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Writing this chapter was very exciting. I had a lot of freedom since I didn’t have to be constrained writing in Rigel’s voice and vocabulary. More than that, this chapter marks all that I have learnt till now since I started writing. Here is to hoping you all have as much fun reading this as I had writing it.
Interlude I : Wrought of Shadows
“Blood upon stone, life upon blade.
Death is your cloak, night is your name.
I offer thee my life as I pray for your grace,
Bring me into your shadows, O’ goddess Nightshade”
-Chant of the Nightshade.
They say it is darkest before the dawn. They might be right, the lean young man mused while he endured the jarring vibrations of the dawn bell. But then they haven’t seen the crypt. His head jerked downwards as soon as the thought crossed his mind. The deep darkness stared back at him, a match for his own obsidian-black eyes. The scant light of candles inside the crypt was too sparse to make out the idol. But he knew. He knew that it was there. It always was, watching. He had seen the graven image only once and he had no desire to see it again. That single vision of Sahalar, with her body half stuck to the wall behind her, was enough for him.
His eyes kept searching the darkness with an absent mind while he thought of the last time he had actually stepped inside the crypt. The low chant, the clink of weapons and the heady smell of fragrant incense had made his head swim. The whole room had blurred into a glowing ball of light, with it’s pulsating veins of darkness and within it, Sahalar.
Everyone said that he had fainted while screaming. The condescending eyes of his superiors had reminded him of all he needed to know. He failed in his Initiation ceremony. He would never become a Master assassin.
A faint trembling took hold of his hands. Ever since he failed to assimilate the Essence of Shadows, any thought of the Patron Goddess of Assassins made him tremble. I…I can’t let others know, he panicked like he had done on so many occasions before. An assassin who trembled at the thought of his Goddess was worthless indeed. His own brethren would slit his throat and throw his body in one of the many ditches outside Salrest.
Perhaps, as a consideration, they would use the painless poisons. They were oddly affectionate that way, an inappropriate chuckle threatened to bubble up his throat. One of the High Assassins standing in solemn silence midway on the steps leading down to the crypt rotated his head towards him. The blank white mask didn’t reveal any expressions as it stared at him, But the man with obsidian eyes knew what the man under the mask was probably thinking.
His chuckle died in his throat. The ceremonies were always so deathly quiet. He hugged his leather cloak tighter. The wind wafting up from the crypt was strangely chilly. Summer mornings in Salrest were a sweaty affair, but all bets were off in front of the Temple of Blades. He always found it strange how the crypt seemed to be in a world of its own, far removed from the warm, bustling city of suppressors. His gaze dropped down on the platform he stood on. The black granite seemed to soak up the chill from the cold crypt air, despite the long stairway that lay between him and the crypt.
A sudden flash inside the crypt caught his eye. A bottomless pit formed inside him. He fancied with panic and a strange morbid fascination that her eyes were staring back at him.
Sahalar’s eyes, he shuddered inwards, how could eyes made of hewn lava rock be so…lifelike?
He never told anyone, but he was certain of what had happened on his Initiation Ceremony. The smooth stone image of Sahalar had finished the motion she was frozen in. She had finally crawled out of the crypt wall, freeing her lower body. His heart thumped wildly, in cold dread as he remembered the cold sensation of his manhood sliding inside her. The chill between her legs shocked him. No living woman she wasn’t. Sahalar had taken him again and again in that shadowy crypt. She laughed in pleasure as he screamed while her magick flowed into him, taking hold of his being. The cold numbness had made him pass out in the midst of the laughter of shadows and a woman made of stone.
The Elders, his friends, no one would believe him. After all, a Bloodtaken in this day and age was madness. Actually, he was quite happy to chalk it up to the illusions caused by the narcotic scents. Most of the times he could convince himself of the ridiculousness of the whole affair. But on days like these, his mind doubted itself.
