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The Dead Assassin - Volume I Complete

Discussion in 'UO White Stag Inn' started by Azzazzin, Sep 25, 2004.

  1. Azzazzin

    Azzazzin Guest

    The Dead Assasin – Volume I

    Part I - Innocence Lost


    Hail Citizen

    Allow me to introduce myself. My story is an old tale, perhaps better left untold. . .

    Once I was a fisherman.

    I wandered into the town of Britain, past a tavern and a blood soaked hopsice, under battlements through shops and vendors and came upon a great horde of "heroes." They gathered around the Bank of Britain, in the shadows of Lord British’s fortress. They called prices and yelled abuse. They dressed in all manner of strange garb, from shiny steel to motley jester hats and other pieces of clothing, generally inappropriate. Some stole from one another, then were chased and killed by the Royal Guard. It was an intimidating hubbub but I was keen to make my mark in the big city, so I set about plying the only trade I knew.

    I took up position by Lord British’s moat, cast in my line and set the rod, lit a small fire and pulled out my little harp. I plucked a peaceful tune to quell the crowd and once I had a bite I paused to reel it in. I flayed and fried and added my song to my music.

    “Food! Free fish for the hungry!” I also had some small healing skills learnt on the farm. “Healing for the hurt!”

    A scarred knight strode by without even giving me a glance. A wizard diverted his trotting horse around me with an irritated scowl. A rogue who had been eying my wanton possessions snickered and turned in search of better loot.

    And a fight broke out. A posse of dilinquents had ridden into the square, full of bravado and harsh words for anyone in their way and when none seemed keen to challenge them, they set upon each other! Swords and cruel axes leapt to calloused hands and all at once they were laying into one another, still laughing and cursing all the while. I snatched up my harp in desperation and quickly tried to soothe them, a trick I had used often on the dogs we kept back home.

    The fight stopped. A dozen narrowed, hardened gazes turned upon me.

    “Food?” I asked, blinking. They stared and stared. “Healing? Bandages for your wounds, sir?”

    And they began to laugh. And laugh and they were laughing at me. “What’s your name, boy?” one asked, while three more were almost choking, the rest were distracted or bored or eying me with disgust.

    “Az, sir,” I said proudly. It was a name from the Age of Smoke and I would not besmirch it. “Az, of Woodhouse. The. . .the farm.”

    “Well, farmboy. Nobody here wants your stinking fish. Or cares to listen to your songs.” He gestured round the crowd, both his comrades and the others, and I knew it to be true. “Get back to your farm before something ugly happens to you.”

    “Yes. . .yes, sir,” I stared down at my feet, appendages I would become very familiar with over time. My humiliation complete, they returned to their squabbling. I returned to sitting by the moat. I did not bother recasting my line. My harp stayed in my lap. The fish cooled uneaten and my small fire guttered.

    And a youth stepped out of the shadows of a tree. “Az,” he whispered.

    “What,” I muttered at my feet. “You want to steal my harp? Take it. Maybe it will fetch you some coin.”

    “He’s waiting for you,” the lad continued.

    “Who’s waiting for me? Lord British? He wants to knight me for my services to sheep farming?”

    “No, Az. The Kingfisher. The Assassin.” And I gulped with fear and I looked up. The youth was smiling.

    “I’m sorry!” I stammered. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone. . .Here! Take my rod, my things. I’ll go back! I’m sorry. . .”

    He laughed, but it was not an unkind laugh. “I am Picollo, of the Ryu. Come, we must leave here.” Picollo, another name from the Age of Smoke. . .was there some strange destiny at work? I rose bewildered.

    “I. . . I’m not sure what you are talking about,” I confessed.

    “I had a dream you would be here,” Picollo confided. “My master said it was important. And here you are. Come. You must begin your training.”

    “My – My training?”

    “Yes, hurry. This is a dangerous place. Too many eyes. Vas Rel Por.”

    “Vas Rel? Huh?” The air rent and shimmered where the lad spoke and I could see, the ocean! I did not know it then, for I had never seen the ocean before. He made to step through the breach. “You’re a wizard!” I exclaimed.

    “I’m much more than that,” his words drifted back. “And so will you be too. . .” I had completely lost sight of him. I looked nervously, frantically about the crowd, yet none seemed to be watching, or had even noticed this great display of sorcery. I gathered my meagre things and stepped through. . .

    A blustering wind full of salt and grass smells whipped at me and blew away the stench of the city. I was standing before a humble cottage and saw trees and a beach and over a hill, the tips of some old moss ridden tower. Picollo stood before the house, his smile wider than ever, not looking at me but at an old man, hunched on the beach, his hand resting on a fishing pole that was cast into the ocean. He rose suddenly, fluently for his apparent age, as if my examination had awakened him from a deep slumber. And he turned and stalked towards me.

    “You are the one? Eh?” He asked, poking me in the chest. “You are the Dream Boy?”

    “It’s him, you old *******,” Picollo said with genuine affection. “It’s Az. I finally found him.”

    “Can’t he speak? Eh?” More pokes. “Can you speak, Az? You got a tongue?”

    “Yes, sir.” I straightened, holding harp and pole as in some parody of a shield and spear. “I speak, sir-“

    “Well shut up!” He barked. “Too much talking out of you young lot. Too much! Strip!”

    “Strip?”

    “Strip,” Picollo nodded, already losing his own clothes until he wore only a loincloth to keep him modest. What perversity had found me? I thought, very, very worried.

    “Strip. Take. Fight.” He thrust a tiny knife into my hand, dull and blunt and not capable of winning any battles. So I thought then. I obeyed and in short order Picollo and I were facing off, his grace and my awkwardness, his confidence versus my fear, all watched by this peculiar Fisher King. And we began a shadow dance, and we began my training, and we began.

    Part II – Lonliness Lost

    I sat on the gravestone with a bored expression, whistling an old tune, wondering where I had left my harp. I had not plucked at it in ages. I had not fished in ages. I had not seen my home, the old milk cow, the dogs, the sheep. Well the last was no matter, I really disliked sheep. One would jump over nothing. Nothing! And the rest would jump there too. Strange behaviour.

    A skull poked out from the grey dirt before me, then two rattling skeletal hands burst forth as the thing began to pry itself from the earth. It was almost free when I sent a lazy kick its way and the head popped off and the whole thing collapsed in a mess of bones and dust. “Back to sleep,” I muttered, not even bothering to check the corpse’s corpse for loot. What was the point? What was the point of anything. . .

    The graveyard was a small one, lying some distance from the township of Yew. I had been sitting here for the best part of a day, and if not here it was Vesper, or the one out of Skara Brae, though never Moonglow or Britain. They didn’t suit at all.

    I heard a crunch of twigs and leaves and looked behind to a see a zombie, all rotted, stinking of the rot and the earth, staggering my way. I sighed and watched its fumbling slow approach. When it had almost reached me I leapt, landing lightly on the stone and with a spin, my sword was in my hand and the arc of the blade took the thing through the neck. It fell backwards onto a pile of its smelly bretheren and I sighed. I sighed! My life had come to this. . .

    Another sound of approach, again behind, though that was the other way, because I had turned you see, and I sighed and turned again. . .And gagged.

    Two of them. Mounted. One armoured. One carrying the stink of a mage and the grave, though neither was dead. But I soon would be if they had their way. Reds. Villains. Murderers.

    “Kill it quickly,” the mage commanded and the warrior hefted a heavy morning star, its head still sticky with some other victims blood and brains. And he swung it with such sudden verocity and skill that my attempted parry failed and the thing took me in the arm and it was my bones breaking.

    And there was a rush of words and the stink of sulpher and ozone erupted.

    “Por Corp Wis”
    “Vas Ort Flam - Vas Ort Flam”
    “In Nox”
    “In Vas Mani –“ The Murderer Mage screamed, then “An Nox! An Nox!”
    “Kal Vas Flam.”
    “Corp Por – Corp Por.”

