“Oceans of fine gold run rich in Aszyria, a land sun-scorched by day with parched blizzards at night. Life though few, are resilient; a harsh land fit only for those with rugged will and tempered fortitude. Think thrice before venturing, and then think thrice again, for Aszyria is a harsh mistress.”
That was the summa of the ancient philosopher and poet, Johannes Zong, which was written over a thousand years ago to describe the desert nation.
It was a land filled with equal amounts of intrigue and danger, a paradise to ply shady trades and meet shadier people. Anything you want can be bought in Aszyria with the right price, and so can any service.
However, humans have thrived only by working as a society, so Aszyria was not a lawless land run by anarchy. The ruling classes were composed of guild masters and wealthy or politically influential individuals. There was no central government or law system in place, instead one had to be tied to one of these influential people and their circle to survive in this society.
Each ruling group had their own set of laws and codes of conduct, and generally avoided conflict with those unrelated to their business. More than a handful of guilds had declared war on each other in the past, only to end up bloodying themselves to the point where their neighbors converged on them like hyenas around wounded prey.
Even so, there were many guilds whose professions would only incite conflict between parties. Take the thieves’ guild, they cared not who they stole from and would target anyone who lets their guard down, yet only those caught in the act of stealing were punished. In fact, successful thefts were, more often than not, regarded as proud accomplishments!
Another example was the spies’ guild, whose trade was collecting information and ‘sharing’ that information at the right price. And yet despite having a big, prominent headquarters and numerous branch offices, none dared to bother with them. Perhaps it was because every guild had hidden skeletons in their closets, and crossing the spies’ guild would risk those little secrets being exposed.
The third example, though, was an exception. Successful thieves are called crafty and knowledgeable informants are called sly, but murderers are still called murderers.
So when the seemingly young girl uttered the correct passcode and showed the attendant an emblem: a thumb-sized gray coin engraved with tiny but legible inscriptions, the middle-aged man’s cool attitude dissipated and was replaced by nervousness, accompanied by fear.
Of course, it wasn’t because he had never met a person who belonged to the assassin’s guild before. It was because the person who presented it looked so young. Her small frame, wrapped in a thin and faded red cloak, gave her a deceivingly meek disposition. The upper half of her face was concealed under the hood, but judging from her pale unblemished cheeks and thin lips, she couldn’t be older than a late teen.
Her initial appearance reminded him of a character in a fairy tale, a girl dressed in a hooded red cloak who ventured into the forest and encountered the wicked wolf. Yet when she spoke, her tone was soft yet clear and composed, a voice that was used to speaking to adults and no longer hesitated.
Compared to that innocent fairy tale girl, the aura she eluded was entirely different. Rather than meek innocence, hers was mysterious and tinted with a hidden sense of danger.
After overcoming his initial shock and unease, the attendant collected himself and treated her as he would any customer, albeit with extra politeness. It was one thing to anger a client, and another to wind up dead and forgotten in an abandoned alley.
Thankfully, his job was relatively simple. Ask their name, check if it was listed in a thin book that recorded client details, and finally deliver the services written on it. This dimly lit establishment, wedged between two larger brick buildings, was a collection and dispatch center. It was functionally identical to a post office, as well as providing computer terminals for long distance communication.
Written on the records was: Shadow, confidential; terminal access; parcel no 3491.
The attendant’s gaze lingered on ‘Shadow’, an infamous assasin's codename he had heard multiple times. It was unknown whether if more than one person went by the codename ‘Shadow’, but they had a fearsome reputation of dealing quick, clean deaths from a distance. Moreover, Shadow has never been caught, thus the codename.
It was irrational to suggest this girl was the only ‘Shadow’ as he had heard that codename for over ten years, but he could not assume she was an imposter because she knew the passcode and had proof of identity. She was either: an agent acting on behalf of ‘Shadow’, one of many individuals who went by that codename, a replacement of the last 'Shadow', or an imposter who had successfully obtained that information.
Either way, that was none of his business.
First, the attendant fetched and handed her the parcel, a thin sealed envelope. Next, he showed her the way to the terminals, a dark room on the floor above which contained several rows of walled cubicles. Within each cubicle was a touchscreen monitor on a low desk, and a simple chair. He then returned downstairs with haste.
Being familiar with using terminals, Norah entered a cubicle and logged into one using a passcode. The monitor flared to life with an intensely bright screen, though the hood shielded her eyes from the glare. She made a call using one of the software and waited patiently to be put through.
When it got through, the bright screen background was replaced by a dark one, while the center was dominated by the upper body of a shadowed figure, the guild master.
One could faintly make out the shape of a lean adult in dark business attire. Only his hands, whose thin, tapered fingers were interlocked, could be seen resting on the table close to the screen. After a brief pause, he called her real name in a calm voice with an even tone.
“Norah... what is the mission status?”
“The target has been eliminated, master.”
“Excellent. Your next mission has been decided, it is in there.”
Shadow, known otherwise as Norah, retrieved the letter the attendant had handed to her and opened it. Within was a piece of paper folded into thirds, and a photograph. Rather than a paper, it was a flier. She then scrutinized the photograph of the target. It was a person she didn’t recognize.
“You will infiltrate that location and eliminate the target in whatever way you wish.”
Norah regarded the flier again, and her thin lips pursed into a tight line.
“This… isn’t there others more suitable?”
“I have complete faith in your abilities.”
Norah’s jaw clenched involuntarily at the guild master's casual, matter-of-fact tone. Despite serving the man for as long as she could remember, she felt nothing but loathe and fear for the monster behind the screen. Not exactly a healthy relationship between father and daughter, too.
“An escort has been sent to meet you tomorrow, at the usual place. Good hunting.”
“Wait! How is my mother-”
The connection abruptly cut from the other end, and the screen turned bright once again.
A thin, frustrated hiss squeezed from Norah’s clenched teeth, and she slammed a small, trembling right fist onto the monitor with all her might. The liquid crystal display screen rippled under her fist and made a dull ‘thunk’, but otherwise remained unmoved. Unsatisfied with that, she unholstered her sidearm, a short barreled revolver.
Downstairs, the attendant heard the series of gunshots but chose to do nothing. Only one person was upstairs, so he was certain there wasn’t a fight. And even if there was, he wanted nothing to do with an assassin, especially if they're angry.
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