It really did happen, didn’t it? His eyes caught the faint light gleaming off the stone idol. Her laugh echoed in his mind as his eyes finally traced the faint outline of her bust. Flinching, he averted his eyes. Patron Goddess of Assassins, Nightshade, Cloaked Wrath, Bladedancer, he rattled off the names his Goddess was graced with throughout the years. But to me, his knuckles tightened, you are one stone cold bitch.
A heavy sound wrenched him back to reality. The bell tolled again. Black birds scattered from the bell tower as the heavy gong spread through the city in waves. Odd custom, that, the man thought. He braced himself for the jarring sensation that hit him every time the bell tolled. All other places toll their bells when someone dies, his gaze followed the scattering birds, but Salrest does it to proclaim a new day.
He stood in attention as a group of three men flowed out of the crypt. One of the men put up his hood while turning around. His face was always shrouded in darkness. His soft strides fell silent on the black granite stairs. A bald man with salt and pepper beard followed him, a thick staff on his hands. Sunlight glinted off the silver etchings on the staff, a sharp contrast to the pure black Bloodwood it was made out of. The face of the last man had an affable grin plastered to his face. Dukar is always smiling, the man with obsidian eyes thought, like a kid in a sweetshop.
The men climbed up the narrow stairs with slow, deliberate steps. All of the men present stood in attention. The pair of High Assassins bowed as he passed them. The hooded man gave a slight nod, while the bald man murmured words of prayer. The man called Dukar gave a slight chuckle and waved his arms around the neck of one of the High Assassins. It was too far off to listen in to what the High Assassin said. They rarely said something, he thought, and especially not a joke.
Like he expected, the High Assassin remained stoic even after Dukar spoke to him. Was he…tickling the High Assassin? Sahalar’s blades! Is he gone crazy? The man with obsidian eyes had his mouth open. Bladedancer preserve me, that man is a lunatic!
The bald man barked something at Dukar at which he stopped tickling the High Assassin. His smile still plastered on his face, he tread the stairs to rejoin his position with the trio. They were almost upon the platform. Their steps slowed as they climbed up to where the man who fancied himself a Bloodtaken stood. The hooded man revolved to face him without missing a beat.
“Is he the sole survivor?”, a grave voice issued from the hood. With his hands clasped backwards, he inspected the man with obsidian eyes.
“Yes, he is the last one left”, the bald man replied. His deep grey robes flapped in the wind as he scanned his face. “You did well to survive, lad”.
“Dukar, take him under your wing for now”, the hooded man proclaimed, “and you, uh…”
“Smoke, his name is”, Dukar interjected helpfully while he twirled the iron ring on his fingers. The black skull ring marked him as the Chief Spider, master of spies.
Smoke waited for the usual surprise that accompanied when his name was spoken. He himself didn’t know what his name meant. No known language had the word ‘smoke’ in it. It wasn’t a surprise considering his mother was an eccentric woman from what those who knew her had told him. For all he knew it was a made up word his mother had spoken as she died giving birth to him.
“Initiate Smoke, go with Chief Spider Dukar and await further instructions”, the hooded man made a dismissive gesture with his hands, “and while you are at it, get some food in you”.
The man with obsidian eyes kneeled down, “As you command, Master Arfaes”. The occasional acts of kindness of his leader always surprised him.
The bell tolled for the last time. Arfaes, Master of the Salresian Assassin Guild gazed up. His jet black leather garb was splattered with dried bloodstains.
“Priest Koffar, follow me”, Arfaes’ voice was as cold as the granite he stood on.
The bald man rammed his staff on the stone. A dull thud resonated in the air, almost a match for the ringing bells. “Of course”, Koffar, the priest of Sahalar responded.
The bells tolled in a new morning. With it, came a brewing storm.
Sunlight filtered through the shuttered windows, rending the shadows apart with claws of light. The small room was one of many that belonged to the Assassin Guild in Salrest. Nestled in a crook between Harrengaz, the pleasure quarters and the markets downtown, the room had a clear view of both.
