my shoulder. The others had changed as well; Quinn in the same outfit as before and an Pernach dangled head down from his belt while Wimarc and Orella both wore a dull white. He carried a pair of estocs while she carried a variety of savage looking knives of varying lengths.

 

“We’re all set my lady.”

 

“Good. Guiscard; find our new companions some horses.” ordered the Marquisa.

 

“At once my lady.”

 

I was placed on a destrier as black as sin. She was a suspicious thing and whinnied when I mounted. All things considered though, I was still better of than Wimarc, whose stallion threw him off the second he was fully in the saddle.

 

“Be patient with the horses.” Guiscard urged. “They’ve known no riders other than their owners.”

 

“Where are the owners?” asked Orella. She’d managed to calm her black and white horse.

 

“They’re dead. Them and forty others.”

 

“What happened?”
 

“Bandits.” was all he said before riding to his Lady’s side.

 

The horsemen were forming back into a column, three across and ten deep. The Marquisa was the column’s head, in between Guiscard and another soldier. We were placed at the rear in an extra row of three and one, Wimarc, on his own at the very back. Quinn stood in the middle on his surprisingly calm grey destrier with me on his right and Orella on his left. The other riders shifted impatiently and spoke to each other in Elmorian. A few glanced at us and whispered comments to their friends but we were largely ignored.

 

“Good luck.”

 

The Grand Master had silently appeared by my side. Earlier, it had been agreed that the brotherhood would receive the lion's share of the fifty-five thousand jels, while we were to be content with ten percent each, which was a whole three months wages.

 

“Thank you Grand Master. We will do the brotherhood proud.”

“I sincerely hope so Quinn.”

 

The column started off at that moment. Before I knew it I was riding through the great por

Chapter 5

Raven

The Fox and Hound Inn was a small, well kept establishment on the banks of the lazy River Frieden. The inn had much larger stables attached to it and a remarkably detailed sign portraying two men fighting swung just above the white wooden door. But the most important feature of this inn, to me at least, was that it truly sat right in the middle of nowhere. All you could see, for miles around, was an endless expanse of green fields, a couple of trees, the river and the pale cobbles of the road that followed it all the way to Northgate. Against the setting sun, the area looked like a scene from paradise.

 

I led my horse forwards. She was a well bred mare who’s hair was granite except for a splash of white on her back right thigh. Attached to her flanks were two leather bound trunks, filled with a mixture of spare clothes and weaponry. On my persons I only carried a carolingian sword, its hilt solid gold and encrusted with precious stones, and a zigzag pattern kris knife. It’s blade was made of extremely rare astral iron that had been recovered from a meteorite while the small pommel had words of some extinct language carved into the griffin bone it was made of. Though reasonably small, the knife was extremely tough and sharp and had several magical runes infused with the metal before magic had disappeared.

 

As I neared, a stable boy came sprinting out. He looked to be around sixteen and was dressed in ragged clothing. It looked like his eyes and ears were too large for his head.

 

“Raven Darkfire?” he asked, bowing.

 

I was dressed very richly in a pale blue doublet over a similarly coloured long sleeved shirt. A cape of turquoise silk was draped over one shoulder and a shimmering dolphin of shining silver thread had been sown into it. A pair of black trousers kept me from being indecent. They were cut off at the waist by a loose fitting belt of coal leather.

 

“Yes.” I answered.

 

“I’m here to look after your horse, my lord.”
 

“Very well.” I swung myself down from my mount and handed the boy the reigns. “See that she’s fed and watered. Leave the trunks, they stay on. Do not open them. If I find out that you have, I will flay you myself.”

 

“I won’t milord. I ain’t no thief. Just ask me mother.” blurted the boy, paling slightly.

 

I ignored him and pushed open the door to the inn. It took my eyes a couple of seconds to adjust to the changing light but I could still hear the low muttering of conversations. Before me stretched one room that seemed to make up the entirety of the downstairs. Sets of chairs and round, wooden tables were dotted around a semi-circular bar, behind which stood hundreds of exotic bottles and a massively obese bartender. A serving girl of about fourteen years carried drinks from table to table.

 

A few of the men sitting at the tables saw me as I entered and the talk gradually stopped. Their hair was waist length and each strand had a silvery-white colouring. Their bodies were covered in jagged armour with huge shoulder plates made of dull silver and grey steel. Curved blades attached to belts lay discarded next to wooden stools.

 

“You’re Lord Darkfire?” the bartender called. For pity’s sake, why did everyone know who I was?

 

“I am.” I answered, studying the man's chin hair and flabs while I did so.

 

“I was told to send you in there, my lord.” he said, pointing to a side door.