    And I blinked through the smoke and blood that splattered me and both the villains lay dead on the ground, their riderless mounts fleeing. Picollo was giving each newly made corpse a taste of his toe and Kingfisher sat disinterested on another broken stone away near the fence. Then he looked at me and frowned and came closer.

    “You are injured,” he stated.

    “Yes, sensai,” I replied, a little agressively, holding my broken arm. Picollo was stripping the bodies bare. Kingfisher prodded my injured flesh. “Ow!”

    “Quiet!” he barked. And I looked away muttering. He splinted my arm and set a sling in place. He was a powerful mage and could use magic for the heal, but he claimed it was not as effective. Magic was not always the best way, he taught, easier, yet not the best. Then he grabbed my chin and turned my head so I that must look at him.

    “What is it?” he asked in his direct way.

    My shoulders slumped, causing a twinge of pain, and I lost my anger. “I don’t know, sensai,” I admitted. “I feel like. . .” And I knew. “I feel like a sheep.”

    “Explain.”

    “I train. I eat. I sleep. I act as bait for you and Pics. I am jumping over nothing because you have told me I should. I don’t know why I am jumping. I don’t know what my purpose is.”

    He leaned back and studied me. “We have finished here,” he said to Pic, who looked at me and smiled in a perculiar way.

    “I think you’re right, you old prick,” he agreed.

    “Another graveyard?” I asked, forlornly.

    Kingfisher said, “No more graveyards. Go. Get out of my sight.”

    “What?” I asked confused.

    “Your training is done. Your swordwork is magnificent. A thing of beauty.” I gaped. He had never, never praised me. “Your understanding of the flesh is perfect. You know how to kill and how to heal. You could raise these dead killers if you so chose. You hide so well, not even I could spot you and lately. . .you have been training yourself.”

    “What?” I stammered again, yet I knew what he referred to. I looked down at my feet embarrassed.

    “You have been practicing the ancient art of the O’Niwaban. The Garden Wardens. Though you probably have never heard that name. You have been teaching yourself to move unseen.”

    “Yes,” I admitted. It just came. . .naturally to me. It was hard. Very hard. Yet every time I moved through the cottage with neither Picollo, nor sensai noticing, I felt a thrill. The only thrill I felt of late.

    “This is very powerful. Very powerful,” my sensai lectured. “I have told you magic is easy, yet not always the best. Not even magic can do this. It is your calling, master it. Become O’Niwaban. Become the Garden Warden. Now go!”

    “Where?” I stammered, suddenly afraid.

    “Anywhere. Anywhere you want to go. Master yourself. Find your place. Go.”

    “Good luck, mate,” Picollo said, slapping a hand on my uninjured shoulder. “We’ll meet again.”

    I looked around the graveyard dazed. Anywhere I want to go. . .

    “Thank you, sensai,” I said with genuine affection, bowing my head, and for the first time, not to look at my feet. And I tried a little magic myself, “Kal Ort Por.” Nothing.

    Picollo laughed. “Well he’s still a horrible mage, you grumpy old turd.”

    And that rarest of events occurred. My sensai smiled. And gave me his final wisdom. “Here is magic,” he said, poking me above the heart. “Vas Rel Por.”

    And the gate opened, and through it, I smelled the ocean. And I stepped through onto a jetty and it closed behind. A salty drop rolled down my cheek that had nothing to do with the sea. Gulls hovered in the wind, squarking at me for disrupting them. A vast city loomed behind me, with all the noise and clamour and stench that only a vast city could own and on the dock sat a young woman, fishing.

    “You stink of the grave,” she said, not looking up from her rod.

    “You stink of the sea,” I replied, taking my bearings.

    She jumped up and grabbed my jerkin and twisted it and looked into my eyes. She was tall, young, pretty, ferocious. Her silver hair streamed down her back in an unkept mass and a wicked looking hatchet hung on her belt.

    “Wanna. . .make. . .something. . .” her voice trailed off and we both just stared at each other and then we kissed. And then we kissed. And I wasn’t lonely anymore.

    Part III – Honour Lost

    Back at the bank. I stood in the shadows watching the crowd once more. I no longer had a fisherman’s gaze, it was something darker I contemplated. I watched the stride of a warrior, noting his scabbard hung from the right hip. A southpaw, I thought. A quicker, more brutal fight that one would make. If challenged fairly and drawn on. . .

    A mage fumbled with her possessions muttering to herself, I looked her up and down trying to gain some measure of her power. It might be handy information. It might mean my life or hers one day. . .

    I watched a thief slip some gold from a merchant’s pocket to his and was going to think nothing more of it, until I noticed which merchant. I prowled out of the shadows and caught up to my target and with a deft flick of my wrist drew the old butcher knife, now honed to a razor’s edge across the back of his neck. A small red line appeared and the dextrous young man spun to face me, his hand snapping back to the wound.

    “What you do that for?” he grumbled at me.

    “Return the gold and I’ll fix it,” I replied.

    “Fix what? You’re daft you are. Get lost.” He turned away and took three steps and began to tremble, then shake, then staggered against a saddled, but riderless mount that shied away when he threw out a hand for purchase. He fell to the cobblestones on all fours and wretched violently, his body feebly trying to purge the toxin. A few gaudily dressed citizens backed away from him with disgusted looks. I went in closer and knelt beside my victim, avoiding the pool of vomit he would shortly be face down in.

    “Allanon is a friend,” I whispered in his ear. “I value friendship.” And he collapsed and died and I took back the gold, and a little more besides and returned into the crowd in search of the merchant.

    He was always here, at the bank. Trading wares from his vast fleet of old storage ships he kept anchored in the harbour. Our liege had declared none should build new homes until the great Trammel spell was completed and so many, including myself and my love, lived out of boats. Ships had attached themselves to the city of Britain like barnacles on a. . .on a ship. All kinds of boats, small and large. They cluttered the rivers. They swarmed the docks. They even filled the moat around our liege’s great fortress. The merchant stood near one conducting some trade and when he was finished I greeted him.

    “Hail Az,” he said warmly, gripping my hand. A warrior in his service spent many long hours plumbing the depths of Covetous. I also hunted there, wearing little more than an old singed pair of woollen pants, beheading the liches with a common blade, lest they fall quicker and cease bombarding me with their fire. I was forging myself in that fire. It was part of the training regime I had set. Allanon’s warrior found me so armed and attired, battling the undead and intitially took me for some fool loon. We became close. I was introduced to Allanon. We became close.


    “Hail citizen,” I replied, returning the shake.

    “Have you heard?” he asked eagerly. “British’s wizards claim it will be done soon. The spell will be completed!”

    “Aye,” I nodded, sorting the stolen gold. “Yours.” I returned what was his and threw the rest to a passing begger. “Thank ye, sir!” The begger said and ran off in the direction of the Cat’s Lair tavern.

    “Mine?” he queried. “But I’ve sold you nothing this day. Oh! That reminds me. . .”

    “Yours. Stolen.” I took a place beside him, beside the moat, as Allanon patted himself down.

    “Oh, thank you, Az,” he smiled finally realising the loss. “My sworn sword says he never sees you in Covetous any more.”

    “Nay. I have been working on something else. I need wood. Lots of it. Feathers too.”

    “Ah. You really should buy some armour you know. I have a new shipment of leathers. Very subtle. Very strong. Cheap for you, too,” he smiled his merchant’s smile and noted my request. “How many feathers? How much wood?” I had not worn armour since the Red Hunt debacle. It was too cumbersome and too noisy. Not suited to my style at all. Leather might suit though. . .

    “Can it be dyed black?”

