The nearby trees cast long shadows across the narrow trail as the sun set. Orson used these to reach the bushes that he believed would provide the greatest level of invisibility. He wove some of the nearby shadows into a thick black barrier in order to ensure that he would not be seen. Then settled himself into a comfortable position to wait for his quarry.
As he waited Orson started thinking about his past, the good old days at the Academy, before he got cast out. He remembered his favourite professor, Dr Bait, and the lessons he taught about the magic in the world.
"Before you learn how to manipulate the elements in the world you need to understand the laws of magic. As you probably already know there are six elements in our world: Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Light and Shadow. Mages manipulate the elements to make magic, however, they are limited by two things, their mental abilities and the element that they wish to direct, you cannot manipulate what is not there."
Just then Orson heard the sound of a small group of men marching, he readied his crossbow and waited for what was undoubtedly his prey. The target was a leader of one of the more powerful rebel clans who plagued the Empire, General Achma. The General was a man of large build and well muscled, fortunately he wore no armour. Because of his years of association with shadow magic, Orson had incredible darkvision which let him see the General as he came into range. By the time Achma's guards realised he was dead Orson was long gon
After leaving the scene Orson fled into the forest where his current employer waited. The forest was an old one and little light pierced through the thick canopy. Orson's terrible sense of direction led him astray and in a few hours he was hopelessly lost. The small clearing which was designated as the rendezvous should only have been an hour or so away from his original position. Vasez, a minor councillor of the emperor and Orson's current employer, would not wait long.
It was another hour before Orson came in sight of the clearing. To his surprise Vasez was not alone. The short, portly man had been joined by a tall man in concealing robes. Orson stepped forward into the clearing and ignored the man.
"Vasez, I'll have my money now," said Orson
"Achma is dead then? Do you have proof?" replied Vasez in his high pitched voice.
"Since when have I ever needed proof? Normally my word is good enough for you. You mentioned other jobs when last we met. You wouldn't want me to look for a more trusting employer would you?"
The short man sighed as he tossed a purse to Orson and began to explain Orson's next task.
"Your target this time is the lord of Seyai. Our spies have discovered that Lord Emryic has been arming some of the rebel clans trying to overthrow the Emperor. As you probably know he is one of the wealthiest and best protected men in the empire. The Emperor believes that you may need help for this mission and has offered you the service of the greatest assasin in his pay. Good luck to both of you.
"Help?" burst out Orson uncontrollably. "Since when have I ever needed help? You don't think I can do this on my own?"
"No," corrected Vasez, "I don't think the two of you will be able to do it, quite honestly, but the odds are much better." After a bit of mumbling profanities, Orson finally swallowed enough of his pride to accept the assistance.
"So, just who is this fellow I'll be paired with, then?" With a slight tilt of his head, Vasez hinted towards the tall, cloaked man beside himself, whom the shadowy mercenary had forgotten about. "Oh, right. Him. So, what's your name, guy?" No answer came from the darkened hood. Hushed words were spoken by Vasez in warning.
"Don't speak to directly to him," he slowly squeaked while staring into Orson's eyes with the utmost gravity and fear. Confused by the order, Orson tried to figure something out about his undesired partner for the mission, but the gaunt giant's identity was entirely covered by his robes. His sleeves stretched down past his knees and bore no opening for his hands. There was nothing else to his guise, not a hint as to who he was. The slight crevice in his hood hung far below his head and shrouded his face with a darkness that even the trained dark vision of Orson could not pierce.
"Stop looking at him," Vasez added to the list of things not to do. "He doesn't appreciate being looked at." Casting one last scrutinizing eye upon the silent titan, Orson returned to addressing the portly employer.
"What's with this guy?" he rhetorically asked before moving on to actual questions. "What is his name?" A uncertain shrug was the only response given. "You don't know? I thought you said he was the Emperor's 'greatest assassin'? Surely, he-" Vasez stopped him a solemn sway of his head, back and forth. "I don't like this guy. I at least would like to have some idea of who this guy was. I don't have a name, a face, anything. How do I know who he is? How can I trust him?"
"We never bothered to shed light on just who he was. He got the jobs done, and that was more than satisfactory to the Emperor. As for his face," he let out a chuckle. "Let's just say that those robes aren't a fashion statement, Orson. They are for our protection," the employer stated as he turned to leave the two assassins to their business. "Many a man has been felled by a mere glimpse," Vasez called out as he vanished into the forest.
"Wait," cried out the dark slayer. "What... does he do?"
"He kills, Orson," the words echoes from the trees. "He kills well."
The mercenary of shade gazed in bewilderment for a moment at his new colleague before remembering that he was not to do that. He thought it odd that such a high ranked individual would not be more known to him. The more he pondered, the more he remembered vague rumors regarding a nameless man who engulfed armies single handed. This Nameless did not have mastery over his magic, it was told, and thus it destroyed everything around him. But this was just a hysterical rumor created by the rebels, surely. No one that powerful could actually be. ...
"Off to Seyai, I guess," Orson spoke, making certain to clearly address to himself as not to offend his companion
As the two assassins started walking towards Castle Seyai, Orson tried to remember more about the rumors of the Nameless man which had cropped up recently. He tried to recall what little information he'd heard but because he had dismissed the rumors as poor excuses made by useless bodyguards he found it difficult. He could only recall the stories of the Nameless' magic, a magic described as being similar to shadow magic but which seemed to emanate from him rather than be drawn from the shadows. Orson also believed that it was much more powerful than shadow magic which had few harmful spells. Two silent days later the two reached the castle which seemed to be only lightly guarded.
"Too easy," scoffed Orson as he settled down to wait for nightfall.
A few hours later it was time. Orson wrapped some of the nearby shadows around him to aid his imperceptibility, he was about to do the same to his partner but realized that the robed man would have his own ways of avoiding detection. For not the first time Orson silently cursed Vasez for pairing him up with the Nameless man. Orson started walking to the base of the wall section which he thought was the least guarded and was also the most dilapidated but noticed his partner heading towards a different section.
"He might not be such a good partner," Orson muttered, "But I’m sure he'll make a good distraction."
When he reached the base of the wall he looked for the easiest way up and noted areas that probably wouldn't hold his weight. Five minutes later and he was near the top of the wall waiting for the guard to pass, surprisingly he hadn't heard a sound from his partners direction. As the guard went by Orson climbed the rest of the way. He covered the guard’s mouth with his hand and slit his throat, it took only a short while for the guard to cease struggling.
It was then that Orson saw his partner being attacked by three guards on the wall a few hundred feet away. One of the guards had opened his mouth to raise the alarm but was stopped by the Nameless man who punched the man in the throat with such speed and force that the guard was almost knocked off the wall into the courtyard. The other guards were quickly dealt with as he elbowed one in the groin and turned around and kicked the other in the stomach. There was only one or two seconds between the death of the first guard and the death of the third.
After seeing the slaughter of the three guards Orson had a better look at the rest of the walls and the courtyard. Strangely there were no other guards in sight and Orson began to worry, thinking that the missing guards may have alerted the rest of the castle. Then he noticed the pile of corpses.
In the middle of the courtyard were the missing guards. They had all been killed the same way as the other three guards, many had looks of surprise on their faces. They died before realizing that they were being attacked. Orson shuddered as he looked at his partner and wondered just what he was.
Orson shook off the feelings of horror and continued towards the rooms of Lord Emryic thinking that maybe it was time for a holiday. After a few minutes of careful and uneventful sneaking the two assassins saw a patrolling guard around a corner. Orson pressed himself against the wall and waited for the guard to pass but his partner had other ideas. At incredible speed the Nameless rushed the guard and delivered a powerful uppercut which sent the guard flying.
After a few more minutes the assassins reached an ornate door. Orson pressed his ear to the door hoping to hear snoring. After listening for a moment he was disappointed.
"Oh $#!&," exclaimed Orson as he saw the unit of elite guardsmen waiting for him.
"Didn't you wonder about the lack of guards," said the well dressed man that could only be Emryic. "Vasez did tell you that I'm one of the most well guarded men in the Empire."
"I'm more surprised that he accepted the 'help' from the darkling," called the voice of Vasez from the back of the room.
"You're in on this as well?" Questioned the confused assassin, "Why would you betray the Emperor, Vasez, after all he's done for you? And what the hell is a darkling."
"Poor naive Orson," Vasez replied, "We haven't betrayed the Emperor, we're getting rid of filth like you. The Emperor has decided that an assassin of your caliber is a danger to him."