The wooden floorboards creaked as a man got up suddenly as if some strange new idea had struck him. He reached the window in a brisk pace and jerked the window open in a violent motion. The windows, sooty with grime didn’t open all the way through, cursing, he jerked it again. The window acquiesced, letting a sudden burst of light flood the room.
Smoke flinched as the light stung his eyes. He shaded his eyes with his palms. But the man who had opened the windows was unperturbed. Smells of the bazaar, with its rotten fish and the heady scent of southern fruits permeated the room, mixing in with the sickly sweet aroma that made Smoke gag every time he visited Captain Rhetter.
Captain Rhetter turned around from the window to face him, his expression hewn of stone. “Two people”, his deep timbre vibrated inside the room. Other people’s voices dissipated, but his used silence as a means of folding upon itself till it became heavy as a tombstone.
Smoke gulped. He had always been scared of Capt. Rhetter. There were lots of scary men in his circles. But Rhetter was absolutely terrifying. “Yes. One man. One woman”, Smoke forced himself to talk in small sentences, lest he got tongue tied. He might kill me, Smoke’s thoughts were no comfort to himself, he will do anything to protect Master Arfaes.
Rhetter paced about in the small room, his hands clasped behind his back. His breath fell in ragged gasps as his mask of inscrutable calm wavered. For a split second, all the people present in the room saw the fire lurking under his eyes. And all of them knew that they were doomed.
His anger exploded all at once. “Two fucking people!” his voice was a low thunder that made Smoke wince, and possibly, everyone behind him. “Two people massacred half of the best Assassins in Salrest?”
Smoke stood transfixed, his legs quivering. Watching Rhetter was akin to stare into the eyes of a Hooded Venom, death in its very pupils. He had repeated his story multiple times now, so he just nodded. What Smoke had seen a few nights before shook him to his very core. Witnessing the best members of his organisation die wasn’t exactly something he had ever expected to come pass.
“Who the fuck are they?” Rhetter’s voice boomed again.
“Captain—” Koffar, the High Priest of Sahalar said in a low voice.
“Don’t ask me to stay calm, Priest”, Rhetter growled, “half of our men are dead and…I want to find the sons of Krumpar’s who did it”.
One is a daughter, though, Smoke thought. He would never forget the woman with hair of spun gold, leaving nought but blood in her wake. His hands trembled again as he remembered the other one. A demon, Smoke’s jaws hardened, who the fuck has hands like those?
“The man went by the name Eridan in Salrest”, Dorne answered in a smooth voice, “But, his real name is Rigel. Wanted by the Order of Talaviel on suspicion of being a demon”.
Smoke’s legs buckled underneath him. I knew it! Bladedancer’s mercy! He dropped down to the floor, his daggers clattering against the wood.
Rhetter paid him no mind as he continued to talk, “So the lad wasn’t addled when he said they fought a demon. But still. Who would have thought…the Windrunners and Fangsong squads lost”. His voice quietened down. “Unforgivable!” his anger exploded all at once. He slammed his hands down on the table. The small tumbler went flying, it’s water drenched the table, running down to soak into the wood floor.
Silence reigned in the room, save for the quiet sound of water dripping in a protracted laze. Rhetter grumbled, “Still. Those Talaviel cunts would identify anyone as a demon. As if they ever saw a real one this part of the world”. He pondered for a moment, “Might be some strange Beastmeld magic”.
“Get up”, Rhetter hissed, finally taking note of Smoke lying prone on the floor.
Smoke pushed himself to his feet. He hated the day he had taken the ‘easy assignment’, as his friend Sorhn had put it. Now Sorhn was dead, cut in half by a demon. He might be killed too, for failing in his assignment.
“What was an Initiate doing with the Windrunners?” Rhetter asked the men behind Smoke. Dorne stepped forward. Dukar had charged him to speak in his stead, for he was one of his favourite disciples and near to becoming the next High Spider. With the glib tongue of a spy, he explained what happened that night.
