As Malik and Dee stepped through the portal, she could recognize their destination as the eight circle in the city of Night, mostly thanks to the signs and names of stores. The big placard at the end of the dais announcing the location as being in the west section of the eight circle also kind of helped. There was a more precise location mentioned, but she had never bothered to learn the exact way the two cities divided the areas. It would be useful knowledge for an assassin, but she honestly didn’t want to know too much about her targets, in case she ever managed to get away from the order.
Zabaniya worked in all circles below the fourth in both cities, but most of their targets were in the city of the Night. Dee suspected this was partly because of the heavier presence of opposing organizations in the city of the Day. She didn’t know where the order had its headquarters, but she had a sneaking suspicion that it might be found in the city of the Day, simply to spite their enemies. From what she had learned, the order would like to also do business in the fourth circle and above, but all the inhabitants and communities were too powerful to oppose. Even if the order managed to complete missions there, the result would be the ire of beings that they could not afford to piss off.
For Dee, it was her first time in the eight circle. It was doubtful that she could really go against the strongest people in this area in a fair fight, but that’s not what assassinations were about. The difficulty of her missions had also been going up steadily, and this was just the most obvious sign of that. If the pace kept up, sooner or later she would get a target assigned that she wasn’t able to take down, so it was somewhat of a race which of two things happened first. Either she’d figure a way to escape Zabaniya’s grasp, or she’d get killed by one of her targets.
“Eight circle? Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves? I’m pretty sure I was the only one of the children from our little den operating in the ninth circle, and now you’re bringing me to the eight?” Dee asked Malik with a raised eyebrow.
“We felt that you should be able to deal with this mission. We actually have three targets for you this time. Two of them should be rather simple, while the third one might need some work. You’ve been given a full week to deal with the third one, so there’s no need to rush. Take your time with this one. We have some ideas that you can use to infiltrate the grounds, while the rest is up to you. We think you’re especially suited for this target due to his nature.” Malik replied with waving away Dee’s protest.
“His nature?” Dee asked while her eyebrow kept twitching, and she gave Malik a scorching look of disapproval. They didn’t assign him a sick twist who liked furry kids, did they?
He gave a small chuckle as he understood where Dee’s mind was headed. “Not the nature of the target per se. The community the target belongs to works with unfortunate children. Fair amount of people get killed in the eight circle, as it is seen as something of a dividing line between mediocrity and real power. Those that get above the eight circle are recognized as powerful, while those below are considered trash. As a result, there is a fair amount of orphans that get left behind in the eight circle.
The temples and some of the permanent organizations run orphanages, but the kids are always in need of some help, food and experience. The community of our main target likes to hire those kids for various kinds of work, and often rewards them with food and clothing. Some work inside their compound from time to time. That should be an easy way to get inside for you.” Malik said while grinning. Despite getting taller, Dee still looked like a kid.
“So how did a philanthropic person like that piss someone off badly enough to get a target painted on his back?” Dee didn’t like targeting good people, especially those that worked with kids. They reminded her a little of Selvaria.
“The usual. He’s stepped on the toes of some wrong people. It’s hard to do business in the Night city without pissing someone off. Unfortunately for him, this time he pissed off people with ties to us. You should be careful. Their facilities are all warded to detect poison and heavy use of power. They’re smartly not targeting mana or ki specifically, just build-up of power, so even you need to be careful. You can’t use too much power. Oh, and they like having guards everywhere. So there’s that too.” Malik said with a small sigh, which made Dee curious. Usually the man would be almost gleeful presenting her with a challenge.
“Why do I get the feeling that I’m not the first person to try this? Malik, I need to know if they’re aware of being targeted!” Dee demanded with a sudden realization.
Malik gave a small grimace. “One of our low ranking Zabaniya was assigned to this job before. It was his first real assignment after being made a full member of the order. He managed to obfuscate the target a bit before dying miserably. They aren’t sure if we were after them, or the people visiting them at the time it happened. I would assume though that they’re at least somewhat vigilant.”
“Great. And instead of sending a real assassin, you leave it to me to clear the mess. Just give me the information that you have prepared.” One thing you had to admit about the order, they were good at gathering and preparing information. As she read though the gathered information, several ideas and possibilities popped up straight away. She’d ruminate on this a bit while she handled the other two targets.
