”I doubt you came here just for a greeting.” Dee replied the assassin in a level tone of voice. She knew the man was not here to try to kill her, otherwise he wouldn’t have shown himself so calmly. She was slightly worried that he knew about her identity as Wraith, but not overly much so.
“You’re right. A certain heir of House Griffin tried to procure our services to kill you. I heard that you had a run-in with him this morning.” The masked assassin replied.
“That sniveling idiot? How very petty of him to hire assassins just for such a light humiliation. And Zabaniya at that? We both know you don’t come cheap.” Dee tapped her chin in amusement. She had expected the noble to create trouble, but this was slightly outside her expectations. A couple of goons hired to rough her up sure, but Zabaniya? “We both also know you’re not here to fulfill that contract. So why are you here?”
Dee could see the faint outline of a smile from how the face and chin muscles of the assassin moved beneath the mask. “He didn’t actually hire us. Or at least he didn’t know he was hiring us. There are currently several guilds in this area, as this is the economic center of the fourth circle in day city. Thus it is the center for assassins as well. As it happens though, all those guilds are under our control. We give the illusion of choice, but…”
“Your reach has grown.” Dee remarked simply.
“Just like you, we don’t just rest on our laurels. Anyway, the heir of House Griffin will no longer be a problem, and his father, the late chapter master or Radiant Sun, will not be trouble either. We take a dim view on people trying to take out hits on our members, even those that are not active.” The man explained, clearly amused at the situation.
Dee’s eye twitched a bit at the idea of still being considered a member of Zabaniya, but knew that arguing the point would not get her anywhere. “My, the reach of Zabaniya really has grown if you are in the habit of killing of high ranking members of Radiant Sun.”
The man gave a chuckle. “The man was a regular customer of ours, so getting to him was simple. He died of ‘natural causes’. A heart attack to be exact. He was old. It’s a shame what ravages of time can do to the short lived races. Even healing magic has its limits against old age.” They both knew the heart attack was not really the reason, likely the Zabaniya used a poison that stressed the heart.
Now Dee’s eyebrow really shot up. “You don’t think they’ll find it the least coincidental that a chapter master and his son died on the same day? And I doubt you could ‘natural causes’ a young man like that in the middle of the largest gathering of healers on the whole planet.”
The man just looked at Dee, his eyes saying all that was necessary. Translation: ‘You weren’t this stupid before.’
Dee was a bit peeved that someone used her own trick against her. “I see, so the poor old man’s heart gave out when he learned about his son’s death. Or that’s the story at least. What happened to the son? A mugging gone wrong?”
“Something like that. Actually he supposedly tried to rape a young girl but was interrupted and killed by the protective boyfriend. The girl was actually one of ours, while her ‘protective boyfriend’ is a high ranking warrior from the freelancer’s guild. Quite unfortunate.” The man explained, satisfied that Dee had gotten the gist of it.
“While I don’t mind the information, I could’ve dealt with them myself. I do not consider myself owing you anything in return.” Dee replied tersely. In fact she had planned on using the noble brat to make an example of him later on when he came after her. Well there were plenty of noble brats around.
“Fair enough. Like I said, we take a dim view of people targeting our members. Master also wanted to welcome you home.” The man said, still amused, before starting to walk towards the door behind Dee.
‘Home?” Dee thought. ‘I did suspect that Zabaniya had their den in the day city, but under the very noses of the communities opposing them? That’s just stupid. And that’s exactly why they’re doing it. There couldn’t really be a more unlikely place for it, hence the last place they’d actually look.’
Suddenly something stirred inside Dee as the assassin was about to walk past her. Anger at them assuming she’d just going along with them considering her a member of the Zabaniya. Her PRIDE being insulted on many levels. They tried to control her! The puny mortals assuming ownership over one of the great dragons!
‘Dragons?’ Some part of her mind wondered idly.
The puny mortals needed to be sent a message! Just as the man had passed her, she made a grabbing motion towards him with her right hand, and the ethereal form of a dragon’s black foreleg appeared and closed around the man, the sharp claws sinking into the man’s soft flesh, encountering only the slightest resistance from the quickly raised defensive layer of ki.