 

Interesting.

 

I moved towards the door and opened it. Inside was a rectangular oak table with four chairs on each side, of which three were occupied. The first was a tall, muscular man, identical to the ones outside. Scars crisscrossed his right cheek while the left was tattooed with characters that  I recognised as Immortas, the language of the Immortal Islands. The second person was also male, but he was a lot darker with chestnut skin a egg smooth head and pale blue eyes. He was dressed in the night black of a Wraith. Two swords were strapped to his back, the pommels sticking up over his head. Exotic incense clung to the third man, a great hunk of fat smothered in rich furs. A snow white beard sprouted from his chubby face and the hairs closest to his mouth and nose vibrated with each wheezing breath.

 

The Wraith shot up as soon as I entered, the Immortal Islander rose much slower and the fat man didn’t even bother.

 

“You are Kaspar?” I asked the Wraith.

 

“ Yes my lord” he said. “I am Erich Konis. It is an honour to serve you. I have heard much of your exploits.”

 

“So has everyone next door. How is it they all know my name and who I am?”

 

“You assured me that you wouldn’t tell anyone.” Erich said to the Immortal Islander. “That no one would know who he was. You swore that your word was iron.”

 

The scars on the Islander’s face disappeared as it creased into a sneer;

 

“This one's word is indeed iron.” he said, his voice as soft as a snake's hiss “Ask anyone on Immos and they shall tell you the Llyrio Savage’s word is his bond. However, the same cannot be said of my men. I am not to blame if they overheard us.”

 

“Enough of this gentlemen, please.”

 

We all looked at the fat man. He outstretched a chubby hand, with more rings on it than I cared to count, towards me.

 

“Lord Darkfire is here now. That is all that matters. Please, be seated my lord.”

 

I sat in the one remaining chair, which was coincidently the closest to the door.

 

“Now then.” the pile of blubber went on “Allow me to introduce myself, seeing as both Erich and Llyrio have; I am Grand Duke Kaspar von Gutteren Marcus Niedhal of Brungas, Grand High Lord Minister of Architecture and brother to His Imperial Majesty Konig Ulrich the thirty seventh.”

So the Zaharek did have the ear of the king after all.

 

“I am pleased to meet you all.” I said.

 

“The pleasure is ours.” Llyrio said with a smile about as appealing as a sack full of adders.

 

“Before we start, gentlemen, I hope you do not object to me ordering a tankard of wine for us to share.”

 

“Llyrio Savage never refuses a drink.”

 

“I can imagine” Erich muttered. He gave me a mischievous look and I allowed myself to smile slightly.

 

“Tender” barked Kaspar, his voice like the rolling of the waves. “ A tankard of your finest if you please. Be smart about it now.”

 

“Yes my lord.” came the meek reply. Moments later the serving girl entered with a tray balanced neatly on her palm. From it she took a enormous silver jug that appeared to be bottomless and placed four chalices in front of each of us. I noticed that she never once looked any of us directly in the eye and seemed to be in a rush when she silently closed the rooms door.

 

Reaching over, I grabbed the tankard and filled each cup to the brim. Kaspar snatched his up worryingly fast and drained it so quickly that I had to fill it again. Llyrio swigged until his was half empty while Erich opted to have a few quick sips before pushing his chalice away. I left mine untouched.

 

“Let us begin” said Kaspar, wiping a single red bead off the corner of his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “Lord Darkfire, what exactly has the Zaharek told you?”

 

“I’m to somehow infiltrate the festival at Kranriver and assassinate a couple of treacherous Tivian nobles and a rebel Elmorian before they organise some sort of support for the Elmorian rebel movement.”

 

“But you don’t know who you’re killing?”

 

I felt myself smiling evilly.

 

“I take it that's what you’re here for, Lord Niedhal.” I said.

 

“Yes and no.”

Slowly and deliberately, Kaspar lent down, picked up some sort of pile from beside his chair and handed it to Erich who handed it to me. Half a dozen pieces of brown paper, kept in place by two lengths of white string.

 

“These are portraits of your targets.” the moving mountain of blubber explained. “Each comes with a brief description of them. The person we suspect to be the rebel leader is at the bottom.”

 

My targets were a varied bunch to say the least.

 

“Count Ellis von Torg of Elsridge.” I read aloud “Countess Kristine Sandberg of Myken. Baron Leopold Dallmeyer of Bad Dembach. Baron Marius von Zeinert of Klings. Sir Manfred Cast of Wolsdorf. Lady Roisia of House Lysander, Marquisa of Mont Saint Michelle. All very influential people I presume?”