Three days later, Dee walked out of the manor of the third target wearing what looked a lot like simple servants clothes. There was even a gap at the back of the skirt for her two tails. “Candy?” Dee asked Malik while handing him something in a wrapper. Malik knew better than to eat anything given by Dee. The girl was way too good with poisons. He simply slipped the thing into his pocket, so that he could get rid of it later.
“You’re done? I don’t see any big commotion yet.” Malik asked looking at the manor from a safe distance.
“It will get busy later. We might not want to be here when it happens, as they’ll probably round up everyone for questioning. I can give a proper debrief once we get away from here. I think I’ve earned some proper food for a change.” She said rubbing her stomach. The food at the den was enough to keep you going, but wasn’t exactly great when it came to taste.
Malik gave a wry smile and lead them to a café a few kilomels away from the mansion. They got a private booth, and Malik cast a spell to ensure their privacy. “Alright, explain. I’m a little curious about how you handled things this time. You usually prefer a stealthy approach so this one was something a little new to you. You rarely utilize your age, unlike the rest of the kids.” One of the main reasons the Zabaniya trained such small kids for low level jobs was because no one suspected such young children until it was too late. This allowed them to easily approach their targets, though they often had trouble getting away after the deed was done.
“Well the first part went pretty much as you expected. The community was hosting a fair sized party to entertain some of their allied groups. They hired some of the kids to help with setting the venue and with the catering. That would be food and drinks in case you weren’t aware.” Dee liked to make little jabs at Malik. She was bitter at him for all the pain she had suffered, but she couldn’t attack him directly. Also she wasn’t fond of these debriefs since they forced her to talk more than she wanted to.
Because this world was filled with such powerful individuals, the people liked to band together in communities, groups, guilds and ‘families’. Some rallied behind a common cause, some rallied around their race and family, some gathered because of friendships, while some were brought together by money. There were also some rarities like Zabaniya, where the members were gathered by force and coercion. These groups then tried to gather power, people, resources, money and connections that would help them get closer to the center of the two cities. The more powerful and influential a group was, the closer to the center they could make their residence. Very few individuals had the power to single handedly make their residence in the inner circles. One could visit the inner circles, within some limitations, but residence was different.
Malik simply smiled and waved his hand to have Dee continue. “The idea was to reward the kids with proper clothing, as you can see, and they could also eat the remaining food left over from the party. As the food was rather high quality and the clothes weren’t bad, this was a pretty decent offer. The kids could also observe the process of social gatherings and maybe even catch the eye of some people. I slipped in among the kids they hired. That gave me a rather free access to the place for the day.”
They had to stop talking for a moment as their order came in. A rather cute fae girl was working as the waitress, and gave Malik a charming smile while placing down the orders. As the girl left, Dee couldn’t stop herself. “Oh dear, that girl really has no taste. For her sake, I hope she didn’t manage to rouse your interest.”
Malik replied calmly. “A little too young for my tastes. Besides, I’m pretty sure she thought you were my daughter. She might be the type that likes single fathers.”
Dee snorted in distaste. Although it wasn’t uncommon to see humans with mixed race children, she herself didn’t have even a hint of human heritage showing. “Don’t make my food taste bad with jokes like that. Anyway, with access like that, it wasn’t too difficult to set our target up for poisoning.”
Malik’s eyebrows shot up. “You of all people poisoned the food at a party? I find that very unlikely. I might do something like that since I don’t really care about random casualties, but you? Also wouldn’t that be caught by the poison detection spells?”
“Who said anything about putting the poison in the food? Besides, the definition of poison is so relative. When used separately some ingredients are just spices, but when digested together…” Dee let the rest hang in the air.
“You used Bloodpetal and Gillyroot? Ok, now you got me interested. Elaborate.” Malik asked suddenly much more intent.
“I covered a fork with Bloodpetal extract. It’s tasteless and odorless, so it would not be discovered. Then I used a bit of sleight of hand to switch the fork with the one our target would use.” Dee gave a small demonstration by making her spoon disappear and re-appear. “No need to use any powers for something that simple. I then added Gillyroot to one of the foods that I knew our target really liked and was served to everyone, thanks to your briefing for that tidbit, and left once I noticed that the target sat in the correct place and used the fork I had prepared. Since Gillyroot is just a nice tasting but rather rare spice, the rest of the guests and the guy testing all foods for poison with magic wouldn’t feel or detect anything. Thanks for forgetting to mention that guy by the way.” She said with quite a bit of sarcasm.