    “Nay,” he shook his head. “I’ve heard alchemist’s are working on a dye that will hold, but alas no success as yet. I look forward to their success should it happen. Plain leather is hard to sell to this lot. They do like to dress outlandishly.” I smiled at his humble old brown robe, looked down at my sooty blackened pants. “Why black? A bright red would suit you better, my friend. Or crimson. Yes, crimson I think.”

    “Shadows,” I replied. “Harder to see.”

    He nodded knowingly. “Again you remind me, I have that item you were seeking. It’s just down in the boats. I won’t be long. Kal Ort Por.” He disappeared, a few specks of ‘drake root and red moss drifting down softly in his place. I had probably just earned a long wait. Allanon could spend days hunting through his fleet for whatever it was you needed.

    “Hail Az!” A voice called and I looked up to see a warrior astride a mighty desitier, his armour polished, his green cloak fluttering resplendently. Kalahan had no need of style. He oozed confidence and strength. He dismounted with a fluent swing of one leg and came to a ringing stance before me.

    “Hail citizen.” I gave him a lazy salute. He dipped his helmeted head slightly and scanned the crowd, as I was doing, one hand holding the desitier’s reigns, the other resting on the hilt of a masterly crafted long sword. He, like I, favoured man made weapons over the ancient and enchanted blades that could occasionally be found on the monsters and vermin that swarmed our great land. One would never have known from his confident stance and friendly manner that once I had abandoned him to die, hacked down by a dozen red blades. The Red Hunt debacle. . .

    “Still mad at me?” I asked worried.

    “I was never mad at you, Az,” he gave my chin a gentle punch. “We all get scared at times.”

    “I’ve never seen you scared.” His eyes smiled through the visor and he gave a shrug.

    “What are you doing?”

    “Waiting for Allanon,” I sighed.

    He laughed, “That’ll be a long wait.” I repeated his shrug. “The Brothers’ Magi are talking of hunting the Great Wyrm. You interested?” I was always interested in anything the twins were up too. Razlin and Pyric were the most talented young mages in Oceania. Alone, either would have been a great friend and ally, but combined! Always there for one another, always helping one another, always guarding one another. And as the result of some strange fondness, always there for me too. I was close to them as any of my new friends. This formidable warrior, Kalahan and his lady Hope. Raven of the Black. Soth! The first ever to speak with me and hunt with me, who wondered why I knew so little of the land, yet fought so well. Yet none as close as Hecate, my beloved Hecate, named for the Godess of Death and twice as ferocious and mine, all mine.

    Our first conversation recurred to me. The crowd noise receeded as I drifted into memory.

    “I like you,” she had said as our kiss broke and she smiled.

    “Yes,” I smiled.

    “Where you from?” she asked, taking my hand in hers.

    “Kingfisher,” I replied bewildered by her.

    “Sensai? He never spoke of you,” she frowned.

    I matched her expression. “He never spoke of you either. . .”

    “Look at that one,” Kalahan gestured, breaking my reverie. He pointed to a gaudy youth with straw hair and close set eyes who was speaking wildly to a small crowd. “He’s one of them.” I knew at once who he referred too. The Reds and once again I was caught in memory, only this time, it was Kalahan’s words I heard. . .

    “I’ve found a Red fortress,” he had called to a few of us assembled in this very spot. Myself, Raven, Soth, some others. “Who’s coming hunting?” His eyes shone with good humour and aticipation. Raven and I exchanged a worried look, both of us dressed identically in head to toe shadow-mail. Others agreed and Raven and I nodded, though more cautiously than most. We two had not been new to crossing swords with Reds. We were not new to that experience at all.

    And so a great party set forth, led by Kal, many jesting and talking and ranting about the rewards our liege would bestow on us when we returned with a sack full of heads. And the battle closed so suddenly that I did not even know it had begun. And red and blue clashed and many died, all ours, bar Kalahan who I last saw surrounded and in desperate need of assitance and simultaneously Raven and I spat “Kal Ort Por.”

    And Raven and I rendezvoused back at the bank with identical looks of shame to match our armour, and later it was reported Kalahan cut down five before they got him.

    And again I broke from reverie, only this time I was pulled back by the ranting of the straw haired youth.

    The lad was abusing any who would come within range. “He could kill you!” he yelled with sickening bravado. “Any of ya’s. We’re the best there is and if you don’t believe me - Come on. Duel him! You’re all to scared. Babies! Bloody scared. Come on!”

    I walked towards him and Kalahan and his mount trailed after. The lad continued his rant, yet flicked his gaze past me over Kal and looked for a moment scared then yelled louder pointing. “He thinks he’s tough!” Of Kalahan. “He was killed. You’ll all get killed. Step outside of town, you’ll see.”

    “Perhaps you would back those words with steel,” Kal replied, hand to hilt, eyes smiling.

    The lad shrank back a little, yet ranted still, “You’re not so tough. I seen ya die. I seen ya killed,” was the retort.

    “What’s all this nonsense,” a voice said at my shoulder. It was Allanon. He had a package under one arm.

    “Nonsense,” I replied quietly, yet the lad heard it.

    “You? Who the hell are you? You’re nobody. Nothing. Not nonsense. You’re nothing.”

    I turned back and walked straight at him, there was no fear in him and he did not back down. “I’ll duel,” I said. “Send your best. The graveyard. One hour.” And a whisper went through the gathered crowd. I turned as his spray roared louder and was part laughter, part scorn. “You’ll die! Dead! Nobody! Nothin’!”

    “What are you doing, Az?” Kalahan asked me, his eyes worried for once. “You’re not bad with a blade, but you still have a ways to go my young friend. You cannot match their best.”

    Allanon was also looking at me with concern. “Don’t be goaded into this, Az.”

    “It was not dishonourable to retreat,” Kal continued. “You have nothing to make up for.”

    “It was completely dishonourable, sir,” I replied. “But I’m not doing this out of shame. That it?” I asked Allanon.

    “It is,” he nodded, handing over my package.

    “Then why are you doing it,” asked Kalahan with continued concern.

    I shrugged, “Training.” And smiled. And the three of us departed for the graveyard.

    A small gathering greeted us and swelled somewhat more as a few rode or walked or magiced themselves in. There was no sign of the foe I was to face, but I knew such as her, or him, could not resist the challenge. The ranter would send his ranting call and it would be answered. I waited patiently with Kalahan and Allanon acting as my seconds. I pondered that there would be little dishonour to stepping down and let Kal act in my stead. He was a match for any of them, of that I was sure, but this was my fight. I had picked it. I would die or not... my life was balanced on a theory and Allanon’s merchant skills.

    And he arrived. Kowleen. The Red. My foe. My chance. My victim. He strode from a gate, into the graveyard, flanked by only a few, wearing his murderer’s title like a medal. I spat and turned and asked a drunken spectator if I may have a lend of his quiver. “Hundred gold,” was the reply.

    “Done,” and I paid the price. And I studied my foe. A big man, covered in magics surely seized from a score of victims, for they did not match and had seen much use, but were powerful all the same. He bore no shield, only a mightly axe that shimmered with power, that would vanquish any, would vanquish me if he came within range to do so.

    He spat, looked me up and down, glared at Kal, then walked away and turned so that there was distance between us. Good, I thought. The ranter stood at his side grinning inanely, whispering something in his ear. I did not care what the words were. I had gambled my life on a theory.

    “You’re good at running, Az,” Kal joked. “Back down. I’ll take him.”

    I looked to my friend, feeling no animosity for his words, for they were true but I shook my head. “My fight.” And I unwrapped the package, pulling forth a bow, old and cracked and lacking even a string and the crowd laughed at my efforts. “A string?” I petitioned of the drunk ranger.

    “Hundred gold,” he replied. I paid the price.

    The ranter laughed and even Kowleen found his mirth infectious. “After you,” the axe-weilder said, “Him,” and pointed his weapon at Kal.