Smoke had good eyes and skills. Despite the limitations presented by having failed to fuse with the Essence of Shadows, he was ambitious. Smoke had made quite a few connections with the members of the squads. His easy manner and affable ways had made him dear to many. With that, he had been invited to the important job that had cropped up that night. Both the Windrunners and the Fangsongs judged the contract to be easy, it was just one man after all. Smoke was asked to be one of the eyes of the squad, keeping track of the target if it escaped. With the immense skills of the Windrunner squad, it was but a consolatory position.
Smoke knew why he had been called, they just wanted me to get a share of the money. Sorhn knew of my troubles, he just wanted to…who knew we would face a fucking demon! Smoke’s face twitched, he didn’t quite believe Capt. Rhetter. Smoke had seen beastmeld magic before, it was nothing like what he saw that night. The man was in glee as he butchered the assassins. Smoke shivered as he remembered the man’s laughter that tore up the night. He witnessed a dance that night. A dance of blood, deaths and madness. A dance worthy of Sahalar.
Another tinkling laughter resonated in his mind. He knew this one. Gods! I am going crazy! His face tightened as Sahalar’s laughter continued unrestrained inside his head. I need a good drink, Smoke mused, and a woman.
“Who was the woman?” Rhetter asked Dorne. “I hear she uses the weapons of an assassin. So, why in the name of Nightshade”, he paused to take in a sharp breath, “have I not heard of her?”
Dorne’s silvery voice contrasted against Rhetter’s heavy growl, “Initiate Smoke’s description matches with a Sun Elf named Faeve. The Suppressor’s Guild registered her a few days ago”. His voice faltered as Rhetter’s eyebrows shot up, “S…seems like she made quite a ruckus about who cut her hair”.
Rhetter’s eyes went wide. His voice was a strained whisper mixed with strange awe, “A Sun Elf? Bladedancer’s mercy! Could it be a Urvan’ere?” His voice checked itself as if he thought better of voicing his opinion, “The Armatech family sure brought in a lot of trouble this time”.
Armatech? Smoke’s mind connected the dots as he digested the misspoken information. So that’s why the pay was so high. The assassins in the guild were not informed of the person behind the issued contract. Only the uppermost echelons knew who wanted someone dead.
“So, what’s the woman’s story?”, Rhetter inquired.
“We are still investigating”, Dorne said, “Information about her is hard to—”
Smoke couldn’t hear the rest. His attention was taken up by the swift motion with which Rhetter unclasped his dagger and threw it. Something rushed past Smoke’s ears and made a wet sound. The dagger had buried itself to the hilt in Dorne’s throat. He clutched at his throat as blood flowed out in a fountain. Dorne died thrashing on the wood floor. The dark wood soaked in the blood greedily. The dying man’s eyes stared up at Smoke as if in some silent accusation.
Smoke was too tired to feel pity or fear. Most of all, he was still too terrified from the encounter that night to feel any anything more.
“Looks like Dukar better find a new disciple”, Rhetter’s grave voice flowed through the room, “this one was useless”.
The two guards behind Smoke barely made a whisper as they watched their compatriot die. It wasn’t the place of an assassin to judge the actions of their superiors.
Rhetter’s eyes snapped up from Dorne’s corpse. His mouth went slack as he stared straight at Smoke. His eyes searched for something. “How did you survive, Initiate?”
“I played dead, Captain. I …smeared myself with the blood of my dead companions and lay still”.
Rhetter nodded his head, satisfied. “Doing whatever to survive, huh. We might still make an assassin out of you”.
The Captain fell back on his chair. The wood floor creaked in protest at the sudden weight. His head rested on his raised arms as he spoke, “We all have disgraced Master Arfaes and the Guild. We must bring swift retribution”. He waved his hands to dismiss all the people in front of him. The people filed out silently. So, it was Dorne who would end up in a ditch today, Smoke mused as he left.