"This is a darkling," added Emryic as he pointed to Orson's supposed partner, "He is a creature of the netherworld, a being with the innate ability to call on the powers of Shadow and Fire."
Orson was horrified to learn that the Emperor had been consorting with demons. Before he could reply a guard came from behind and hit Orson over the head rendering the assassin unconscious
Orson awoke to find himself staring at the night sky. Leaping to his feet with his guard up, he found no hoard of guards around him, no bondage holding him in his place, no threats whatsoever. He did see the Nameless doing, what seemed to be, humming merrily with a long sprig of grass in what could only be assumed to be his mouth. Turning sharply, words emitted from the darkened robes.
"Ay, 'bout time you came around. Rather nasty bump on your head there, right? I wouldn't worry to much about it, nor the guy that dealt it 'pon you." After the most bizarre statement from the Darkling, he turned back and returned to the tune. Completely bewildered by what was most certainly a rouse, Orson dove at the monstrosity in rage. The slim figure's back gave way, sliding beneath the assassin's attempt. Planting his well covered feet on the ground, the tall man rose himself up from his back being pressed flat on the earth.
"Hey now, there," the same uncharacteristic voice warned. "What's gotten into you? You're acting like I'm the enem- oh, right. The conk on your noggin. You don't remember any of it? I thought I swore you were in for a bit of it?" Orson had not the faintest idea what was happening to him at this moment. The last thing he could remember was learning a horrible truth and then blacking out.
"Do not think your Darkling ways will phase my judgement, Nameless," Orson snarled as he launched another attack. "I am no one's fool."
"What the-? A 'darkling'? Never heard of them," the robed figure said as he weaved around the second strike. "And I have a name, brother. 'Tis Hood, Alfredore Hood." A low, reverent bow, Hood showed his respect while also managing to dodge whatever else was thrown at him by the dark mercenary. Reaching out a swaddled hand, the gaunt giant caught one of the assassin's fists and lifted him off the ground by it. "Are you done with your tantrum now, little man? Will yo listen to me now?" Seeing how it was futile, Orson decided to give it a shot and listened to what was to be said.
And his story began...
The guard walloped Orson on the back of the head, crumpling his body to the floor. Vasez laughed maniacally along with Emryic.
"Are you sure he was the best in his class?" the Lord questioned, kicking the unconscious body.
"It is a sad truth," the stocky man admitted. "At least the darkling will make use of his spirit. Have it, Nameless."
"You got it, boss." The employer did not realize the out of place action. His darkling was quite silent before and always. "Ah, craps," he quietly muttered to himself.
"What? Nameless? Did... did you just speak?"
"I'm not your precious 'Nameless'," the robed titan fumed. "I wish people would stop confusing us, mixing our tales! I was first, I was better, I am the legend! And now he knows it, wherever his damned soul may be now."
"Impossible! You... you defeated the Nameless?" stammered Vasez as he stumbled off his feet. "Who- who are you?"
"They call me Hood, chubs," snapped Fred. "And as for beating that schmuck, it was no trouble at all. I managed that without even undoing my rope." Grasping an end to the noose he wore that kept his veil up, he chuckled, "I could do the same for you, but I really don't like you."
"Hood?" The name had sounded familiar to Vasez, and it should have. Some time ago, the Emperor had a powerful assassin on his side, one that none of the rebels could stand up to. This was not good, to Hood, at least. He wanted a challenge, and the rebels could not offer it. Not caring about sides, he changed teams and worked against the Emperor, who had more skilled warriors at his disposal, which meant more fun for him.
"Don't just stand there, get him," screamed Emryic as he dashed away from the scene. The guards were too far confused themselves to know what to do on their own but rushed at the command. A smile that no one could see grew in the impenetrable darkness beneath the robes of Hood. Pulling on the rope, the cloths surround his head slipped from their place, exposing his head and bare torso. They could not see the racked and gnarled body that was displaced to him for, the moment that light was once again able to touch his body, chaos ensued. Alfred had no control over his discipline, the Might of Ra, the magic of light. As soon as he came in contact with the element, it brimmed from his body at its fullest strength. Pain surged throughout his body as he was brought past the brink of exhaustion, wholly spending himself in a matter he could not control. A single blast of light, a sweeping aura, consumed the entire room, leaving none to tell the tale.
With all foes eradicated, the frail, white body fell to its knees. The robes glided back over Hood, shielding him from the light as if he willed it. It would be some time before he regained enough strength to perform such a display again, at least without killing himself.
As the story ended, Orson had no idea if he should believe this stranger or not. He did not trust who he thought he was, and now he learned that he is someone entirely different.
"Just remember," Hood announced, "if I was really bad, I could have killed you several time. Why, if I was just a step further from you, you pitiful body would have been swallowed up."
"Well, you see, at the angle the light-"
"No," interrupted Orson, "why are you doing this? Is it the rebels doing? Are you working to kill the Emperor?"
"What? Rebels? They wish," dismissed Hood. "I only help them for fun, and, recently, the fun was drying out. All of the Emperors's good recruits were disappearing, so I went to find out who was stealing my fun. I use to work for the big guy, I knew the drills, and, when I found out that Nameless was to meet with Vasez, I saw an opportunity to get two birds with one brick."
"You're doing this," Orson repeated for his own comprehension, "so that you can kill better people?"
"Well, I don't want to kill losers, now do I? I have a reputation, keep in mind. Not that anyone knows its actually me, sadly. Well, heh, now they will." Too much strange things had passed the shadow killer's ears in too short a time. Between the Empire no longer needing his service and regal pacts with devils, recreational murderers were, actually, not that bad. "So, what? You wanna come and teach King-boy a lesson or what?" Spitting out the well chewed sprig, Hood started the path before receiving an answer
Orson was confused but the harder he struggled to clear his mind the more his head hurt. It wasn't long before his vision faded and he fell into a fitful sleep. Hood shook his head in disbelief.
Orson woke up and saw the Nameless. He was about to attack until he remembered the conversation of last night. Hood hadn't yet realised that he was awake and Orson feinted sleep as he took the time to gather his thoughts. Hood seemed familiar, not so much in appearance as in mannerisms. Orson's had detached himself from the lives of others when he left the Academy, since then he hadn't known anybody well and had nobody he would call a friend.
Orson tried to follow the line of thinking despite a pounding headache but couldn't get anywhere. Instead he decided to ask Hood a bit about himself.
"Where did you learn how to manipulate light?" Orson asked, "I thought that I was the only person to ever leave the Academy before finishing training alive."
"You were the first," replied Hood, "there are others but I personally never went to the academy, I'm a natural talent."
Natural talents are rare. Most burn out as children, drawing on too much power and dying. Or worse.
"An interesting profession for a mage of light. Most followers of the discipline of Ra are generally peace loving and god fearing people. What made you become an assassin?"
"I'd like to say that I do it for the good of mankind and the like but the truth is simple. I'm good at killing and I enjoy the thrill of the infiltration. Have you decided yet?"
"What? Oh the Emperor. I'm not sure yet but if you don't mind I'll follow you for a while. Where are we headed?
After two days of nearly silent travel the two assassins reached Umos Swamp. The swamp was widely believed to be the base of the Ikmalin house, possibly the most powerful of the rebel clans and by far the most unpredictable. The Ikmali warriors were skilled at guerilla warfare and their assassins rivaled those of the Emperor. Only the most fearless of the imperials had ever traveled into the swamp. Only one man, the Emperor's right hand, General Tanai had ever escaped from the depths of the swamps. Tanai was one of the most powerful warriors of the Age and the what he experienced had horrified him.
Orson was thinking of these things as he was led into the swamp by Hood. He had come to appreciate the other assassins's skills over the past couple of days as they used their abilities to evade pursuers as well as keep themselves fed. With plenty of time over the past two days Orson had plenty of time to think. He realized that ignoring the Emperor's hostility towards him was foolish. His only option was to follow Hood and join the rebel clans.
"Do you know the Ikmali?" said the Shadow mage, breaking the silence.
"Better than most my friend," replied Hood, "You will get along well with them. Like you, they dwell in the shadow. Fortunately for the Imperials they have remained quite passive so far through the war. But I think that when they hear about the Nameless they might take up the fight.
"You still talk far too much for an assassin dark one," came a voice from just in front of the assassins.
Orson drew both of his long daggers as he scanned the area in front of him.