“You’re quite welcome.” Malik said with a straight face. The poison tester was actually news to him too. There was a large difference between generalist poison detection spells over a large area and a dedicated tester. Apparently the target society had taken more precautions than he had thought.
Dee continued, completely ignoring Malik. “Anyway, since neither of those substances is poisonous by itself, and only highly poisonous when they combine inside his body, the detection spells didn’t react. The poison takes a few hours to take effect, and by the time the effect is noticeable, you’d need a high ranked cleric to cure the poison. Something you know to be pretty rare in these parts. I then decided to leave before the commotion got started.”
“Wouldn’t that result in suspicion towards you? One of the kids leaving without receiving her reward.” Malik asked with a frown.
“It would if I left voluntarily, so to speak. I made a mistake on purpose and broke some dishes. They revoked my reward and tossed me out as punishment. I did some crying and apologizing, and created a sob story about my ‘sick brother’. They let me keep the clothes and even gave me some candy to take with me. The woman was really rather nice about it. She simply couldn’t have me break any more dishes and had to give me some punishment. I used that commotion to slip the Gillyroot into the food. Now I’ll be the last person they’ll suspect, since I wasn’t even there when it all happened, and they wouldn’t think I could set it up so much beforehand. Sometimes the best way to hide is to stick out and be too obvious.” Dee explained between mouthfuls of food.
“Good job. You seem rather blasé about the whole thing though. Don’t think I haven’t noticed your dislike of targeting people like him.” Malik pointed out.
“I’m pretty sure that things won’t go as our client would want them to, even though I completed my mission. I got to spend some time monitoring the people of that community. They’re rather passionate, and the target wasn’t among the strongest people within the community. Most likely this will only enrage them and make them drive the target’s agendas even harder, making him a martyr. Whoever ordered this hit really didn’t know their target’s community all that well.” Dee explained simply.
Malik shrugged. “Makes no difference to us. We only do work that we get paid for. This might even bring more business our way. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the community you were just in hired you to retaliate?”
“That would be rather ironic, but they didn’t seem the type. More likely they’ll just storm in wrecking their opposition with direct force. From the information you gave me, it shouldn't be too hard to guess who paid for the hit. This is really good by the way.” Dee said pointing at her food.
“What was the name of that community by the way?” Malik asked with no real interest.
“Stop pretending like you don’t remember. Your memory is almost as good as mine. The name was Silver Stars.” She replied with equal lack of interest.
The wide room had several important looking and dignified people seated around a sturdy wood table. They seemed to range from warriors wearing full armor to mages and priestesses in their light and official garb. All of them had serious looks on their faces as they discussed the likely reason they had been called here. There seemed to be several guesses and theories, but they all seemed to revolve around a certain group of assassins.
They all quieted as a powerful looking man in ornamental full plate armor entered the room and took his place at the head of the table. The man clearly had some experience on him, but his short golden beard and hair didn’t have a single trace of grey in them, and the pointed ears showing slightly from under his hair gave the reason why. For elves, age only brought gravitas. He cut an imposing figure with his wide shoulders and powerful build, while his eyes showed his intelligence and experience. Elves usually didn’t grow a beard, so it was even more striking on his face. He had the lithe and balanced movement that combined his elven heritage with years of hard training.
“Honored guests, my apologies for making you wait. I trust there will be no need for introductions, as you are all familiar with each other. I have gathered you all here, because I think we can all agree on one thing: it’s about time we strike back at the assassin organization known as Zabaniya. They have been a thorn in our sides for too long, and in our role as protectors of the weaker communities, we have failed our mission when it comes to the activities of that organization.” The man stated to the gathered people.
While most groups jockeyed for position, there were some organizations that were jointly funded and supported by all of the communities. Those organizations tried to maintain peace and order, as well as provide some services and help, especially for the new and weak communities. Most of these groups had the backing of very powerful beings, and in exchange for their services they levied taxes in the areas they controlled. Most notably, none of these groups ever tried to move to a better position towards the heart of the cities, as that was counter to their purpose. Even if some of them had the power to rival ten communities within the third circle, these groups never moved and maintained their positions in the circles below the third.