“Dukar would not be happy”, Koffar said in a gruff tone.
“I know that”, Rhetter said in a low voice, his earlier anger dissipated, “but that was my goal”.
“Playing with fire is never a good choice”, Koffar rapped his thick staff on the wood floor.
Rhetter was silent. He knew this was his best chance. The assassin squad was in disarray after losing half its members. I have to thank the ‘demon’ and his bitch for that, Rhetter thought. Who knew…an Urvan’ere and an Aivern. No wonder, those worthless maggots died. His thoughts strayed back to the Master Assassin. His knuckles turned white. Now that the other two Squad captains are dead, all that were left was himself and Dukar. The unexpected fortune had given a sudden boost to his plans.
“You could have spared the boy”, Koffar’s eyes traced the dead body lying on the floor.
“Too much?” Rhetter asked.
“Anyone would half a brain could have figured out your theatrics”, Koffar whispered, “Luckily, none of them had it”.
Rhetter scoffed. He thought that much was necessary to establish himself as a passionate leader. He knew that in a weird way it engendered trust and admiration in his subordinates. Which, in time, would help him when he became the Master Assassin of Salrest.
That day isn’t far, he thought. The day I take everything from you, Arfaes like you had taken from me, he had a lump in his throat as the scene from years before played in his mind like it had done a hundred, a thousand times before. That night, a little boy had turned six. His Moon Elf mother had started to teach him little magics. Though the boy had a human father, he got his talent from magic from his mother. That, and her tipped ears. The boy woke up from his sleep in between screams. He watched in numb incomprehension as dagger after dagger plunged into his parent’s bodies and his little sister. The blood was warm, so very warm as it flowed like water and wetted the boy’s feet.
“Run”, the hooded man had commanded, shadows pooling at his feet. “We didn’t come to kill you”. The little boy had ran, far away from his father’s mansion. The property of a noble was vast, he had plenty of space to hide from the assassins, but not from the scene that kept replaying in his mind.
Rhetter’s nails had drawn blood from his palms. I will have my vengeance, Arfaes. Soon, very soon.
“Koffar, ask the Council of Shadows for permission to hunt down this demon”.
“Too reckless, Rhetter”, Koffar whispered.
“It is my only chance to convince the council. When I catch that demon, I will be awarded. The new Master Assassin of Salrest would be me”.
Rhetter had waited long enough. With the fall of the other two captains, Arfaes was disgraced. A slight nudge, Rhetter’s mind raced, and all will fall down like a house of cards. The assassins of Salrest were on the precipice of ruin, and he was determined to push them over the edge. Bastards, fucking contract killers. When I am done with you, next is the bloody Council of Shadows. I will kill those ancient bastards like stray Kivalas.
“You know I cannot do that”, Koffar’s voice pulled him out of his hazy dreams, “A High Priest of Sahalar is to remain impartial”.
“He is also to remain celibate”, Rhetter’s voice was a low growl, “tell me, did you enjoy the present last night?”
Koffar sucked in a sharp breath. His voice faltered, “Last night…it was…your doing?”
“Did you think farmgirls give themselves up to priests every so often?”
Koffar’s hands tightened on his staff. His legs threatened to give way underneath him. “Azulai’s Fire—” his spat out a curse.
Rhetter chuckled lightly, “Remember, we have but one god now, Sahalar, the lady in shadows. Taking another god’s name is blasphemy. Especially the god of light”.
Koffar’s hands were slick with sweat as his worst fears were confirmed.
“Oh yes”, Rhetter had a nasty grin on his face, “funny what wine and woman does to a man. Tougher men than you have fallen to the charms of a courtesan. A pair of legs like that, and even Talaviel himself would spill out his guts sucking on her cunt”.
The staff slipped from Koffar’s hands. The clatter of wood bounced around the walls.
“Yes, I know who you are”, Ritter’s face fell back into the impassive stone mask, “you told her everything, priest of Fire Temple. Everything”.
