“Shadow creatures? Ha!” Enya shook her head as she attempted to lean against a lamp pole. “I’m surprised at you, Master Warrior, believing such tales. They’re just horror stories parents tell their naughty children to keep them in line.”
“Aire ye armed or no’?”
“Urm...” She patted herself down and smiled when her hand hit something solid in her pocket. She pulled out a flask and lifted it to her ear. The sound of sloshing liquid put a wide grin on her face. “I am, indeed, Rusty-McRust-Rust.” She twisted off the cap and drunkenly lifted the flask to her lips, puckering as it got closer, as if in anticipation of a kiss.
Dufin slapped the flask from her hand and replaced it with a dagger. He wasn’t keen on having to do battle that night but was ready if need be.
Enya wobbled and looked at the knife like she had never seen one before. She opened her mouth to speak when a flutter of movement caught her attention out of the corner of her eye, between two tiny buildings across the street. The stores were closed, and had been for hours, so it made it difficult to get a good look.
“Did you see that?” She asked as she seemed to steady herself. “Hey,” she shouted towards the two buildings.
“Come, lass,” Dufin said pulling her with him. “We’re not equipped tae fight shadow creatures.”
As the words dropped from his mouth a darkness pulled away from the building down the street. The foul smell of sulphur filled their noses. The figure was hunched and appeared to be dragging its leg behind it. The only sound it made was of the limb scrapping along the cobblestone.
Dufin squared his shoulders, he was a master warrior not a coward. Outmatched and ill equipped, it mattered not, he would not run. Enya stepped up beside him, solid and seemingly sober. She faced the dark walkway between the buildings where the movement first caught her eye. The scraping grew louder and Dufin gripped his blade tighter. He cared not that no one believed him about the shadow creatures. With his own eyes he had seen the unworldly beasts tear his beloved to pieces before disappearing back into shadow.
Crouched in front of a bakers shop, Niviel wore the ragged clothes of a beggar. His face was smudged with dirt, his short salt-and-pepper hair in disarray, and he smelled as if he had rolled in a pile of horse shit. He held his hand out to the passersby for any spare coins they might have, but this part of Gloverree was the poor end of town and not many had anything to spare. A few would drop a copper piece into his dirty hand, and an old woman took pity on him and gave him a hunk of bread to eat. Several elves stopped to give him elven blessings of good will and prosperity, since he was one of their own.
Gloverree was a growing town of several thousand that hugged the eastern border of Misandria Region with a mixed population of elves and humans. Because of this Niviel did little to conceal his pointed ears. When he traveled to other cities he would do what he could to hide them. A few more people passed him by and he lifted his hand for an offering. The coins really were the least of his concern, though; he was in the perfect position to keep an eye on the rundown inn across the potholed dirt road.
When he spotted a man in a long black coat and a woman in a cloak enter the inn, he waited another ten minutes. His eyes searched the front of the inn for a sign of their location. The curtains in a second floor window shut abruptly.
Sloppy, he thought.
Several minutes later the man in the long coat stepped out the front door by himself. Niviel kept his head low, his hand held out to the others on the street. The man in the coat gave no indication he noticed Niviel.
Niviel bit the inside of his cheek. His target should know better—head always on a swivel. He followed the man with his eyes, and when he disappeared around the corner Niviel waited another five minutes before he approached the inn.
He had scouted the area earlier and knew there was no back entrance to the inn. There were only eight rooms on the second floor, three rooms which were occupied. He knew exactly where he needed to go. As he came to his feet, he shed the tattered rags to reveal a sleek tan jacket with leather elbow patches, the style commonly worn by the working class of Gloverree. As if he had turned invisible nobody took notice of the beggar turned worker. He wiped his face clean, tidied his hair while he stepped across the road. He skillfully missed the potholes and strode into the inn.
The woman behind the counter barely looked up from the paper she was reading when he walked past her without a word. His soft soled shoes didn’t even make a sound on the worn hardwood floor. Taking the stairs two at a time he reached the second floor. Counting to the third door on the front of the inn he knocked lightly.
“Yes?” a meek woman’s voice came from the other side.
“Lefflyn Callesyn sent me to come get you.”