    “Done,” the knight replied, sounding unhappy for it.

    I strung the bow feeling an inner calm, I had paid the price. I had gambled my life on a theory. A random mage stepped forward and encanted and a wall of magic stone appeared between us. I knocked an arrow and waited, taking three quick breaths.

    I was not skilled in archery. It was something I had forced myself to practice after the Red Hunt, realising, knowing, without a mount, I could not chase down my foes, and a mount could not be hidden, would only hinder me when I moved unseen. Archery was something I must master if my path was too continue. I drew bead on the wall, which all of a sudden vanished and a murderer with an axe was screaming towards me.

    I fired. The arrow lodged in his shoulder doing little damage, and he hefted his mighty weapon and roared my death. Yet that was all he did. He could not move a step further.

    Calmly I knocked another arrow, the crowd screaming in my ears, and drew my bead, breathing slowly lest I missed. Only ten feet separated us. The second arrow landed truer than the first, hitting him in the midriff and I could see the pain in his eyes.

    “What?” he screamed.

    And I drew another arrow, and slowly, slowly my plotting became apparent. For the bow of course, was special. Had been enchanted by some ancient, dark fell power to paralyse a target, and with each new shot, I kept him in place and that axe was never going to reach my face. Each shot held him in check. Each shot brought him closer to death, as unskilled as each shot was. Slowly, he died, his chest bristling with wooden spines by the time I was done. Slowly, he died. Yet dead is dead. And dead he was by the time I finished.

    The crowd muttered, cursed, some even cheered. Allanon watched on. Kalahan watched on nodding with understanding, but probably not approval, so honourable was he. My own honour died with that Red villain. Yet to my satisfaction, the ranter yelled his horror at it all. “Cheat!” he called. “Bloody cheater!”

    And it was music to my ears. For I had out thought, outwitted, out manoeuvred one of the greatest warrior’s to stalk the lands and dead is dead is dead. I looked down at my feet and faded away, not even bothering to loot my victim, not bothering to taunt or proclaim my victory. I left the graveyard rabble unseen and that day I became O’Niwaban. That day I became an assassin.

    Part IV – Purpose Lost

    An ill wind blew round the Bank. I crouched in the shadows watching the rare citizen scurry past, each glaring suspiciously at any other they would chance to meet. The merchants were all gone. The gaudy tamers and bards too. An occasional battle-scarred knight or wizard would limp through, take one look at the bored pack of thieves loitering near a sign post, do their business and quickly depart.

    The world had turned grey. Overnight the trees had found autumn and dumped their foliage. Overnight broken gravestones had pushed through the ground and bones and red blood now littered the soil where once grew shrubs and grass and red ‘shrooms. Overnight the change had come and the land was dying.

    They were leaving. The people who once mobbed this thoroughfare, the wizards and knights, merchants and tradesmen, young and old alike they were leaving, one by one making the pilgrimage. The moonstones were robbing our land of our people and most were not returning. I kept to the shadows and mourned my world.

    I looked to the spot where Allanon once did his trades. Close by was where I first cast my line and called out to the crowd, “Fish! Free food for the hungry. Healing for the. . .” Then was saved from my folly by Picollo. And there, where Kalahan had roused us for battle. And there! Where I had thrown down my treacherous gauntlet.

    I wandered slowly, lest I be spotted by the thieves. Quietly treading past without them noticing, past the Cat’s Lair tavern, now quiet and empty, down a flight of stairs to the docks. To there. Where I first kissed my love. I came out of the shadows and sat on that spot, feet dangling over the soft rise and fall of the ocean swell. I inhaled and wished I still owned a fishing rod.

    And then I heard the sound of hooves on timber and did not need to turn to know who was behind me. “Hail citizen,” I muttered.

    “Hail Az.” I heard the sound of his ringing dismount and then he stood beside me, gazing out into the bay. “I seem to always find you here of late. No training?”

    “No point.” I sighed.

    “Why is that now? The Reds still lurk out there,” he gestured. “Let’s go forth, you and I. By now they’ll be pleased to see us.”

    I unloaded my concerns on him, on Kalahan. “Then aren’t we just as bad as them? Fighting for the sake of it. Before. . .we were protecting something, someone. We were punishing the wicked. Now that Trammel has come. . .aren’t we all just the same? There’s no-one to protect. There’s nothing.” And then I said it, the words I thought I would never say. “I might as well turn Red myself. I’d make a good murderer.”

    I thought he would chastise me, instead he laughed, booming and loud. It annoyed me.

    “What?” I asked looking up with a scowl. “You think I couldn’t do it? You think I don’t have the courage to forgo our liege’s protection and make it on my own?” I jumped up. “What? Why are you laughing at me?”

    “Oh, Az,” he said with genuine affection. “No, I do not doubt your courage. Az, you are a murderer. You just murder murderer’s, that is all.” His eyes smiled through that visor. “And I like you for it.”

    “Oh,” I replied. Suddenly thoughtful. He was correct. I was a. . .a murderer. I had never thought of it like that. I never fought my foe fairly. I used shadows and poisons and tricks and cheats. I tracked and stalked and struck when my target was wounded or worse. I never knew a fair fight. I could not win a fair fight! “Oh. . .” And then my dilemma seemed twice as pronounced. “I’m stuffed. . .Trammel has killed me.”

    “Have you been there?”

    “No,” I said with a shake. “I never saw the point.” A land where none could harm each other. A land of peace. Perhaps I could take up the harp once more. Perhaps I could fish and raise sheep. No. Not sheep. Never again with the sheep. Could I do it? Could I return to being Az the farmhand. . . “Hecate has crossed over. She came back once to urge me to follow. We had a fight over it. . .”

    “Hope is also there. I will be going shortly.”

    “You?” I asked surprised. “I thought you would never go. This is your place, Kal. You belong here more than anyone.”

    “We have the same dilemma, friend. Become our foe. . .or flee. Come lets us go together. Let us see this new land and then decide what’s what.” His eyes smiled and I reached into my pounch and drew forth a moonstone, changing, shimmering under my touch. I had looted it from the corpse of an orc I chanced upon, still wet with blood from the arrow through its neck. I tossed it lightly a few times, thinking. Then I nodded.

    Together we left the protection of the city spell which barred the stones from functioning and placed them in the ground. Together we made gates to the new world and together we stepped through to see Trammel. To see our friends and loved ones. To see what’s what.

    The bank. . .Always the bank. It was identical, in everyway. Every stone. Every cobblestone. Every crack in every cobblestone was exactly as I remembered it to be. Only different. Only. .. lighter? The Sun warmed me as I came forth from the shadows and stared around at this “new” world. Here the wind carried many scents and they were all born in spring. And the crowd! Twice the size I had ever seen before. Where had all these people come from? Hundreds merged and froliced, cried prices and greetings and songs. They joked and cajouled and dressed more gaudily than ever I remember. A few old faces I saw in the crowd, but so many young ones, so many new ones! It was an astonishing sight. And they seemed happy. Happy to be together, to be interacting and I realised a curse had been lifted. No thieves. No bullies. No intimidation or threats or taunts because in this new, sunny land, so like the old and yet so different, such things were simply not possible.

    I spied ol’ Allanon beside the moat and went to him. “Hail Az!” he shouted above the hubbub.

    “Hail citizen,” I replied. “How’s business?”

    “Booming!” he laughed with great gusto, then turned to a warrior in shining armour. “Yours, sir.” He handed over a shining sword and received a large sum of coin for his troubles. “Yes, yes, in a moment,” to another who would have a sword just like it. “A moment. Az, it is good to see you. They said you were never going to come.” I shrugged and slipped into a gap beside him. “I have another shipment of those bows you like so much and here, take a look at this.”