Sweat trickled down Koffar’s brows as his legs buckled under him. His robes were soaked through as he sat on the wood floor, his hands shaking.
“Oh come on. Don’t be so hard on yourself”, Rhetter said in a softer voice, “She used Corpellini. There was no chance you could resist. Men turn beasts under that drug. And you…you were easy. Abstinence is quite painful”.
Koffar stood up, the bloodwood staff was back in his hands. The two men were silent. Occasional shouts from the bustling bazaar came in through the open window.
“She was a courtesan?” Koffar asked in a low voice, no trace of the earlier panic remained.
“Yes”, Rhetter replied, “burned a hole in my pocket hiring her. Well, at least you can have her every day”.
Koffar’s eyebrows shot up.
“What?”, Rhetter said in an amused voice, “Not like I could let her go and risk her babbling. Her face”, he chuckled as he reminisced, “was white as sheet when she realised who she had seduced this time. For now, she is being entertained in a holding facility under my care. You are free to visit her”.
Koffar sighed. “I will talk to the Council of Shadows. But from what I hear, the Demon and the girl have fled to the seas”.
Rhetter waved his hands, “Don’t worry about it. Let me worry about capturing that demon. The Bloodseekers have been sitting on their asses for far too long. About time they became useful. What was his name again? Eridan, was it?”.
The Priest meekly nodded, his hand still shivering.
Rhetter had a grin plastered on his face. He hadn’t smiled for a long time. Finding out the secrets of the High Priest was a huge leverage. At most, he had hoped for some scandals. He never had in his wildest dreams imagined the Fire Temple to be involved. With this, the assassins’ days were numbered.
All that was left was removing Arfaes from his path.
Rhetter touched the small phial hung at his chest like a pendant. He had endured for long. That vile man’s touch burned his skin whenever he laid with Arfaes. He had to restrain himself to not stab the Master Assassin in his moments of weakness. He had seduced Arfaes long ago, in order to get close to him. The Master of Assassins was a careful man. It had taken a lot of painstaking effort to win Arfaes’ trust. The only part of his ordeal that Rhetter didn’t detest was the fact that he actually welcomed the company of men.
But he shuddered every time Arfaes took him to bed. For if Arfaes ever had the slightest notion he was the half-Moon Elf he had spared all those years ago…Rhetter’s hands touched the cold metal earrings on his mangled ears. He had sacrificed the tapered ear-tips he got from his mother so no trace of his ancestry remained. The human blood inside him had muddied the onyx-coloured skin Moon Elves usually possessed. I sacrificed so much. Now that the time was ripe, Arfaes had to die. With him, his detestable empire of murderers, Rhetter’s hands clutched the phial of poison tighter, Soon, Arfaes, soon.
But before that… “Call the bloodseekers”, Rhetter’s voice rebounded in the room, “we have a demon to kill”. Demon, human, beastmeld, doesn’t matter. You will be my stepping stone.
His nose crinkled as a sudden gust of wind blew through the window. The stink of fish from the bazaar had always irritated him. Rhetter searched the drawer in his wooden table. His hands finally found what he was looking for. Dried Husui leaves packed in a piece of paper came apart under his hands. He put his nose closer to inhale the strong aroma. Something else inside the drawer caught his attention. The fancy package of the Usui beckoned him. Stronger, and headier than the usual Husui, this strain of the leaf contained other powerful drugs. His hands hesitated over the package. The Usui was expensive and rare.
Nah, I will keep it for now. His hands reluctantly grabbed the pack of the cheap Husui. When I finally kill Arfaes, he vowed in his mind while taking a last look at the fancy pack of Usui.
The Husui caught fire easy. Bluish smoke curled up from the clay pipe, filling the room. Sickly sweet smell diffused to all corners, expelling the malodor of fish. The man’s dominion spread inside the room once again. Here, none dared go against him, not even the pervasive smells from the Salrest bazaars.
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