The door cracked open and the pale face of a woman peeked through. “Real—”
With one hand on the door and the other over the woman’s mouth, Niviel forced his way into the room. He moved smooth and quick, she barely had time to react. He closed the door behind him and spun Soleena around, her back pressed up against him. Her breathing was erratic, and she was grabbing her stomach. He looked down.
“Hmm, pregnant,” he said more to himself, noting her full belly. “So sloppy.” He pulled one of the chairs from the table, placed it in the center of the room and pushed her into it. He gagged her before she could say a word then tied her wrists together behind her back and her ankles to the legs of the chair. She sobbed hysterically as Niviel worked.
When he was done, he knelt in front of her and looked up. He pursed his lips and sighed heavily before standing. He grabbed the second chair and put it in front of her. He moved to the window to look down the street, careful not to disturb the curtain. He didn’t want Lefflyn to notice and not come back, although he was pretty sure the man would return regardless.
Niviel stood at the window for a few moments then sat on the edge of the bed, near the head just behind and to the right of Soleena. She continued sobbing, and when the doorknob turned her sobs became louder. Niviel stood, straightened his coat, smoothed down the front then pulled a knife from a leather band around his forearm.
Lefflyn stepped in quickly, turning to close the door before actually looking into the room. “I’m sorry darling I wanted to ma—” He froze as he turned and his eyes met Niviel’s. Belatedly, he grabbed for the knife on his belt.
“Sit,” Niviel said, holding the knife to Soleena’s throat.
He did as he was commanded and sat in the chair facing Soleena. “I didn’t think they were going to send you. I should have known better. You don’t have to do this.”
Niviel tossed a rope with loops on the ends to Lefflyn. “Toss the knife to the side. Put your hands behind your back and through the loops, then give it a tug.”
“Your hands.” He pressed the knife to the woman’s throat and her sobs turned into muffled screams.
“Shh, shh, it’s going to be okay, I promise,” Lefflyn said to her as he did as he was told. “She’s with child, Niviel. Let her go, please. You don’t have to do this.”
Niviel glared at the man. “It was your job to kill her. The bastard child is of no consequence. I wouldn’t be here if you just followed through with your contract. The contract is the only thing that matters.”
“I couldn’t do it—when I found out who she was. You don’t understand.”
“What don’t I understand? You reneged on a contract. You betrayed your client. This leaves a black mark on us all.”
“It’s not like it’s never been done before.”
“The client has put a hit on you. You know what that means. You might as well have posted your client list in all the taverns in town, the penalty is the same. The second contract cannot be ignored.”
“Let me explain, I have my reasons.”
“What reason could you possibly have?” Niviel asked.
Lefflyn looked at Soleena, and his eyes softened. “She was my first love. Her family sold her when she reached childbearing age and I thought I’d never see her again. That’s why I joined the agency. When I got the contract and realized who I was supposed to kill...the instant I saw her I fell in love all over again.”
“That’s the reason you double-crossed your client?”
“What other reason could there possibly be, if not for love.”
“Love is for children and imbeciles.”
“Coming from a man who clearly has never loved.” Lefflyn’s eyes hardened again as he glared at Niviel.
Niviel knelt in front of him, one hand still on the woman. “We are assassins. We have no need for love. It is a distraction. It clouds your thoughts.” He glanced from Soleena and back to Lefflyn. “It is weakness.” He stood and moved behind Soleena once again. “Tell me, is the bastard child yours?”
“Answer the question.”
“No, it’s not yours or no you will not answer the question? Come, brother, complete your dishonour, die as a coward would, shaking in his fear.”
Lefflyn thrust his chin out. “No, the child is not mine. But it is no bastard either. Her husband is the adulterer, not her. Instead of leaving her he put a contract out on her. Can you not see how sick that is? He hired us to kill his wife and unborn child.”
“It’s not our job to judge. It’s our job to fulfill the contracts we take. And now I must clean up your mess.” Niviel stepped back and removed his coat, then started rolling up his sleeves.
“Niviel, please. Let her go. She can run to Misandria Region, her husband can’t touch her there. He doesn’t need to know. Please.”