    He handed me a pair of gloves that appeared worn and of little use at first glance. I slipped them on and worked my fingers into a fist and shrugged again. “What use are these?” I asked and then a horse tried to step on me. It’s rider was negotiating the moat bank and neither seemed to see me. “Watch it!” I scowled, turning back to Allanon who was staring passed me, looking over my head. “Gloves,” I said.

    “Most interesting gloves, especially for one of your errrr. . .talents,” he replied, yet still he was not looking at me. And I realised at once. I pulled them off and the merchant’s eyes twitched to find my face.

    “Invisibility?” I queried. There were spells to do it, but my magic skills were still mediocre and not capable of anything that powerful.

    He smiled his merchant’s smile. “Free sample. How many would you like?”

    The potential struck me with a sudden rush. “Why, all you can aquire,” I said a little too excitedly. He nodded his merchant’s nod. And then I heard an argument that showed me things had not changed as much as I thought.

    A big man with coal black hair sat atop a demon horse, called a nightmare, chastising some young warrior. “You’re nothing,” he said eerily reminiscent of another rant. “Look at you. No magics, no skills. My steed could rip you in two though I doubt he’d wish to eat such filth.”

    “I only asked for a gate to ‘Glow,” the young swordsman replied.

    “And you won’t get it. Not from me. Find your own way there you little beggar.” The swordsman turned and walked away slowly, a forlorn look on his face and the braggart turned to a companion and they shared a laugh.

    “Who’s that one?” I asked of Allanon, displeased.

    “A tamer,” the merchant replied. “They’ve found power in Trammel now they can go forth without fear of the Reds. I get good business from them, too much money and not enough sense, that lot. He calls himself the Dragon of Arc. Where you going, Az?”

    “To pick a fight,” I called back over my shoulder.

    I came to stand before a posse of well dressed, well armed men who shared colours and a badge. They shared little else. Some were warriors, others wizards, the one at the centre was the tamer. Was this Dragon of Arc. I looked like a scruffy rat beside peacocks in my sooty pants, bare feet and red head scarf, an old cracked bow over one shoulder and a depleted quiver at my hip.

    Their gazes turned down to me. “No you can’t,” said the Dragon. “Get lost.”

    I frowned. “Can’t what, sir?”

    “Can’t join Arc. The guild is only for the elite.” He dismissed me with a wave of his hand. A guild? I had seen such things. There was even a guild called the Elite, a powerful band of fighters and murderers who haunted Felucca. Another was known as One, who moved as one and fought as one and were terrible in their deadliness. These men looked like peasants playing at being princes.

    “I don’t want to join your guild.”

    “You still here?”

    “I want to duel you.”

    And they laughed, a roaring choking rumble that drew the attention of those nearby. “You want to what?” the Dragon managed when he finally had control of himself.

    “Duel you, sir. I dislike the way you treated that youth. You deserve a lesson in humility.”

    He looked annoyed. “I command dragons, boy. Would you like to fight a dragon?”

    I had fought dragons. Even killed a few with sword and bow and constant feints and retreats. It was not an easy thing to do, but I had done it to see if I could do it.

    “Dragons have more manners, sir.” For that I got a chuckle from the crowd to the Dragon’s growing anger.

    A lickspittle to the leader gave me a taste of his whit. “You’re daft, boy. Ya can’t duel. Trammel! Idjut.” And it was the Arc Guild’s turn to chuckle, though their leader held his fuming eyes, held them on me.

    An old geriatric of a man stepped up beside me and in wisened tones intoned, “There is a way it could be done.” I inclined my head for him to continue. The Dragon looked away feigning disinterest. “The great spell of peace does cloak Trammel, it is true, yet the wizards saw that conflicts would need resolutions. If you were to declare war upon one another, the spell would lift and a fight could take place.” A few in the crowd muttered how this information was new to them, or known. I was pleased to see members of guild Arc shifting uneasily in their seats.

    “You talk of war, old fool,” the Dragon suddenly said, “not a duel. Who are we to war. This?” he waved his hand at me. “This is not worthy of a war with the great Arc.”

    And I had him, before the crowd, I had him. “Scared, sir?”

    “What!”

    “I will form a guild. My guild. Just me, sir. I will war yours. You and all your might and all your dragons versus me, sir. Are these dueling terms you can accept?” And there was a silence and many held their breath. What the hell are you doing, Az, I thought. These were no hardened Reds. But there was many of them. I counted at least a dozen here. And the dragons he spoke of. . .

    And the silence continued and the Dragon stared at me, looking me up and down, my cracked bow, my sooty pants, my bare feet. . .I could see his thoughts without magic. He took me for some fool loon (correctly). He took me for a madman with a deathwish (incorrectly). He took my challenge and accepted it. “Done. Go form your “guild”. War us! Ha! You’ll be suing for peace by the end of the day. What is this “guild” to be called, the Mad?” And the lickspittles gaffawed.

    “No, sir,” and I searched for inspiration and another beam of warmth struck me, standing out here away from the shadows. And inspiration struck with that warmth. “It is to be named for the Sun.”

    I turned and slipped back into the crowd with many an eye looking on me for a madman. A hand caught at my elbow and I turned to see the old geriatric smiling toothlessly. “They don’t know you. I do. I seen what happened to Kowleen. Rip out their guts, Az.” His toothless grin widened. “Rip ‘em out and feed ‘em to the dragons.”
     
  2. Azzazzin

    Azzazzin Guest

    Part V – Arc Lost

    I crept slowly along the passage, surrounded by shadows. They did not make my task any easier. The denizons of this dungeon did not “see”. They simply felt the blood in my veins and came crunching and rumbling in search of it. I had smeared myself in mud to dim their senses and the trick appeared to be working. In Lor allowed me to see.

    I pushed back against a crumbling wall as a stone behemoth rollicked by grumbling to itself in earthy tones. It smelled of the earth, cold and dirt. Yet it was not a grave stench, there was something alive about its scent. It could cave my chest in with one of its great heavy limbs and given opportunity, it would do just that. I let it pass and continued my search.

    Slowly I picked through the caverns and tunnels, searching, searching. More of the elementals did I see and an occasional scorpion, the size of a large dog with an arching tail tipped with a venomous prong. I hoped they paid as little heed to me as I paid them. My hope was rewarded.

    And then I came upon a blood trail, inky black with the same stench ants gave off when squashed. I followed the trail, half seeing, half smelling and it lead to a dismembered scorpion, limbs hacked in twain, the deadly tail lying impotently on the rock floor. I continued forward. Next I found an elemental, collapsed. The potent natural force that drove it, driven out, now little more than a pile of rubble. And then another and then. . .

    In Lor sight was not as normal sight, the world was leeched of colour and that did tricks with the perception. Distances became harder to judge if not skilled in seeing so. My victim looked flat. In-human. Surreal. He was clad head to toe in steel, perhaps it shone blue under natural light. That would suit his kind. He sat atop a brave charger, all muted grey, ridden down into this pit, poor beast. The horse looked worried, yet compliant. And around him swarmed the elementals. He parried their awkward trusts with a great heater shield and returned slashing strokes with a sword all etched in runes.

    I crept closer to the melee, unslung a weapon and crouched to watch and wait. He fought well, slicing and hacking, driving back the earthy horde, yet they were never ending. When three had fallen, four more arrived, sensing him and his mount and closing to spill their blood. And all at once one did. A mistimed parry and he was near knocked from his horse. Another struck from behind and he was dazed and wounded. He put his heels into his horse’s flanks to break free of the swarm, lest they overwelm him and did break free and rode forward. And rode straight into my crossbow bolt.