"I underestimated you assassin. You're quicker than I thought but in the swamp speed isn't always survival." This time the voice was much closer. It also came from directly behind the assassins.
Orson turned and finally saw the speaker as well as five others. The speaker was a tall man with a bronze tan to his skin. Unlike the others he was unarmed besides a small knife at his belt. The other five men all possessed short recurved bows made of a flexible looking wood. All five were aiming at Orson. Then, Hood waved away the five bowmen, bursting into laughter
“Don’t try to scare us,” Hood addressed the six after ceasing his laughter. “You know you need our help against the Emperor.”
“Oh, really?” the apparent leader of the group retorted. “What makes you think we can’t deal with him on our own without you?”
“Please, Zerrah, you know why,” Fred simply responded. The Ikmali knew about the renegade assassin who had turned against the Emperor and killed many of his skilled men, and Hood knew they knew.
“Humph. Maybe you’re still useful,” Zerrah conceded, and then turned to Orson, “But I don’t know about you.”
“Do you doubt my skills?” Orson asked suspiciously, keeping the six in his sight for any small sign of movement.
“That depends on if you can prove yourself,” the leader answered. “It doesn’t matter that you’re a friend of him,” he continued, motioning to Hood, “if you’re not going to be useful.”
“I see the Ikmali still maintain their strict principle on ability,” Hood observed. “Too bad you don’t utilize it more.”
“What reason is there for us to become aggressive?” Zerrah snapped back. “Patience is the key. You, dark one, will probably get killed faster with your mass assassinations.”
“Oh, I see now. You’re not sure if your abilities are good enough so you want to stay out of trouble,” Hood said tauntingly.
“If you two think you can do better, then prove it! I’d like to see if you can survive the test.”
“Test?” Orson questioned, alarmed. Before he could ask for clarification, Zerrah and the five bowmen had retreated out of sight.
“Ah, great. We didn’t get to tell them about the Nameless yet,” Hood muttered, silently cursing Zerrah for abruptly ending the conversation. “Anyways, looks like we’ll have to go deeper into this place.”
“Wait. What should we expect?” Orson asked.
“You’ll have to survive to earn the trust of the Ikmali, which I’m sure you won’t have too much of a problem with. As for me, apparently my relationship with them has rusted,” Hood replied, with a tone that made Orson guess that he was grinning underneath the robes. “Just don’t let them catch us like they just did.”
With a nod, Orson sheathed his daggers and followed Hood deeper into the swamp
"You sure you know were you're going?" Asked Orson after the sixth attack by the swamp tribe.
"Have a little faith my friend," replied Hood, "We should be there shortly."
After another hour the two asassins reached the village of the Ikmali. To Orson's surprise the rebel clan was quite organized and the village had a unique sense of civilization and purpose. Waiting for them at the edge of the village was Zerrah as well as an old man. As they neared the two Ikmali, Orson felt a strange tingling in the tips of his fingers. A feeling he hadn't felt for years. Before he could figure out the cause of the sensation the old man spoke.
"Master Alfredore you've finally returned. Have you decided to join us yet?"
"Lord Alais, it's good to see you again," replied Hood with a slight bow, "But, as always, the answer is no."
"Oh well, I tried. Now, Orson, you've moved up in the world since last we met. Renowned asassin, enemy of the Empire and now friend of the rebels perhaps?"
"Dr Bait? Is that you? But, you're dead. Asassinated for speaking against the Emperor," Orson exclaimed."
At that Alais laughed.
"Not quite Orson. Alfredore saved me in a rare show of sympathy, however, the Emperor covered it up to keep rumours of his most powerful asassin double crossing him. You still don't believe me? Not even with your tingling fingertips."
Orson finally remembered what his tingling fingertips represented. Most of his magical abilities had faded or been forgotten due to not needing them. One of these was his 'third eye,' the magical sense used to detect magic. As he finally realized that Alais was actually his old professor Orson embraced the person who was the closest thing he had ever had to a father
After the touching reunion, and much mocking sass-back from Fred on the event, Alais and Zerrah led the two assassins to the large, central building in the hamlet. Its towering doors were guarded by two visible sentries and a few dozen others positioned in hiding that Orson could still pick out from a distance. The guards were quite thorough in their examination of the two guests, and this was the more lax protocol since they were regarded as friends to the Lord. Hood caused some difficulty for the guards as his cloaks had to remain over his person, but it was apparent that no weapons were in his possession. This did little to calm their nerves. As the great doors parted, the dank, dimly lit interior room was revealed. It was practically empty save for the large, round table within the middle with a low fire contained hovering over its center. Magic, obviously. As they entered, the dark assassin could see that, even inside, the walls were lined with guards, ready to take action at a moments notice.
"Is this how you treat all your friends?" the mercenary of shade questioned with a laugh although a ring of truth was in his tone. "I mean, what was that test for if we still haven't proved ourselves?"
"It is nothing personal," Zerrah dismissed as he took his seat at the mighty table. "No one is to be trusted, ever. It is the Ikmalian way."
"And times only grow more dangerous," Lord Alais added.
"Even here?" Orson pondered. "I thought you kept your borders thoroughly guarded?"
"It is also our way to expect anything," Zerrah answered, "always."
"You people sure have a lot of ways," Orson muttered but only half under his breath.
"Children, children, please, there are more urgent matters at hand," Hood mocked. "I came to beg for assistance against the Emperor. His days of reign have lasted too long, Lord Alais, and he only becomes more demented with every passing day. However, what I have learned most recently is by far the most disturbing: The Emperor has made a sinister pact with... the 'darklings'." Their audience was dumbfounded by his words, not knowing how to react. Seeing their confusion, he clarified. "The Ukmabgere," he whispered in a hushed voice as they all grew pale, even the unshakable bravery of Zerrah was faltered. Even invoking their arcane title in near silence, the central torch flailed its tongues wildly. As its color shifted to a sickly black and violet, it cast forth no light, only making itself visible in the darkness of the room.
"Why?" Alais demanded as the cursed presence passed. "What does he hope to gain with the- ... those infernal demons? Does he not have enough power?"
"He has all the power a King could desire," Hood coldly admitted, "but he lusts for the power of a god."
"This is outrageous," Zerrah rejected. "No one, not even in unsound mind, would form allegiance with those devils. What proof do you have of this?" As Fred rose his tall body from out his chair, he planted his long, covered arms far apart on the table, twisting his head to shoot an angered stare through his robes at the doubting soldier.
"I had spent several weeks posing as one of the Emperor's top assassins, known only as the Nameless. People often confused the two of us before hand, so it really was not difficult at all. After removing him from the picture, I-"
"Wait, wait," Zerrah interrupted. "You... killed the Nameless?"
"And?" Fred replied. "You should be shocked if I couldn't." Standing up to his full height, he trotted around the table to continue his story, ignoring the incessant interruptions of Zerrah. "As I was saying, I posed as the Nameless for some time, trying to get myself closer to the Emperor to finally end him, but what I learned while attempting this proved too much for me alone. A lone Ukm- er, 'darkling' was not much trouble for me to take care of or much to be suspicious of. They have been known to be summoned from their nether world and into ours, but the Emperor has a pact with not just one or a few but the entire race. I had trouble piecing it together at first, however. No one would speak their name," he explained, gesturing to the central torch, raising his voice to rise over Zerrah's cries, "with good reason, so I was never quite clear as to who they were in alliance with. However, once Vasez referred to me as being a 'darkling' as I masked myself as the Nameless, pieces began to fall into place. While trekking out here, I was able to- What!?!" He threw his face directly into Zerrah's, huffing with anger.
"You say you killed the Nameless?" he repeated with wide eyes.
"Yes!" Fred screamed. "Why is that so hard for you to grasp?"
"The demons," he slowly stated, "they don't die." Slowly, gazes shifted to the suspended lantern as its flames began to darken and flicker fiercely. The shining glints of mail that lined the walls vanished one by one into the shadows. All color drained from the fire, until, once it turned like pitch, it erupted in a violent flash. They did not have much time to see, but a large, twisted, evil something had emerged from the fiery portal and crashed down onto the table, breaking it underneath the massive weight. Only the four were left in the total darkness with feral growling.
"Oooh," Hood squeaked, "crap.
There was no way to see in the incessant darkness; the creature had brought with it an impenetrable veil from the netherworld that not even the shadow killer's vision could best. He didn't need to see, though. Orson could sense the shade. This thing was made from it.