As Lefflyn begged Niviel took a larger knife from a belt hidden by his coat. Soleena’s eyes widened in horror as he approached her.
Niviel knelt next to Soleena, his hand on her shoulder. “This isn’t personal, I hope you understand. If he had just done his job you would have died peacefully in your sleep. It’s because of Mr. Callesyn that I must kill you this way.”
Her eyes darted to Lefflyn, large, fat teardrops streaking her face.
Niviel placed the tip of the blade on her belly and prepared to stand when Lefflyn shouted, “Niviel stop! It isn’t always black and white. Remember your one rule, the one standard you live by.”
Niviel paused, pulling the blade away.
“She’s innocent in all this, she did nothing wrong. Contract or not, she’s not the one who should be punished.”
“I have a contract.” Niviel stood to face Lefflyn.
“Yes, for me, the contract is for me. My contract was for her.”
“The contract is for both of you,” Niviel said and started for Soleena again.
“But the child! The child is innocent. The child has done nothing wrong and you didn’t even know about the child, right? The contract never stipulated there was a child.”
Niviel stepped away and paced the room behind the woman. Lefflyn knew Niviel had a hard-standing rule to never kill the innocent. He chose his contracts carefully to ensure he would only kill those who deserved it. He didn’t know if Soleena was the adulterer or not, but he knew the baby had done nothing wrong.
“The Commissioner of Oaths will know if I don’t complete the contract.”
“Come now, you’re smarter than that. Plus, the old crone who works in this city won’t know the difference. Just tell her you sent your own people to clean things up.”
Niviel lifted an eyebrow. “You’ve never dealt with the old crone before, obviously.”
“You’ll think of something. Please, Niviel.”
Niviel set his shoulders and smoothed down the front of his shirt. “Say your goodbyes.”
Lefflyn leaned forward to the sobbing Soleena. “I love you with every inch of my soul. I will search for you in the afterlife so that we may be together forever.”
Niviel stepped behind him, pulling him back, his hand under his chin, knife to throat. Lefflyn opened his eyes and pulled his shoulders back, taking a deep breath. Niviel couldn’t help but feel a bit of respect for the man. In his final moments he at least attempted to hold onto some honour by dying with his eyes open.
One smooth motion over his throat sliced the now bulging veins on his neck, blood spraying over Soleena, Niviel released Lefflyn’s chin. Lefflyn coughed, spitting blood up. After a few seconds he slumped in his chair. Niviel sliced the skin from Lefflyn’s forearm, a tattoo of a dagger through an eye, the tip of the blade on a diamond, the symbol of his chapter. He wrapped it in a piece of leather.
He knelt in front of the woman again and removed her gag. The two locked eyes for a long moment. He could see she was struggling to contain her sobs. Niviel contemplated his next decision carefully, if anyone were to ever find out he would be as good as dead himself. “Was Lefflyn telling the truth? Your husband was the unfaithful one?”
A sneer crossed the woman’s face. “He has many mistresses, when he tires of them he has them killed. The idea of being a father didn’t sit well with him.”
“If I let you go free you are to disappear. You leave this city; you leave this region.”
“I’ll go to Misandria.”
“No, you will go farther. You will go east to Ursena Lake. Ask for the Ursena people to allow you to pass.”
“That’s suicide! I’m seven months pregnant, and that’s at least a five-month journey. If the Ursena people deny me passage—”
“I could just kill you and your child now.”
Another long moment of silence, a standoff between the two of them, but Niviel knew he would win.
Soleena gave a small nod.
Niviel stood and cut off Soleena’s right ear, which had a distinct birthmark on it. He placed it on another piece of leather.
She screamed out, “Why?”
“I need proof, this was the proof requested.” He wrapped it with the other leather wrap and placed them into a pouch. “If I find out you didn’t do as I said; if I hear but a whisper of your existence, I will come for you. I will finish what I was sent here to do today. Do you understand, Mrs. Colette?” He untied her hands and handed her a handkerchief. She pressed it to where her ear had been and nodded again.
Niviel grabbed a shirt that was lying on the bed, cleaned his blade, and sheathed it. He took the pitcher of water and poured it into the basin where he washed the blood from his hands and arms. After drying himself, he checked the rest of himself for any blood, then unrolled his sleeves and put his coat back on. He placed the leather pouch in the outer pocket of his coat.