    It threw him from the saddle and he was dead before he hit the ground. My aim had greatly improved, endless hours plugging bolt after bolt, arrow after arrow into all manner of monster. I favoured titans. They made good targets and would reward my shots with fire and lightning, strengthening my resistance to such things, as the liches had once done. The poor horse had gone mad with terror and the elementals closed on it. It lashed out with iron-shod hooves, yet that was not enough. They spilt its blood soon enough. And when they were done they moved on and I came out of hiding to examine my work.
    The bolt had punched into his chest, a few inches below the throat which had been my target. I chastised myself for missing. I looted quickly, taking a sack heavy with gold, some bandages and enchanted scrolls I could put to use. Wars were expensive I was discovering.

    A ghost appeared. My victim returned to haunt my cowardice and treachery.

    I greeted it, “Hail Citizen.”

    “OoooOOOooo Ooo,” it said. I could only imagine what that meant. It sounded like an angry ghost.

    “Now, now,” I replied, conversationally, bagging his armour. “All’s fair and all the that. Though don’t mistake this for love. My Hecate has an angry axe and I’m not keen to see her angered.”

    “OooOoo Ooo OooOOooOO!” it yelled.

    “I see. I see,” I replied, not understanding an Ooo. I hefted his sword and looked down the blade giving a few quick thrusts. My swordwork was rusty. I had not bothered with it in sometime. “Nice sword.” I bagged it.

    “ooOOo ooOOooOoOOOOOO,” and on and on and so forth. The ghost was really letting me have it. If Ooo’s could kill, and surely it wished they could, I would have been a dead assassin.

    “Give my regards to the Dragon,” I said. “And these words please. ‘That’s five.’” I held my hand up fingers spread, then flicked him a salute. And suddenly there was fire coming down the tunnel and I slipped back into the shadows.

    Arc arrived, in force. Somehow the ghost had communicated its distress. The Dragon lead them and had brought with him two dragons of his own, great red beasts. An elemental staggered upon them and with a gesture and a command he set the dragons upon it and it was ruined scarce seconds later.

    “Spread out! Find him!” The Dragon roared. I crept backwards on all fours, and snuck behind a rock to watch.

    “Wiz Quas!”, “Wiz Quas!” the mages amoung them yelled. Well that’s something, I noted. They are finally learning. One warrior was trying to patch together my poor victim and the ghost faded to be replaced by a naked, battered man, still bloodied from the hole I had placed in his chest.

    “Burn it!” The Dragon blazed. “Burn it all.”

    And the mages set to work. Cries of “In Flam Grav!” echoed through the tunnels and flames blossomed from the ground. Time to go, I realised and slipped along a wall and away and once I was well distanced from the fire light, I unraveled one of the looted scrolls and “Kal Ort Por,” I was gone.

    Six, seven and eight fell to my old trick, to the paralysing bow. Outside their houses. Inside their houses. In dungeons and tailor shops and shopping for reagents in ‘Glow, I worked my way through the ranks of Arc, never hitting the same mark twice. That would be unsporting. That would not serve my purpose at all.

    Nine, ten, I had to modify my tactics. Some had learnt the trick of carrying trapped pouches and released themselves from the frozen grip of my bows. They always fled however, returning when they had regained their health and courage, but by then of course, I was always back in the shadows. I was always watching. I discovered the use of exploding potions. Marvelous things if timed just right. If thrown at the exact moment an arrow or bolt was loosed, the combined damage could kill a man. One weapon in particular became my favourite, a great crossbow, ancient and scarred as the hills, packed with potent magics to deliver a bolt with the force of lightning. I was draining its power through my warfare, yet it delivered so successfully, I could scarce not use it. Besides, there was always Allanon. Always aquiring. Always delivering more and new and deadlier weapons for the effort. All paid for with Arc gold.

    Eleven, twelve, my work was becoming harder. Arc no longer travelled alone. Everywhere they moved in nervous packs of three and four and the Dragon, the Dragon was never unguarded. Still, that was a victory of a sorts. I had changed them. I had made them fear being alone and as a sage of great wisdom had once uttered, “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Next they would be employing scouts and trackers to find me, that would be the smart thing to do. That was something I worried about. But they never did. When getting cocky I had to remind myself, these were not Reds. These were simply peacocks I hunted. Still, I was enjoying my work. Perhaps too much. Perhaps I was knowing the thrill of being. . . No, I could not think that. Could not entertain that path, even briefly.

    The Thirteenth was still unblooded. The thirteenth was my last victim. The thirteenth was the Dragon and the Dragon was never unguarded. I would watch them at the bank, from the shadows. I had not walked in public since the war began. I was becoming used to loneliness and silence. My victims were the only ones I chatted with of late, though they were difficult to understand, or Allanon, met in an alley or grove, lest I be spotted. He fed me news and gossip, along with weapons. I fed him Arc gold. Had anyone heard of my war? “No, Arc do not speak of it.” What’s the word around the bank? “Architects! Many await our liege’s permission to build.” He unrolled plans for a mighty castle he was wanting to have constructed. Have you seen any of my friends? “Soth. That one fancies himself a rival of mine. Yet his stores are thankfully small. Hope purchased an axe. Razlin and Pyric scout ceaselessly for something. And Az, Hecate is lonely without you. End this silly war. Go to her.” I shook my head. There was a price to pay. “It will be over soon enough,” I said and slipped back into the shadows.

    I was beginning to lose faith in my ability to acquire the final victim. I slipped into the Cat’s Lair tavern and hid in a corner, sipping ale, pondering. The mission had taken over me. Day and night for weeks I plotted its completion. I barely slept. I rarely trained. I plotted and schemed and began to wonder, for what? Why was I doing this? Who’s humility was I creating?

    The door to the tavern opened and in stepped a young swordsman. The young swordsman. He looked neither forlorn, as he had that day, nor happy, as I would have him. I longed to accost him and rant to him and tell him all I had done on his behalf. I did go to him. I made him jump as I merged out of the shadows.

    “Hail citizen.”

    “What do you want?” he asked wearily.

    I wondered myself. Had I really done it for him? Or was it just an excuse. An excuse to know how a . . . Never that path. “I have something for you,” I replied, reaching into my pack. I pulled forth the magic sword I had aquired and kept, perhaps against this moment.

    He marveled as he took it and gaped at me.

    “Shhhh,” I said. “No words. This is a present from the Dragon of Arc. He says he apologises for his rudeness that day. It had been a bad day for him and a few more since. But he hopes you will forgive him and this weapon will in some small way make up for it.”

    The swordsman nodded, looking somewhat stunned. “And this, this is from me.” I handed over my runebook. I could easily aquire another. “In here are marked all the major towns of Britannia. You will never have to ask for a gate to ‘glow again. Nor any other town. Use it well. Enjoy your adventures.” I saluted and before he could respond I turned to go back into the shadows.

    “But, sir,” he stammered politely. “Sir, I have just seen the Dragon.” I stopped. “He is dueling beside the bank.” I turned.

    “Dueling who?”

    “His guild, sir. They practice war beside the bank. They practise and curse some name. They call him the Arse-assin.” I smiled and it must not have been an attractive sight for he flinched back. “Thank you, sir! Sorry.” He so reminded me of me at that moment.

    “No. Thank you. Thank you for restoring my purpose.” I saluted again and this time I did disappear and I stalked from the Cat’s Lair with renewed vigour. I was angry and happy and driven and totally focused on what came next.

    I stalked through the crowd side-stepping horses and men and found Arc beside the moat, roaring and chanting and charging at one another and as fate would have it the Dragon was at that moment dueling one of his knights and as fate would have it the knight struck him a blow, leaving him wounded and vulnerable. Two great dragons slept on either side of their impromptu arena, guarding it would seem, but with guard down for they were dueling. I raised the great x-bow and leveled my shot and fired.

    And the Dragon of Arc dropped dead. “Thirteen,” I said. Lowering the weapon. And they were on me. The combined might of the Arc guild, minus dragons, for they would not rise without their master's command, and their master was dead, came at me with all their fury. Had I thought this through, I would be even now slipping Allanon’s gloves in place and walking away from the perfect kill, the perfect war.