The assassin hesitated while the others charged blindly in their panic. Zerrah flew into a fighting frenzy at the intruder, studying the every changing groans the eminated from it. With no other choice, Alfred joined in, hammering his large, clasped fists at wherever he heard a sound. Their strikes -- while true -- made little impact against the abomination's evershifting body, and very shortly, both men found themselves caught in shadowy tendrils from its pitch skin.
Zerrah was cast off with little regard as Hood fended off what attacks he could. Orson witnessed a crude mouth appear with his mind's sight, but all could see the horror when its mouth opened, spilling a crimson, hellish glow from its belly. What little could be seen of the writhing mass in the dim, red light escaped all logic, but what was held in its vile clutches could not be believed: Hood, battered and bloody.
Fred's tired, struggling arms were still defiantly pulling from the horror's hold. Tatters of his robe were stuck and absorbed by the eerie black coat, glistening with pouring wounds from its relentless attacks. The namesake hood, too, had been shredded, and they could see something that would never see again -- even if they did manage to survive -- the face of Alfredore.
It was almost colorless, even bathed in the sanguine light. It was twisted, not just from this assault or from all those he had endured within his lifetime, but contorted in a strange way, as though he had lost control of his feature, or at least had no need to. Mostly, however, his face was looked so powerless. His eyes squinted in the unfamiliar glow from the horror. It was not his element; the infernal illumination escaped his power. Now subdued and for once beaten, his pitiful face could only stare onwards.
The back of what could only be described as the thing's head burst open, spewing a wretched flame behind itself and into an unseen wall of force summoned by the Alais. The doctor concentrated his efforts to keep the flames at bay, but the hellbeast increased the fiery stream with such excess that the flames curled from the repelling wind, licking the floor and ceiling alike. Orson dodged the flow when his old teacher could no longer keep the up, and he was swallowed by the flame.
"Dr. Bait!" Orson cried from the ground as he looked back to see nothing standing where the fire flew. In a charred mess on the blackened ground, Orson went to the aid of a barely living Alais. The horror could have vanquished them all as easily as the guards that once lined the room, as it just did to Alais or the unconcious Zerrah, but it didn't. It was after Alfredore, it was after revenge, and it would let nothing stop it. It was a vicious predator, toying with its prey before the kill. And once it did, it would not only consume the flesh, but take Hood's soul back to the netherworld.
The horror's head reshaped as it kept Fred occupied by slamming him into any solid object. As a creature of fire, it would require time before using its deadly breath again -- this time on Hood -- time it would enjoy torturing the pathetic insect further. Orson stared on with absolute terror; it was never like this for him before.
"Orson," wheezed the old man, "your magic..."
"There... there is nothing I can do," admitted the dark assassin, unable to even look at his old master in this condition. Unlike Hood, his element was plentiful now. "It would only feed on the darkness. I would only make it stronger."
"No," corrected Alais, stopping briefly for a labored breath. "Use the magic I taught you." Orson's eyes went dead. It had been years since he was at the Academy. He was one of the best students alive -- some say the best. The place was like a family for him as a child -- in all respects, unfortunately.
Perhaps he succeeded too much. It was his unprecedented talent that drove him away, that made him a danger to those around him and himself, that allowed him to learn on his own and his own way. So many years Orson had spent on the assassin's path that he was not certain he would be able to use any of his old magic, and if so, would he want to?
"I... can't," stammered Orson over the cries of his friend. Alais could no longer speak, but the shadow killer could read the motions of his mouth.
An sensation crawled upon Orson. His fingers were overwhelmed by his sixth sense. He felt something he had not felt in a lifetime, something he never wanted to feel again. There were too many what-if's in his old life; he hated to be reminded of it. He could have stayed with the Academy. He could have had the courage. He could have been a statue in their great hall instead of a fugitive from the Empire. But fear bested him, just as it was now. No more. The past gruesome years had been spent escaping, killing, doing what else his talent was good for, even if the cause wasn't: assassin to the Empire.
Orson rose from over his fallen master. The sense of magic was full in the hot air; it followed him closely. He advanced upon the horror, which no longer paid attention to the others, only the bloody lump called Hood. Orson stretched out his arm, pointing his quickly numbing fingers at the thing.
The beast quickly realized Orson's effect; Fred fell to the ground, still wrapped in shadowy tendrils, and dragged him as it reformed to face its new target. More than enough fire had been restored to make short work of any living thing -- just not enough for its plans for Hood. The nuisance of Orson was becoming a threat, however, so it opened its furnace once more to annihilate him.
The shadow assassin did not flinch. There he stood, perfectly still, amid a deathly light. His hand began to tremble, his skin to turn. Already, the hellfire within the beast was dying out. Its gullet closed, hiding its precious flame deep within its mass, and instead took up wicked, black fang. The shapeshifting process dragged, and the horror became more frantic in its slowed actions. In its crawling gait toward Orson, it fell upon the floor. Its many limbs failed to lift its vicsous body free. Orson, too, was feeling the effects of his spell. His knees buckled, but he refused to fall like his foe. He remained unshakably focused on this creature. A visible fog escaped from undoubtedly blue lips when he remembered to breath in his blind wrath.
Finally, the hellbeast stopped.
Zerrah had regained some consciousness in recent moments. He could see none of what transpired, but he felt it well: cold, permeating the room moreso than the shadows. Despite his beating, Hood shattered free from the tentacles and hobbled to a stance, still above the others despite a wounded stoop. As the darkness was swallowed up, Fred made sure to follow it until he could redress the wounds to his robe; his flesh would have to wait.
"It's not dead," Zerrah spoke. "They cannot be killed, even when reincarnated in this form, they will come back as another."
"I know," sad a shivering Orson. "I have heard the tales, too." He withdrew his blade for the first time that fight and plunged it deep inside the thing's thickest limb. He heaved up on the handle, cracking the entire, truncheon-like appendage from the mass. "And if the tales are true, there is one thing..." Before he finished, he pounded a hateful blow across the abomination's head using its own leg, breaking it clean off.
Orson sat at the edge of the village, alone, looking out into the woods and trying not to think. A mound of bandages came to him.
"You are tough, aren't you, old man?" Orson addressed.
"I've died once already," Dr. Bait replied with a chuckle. "That's enough for me." Then, he resumed a serious tone. "The head is safe... we think." According to legend, a darkling could be kept alive and without power by being sealed in a bag with some strange and varying objects, depending on accounts. All were used just to be safe. "I just wanted to tell you, that... you passed."
"The test?" Orson asked. "I thought you already tried me?"
"An initial test, yes," explained the teacher, "but you were an assassin for the Empire. That is not something easily forgotten."
"A lot of things aren't," the dark killer added, diverting his gaze from his master once more.
Alais remained silent for a moment, and before speaking again, turned to go. Midtravel, he spoke anyway. "You may have made up for the years under the Empire today, but when you fled from the Academy, that..."
"I know," Orson whispered to himself. "There is only one way I shall ever be able to make up for that...
"It's time," Zerrah spoke up from behind Orson, lost in time and his own thoughts. They met with Alfredore, Alais, and the five bravest Ikmali warriors outside the still destroyed meeting hall. And then there was Hygal. This warrior was in no way the best, but his knowledge of darklings was unsurpassed in the hamlet.
Orson passed through the long-winded security measures that he had grown tired with over his short stay. Perhaps it was his dislike of guards; few ever remained alive around the dark assassin for long. After his examination, he proceeded into the dark building. In the center hung a new magical lamp, casting a pearly glow over the shattered table and chairs that surrounded the bits. It was a divination of Apollo -- they took no risks with the presence of fire.
Each member of this council found their seat around the central orb of light. Orson shot a few annoyed glances to the guards that waited in the shadows, smaller in number this meeting not because they had any more trust for their guests, but because of the fighters lost to the darkling battling. Finished studying his surroundings, the assassin nodded to Zerrah and sat down. Zerrah returned the gesture and stepped over the wreckage to a small spire of table, most likely a splintered leg. He thrust down a large sack into the point, receiving a displeased cry in return. All were already at attention; weapons either had one hand on them or were drawn and poised.
The ropes were loosed, Zerrah took a breath, he flung open the sack, and then quickly retreated. There, bathed in a most despised light, was the impaled, decapitated head of their enemy. Its eyes disappeared in the brightness from above, and its whole form contracted a little. The monster's discomfort was apparent in the vapor trails that now rose from its lit skin.