All the while Soleena watched him.
“Well get your things together, Mrs. Colette. You can’t stay here.”
She scurried about the room ramming things into her bag. She pulled a money pouch from what Niviel decided was Lefflyn’s belongings. She kissed him on his cooling forehead and whispered something Niviel couldn’t hear, nor did he care. Tired of waiting, her grabbed her by the elbow and dragged her from the room.
Knowing there was no back door, instead he took her through the narrow hallway to a window, which he opened and gestured for her to go. Without a word she squeezed herself through the window. He tossed her belongings at her once she was outside. She put the hood of her cloak over her head and rushed down the back alley.
It was the last he ever saw of her.
Tor left her bag and ventured into the woods. In a few short minutes she was able to catch two birds, and on her way back she spotted some wild mushrooms and carrots. She knelt to check the mushrooms, as the wrong kind could kill them. As she inspected the size and markings, a rustling came from behind. It wasn’t human, or human-like. If it were the orcs, she wondered how they’d have got through the swamps and across the bridge without them seeing. Perhaps they’d already been on this side of the swamp when they arrived. Either way, if they were trying to sneak up on her, they were doing a piss-poor job of it.
Then the smell of sulfur hit her nose, and the air seemed to get heavy. The forest appeared darker, denser. Tor dropped her catch on the ground and pulled an arrow from the quiver on her back. She nocked it and steadied herself. She may be a cleric, but she was also a highly skilled hunter. Which meant she had perfect aim.
The rustling in the trees came from all sides, indicating there were several people. Tor squinted into the growing darkness, taking a deep breath and whispering an incantation to bring a small bit of light into the area, encircling her. It wasn’t much, but it would allow her to at least see the silhouettes of her pursuers.
Not wanting to kill anyone, she spoke out. “I’m here peacefully. I am a healer from the Rejuvenation Monastery. I’m on a pilgrimage to the western region.” They didn’t need to know she wasn’t. “Nothing more. If I have trespassed on your land, I beg your forgiveness.” There was no response but for the rustling of the trees and the underbrush.
Tor rotated on the spot to ensure no one would come from behind and catch her off guard. That’s when the Shadow caught her eye. The form stepped into her tiny circle of light and she couldn’t contain the gasp that escaped her lips.
She had never seen anything like it before. She’d heard the descriptions and read the stories, but had never seen it with her own eyes. The creature who was once a man stared at her from behind milky-white eyes that had not seen clearly in many years. The skin on its face was rotted away in places, and the armor it wore was dented and rusty, and centuries old. The shield, made of rotted wood, would be used better for a fire than for protection. The sword that hung from an arm that was more bone than muscle and skin was long and thin, coming to a sharp point.
“I mean you no harm,” Tor said again. She knew it was foolish, and she didn’t even know if the Shadow soldier understood her or let alone cared. She didn’t want to raise her bow to the creature, but it moved closer and closer toward her.
She was about to speak again when a second stepped out on the other side. He was her height, had one broken tusk, and was missing an eye. One arm was much smaller, and a pale white color that was an obvious mismatch to the green skin of the Once-orc warrior.
It lifted its white arm, which held a battle-ax that looked much too small for a soldier his size. Tor couldn’t hesitate or try to reason any further; she had to defend herself and go against her religion of healing. She made a small prayer to her Goddess Thanroota to stand next to her in battle. In a swift, smooth motion she lifted her bow, pulled back, and released the arrow, catching the Once-orc in his remaining eye. He staggered back, grabbing at it, as his companion charged forward.
One leg was slightly longer than the other, and he had an odd limp. Its mouth was wide, and a raspy sound she could only assume was a war cry came out. She quickly pulled another arrow and let it loose, with barely enough time. It was so close to her that the force of the arrow drove it straight through the back of its skull. It staggered and fell back.
Once-orc yanked at the arrow from its one eye and again started for Tor. She went to reach for another arrow when a third Shadow moved from behind the trees, then another, then a fifth. She was ill-equipped, foolish to not have at least brought a sword, although she had a decent hunting knife. Even if she was barehanded, she was orc and they were born warriors.