    Yet it did not happen that way. I was slashed, bashed, burnt and smitten. I was crushed by the fury of twelve angry peacocks and I died in the street like a dog for all the bank to see. I was looted of Arc gold and purple potions and bolts and arrows and bandages. And yet as I died, I died smiling.

    And as the world went grey and I drifted lifelessly above my corpse I received a divine message, heavenly words, You are no longer at war with Arc. They had given in. They had sued for peace. I was dead and I had won.

    And there she was, my love. My Hecate, come to rescue me from torpor. She lifted my broken body and blew life back into it with a kiss and unafraid I stepped back into the world of the living. My enemy was defeated.

    “Where have you been, you little *******?” she asked, half mad, half smitten. The crowd jumbled around us oblivious.

    “War. I’ve been at war.”

    “Here.” She handed me a rune.

    “Where?”

    “Come. Kal Ort Por.” She cast on the rune and disappeared. The sight of her gone hit me like a blow. I was standing naked in the street, without even a rune book to help me follow. “Sir!” I said turning to a stranger nearby. “May I have a gate off this rune?”

    “Of course,” he said. “We of the Orb always help our fellow citizens. Vas Rel Por.”

    I blinked at him. “Your guild is sworn to help others?”

    “Aye, sir.”

    I pondered that and stepped through the gate and felt the sudden sting of cold bite at my feet, a wind of daggers rip at my deathly robes. And Hecate was there and I found my warmth in her as we embraced.

    “Look, my love,” she said. “Look what I have built for you.”

    “I only need you,” I replied, holding her closer.

    “Look!” And she forced my head to turn and I looked and behold, I saw a castle. Mighty it was, with towers and battlements and a gatehouse. A fortress worthy of a great lord. A fortress for the mighty. Not a charlatan like me.

    “Welcome home,” she said.

    Part VI – Humility Lost

    My steps echoed loudly through the halls and chambers as I strode from room to room, laughing, smiling, investigating. Mine! Much was still bare, but there, I would place a forge and alchemy lab. There, would go the kitchens. There, there and there, where tall towers sat whereever the outer walls met at right angles, would be bed chambers. A cellar would hold my riches when I made them. The lower inner-keep would house my main war room, my equipment, potions, weapons, the upper chamber, massive, would be my feast hall and would house the guild stone. Sun was still an army of one, but should its star rise, I now controlled a base of operations worthy of a great guild.

    I wrapped a robe around me and left through the castle maingate. There was more to explore. It was a clear day, yet ice and snow still blanketed the ground (and I was to discover that it would never be otherwise). A great mountain range rose up before me, impassable, but on the far side of that range, reachable through a pass to the south or circumnavigated north, was more settled land.

    I wandered north only a dozen yards and found a cave, small but rich in ore veins. I nodded at that. I would need to find a smith of some talent to service the forges I intended to build. Or of no talent and let them build some. East and I found the sea. I inhaled the salty smell, reminising.

    A growl broke my reverie, and a voice.

    “Don’t be afraid.” I slipped into the shadows and moved to observe. “Will you be my friend?” Bah, a tamer. The scurge of this land. She was pretty, I’d give her that, riding a llama of all things and dressed as bright as the sky. She trotted her beast behind a wolf, fur all white, casting her soothing voice. “I’ve been searching for a companion like you.” The wolf turned and snapped at her, but she faced it unafraid and then it gave a little whine and scratched one ear with a paw. She smiled and reached down from her mount and touched its muzzle. The wolf sat down and looked at her. She pulled a slice of dried meat from a pouch and offered it to the thing. Her offer was accepted. It lay down on the snow to worry the meat.

    “What are you doing to that animal?” I asked, stepping out of the shadows.

    She looked at me, as unfraid as she looked at the wolf. It gave me a suspicious glare over its chewing. Trammel spell. I could not have harmed her if I wanted to. This new generation were a cocky bunch.

    “Hail citizen,” she replied mockingly. Cocky and cockier.

    “What are you doing here? Why are you loitering around my castle?”

    “Your castle, sir? Why I thought it belonged to m’Lady Hecate.” Your Lady Hecate? She was my bloody lady.

    “Who are you? How do you know Hecate?”

    “In order, sir. I am training my control of wild beasts. I live here by m’Lady’s grace. I am Mosaic. M’lady found me, and the others, ophans of the Trinsic war, and has taken us in.”

    “Others?” I roared. “What others?”

    “The twins –“

    “Razlin and Pyric?”

    “No, not them, sir. Though they are awefully handsome and I could only wish to be half the tamer they are. The twins and Chiron and Rain. Hunter and Leaf. Tzu. Others.”

    Razlin and Pyric? Tamers? What had happened to the world while I lived in the shadows and fought my shadow wars. “Hmmm,” I said. And the wolf growled a warning. I spun and saw. “Get behind me.” Suddenly that cocky smile had left her. A band of Orcs, who plagued this vast island, rushed towards us. Stupid brutes with horned helms or no helms, weilding axes or simply their fists. The wolf lept at the one in the lead and received a blow for its efforts. Blood splattered the snow. No! I thought. Not the wolf!


    Quickly I cast, spitting the words out again and again, “In Nox! In Nox! In Nox! In Nox! In Nox!” Magery was my new grail. There were tricks that simply could not be done any other way. Magery may not always be the strongest path, as sensai said, but magery was versatile.

    The orcs began to stagger around sickened by my poison gimmicks. Two had taken to beating the wolf despite their pain. No! “In Vas Mani!” But the spell failed me. I cursed and whipped out my bow and fired arrow after rapid arrow, hitting throats and eyes and chests. The snow was splattered crimson by the time I finished, and the wolf. . .the wolf lay dying. “Can’t you fix it?” I yelled at her, running forward.

    She urged her llama towards the beast, but the mount shied from the stagnant odour of blood, wolf and orc. “I don’t think so,” she stammered, fear of the orcs replaced by fear of my tone. I knelt in the sticky snow and touched the wolf gingerly, cursing my lack of knowledge. A man I could revive. Of wolves and beasts I knew nothing. Its tongue lolled out of its maw, a deep rent in one side of its chest from an orcish axe. Big canine eyes, full of pain rolled towards me, begging, pleading. I shook my head in apology. It died.

    “Sir,” she whimpered from behind. “Sir, it... its only a wolf.”

    “You bloody tamers!” I roared turning on her. Girl and llama skittered back from my rage. “Only a wolf? Do you know how many men I have killed?”

    “Sir. No.”

    “Neither do I! I’ve lost count. And of wolves and all the other beasts who leave me alone.” I looked back at it. “I have killed none.” I heard her mount move away. She probably thought me mad. At that moment I was less than sane. Bloody tamers.

    I walked. I ranged south. Keeping to the shadows. Keeping to myself. Keeping my fury. I came upon another great castle surrounded by smaller buildings all flying the same banner. I remembered the mage who had gated me. Same colours. Same banner. The Orb. I stole into their castle and looked around. Though newly constructed it was already deocrated lavishly. The main keep was set up to seat many. Perhaps this was a powerful guild, I’d certainly seen enough of them around. I spied one now, penning into a large tome. He wore respendent armour and a long cloak trailed down his back, a jewel encrusted hilt hung from a scabbard at his side. I tried to divert my anger with some foolery. Quietly, I snuck up behind him and said, “Hail citizen.”

    He closed the tome and turned nobly, looking at me with a quizzical smile. “Well met, sir.” He inclined his head.

    I stood awkwardly. Not the reaction I had expected... had wanted. Anger at my intrusion? At my invasion of his guild’s sacred place. I received a polite and calm countenance.

    “I’m Az,” I confessed.

    “Ah, the assassin. Yes I have heard the name.” He offerred his hand. “Ram, Sir Ram.”