Suddenly Dee felt a great hunger as if the ethereal apparition had drained something from her, and she felt a great lust for blood, which was in very minor part satiated by the now flowing life-blood of the dead assassin. Somehow the blood seemed a hollow comfort. The reason became apparent as the dead body of the assassin suddenly started to disappear as it turning into nothing but flecks of black dust floating in the air, the last of which disappeared soon after.
As the feeling of being in control once again returned, Dee noted her hands shaking reminding her of the symptoms she got years ago when she had not killed anyone for a long time. “So that’s the reason for the need the kill. Whatever that apparition was seems to feed on life. That assassin was obviously using a fake body technique of some kind, so it did nothing to quench the hunger. Blasted shaking! I’ll need to do something about it before tomorrow.” Dee said half to herself, half to Croestia who knew what it meant.
Hassam-i-Sabbah watched on calmly as his servant Asahim cradled his head in obvious pain. “I’m guessing our little Wraith was less than pleased by your visit.”
Asahim barely managed to speak. When one of his bodies died, the feedback was nasty and proportional to the force of the attack used to kill him. This one had hurt like hell. “That is one way of putting it. Did we really have to make contact? We could’ve just handled things from the shadows.”
“Yes we did. She is angry at us for a reason. Anger is good and something we can work with. Better she starts dealing with that anger now. Later on she’ll be used to the idea of us making contact with her. Besides, even if she continues to carry a grudge, all we need is for our interests to meet. And if we get lucky, she might even do some work for us if we provide the right incentive. She clearly had no compunctions against killing.” Hassam-i-Sabbah said looking at his servant still in pain.
“I’d say that’s putting it mildly, to say the least.” Asahim replied, slowly recovering his wits.
“Our eyes and ears just sent a message. Apparently she felt a strong desire to thin the ranks of the criminals in the city tonight. You seem to have drawn out the bloodlust in her for some reason. Did you pick a fight with her?” Hassam-i-Sabbah had not expected such a bloody response.
Asahim grimaced. “I was very cordial. I suspect it might have something to do with the technique she used to kill me. She shouldn’t have been able to do that at all, yet she did it so fast that I didn’t even notice the details.”
“You let your guard down.” Not a question, but a statement of fact.
“A little yes. She didn’t strike at the optimal moment, which gave me a false sense of security. That said, my protections should’ve stopped a strike from a rank 8 warrior, not to mention a class 6 psion.” Asahim replied, knowing that lying to his master was pointless.
“Interesting.” Hassam-i-Sabbah remarked.
Dee felt refreshed as she stood among the other applicants next morning. She had hunted down a dozen of the scummier members of the dark underbelly of the city. The more she had killed, the better she had felt, and interestingly the stronger as well. She suspected that using that weird power would consume the life energy she had harvested during the night, though much of the hunger the previous night had come from her first proper use of that weird power. A power she still couldn’t use consciously, and which had actually controlled her somehow. Though she also got the feeling that the more she killed, the less likely she was to lose control.
Dee almost missed the proctor of the next test getting up on the stage. This time the proctor seemed to be higher ranked and was flanked on both sides by a mage bearing the mark and the signature robes of the Mystic’s guild. “Welcome to the last test of this year’s selection. Today all of you were given one of these as you came in.” The man lifted a bone white bracelet in the air.
“The theme of the test will be hunters and prey. On the bracelet you will find three numbers. These numbers will tell you your who your ‘prey’ is. The numbers will coincide with their rankings according to the points gathered during yesterday’s tests. So for example, if you have the number 1 on your bracelet, the first ranked applicant so far will be one of your ‘prey’. Your objective is to get their bracelet while keeping your own bracelet safe. The method to acquire your ‘prey’s’ bracelet is up to you, but you are not allowed to kill your target.”