Tor stepped to the side, angling herself to see the other three. They were attempting to surround her. She yanked her hunting knife free with one hand while still holding onto the bow in the other. It was a simple hunting bow, nothing more, and not one orc warriors carried, but it was sturdy all the same.
When the remaining four came toward her, Tor widened her stance and bent her knees. She howled a war cry she had not heard in years, surprising herself that she remembered it. “I am the sword of Thanroota!” she shouted. “You will die at my feet!”
They charged her all at once and Tor spun to the right, using her bow like a staff and striking Once-orc in the face. He staggered back a step as she came back around and sliced at a Once-man soldier, who sported a large gash down the center of his face. Tor’s attack severed the tendon that seemed to be the only thing keeping his upper arm attached to his lower arm, and the part holding his weapon dropped to the ground.
Tor was struck with a shield on the back and was knocked off balance. She took two uneasy steps before regaining her balance and spun just in time to block a sword with her bow. Once-man had picked up his sword up with another arm that was not original to him. His strike cracked her bow, but did not break it.
With gritted teeth Tor shoved him back, but another attacker, a woman, half human and half elf, slashed her arm open. Warm blood ran down her bicep and she hissed in pain. But there was no time to think about the injury as she was struck again with a shield, this time pushing her closer to the Once-orc. His sword was ready, and in the right position to impale her.
Without even a second thought, instinct kicked in and she chanted a simple shielding spell. As the static grew she did what she could to avoid the blade and sidestepped, ramming into the last of the attackers.
He was shorter, but was able to grab her around the waist. He’d once been a dwarf. The static reached its peak, but Tor swore under her breath when she realized her own spell’s strength and type of magic had been altered and would become unpredictable. But it was too late, she had already cast it. With a small drop in the air pressure, the magic was released and, enhanced by the High Kingdom magic, there was a small explosion.
Instead of the shield surrounding Tor in a protective bubble, it became electrified and blew her attackers away. It was if lightning had emanated from her shield and struck the four remaining soldiers, frying them into a second death.
Tor stood in the center of the destruction, and even the trees in the small circle were charred and singed. “Huh. Not quite what I wanted it to do, but I guess that works.” She put her knife back in its holder, then walked over to where the Once-orc had dropped his sword and picked it up. She couldn’t see the quality in the dim light of the woods, but it was heavy. It might be a good sword to have if running into Shadow soldiers was going to be a regular occurrence.
She silently thanked her goddess for helping her in battle, gathered what was left of her catch, and headed out of the woods to where the others were camped.
The little bit she understood of the Shadow creatures was that they would not come out in the daylight. As long as there was enough light outside of the woods, they would not follow. But, once night fell and they were in complete darkness, that would be another matter. If there were more Shadows in the woods they would need to keep watch overnight.
Nearly free from the woods an arm came out from behind a tree, catching her in the chest. She was thrown back a couple feet, landing on her back. Tor coughed and wheezed for breath as the air was pushed from her lungs.
A creature stepped out from its hiding spot at the edge of the trees, only a few steps away. Her safety was within reach, yet not. The creature’s arm dangled from its shoulder, and only a few rotted pieces of flesh kept it from dropping to the ground.
It must have snapped loose when it struck Tor in the chest. Tor could hear the scrambling of feet behind her, and when she looked over her shoulder the woods had once again been enveloped in unnatural darkness. The sulfur in the air grew stronger, telling her there were more than just these seven creatures.
She scrambled to her feet, took a deep breath, and barreled toward the soldier in front of her. She could only hope it didn’t pull out a blade of some kind as she struck him. As she got closer, she dropped her shoulder and upper body, and struck the creature in its midsection, tossing it out into the sunlight as she broke out of the woods.
It slammed to the ground, losing its arm, and hissing and howling as it tried to make its way back to the darkness. Tor heaved in a breath as she watched over a dozen Shadow soldiers line up along the tree line, staying in darkness. Then, a second later, disappear as they moved away.
She watched until she was certain she couldn’t see any more of the creatures. It was going to make for a very long night if they decided to come out of the woods.