"We have been attacked," finally spoke Zerrah. "We are at war, and this is our enemy." He paused a moment as the creature hissed at the surrounded humans. "We stopped this darkling. We stopped the general the last time the Emperor attacked our swamp," he told, slowly turning in order to look at the entire team. "Simply put, we are better."
"You are foolsss," hissed the head. The quiet Hygal reached into a small pouch every member and guard had been given and sprinkled some simple salt onto the head, to which it writhed.
"You, darkling," the Ikmalin warrior continued, "are going to help us." The demons were incredibly powerful, true, but likewise, they were incredibly haughty. Zerrah knew that this one would give them information about the emperor. Anything that would get this group into the Empire and fighting other darklings would certainly lead to the death of the humans, it believed. Zerrah hoped it was wrong.
Orson looked down. A wide-eyed bowman gazed up, holding shut his bleeding mouth. A ring of guards was trained on the shadow assassin, ready to act at any moment. But they didn't. While true that there was little Orson would be able to do against so many fighters of such caliber, his newly gained prestige as a darkling slayer was something that even Ikmali revered, and it was that fear that kept the dark killer alive, even after taking a swing at one of their own.
"I can't believe you said that," Zerrah told Orson, who remained perfectly still under the watch of the guardsmen.
"I can't believe you agree with him," another of the Ikmali elite stated.
"You know he's right," assured the Hood, who stood over their fiery captive to pull out a sharp, ornate tool of interrogation.
It had been a long debate. The entire room was deprived of food and sleep, although this was only apparent in the outsiders. They had at last come into agreement, each getting from it what they wanted against the Empire and what they needed from each other -- help.
"It is very possible that none of us will live through this," noticed Dr. Bait, still entirely bound. "We already know that one of us shall not, but... it must be so."
"Keep the altruism to yourself, old man," Orson scoffed. "I haven't died in a mission yet, and I plan for this one to be no different." He turned a harsh look back to his old master. "I'm in it for revenge," he directly stated, "nothing else."
"And ya can't even try to keep me away from those demons," the disciple of Ra growled with the anger his only defeat riled up inside him.
"You are all ssstill foolsss to me," mocked the severed head, to which Hood threw a pinch of salt, causing it to hiss and boil.
"And remember," Zerrah started up, pushing down the weapons of the frozen Ikmalin guards, "we are going to have one of the best fighting forces backing us." He began the procession to the enormous, sealed doors. "We aren't the ones who should be afraid."
A hand grabbed around Zerrah's arm. He turned to see Alias, looking at the cracks beneath the gate he was about to open.
"Is it dusk already?"
"No," the doctor said, touching the reddened light. A hush fell over them all when they saw the crimson color stay on Alais's bandaged hands.
The door slowly creaked open. Two sentries were given that task; two ranks of bowmen were poised for whatever was on the other side.
All there was outside was the bloodied ground.
In the distance, a lone man stood. He gave no response when called to. Before giving the order to fire, Hygal spoke up as he rarely does. He recognized the man.
With all the protection typical for the Ikmali, a well-guarded troop stole away from the central hall, circled by a vigilant crew of archers. As they drew closer, they knew his identity as one of their own.
"Soldier," Zerrah addressed, pushing past their protection in an unwise rage, "why have you left your post?" Still, they received no response. He did not even look at Zerrah; he did not move at all.
"I," stuttered Hygal, "don't think he's alive."
"And he's not alone," mentioned Fred. More of the clansmen could be seen standing throughout various locations in the village, facing no certain direction, but none of them moving.
"This doesn't make any sense," a confused Zerrah whispered aloud in concentration, holding a hand on the fighter's cold shoulder. "How could we not hear a fight?" Orson slowly reached out with his blade, careful not no attract the sentinels' ire, and just as slowly lifted up the corpse's chin.
"That's why," the dark killer told, rolling back the man's head and revealing the bloodied line that was drawn across his throat.
Another of the living that had separated from them called his leader to another one of the corpses. Zerrah was quick to catch what the clansman had already noticed.
"His helmet," he simply said. The soldier nodded and removed the oddly fitting helm. From out the top of the deceased's head were two stony spikes. "What are those?" he said in wonder.
"I'd assume those are what keep the men standing," explained Alais after he visually traced the point's angle down through each leg.
"That explains everything except how my men could be defeated," Zerrah said, more angered by why they failed to stop the intruder more than who the intruder actually was.
"Not everything," gulped an archer, afraid of his leader's current mind set. Zerrah turned a harsh stare over to the bowman. "Well, when we first came out here, there was only one of... one." After half a moment's thought, Zerrah sent out a silent command that only his men could recognize, instantly whirling them about. In a surprisingly swift scan of the hamlet, they quickly all took aim onto one of the standing, but it disappeared before meeting the barrage of arrows.
"Who was that?" asked the aging Alais. "What was that?" The earth exploded into rock and dust as a shape sunk its claws into the doctor's back and its bloodied tips out the abdomen. Carried up by the same speed that surfaced the creep, it pulled the old teacher apart at the middle, casting the lifeless torso to the length of his entrails. A pillar of stone shot up a distance away, onto which the thing smoothly landed and balanced itself.
The ever-vigilant Ikmalin warriors had already planned its trajectory, braving the bits of dirt and shards of rock that flew their way, and fired one arrow each. These rebels had superior training; there was nothing they couldn't kill.
And therein lied the problem.
Never parting from its stony perch, the gaunt freak turned to the group, never minding the volley that had sank into it. The thing gave a sick smile from beneath its mask which was clearly made of a human skull turned upside down. Other equally gruesome decals stuck about various worn leather straps that binded parts of its sickly, somber-colored body together. The surprised archers began to load an unprecedented second arrow; Orson just ran. Not to his master, as he knew this was no time for grief, just away.
"Where are you going?" shouted Hood over Zerrah's command for another volley.
"Off the ground," he responded. Then, he minded to tell the entire group, "Get off the ground!" Fred halted unfastening his robe and joined his fellow assassin. Zerrah debated whether or not to trust the newcomer, but gave the order to follow Orson as the second barrage had no effect.
It was not something he had very long to think about; Orson just stabbed the closest house and hoisted himself up, franticly trying to get a hold onto the roof. The trailing giant lifted up the shadow killer and had little trouble getting himself up. Some clansmen were able to jump high enough for someone else to pull them on. Others were over-confident -- a rare assumption for men of their talent but unfortunately true in this situation -- and stayed behind. Others still were simply too slow.
It only took a moment. At the command of the intruder's raised hands, the bones of earth and beast and man erupted from the ground wherever a warrior stood. And as quickly as they came, they disappeared below the surface. So quick was the carnage that Zerrah had no time to even rationalize what he had just seen.
"Graveyard," is all Orson said. "General Tanai's little pet," he went on explaining, "or at least, that used to be. I had one job with him back when he was mostly human, mostly living, and even then, he was something awful."
"What... what has that bastard done to him?" the broken Ikmalin questioned.
"Whatever he wants," Orson replied. Tanai would not suffer two defeats at the hands of the rebels.
The thing sat still for a moment, sensing his mother earth for any signs of his targets; he had long since lost his eyes. His arm swung up in the air, tearing a sudden mountain through the area the house once was. The party was divided and prone for the moment. Skeletal blades spun quickly through the air, taking apart a few of the clansmen's weapons and arms and bodies.
Stealth would be no help for Orson in this situation, and keeping at a distance would mean certain doom. He took off running as fast as possible, not toward Graveyard, but spiraling around him. Spires rose up in the assassin's wake, but he always stayed just a step ahead of the freak's reactions. He had no idea what he would do when he reached the enemy assassin, and he never did. A barrier climbed up in his path. Orson was sure to roll out of its way; it was something he remembered seeing from Graveyard's repertoire, and memories that chilled even the seasoned shadow warrior came to him as he saw the wall crashing down and pierced by a bed of surging, broken bones.
The tremors from the overkill attack rendered the freak blinded for a moment, one on which all of them acted. Orson ran through Graveyard with a sword, and like the arrows it was next to, it did little but get stuck in him. The shadowy one ducked a sweeping claw and subdued the thing's arms for enough time for Zerrah to make his way over. Losing his years of training in a fit of rage, the Ikmalin attacked with nothing more than fists and feet -- some of his deadliest weapons nonetheless. He was sure to stay close, as was Orson, for any of Graveyard's grand spells would hurt it as much as its enemies.