“Each of you will have three targets all worth five points and keeping your own bracelet safe will be worth five points also. Other bracelets are worth one point each. Incidentally, the bracelets will point an arrow towards each of your ‘prey’ so they will be easier to find. Your aim is to gain twenty points, but you will be graded either way whether you reach that goal or not. Now the quickest of you may have noted that with each of you having three ‘prey’, then each of you should also have three people hunting you. To make things more interesting, we’ve mixed this part up a bit according to your earlier performance. The average is still three, but those that have done exceedingly well will have more people hunting them, while those that have not done as well will have less. Your ‘prey’ are also determined by your earlier performance.”
“Now some of you might find this a little unfair, but this reflects reality. Those with greater skill and power will always face stronger enemies and have more responsibilities. The venue for this event will be provided by our friends at the Mystic’s guild, who have volunteered the maze around their towers for our little fun. The time limit is five days. There will be some basic provisions given just before you enter the maze. Also, everyone will be monitored by one of the familiars summoned by the Mystic’s guild, so no cheating and no murder. If you get injured seriously, the familiar will summon healers to you.” The man finished explaining.
Dee felt the bracelet activate, and she checked which prey she had been assigned. There were several large boards on the sides listing the ranks of every person, so you could find your prey’s identity. Dee didn’t need to consult the boards, as she already knew the identities of all her targets. With her large lead at the first place, she had expected her targets to be in the top twenty, but this was a little depressing. ‘Ranks two three and four, huh? Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.’
Suddenly she felt the bloodlust of everyone around her focusing on her. “Wait, seriously?” She asked when she realized the reason.
Shunkaha walked next to her. “Yup, I just checked some of the others. Apparently just about everyone has you as their prey. Incidentally I got you too, along with the two elf brothers as my prey.”
“They’re doing their best to stack the deck aren’t they?” Dee asked no one in particular.
“Well, at least it will be more interesting this way. I’m guessing I have quite a few people after me as well as the rank two, but nothing like yours. You were a bit too dominant earlier it seems.” Shunkaha laughed.
They had all been led to the maze surrounding the ivory towers. The maze was magical, and there as a test for hopeful applicants. The Mystics didn’t host recruitment events like the Radiant Sun, instead they had some tests that applicants needed to pass, but if the hopeful applicant did pass, then they were automatically accepted. After their identity had been checked of course.
As soon as the signal was given, Dee disappeared in a flash and even the familiar assigned to watch over her lost her trail. The bracelets tracked each other, so those could still be used to find her, but that was easier said than done. Dee was tempted to hide the bracelet inside Croestia’s storage space to disable the tracking function, but finally decided against it. Losing the familiar wasn’t strictly against the rules, though it was a risk as now she wouldn’t receive medical help. Not that she needed any. It would be a risk to the others though. Disabling the tracking on the other hand was against the rules.
Dee had already gone deep within the maze before stopping to consider. She was quite sure the random people hunting her would provide enough points to reach the stated goal, but that wasn’t really the point of the test. While the twenty points was the nominal passing limit, she wasn't sure that the limit actually mattered. Otherwise there would be too few people passing, and the proctor had mentioned they’d be graded by their performance regardless if they reached the goal or not. Hence she’d only really get the best evaluation if she actually hunted her own prey.
The two elves would obviously be working together, so in effect she was forced to hunt all the other applicants that had risen above the rest while avoiding everyone else. Sure she could take down random people as well, but wouldn’t it be even more interesting if she got her targets while no one else saw a hair of her?
‘Interestingly the bracelet only shows the direction towards the target, not the distance in between.’ Dee mused as an idea started forming in her head.
“Did you have a hand in this ridiculous set-up?” Wolfhart asked Razark.
“Of course. It’s all good and fine to hear you speak of her stealth skills and her ability to identify targets, but I’d rather see it for myself. If I’m supposed to be training her, she should be able to deal with at least this level of challenge. I'll also be sorely disappointed if she simply beats her prey into submission. Anyone can use overwhelming strength. A scout should be smarter than that. Still, this is also a combat test so I’m eagerly awaiting that part as well.” Razark replied.
“Well this should at least be interesting if nothing else.” Wolfhart said with a small sigh.