 

“Indeed. Count von Torg is in fact Lord High Minister of Ordnance and Sir Manfred is a hero of the Great Dwarf war. Both are well respected figures in Tivian society. Why would they want to side with an Elmorian rebel and risk losing everything?”

 

“Elsridge and Klings are near the Tivian-Elmorian border, correct?” I asked.

 

“Correct.”

 

“Where are Myken, Bad Dembach and Wolsdorf?”

 

“Wolsdorf is a couple of miles east of Klings. Myken and Dembach are in Waarland, a few miles from the border.”

 

“So it’s likely that these five have somehow been persuaded by this…. Lady Lysander? That its in their best social  interest to aid her rebel movement.”

 

“In return they get power and titles they could only dream of in Tivia.” chipped in Erich. I nodded gravely.

 

“This is all very interesting.” Llyrio said with a forced yawn “But what exactly does this have to do with me and my men?”

 

Erich straightened. It was quite clear that he didn’t have a particularly high opinion of our mercenary captain.

 

“As you all know, my brother is holding a month long festival at Kranriver castle.” began Kaspar. “Though I’ve been invited I will unfortunately be unable to attend as I have to oversee the building of a string of fortresses along the border with Vinland. However, imagine my joy when I came across a prince of the Immortal Isles currently touring the continent with his personal bodyguards and he accepts my invitation to the festival.”

 

“Won’t it look suspicious if we turn up with your invitation?”

 

“Not really. Ulrich knows that I’m not one for large gatherings. On my brothers eighteenth birthday I hid away in the palace library and spent the night reading. Nowadays I normally give my invitations to those who would enjoy such events.”

 

“So we’re to act as bodyguards then?”

 

Llyrios voice was full of scorn.

 

“It is merely a facade I assure you. Though royal events are protected by the Imperial Guard almost all those who attend bring their own force of a dozen or so knights to protect themselves on the road. Most will joust in the tourney. Besides, I’m sure the infamous Llyrio Savage and his men would hate it to be known that they missed a whole month of eating, drinking and fighting.”

 

It must be said that Kaspar had a way with words. A wicked grin spread across Llyrio’s face like a cancer.

 

“You are right to assume so. But it would be better if it was a month of eating, drinking, fighting AND whoring.”

 

“I’m sure something can be arranged.”

 

“Good. But it has just occurred to me that there is a small flaw in your plan Darkfire.”

 

“Is it the fact that I don’t look anything like an Immortal Islander?” I asked.

 

“Yes. It will look somewhat suspicious to say the least if a black haired “prince” turns up with a company of white haired warriors when everyone knows that Immortal Islanders have either white or blonde hair. And as brilliant as your lapdog here claims your precious order is, I highly doubt that even you can find a way to make this work.”

 

“I disagree.”

 

All eyes turned to Erich. Sometime while me and Llyrio were talking he had lined up two glass vials on the table before him. One contained a ruby red liquid and the other a green one.

 

“What the fuck are they?”

 

“These, my lords, are alternation potions.” He picked up the red vial. “What this one will do, once Lord Darkfire has drank it of course, is it will change his hair from the pure black it is now to a ravishing shade of blonde. And it will remain so until he drinks this delicious looking green potion, whereupon it will change back.”

 

It was interesting to watch Llyrio digest this new information. When he was thinking, his head bobbed up and down like a dogs.

 

“It could work.” The islander conceded “The nobility normally have blonde hair anyway. Yes, I do believe it could work.”

 

“Of course it will work.”

 

“Then that’s settled.” I declared. “Is there anything else?”

 

“If I may provide some additional information my lord…..”

 

Kaspar paused as he pulled something else from beside him. Something also made of several pieces of paper but each was much larger than the profiles and rolled into cylindrical shape.

 

“Kranriver Palace is, essentially, two parts. The first is the keep and inner wall of an ancient fortress made of plain old granite and makes up the east wing of the palace . The second is much newer and larger and incorporates the rest of the castle. That section was built by Maximilian the fourth, also known as the Cowardly. It seems his constant paranoia about being murdered influenced his design choices. His architectural plans were found in the Grand Library of Tavok and they show that dear old Max had a network of secret tunnels built into the walls. They run across the entire complex, including the keep, and have several exits and entrances. They should allow you to move around the castle unseen if you so wish. Most of the rooms have an entrance but if you’re put in one that does not I’m sure that you can find a way to enter one that does.”

 

“This information should come in very handy.” I said, taking the plans from Kaspar. “Anything else?”

 

No one said anything.

 

“Good. I don’t know about you but I’m starving. Hey barkeep. Cook us some food and be quick about it.”

 


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