Repeated strikes to the freak's head cracked apart its mask, and there was no end to Zerrah's wrath in sight. The two had to leap to safety when a fissure swallowed up Graveyard and threatened to take them as well. Zerrah weaved through continuos spikes that jabbed up through the ground. One finally caught his leg, but he still managed to pivot out of danger of the others. This assault stopped and a claw ripped up through the earth, not to be met by the Ikmalin, but Hood, who now ripped Graveyard out from safety and into the open air before crashing him through the series of spires he had just summoned.
Alfredore refused to relinquish his grip. Even as the elongated claws, still wet with blood of clansmen and Alais, sank into the giant's forearm, he remained unphased and continued dodging blows and undoing his dressings. Graveyard launched up a block of stone to knock Hood to the earth where it would have the advantage. The freak pinned its other claw through Alfredore's shoulder and lurched over its victim. Its mask finally crumbled as it hung over Hood, revealing the inhuman, featureless mess of bone and rot squirming with maggots, all of which a small portion fell below as it let out a grating, shrill roar.
"Some face," mocked the prone Alfredore. "Wanna see mine?" The last thing the others saw of Graveyard was soon lost amid a visual explosion of pure white as Hood shook of his remaining coverings. As their visions slowly returned, only Fred, hastening to refasten his robe securely, remained.
"Did... did you get him?" Orson was slow to ask. "What happened?"
"I'm gonna hafta guess that I kicked his ass," the light one replied his usual tone that told the shadow fighter a very sly grin hid just beneath the hood. The shamble of wrappings that was his head turned to the solemn Zerrah, who, now free from the battle, now knelt beside a fallen brother. Orson could not bear to see his old master, even after the atrocities he had witnessed and committed.
With a new resolve, Orson said..
"Let's go then," and started walking away from the Ikmali village. Hood followed him without a word. After a moment Zerrah followed with the remnants of the Ikmalin trailing behind him. Orson wasn't expecting anybody other than Hood and himself to make it out of the swamp.
After half an hour the group encountered a small patrol of Imperial elites. The invaders, however, had little knowledge of the environment and the natives quickly got rid of them. Unfortunately, the battle was not without cost, one of the rebels was injured. Despite this Orson and Hood continued and effectively disappeared after only a few moments. The rebels spent a short while to tend to injured warrior.
"Take him to the supply depot," ordered Zerrah as he started to follow the two assassins.
Meanwhile, Orson and Hood had their own problems. Without the aid of the Ikmalin warriors and Zerrah the Imperial warriors were a match for the two assassins. The four remaining elites were equipped with greatswords and it was all that the two could do to fend off the synchronized attacks. Suddenly, Zerrah charged into the battle and eliminated one of the warriors, evening the numbers. The assassins used the surprise to finish off the Imperials. With Zerrah's knowledge of the swamp and all of it's paths they managed to escape the swamp without any more encounters.
The three enemies of the Empire travelled for another half day until reaching the small town of Haldred. However, being in a key place along the road between the capital and the Holy city had introduced the town to a large amount of travelers. Because of this the town was home to a large inn. Orson, Hood and Zerrah headed straight to there.
Wasting no words Orson said, "one room, four beds, upstairs," and flashed a gold coin.
The innkeeper's eyes lit up with greed, "five silver per night," he said, pulling out the key to the room.
Orson didn't comment on the outrageous price and instead just threw down the coin and took the key. If Orson was any less tired he might have regretted paying the gold piece for the room after seeing the poor condition of it. Instead he and Hood started rearranging the room. They moved the spare bed in front of the door and placed their equipment beneath the window, ready for a quick escape. After securing the room they settled down. Each of them sinking into a fitful sleep.
In the middle of the night the three men were roused by loud knocking on the door
Rolling from off of his bed to the door's side, not degrading himself by slipping between the rags called sheets, Orson poised a knife ready to strike at a moments notice, listening carefully to who was knocking.
"Sirs," a hushed whisper could barely be heard, "sirs, I think you best be off. Some imperial guards are here looking for you." It was the inn keeper. "I told them I was but going to check to see if you slipped away during the night, so you best not make me a liar." The shadow assassin smiled, no longer regretting his generosity. Hood wound his spindly form out of the window, digging his long fingers into the shingles above. After hoisting himself up, his arms reached down to carry his fellow travelers onto the roof as well.
"Why are we going up here?" Zerrah questioned as he struggled to his legs firmly planted.
"The guards are patrolling for us," Fred mentioned in a lower tone than the rebel, implying the warrior do likewise, as he lifted up Orson. "I think they might of noticed bodies dropping from the second floor into the street."
"Oh, they still shall." The support shattered beneath Hood just as he got the mercenary on the same level. Beams and boards shattered to splinters, crashing down the floor below and the next, dropping him to the cellar. Citizens poured out into the street, clogging it as they desperately tried to escape the unknown cause.
"Hood!" Orson cried out to his fallen friend, peering down the busted stories to wrought frame splayed out below. A dazzling, white form shot its way into his vision, spinning elegantly as it soared in altitude. Stopping, the figure posed with its arms outstretched and its legs perfectly straight and together. He was adorned in exquisite refineries, a fine, white, silk suit that seemed to sparkle in the moonless sky. Pristine gloves covered his hands and spotless shoes over his feet. Highly contrasting, a deep, blue shirt seemed to sink into his body underneath his jacket, with a sharp, white cloth hanging over it from his neck. A strange, plain mask covered his entire head, solid white with a strange, blue marking over the forehead. Stranger yet, ornamental wings seemed to be sticking from his back. His body, there was something wrong with it. It was not right.
"Pardon me, gents, but why did you have to be such bothers?" words echoed through the open sky. His lips never moved beneath his mask. "Why could you not have leaped from the building when the inn keep gave you the word of warning? You would have come right into my way and already been dealt with. It would have made my day so much easier. I had to make up a nice lie and convince the inn keeper to-" With a quick snap of his hand, he caught a crossbow bolt. "Now, now. Did I say I was done?" With his other hand, he caught two more. "Impatient cretins, would you be?" Releasing the arrows, they drifted in the air until aligning themselves in the direction of the rebel and the assassin. Launched on thin air, they rocketed with a roaring noise towards the pair who barely escaped in time. The tiny arrows, small as they were, tore three gaping holes into the already destroyed inn, rubbling the structure. Orson and Zerrah scarcely made it to separate roof tops in time to escape its collapse. "Come now, can you not just die like good little boys?"
"Not tonight," the dark killer shouted, but they bounded back at him louder. "Tonight, tonight, tonight..."
"As you wish," the mysterious voice elegantly stated as the dazzling figure rushed towards him with arms folded across his chest. The roof Orson stood upon began to crack and buckle, giving him little time to bound from it before it became another pitfall, but the surface he chose to land on was already crumbling. In a constantly changing chain of jumps and leaps, the mercenary traveled the various buildings and across streets dodging the destruction as the man in white effortlessly followed in the air. Roof tops quickly grew a rare sight as most of the large city was being crushed on a mere chase; however, Orson had his reasons. Slowing down as he stood in an island among a sea of ruins, the man in white stopped before him.
"Did you run out of options, boy?" As the empty face stared down at him, raising a single arm to deliver the final blow, Orson cracked a smile as a long sailing arrow of Zerrah came into view just behind the well dressed man. Its path, straight and true, made a quick lateral bounce, dodging its intended target and striking the assassin in the leg. "Did you really expect that to work?" Absorbed in disbelief, Zerrah did not have much time to fret over the sight of his wounded comrade as soon he just saw the inside of the building he was perched upon. Raising a finger, the bleeding Orson was lifted into the air by the air, being spun around as if on display. "Hmph. I do not see why the Emperor is threatened by the likes of you. You were barely a challenge."
"So you do work for him?" the mercenary grunted as he tried to yank the arrow out of his thigh but then was restrained by phantom forces. "You're one of his lackeys?"
"I? Do not mock me with such a vulgar accusation!" the voice protested. "Boy, if you even knew what was transpiring here-"
"I know what's about to transpire," a familiar voice interrupted. "Me kicking your ass!" The man in white motionlessly pivoted to find Hood standing tall with his hands already at his robe's opening. Throwing them apart, his skin glowed brightly.
... This was all it did. The dim night sky granted little light for his particular ability to work from. The aura still burned slightly, but it was hardly up to its normal devastating force.