Some of these groups focused on protection and hunting down threats that preyed on the weak, some of them focused on gathering and sharing knowledge and techniques, while others focused on providing reliable and fair trade. Most of the temples were also a part of one or more of these groups. Combined, they formed groups that maintained law and order, stopping the lower circles from devolving into anarchy, and provided essential services. They were a little like the unofficial government. There were some official countries and even empires on Pantheon, but those tended to be rather xenophobic, so the handling of the areas outside these official countries was left to these groups.
“I see three problems with this.” A woman with the appearance of a priestess said. “First of all, Zabaniya’s biggest safeguard has always been secrecy. It’s hard to strike at a group when you don’t know where to strike. Secondly, won’t some other group simply take their place? There will always be demand for the services they provide, and when there is demand, there will be supply. A known evil might be preferable to an unknown one. And thirdly, Zabaniya controls the Authority of at least one Hero. Is it wise to pick a fight with a Hero, considering the possible collateral damage?”
“Agreed. Hassan-i-Sabbah isn’t among the most powerful Heroes, but he is strong and most importantly he is devious. And we can’t be certain that they haven’t gathered other Authorities.” One of the mages stated, not really afraid, simply pointing out the facts.
The man leading the meeting raised his hand to quiet the others down. “Valid points, which should give us pause if we were trying to destroy the whole organization. A war like that is something we can’t afford right now. However, we can strike at them to show our displeasure at the flagrant disregard of our authority, and to curb down on their most exploitative practices. They have been getting out of hand lately, and need to be shown that we won’t tolerate that. Especially their recent actions against the weaker communities have become too much. They’re even striking at communities directly under our protection. Hassan-i-Sabbah will not move personally unless we drive them into a corner. We simply want to send a message.” The man stated calmly.
“You speak of the one called Wraith, yes? It would do all of us good to see that one removed, but we can’t locate him.” One of the warriors said, a slight accent clear in his voice.
The deaths of few hundred people were not something to earn this kind of focus in a world as large as this. The problem was that they didn’t know how Wraith managed to do what he did. At some point in the future, Wraith might be able to threaten important people with great power, and if they didn’t know how to stop him…
“Now we come to the reason I was late in arriving. We have gained information on three bases used by Zabaniya, and one of them is believed to be the base used by Wraith. I propose we strike at all three at the same time, using overwhelming force.” The man suggested.
“How reliable is this information?” The same mage that had spoken earlier asked, getting more interested.
“Extremely. It comes straight from the source. We do not have the identity of the Wraith as that is information my source is unable to reveal, but we have confidence in the locations given.” He replied.
“A traitor among the Zabaniya? That’s odd. They put their members under a compulsion that prevents them from betraying their organization. One of their number managed to find a way around that? How do we know if we have succeeded if we don’t know the Wraith’s identity?” The priestess asked.
“It’s rather simple. We kill all the assassins we find at these locations, and if the Wraith’s activities stop we have succeeded. Even if we fail, we’ve still removed three bases from Zabaniya, so it’s a win in either case. The Order of the Radiant Sun will bear the brunt of this fight, but we need support to assure victory. Who will join us?” He asked putting an end to the debate.
“The Holy Orders will support the Radiant Sun as usual.” The priestess replied. The temples and the Order of the Radiant Sun were deeply connected and usually worked together. The paladins and templars of the Order provided protection and safety to the temples while the clerics of the temples provided support for the more martially focused group.
“Mystic’s guild will provide support.” One of the mages said.
“The freelancer’s guild will also provide support.” The freelancer’s guild was the Pantheon’s version of the adventurer’s guilds found on most worlds. They simply called themselves freelancers instead, since the work was less about adventure and more about doing work that others could not or would not, while still retaining their freedom from groups like the Order of the Radiant Sun. They were basically problem solvers.
“It seems you have things well in hand even without us, but do call for us if you run into trouble.” A woman covered by a cloak and a veil replied. She represented the group known as Threads of Fate. Their group was the most wide spread and provided the widest range of services, but no one knew exactly what the limits of their power were. The Threads of Fate might seem rather normal on the outside, but they had stepped in a few times to stop large scale disaster the other groups could not handle. They always seemed to be able to pull something new out of their bag of tricks.
“It’s settled then. We move in three days.” The man representing the Radiant Sun declared.