Ascalon and his brother had made a small camp for the evening. The two had already managed to find one of their prey for each of them, and were now currently on the trail of Ilthuryn’s second target. Ascalon still remembered the cold shivers the first ranked girl had caused in him, so he had tried to discourage his brother from seeking a confrontation with her. Unfortunately the dolt considered hunting the girl a worthy challenge instead. At least Ascalon had convinced Ilthuryn that they should go after her last.
‘Well at least I don’t have her as a target. Not that I think the second ranked wolfman is much easier, but at least him we might be able to take down if we work together. He looked a little brash, so we might be able to use that against him.’ Ascalon thought to himself.
Suddenly they both heard someone approaching their little camp, and they rose up ready for battle. Whoever was approaching them wasn’t making any attempt to hide, but it was better to be careful. Both of them became shocked as they saw the person approaching their campsite. The two of them were used to the beauties in the elven court, but this woman exceeded anything they had seen before.
The woman was wearing the robes and insignia of the Mystic’s guild, with the robes covering her body from her head to her ankles. They didn’t completely manage to conceal the alluring form hiding beneath. Her long and flowing hair was mostly covered by the hood that was pulled up to partially cover her head. Not in an attempt to hide anything but enough to cover most of her head. A single lavender fringe hid part of her face and one of her eyes.
The most striking detail about the woman was the large and glowing halo behind her head that almost looked like a crown of sorts. The woman spoke to the two elves, bringing them out of their stupor. “Greetings to the two of you. You must be some of the applicants for the Order of the Radiant Sun. I had heard that there was a test to be held in our gardens. I didn’t quite realize it would be today.”
The woman’s voice was like the soft and playful timbre of a flute, and almost charmed the two of them again. Ilthuryn recovered faster this time to reply. “Indeed we are. We are camping here for the night, and continuing tomorrow.”
‘She calls the maze their garden?’ Ascalon wondered idly.
“In that case I wish you fortune in your test. Be careful though, the spells here can confuse you and mess up even the best sense of direction. Speaking of, do you mind if I share your fire for a short moment? I’m renewing some of the spells here and could use a bit of rest before I continue.” The charming woman asked gaily.
The two elves almost fell over each other in their hurry to agree and cleared a place for her by the fire. Ascalon finally asked a question he had been wondering about for a while. “If you don’t mind me asking, we don’t see that many angels around these parts. What brings one of your kind to Pantheon and the Mystic’s guild no less?” Ascalon so hoped that the woman was one of the Radiant Sun so that he might see her again soon, but knew the hope was in vain as evidenced by her robes.
The woman gave a small tinkling laughter. “I’m afraid you made a small mistake in your assumptions. There are two groups of angels and one of those groups is in a situation where we need the protection of Pantheon.”
Ascalon immediately realized what she meant. “One of the Fallen then?”
“That is correct, though we don’t really refer to ourselves with that title. We prefer Angels of the Dark. Not that it matters much, but there it is.” The woman explained while smiling.
The three of them discussed various topics for several hours, while the two elves fell deeper under her charms as she displayed her wittiness and quick mind, along with her generous sense of humor as she laughed with her cheery voice at their clumsy attempts to impress her. All things must eventually come to an end though, and the two elves thought that the ending for this meeting came all too soon.
They shook hands as she was leaving. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay a little longer?” Ilthuryn asked with half hope half desperation in his voice.
“I’m quite sure. I’ve rested for long enough. I should get back to my duties. Maybe we will meet again, if the fates so decide.” The woman replied with a smile.
“Could you at least tell us your name?” Ascalon yelled after her as she was walking away.
She turned towards them while walking backwards into the darkness. “Let’s leave that as a mystery for now. A woman doesn’t want to give away all her secrets right away.” She replied before laughing again before disappearing.
It wasn’t until morning the two of them realized Ilthuryn’s bracelet was missing, and they had no idea what had happened to it. They suspected that someone had managed to steal it during the night despite their precautions, but they didn’t even for a moment suspect the angel they had met the previous evening.