"How nice of you to come," the voice sounded. "Now I can end you both in a single stroke. It will save so much time." Alfred had another plan in mind. Holding his hands outstretched in the air, the city grew darker. Far off, what little light there was vanished. The immediate area grew brighter by the moment as light was bent towards him. Before any real power could be generated, the draw ceased as the radiance halted in a ring around the three, frozen in its path. "An impression notion, I must say. But if you want to make it really spectacular, you have to make it more unexpected." The ring flew into the sky, spinning fast as it condensed into a gleaming sphere. Positioned high over the city, now left darker than pitch, a single ray of light poured out of it, aimed at Orson. He was paralyzed, clenched by the air around him, unable to move out of the way. Hood charge at him, knowing full well that he could not get him out of the way, but this was not his intention.
Throwing himself over Orson, the brilliant beam struck him square in the back. The resulting shockwave leveled what fragments of the city were left standing as the explosion of light reversed the night, even if just for a moment. Darkness soon fell upon the village, and Alfredore collapsed to his knees, exhausted, with Orson breaking his fall. Free from the confines of the wind, the assassin tossed the other from him to see how their adversary had fared. Zerrah had just climbed to the top of their building to witness the shock at the same time. The man in white still hung perfectly in the air with his fake, feathered wings covering over him. They were busted and tattered from the blast, but this was not even noticed by them. It was what lied beneath the wings: wings. Real wing. A thin membrane with a beautiful pattern across its long form. The wings flapped, shaking loose what remained of the faux wing guards, before returning poised precisely along his back. His fine suit was shredded in the eruption, most likely from the shrapnel tossed by his own wings. His mask, too, bore a sizeable gash. This was the point where their focus now lied. His skin was a pale lavender with something like tendrils falling where their should be hair. A single, large, round, glowing blue eye was visible through the tear.
"Now, look what you boys have done," the phantom voice rang from his lipless face. "You have gone and made a mess of my suit." Orson did not know what to do, but, luckily, someone else had already planned that part. The assassin only stared, fixated on the strange sight with Zerrah as it grew smaller in the distance. The two were being carried away in Hood's arms who bolted faster than ever before.
"What-what was that?" Orson questioned after being snapped back into reality.
"Lhuix," Hood stated somberly, "or what you may know as an angel, a being of wind and light."
"Wait, isn't that a good thing?" Zerrah asked, joining the two back in reality. "Aren't they good?"
"No, it's a bad thing. Really, really bad," Fred insisted, quickening his pace.
"Worse than a darkling?"
"Much worse," Al confirmed. "Darklings are just evil. They kill for sport and destruction. Angels are justifying. They kill with a purpose. Anything that is evil is their enemy. Problem is, everything is evil to them."
"I'm beginning to think," Orson blankly stated, "we've gotten involved in something quite terrible...
As they continued towards the capital, Orson, Hood and Zerrah were struck by feelings of despair. Less than a day out of the swamps, a fraction of the road the Imperial capital, they had already been mercilessly attacked by a creature which utterly outmatched them. The only thing that kept them going were their need for revenge. Even Hood, the normally jovial asassin who had joined Orson for fun, had found a reason to end the Emperor and his otherworldly allies. The Lhuix had done much more than give him a physical battering, it had taken away the one thing in his life which he felt he could control.
As they travelled the road to the heart of the Empire, the three were almost oblivious to the outside world. It was only the sight of a pristine wayside chapel that brought them out of their self imposed silences. After their various encounters with the darker side of the Empire, the spectacle of such an uncorrupted object had a profound affect on them. After a long moment of silence, Zerrah finally spoke. "Who would have thought that such a great evil could have produced such a fine creation?"
Despite the few hours they had slept the previous night, Orson, Zerrah and Hood were in no better state than they were before. The lure of the chance for food and a place to rest was irresistable. At a quickened pace, they headed straight towards the small temple.
As they entered, they saw, to Hood's delight, that the shrine was dedicated to Light. However, the chapel was seemingly empty. There didn't even seem to be a priest in attendance. Nevertheless, the three were not deterred and immediately set about exploring the sanctuary. At the back of the shrine was a large stained glass window. So enraptured by the beauty of it, neither the two asassins nor the Ikmalin were aware of the man until he spoke.
"Wonderful, Isn't it?" he said in a voice which sounded very old.
Startled, Orson and Zerrah jumped at the sound, turning to face the mysterious man. Hood however, was calm. He turned around to look at the man who could only be a disciple of Ra and knelt before him to receive a blessing. Without any prompting, the old priest said, "If you're looking for a place to rest, there are some empty beds downstairs," and pointed at a concealed case of stairs in the corner of the chapel. He then looked at Hood. "You, my son, I would like to talk to."
"So who do you think that Ra guy is?" Zerrah, listening to the few words that fell down the stairwell, questioned. Orson was reclined on one of the few beds, changing the dressing on the wound his ally had given him a few days earlier.
"He's an Immortal -- one of Light," Orson flatly stated, as though the Ikmalin should have already known. "Don't the Ikmali have any of them?"
"I guess not," he responded quietly, trying to keep his voice below the conversation from above. Just then, he spat out "What's that?" The sudden, alarming words for once caught the wounded assassin's concern.
"What did they say?"
"No, not that," Zerrah dismissed, taking in a deep breath. "What is that smell?"
"Oh, that," a disappointed Orson huffed, falling back onto the sheets. "Probably our head," he said, referring to the vile bag which now emitted a thin wisp of smoke. "This place is full of the presence of Light," he explained, waving his hands through the energy only he could sense -- he and the tortured remains of the darkling.
"Taking on the Emperor, you say?" the old priest repeated in disbelief to Alfredore. "Such a feat is foolish."
"Don't gotta tell me, pops," Hood agreed, scratching the coverings over his nose. "They are gonna keep tryin' to kill me, tho', so it only seems polite to return the favor."
"You do not understand the forces at work here, son," the pastor closed his eyes and calmly stated.
"You kidding? We've fought armies and demons and zombies and angels -- well, just one angel, actually," he corrected is his always insincere manner. "I've even had my ass kicked -- me, father. How can you say that I do not understand."
The priest let out a heavy breath and looked with ancient eyes for a place to rest. He backed toward a simple, wooden seat to rest his tired bones and his head into cupped hands. Even arguing with the younger disciple wore down the old man.
"You are not the first to attempt this," told the priest from behind his withered hands.
"Yeah, well, they obviously didn't do a very good job, now did they?" Hood retorted.
"I was in one of these attempts," the priest announced after a pause. "Do you really think you can make a difference?"
"I can kill the bastard," Fred said. "It may not make a difference, but it'll sure make me feel better."
"You're right; it won't make a difference," the old man finally stated. He lifted his faded stare up into the blank void of Hood with a most pitiful expression. "It didn't when I killed him.
Hood stared at the old man, and he stared back at the cloaked one. Silence hung between them.
"You... you killed him?" Alfred questioned, unsure if he heard correctly.
"And I was not the first," added the priest, "or so I was told." He rubbed his aged hand against his wrinkled forehead, massaging the ache that had come. "The reign of the Emperor has lasted longer than you or I. It transcends generations." Hood staggered back, his mind overwhelmed.
"Are you sure you delivered the final blow correctly," Fred sought, "or that it wasn't an imposter?"
"I know that I killed him," the venerable man confirmed, "for I laid his body out in pieces and turned them to ash only to see him rise from the embers."
"The fire," grasped Hood while cowering into a ball, "did that have something to with it?"
"I only set him aflame when I saw the pieces mend themselves," informed the fellow disciple, not even rising his head to respond, "and he was only in pieces since all other forms of injury did little to stop him."
"What," Alfred demanded, "what is he? Is he one of ... those things? Or is it something else?"
"You are dealing with forces you cannot begin to understand," the priest told, choosing to ignore the question. "You are merely fighting shadows, glimpses of the true forces at work. Even if you could succeed, which you cannot, the effects would mean nothing. It would be wiser for you to see that fact now while young. I wasted my years in this futile war, seeking to change things that will always be. His reign will endure, the Emperor will live on, but so can you. Survival is victory enough, my lad, and keeping alive when your death is his aim will be challenge enough."
"Answer me," Hood yelled, rising back to his feet. "You never told me what he is. What is his secret? Does he have some sort of magic protecting him? There might be a way around it." The priest shook his head to all of the allegations. "Why will he not die?" The assassin stared directly into the holy man's face, the impenetrable black face hanging in front of him. The aged one never lifted his eyes.
"It never was a matter of what he is," he expounded with a heavy and reluctant sigh. "It only matters what he was..." Hood once again backed away from the holy man. "... Fallen... Lost... Descended... Forsaken... Abandoned... Outcast..." Alfred had rejected the notion of someone who could not be killed. Any man could be slain, as he had more than proven, but, as the priest went on, the cloaked assassin returned to his cringed state. His massive body folded its long, lanky limbs into a protruding ball as if it would shield him from the truth. "The Emperor will not die for he was an Immortal.
"What?" asked Zerrah incredulously as he and Orson ran up the stairs after overhearing the conversation, "an Immortal? Just like this Ra guy? But that means..."
"That your quest is a hopeless one." filled in the priest, "Better to return to your homes and live out the remains of your life."
Orson, Alfred and Zerrah had all absorbed the words of the priest and realized just how hopeless their task was. Killing a man who cannot be killed. One who was once a God. Suddenly, the priest fell to his knees and clutched his chest.
"Lhuix...attacking...keep...the light." said the servant of Ra in a quiet, choking voice before passing out. His sudden unconciousness coinciding with an instant dimming of the light in the temple.
"What do you mean old man?" Asked Orson, accompanied by a loud crack from the door.
"I think that's our cue," answered Hood who seemed to have added years to his age in just a few moments.
As the three men readied themselves, the doors burst open and revealed the Lhuix. The creature was instantly recognisable as the one which had almost felled them at the Inn. Even without it's wing guards and clothing the angel was an intimidating figure. However, possibly the most horrifying aspect of the being was it's mask. After their previous battle with the monster it had left with a large cut in it's mask. Now, the gash was little more than a hole showing a fraction of the creature's eye. The mask had somehow regenerated, as if it were a living part of the foul being.
"I'm back," it said, raising it's hand. "And I have a little present for you."
Moving too fast for even Orson to follow, the Lhuix fired a concentrated blast of light at Hood. Surprisingly, the blast didn't knock the assasin down. Alfred, rather than being harmed by the light seemed to be enrgised by it. For the first time, the angel actually showed a flicker of fear. However, it didn't last long.
"Disappointing, I suppose I'll just have to resort on more conventional methods," the creature said as it moved into a fighting stance and slowly stepped towards it's targets.
"Try your magic Orson, it's our only hope," whispered Hood
"We'll buy you some time," added Zerrah as the two stepped forward, moving defensively towards the Lhuix.
The angel was unbelievebly powerful. Not even Zerrah and Hood together, were a match for the creature. However, together the two could withstand the furious onslaught. After a few minutes of intense fighting the angel finally made a breakthrough. The powerful punch hit Zerrah in the sternum and, with a sickening crunch, threw him across the room. However, Hood used the Ikmali's sacrifice to land a solid blow on the creature. For a moment it looked like it might have been enough. The creature staggered under the blow of the asassin who was still feeling the energy from the Lhuix's first, failed attack. Unfortunately, not even that was enough.
"Got ya," shouted Orson who had seemingly been forgotten in the confusion of the fighting. The angel whirled around to defend against the new attacker. However, all it saw was the crossbow bolt enveloped in Shadow magic right before it went throught the tiny hole in the angel's mask and buried itself in the creature's single eye
The thing's head was flung back by the arrow's force. Small, short-lived specks of solid light bled from out the mask. The angel stumbled but did not fall. Its arm quickly locked against a wide sweep by the robed giant, and in a swift roll, launched the gaunt heliomancer near the aching Ikmalin, prone, flipped over himself.
Hood discovered the hard way that the Lhuix anatomy differed from that of humans. Even with its eye an eminating mess, it could still sense their motions in the space surrounding it. Orson, while not anticipating this exactly, was far too experienced to know a clean shot was enough to end the fight. He hurried in his preparation of his second bolt, but he did not knock it. As the angel saw his movements, it smoothly approached, lifelessly staring from the gaping wound behind its mask. It shined brighter as it readied to smite its one standing foe, but the shadow slayer was already finished.
The same eerie, dark aura surrounded the crossbow bolt he thrust into the ground, tail first, magically boring through the temple floor. He honed his focus away from a charging foe, impending death. Orson poured all his mind downward to the blade he held steady with both hands. In a guided thrust past his extended digits, the sword hit true to the very point of the shadowy bolt. Simultaneous to the splitting of the arrow, the poised alien clutched a wrenching glove to its mask, sprawling to the floor. A mass of tendrils dripped through the gap, tearing apart the mask where it had just regenerated.
A sadistic streak returned to Orson. The dark assassin suddenly felt at peace in a way he had not for what seemed like ages. Small curls crawled on the corners of his lips as he examined his tortured victim, desperately attempting to rip out the bolt. Orson stomped upon the remainder of the enchanted shaft, linked across the shadow world to the bolt currently embedded within the angel. For each fragment of arrow, the shadow slayer could hear a tangible scream emitting from the being that now bled more of the sweet, pristine light than ever.
And there he stood and watched and nothing else. They were certainly powerful, but not immune to pain. No one was.
The throws of pain came to an end as a second arrow buried itself into the thing's chest, shot by Zerrah, who had finally found enough strength to sit upright despite his repeated injuries. Orson never flinched; he just stared downcast as the angel slowly bled away, disappearing into the air.
Alfredore was recovering thanks to the unwitting aid of the departed, but was largely unaware of recent events. The Ikmalin had witnessed terrible things in his time; it was the expression of Orson's that Zerrah saw which disturbed him deeply. He saw nothing.
He meant to mention something of this, but the dark killer raised a hushing hand before his ally could speak. His arm then glided around him, his eyes fixed before it, passing through the drifting, luminous gore. He sensed a new source, like its magic. The assassin shot a look at Zerrah. There were more Lhuix, and the grip on his blade told the Ikmalin that they were nearby
"Ah, hell," crooned in Hood. "I don't think you guys even wanna see this, but-" he continued in his typical, loose voice before switching over to a panicked scream, "We got company!" A great gale ripped across the land, carving trenches in the ground as distant specks of light grew nearer and brighter. It was a flock of Lhuix, an army. Pouring down from the heavens, the winged battalion soared over the what remained of the meager chapel, tearing off shingles with each thunderous pass. This was what they did, passed. Each of the immaculate soldiers continued on their way, ignoring the battered group of three. As quickly as they came, the fleet was gone.
"We did it," proclaimed Zerrah, hobbling up to his feet. "We showed them. They thought we couldn't take them, but that taught them a thing or two! They may act tough, but knock one down and the rest go running!"
"Or they just didn't care," suggested Orson. The Ikmalin growled at the remark.
"He's right. We don't even matter to them," asserted Fred. "They spared a single troop to take care of us when there was an army at their disposal, and I'm guessing it wasn't even that good of a soldier by their standards. Nothin' we do even matters to them. They just wanted us to change our minds before we got ourselves killed."
"How can you say such things!" protested Zerrah. "We are warriors! We-"
"We could barely take one on when it was grossly outnumbered," admitted the shadow slayer. "Just a few would be no contest against us, even if fortune smiled upon us." Zerrah violently refused to accept that he, a mighty Ikmalin, was weaker than anyone or anything. In his contained rage, a soft beam of light broke through one of the shattered holes in the temple's roof. The soothing ray did little to ease his frenzy as it reminded him of another ill situation.
"Day already?" he fumed, already agitated. "This is two short nights in a row!" He could go days without rest, but his patience was worn a bit thin at the time to be accepting of any situation.
"No," disagreed Alfredore. Zerrah pulled his clawing hands down from over his face to look at his traveling companion of the past few days who was looking out a large break in the wall.
"No?" the Ikmalin echoed. "No, we haven't missed two nights of sleep?" Hood shook his head, still gazing out the demolished wall.
"No," he repeated, "it's not day." Rising, Zerrah stumbled to the opening to behold the same sight. Off, far in the distance, they could see the heart of the Empire beneath the night sky, only the darkness was not touching it as it was surrounded by an aura of dazzling light.
"I take it that's where the Lhuix were heading," he said.
"It's also where we're heading," added Orson. Loading his crossbow and keeping it drawn, knowing it would be needed soon, he headed for the stairs. Hood shrugged as his fellow fighter departed.
"Gonna die sometime," Alfred stated as he and Zerrah followed in kind. "Might as well choose when.