    I shook it. “You’re a member of this Orb guild?”

    “Yes.” That quizzical smile again. “Would you like to join?”

    “No thanks. I have a guild. How many members in Orb?”

    “Why, hundreds.” The smile. Hundreds. . . Bloody hell. What I could do with hundreds. Imagine a hundred of me! We would rule the land from the shadows and the Arcs of Oceania would never go to war again. The Arcs of Oceania would die. Often. Hundreds. . .

    “How did it get so big?”

    “Patience. Planning. Loyalty. We are sworn to help each other and all the good citizens of the land.”

    “That’s noble of ya. Oh well, sorry to barge in. I’m your neighbour by the way.”

    “Indeed. Visit whenever you like and my offer is open. We could use someone of your talents.”

    Hmm, not bloody likely. The only person who was going to use me, was me. “Bye for now then.” I cocked him a salute.

    “Fare thee well.” He returned to writing in his tome. Strange guy, I thought as I left, a little calmer than when I had arrived.

    I ranged all over my new island, finding settlers aplenty. New houses, towers and huts, one storey, two storeys, sandstone and brick, bluestone and wood. More castles. I saw beasts, wolves and snow cats, more orc tribes, who I left alone. I had had enough blood for the day. More tamers. Training on the beasts I saw. Bloody tamers.

    I found a castle full of welcoming vendors, though they had little to offer it seemed. I quizzed them of their scant wares and they promised much more to come. The castle design was oddly familiar to me and I soon discovered why. A magical gate opened in the courtyard and through stepped an old friend, leading a mule laden with goods.

    “Hail citizen,” I smiled.

    “Hail Az!” replied Allanon. “You found it.”

    “Aye. You built it.”

    He looked extremely pleased, and why not? His sworn sword had beheaded a thousand undead to finance this mighty structure. I was pleased for him. Allanon finally had his base, as I had mine. “Not in the market for a ship are you?” he asked.

    “Sure, why not. I can dock it off my house. It’s near the sea, just south of here.”

    “Oh, you have a house? Seems we are all moving up in the world. Is it big?”

    “It’s very modest,” I lied. “I’ll feast you when I have the facilities to do so.”

    “I will be selling all you need.”

    “Of course. Of course I’ll come back. You look busy.” He sighed his merchants sigh. “I’ll leave you to it. Congratulations, friend.” He smiled his merchants smile. I left him to build his mercantile empire feeling much lighter for it.

    “Kal Ort Por.” I arrived at the moat’s peninsula near Castle British and the bank, my favourite rune point. It allowed me to sneak up to the bank without anyone the wiser. I did just that.

    The crowd was somewhat subdued this day. Perhaps the excitement of housing had bled the hubhub, citizens were off building, decorating, exploring one anothers homes. I slipped up beside the signpost, my favourite watching point, and crouched to watch. And my mood soon darkened again. Arc. The entire thirteen. They road in in formation, peacocks with new feathers. Many now bore a device I was familiar with yet had rarely seen equiped outside of Castle British. The Order shield. I gagged. Our liege had taken these to service? What the hell was he thinking? Then again, who knew. Nobody ever saw the king anymore. He was harder to locate than I was. And at their head, the Dragon, leading, sneering. Bloody tamers!

    I almost lept from the shadows to give him a taste of my wit, but an entirely different plan formulated. I knew something of the conflict between our liege and his most trusted bannerman, this Blackthorne. I had read works written by both. My war was not yet over it seemed. My war had just begun.

    I returned to my abode, plans swimming through my head. I marched through the main gate and up the steps of the inner keep. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of battle. Wooden battle. Two girls, red headed and identical were playing at war in the main chamber. One held a wooden kryss, the other a mace. They danced with each other as Picollo and I had once danced. And at my approach, the dance stopped. As one they turned and curtsied and bar the weapons, I could not tell them apart.

    “Hail m’lord,” they said in unison.

    “I’m no lord,” I retorted. “What are you doing in my house?”

    They exchanged a glance and it was like one girl standing beside a mirror. “We live here, m’lord.”

    “Where are all you kids coming from?” I barked, the black anger still on me.

    “We are from Trinsic, m’lord. Orphaned by the war.” They dipped their heads in sadness.

    I felt ashamed of my rage. “Well stop all this curtsying and m’lord stuff. I’m Az. Just Az.”

    “We know that, m’lor – We know that, Az.” They smiled. I rubbed my eyes, looking for the mirror that must be there. Then looked down at the weapons they held.

    “Can you actually use those things?” Their dance had shown some skill.

    “Our training never ceases. We lost our parents to the war. We will not lose each other. Our Lady Hecate has been teaching us the way of the Kingfisher. We will not fail you, m’lord.”

    Fail me? What the hell were they talking about. I had no need of.........hundreds. “You’ll fight for me?” I asked suspiciously.

    “We so swear.” They both dropped to one knee. They both dropped their head.

    “Why?” I asked, somewhat stunned.

    They looked up, “You are Az!” said one. “Slayer of the wicked,” said the other. “Defender of the weak,” said the first. “You are our hero,” they finished together.

    “Who’s been filling your head with this nonsense?” I muttered. Surely not Hecate. I mean. This was just silly. “What are your names?”

    “We have foresaken our names and taken titles of aspiration, for the Paladins of our town who were slain.” “I am Paladia.” “I am Paladium.”

    “Well then little paladins, get up,” I commanded. “You’ve got a guild to join.”

    Back at the bank. Back in Britain. The crowd murmured. The tamers pranced. The bards sang and merchants traded. The peacocks preened. I stepped out of the shadows. The crowd hushed and thirteen eyes swung on me with hatred. Swords lept to hand. Spells were uttered. “Kill it!” the Dragon roared. I slipped on Allanon’s gloves and danced away. I stepped out of the shadows. We played this game until they tired and finally they stopped to hear me out.

    “Chaos. . .” the Dragon spat.

    “Oh, you like my new liege,” I replied, counter-preening. I bore a shield of my own now, though it was only for show. Only to get their attention. Red and black. My new colours. My guild’s colours.

    “What do you want?” Dragon rumbled, “Your cowards tricks won’t work again.”

    “No more tricks,” I replied.

    “You bore me. Begone gnat.”

    “But I’m here to continue our little war. Surely you grow bored all armed up and with nobody to fight.”

    “None dare challenge the might of Arc. That is not boredom, that is the truth.”

    “I dare.” I smiled and enjoyed the nervous look some of the Dragon’s men gave me.

    “Yeah? You and what army?”

    “Oh, perfect. I was so hoping you would say that. This one, sir.” And I bowed and disappeared and on my signal, they came. They came.

    Razlin, son of Razlin and Pyric, son of Pyric, perfect warriors armed with perfect weapons and perfect armour. Bracken. Soth. Raven. Corwin. My girls, Paladia and Paladium with poison kryss and bone breaking mace. Others. That my memory does fail me and I cannot thank them once more. My shining recruit, one of the greatest knights to ever take the field, my battle commander, Hope. And Hecate, my beloved. Both armed with wicked axes.

    And Arc. . .Arc lost again. And the Sun began to rise and the war raged on in earnest.

    Interlude

    I sat in the shadows and watched my work unfold. The red and black warriors of Sun, resplendent in their arms and armour, with chaos shields held close to a few chests, held a steady vigil at the Bank. Occasionally battle was joined. Many came to challenge us and we were not always victorious. Nor even often. Yet they fought, my warriors. Bravely they fought.

    Paladium would strike in with spear, immobilising, then Hope and Paladia would flank the victim, dealing axe and mace wounds aplenty. Razlin and Pyric always fought side by side with their vanquishing swords, laying low any who came within their reach.

    Occasionally I sprang from the shadows and delivered a finishing bolt, but I was not a frequent combatant. I was more inclined to observe. Hope lead in all but name. The guildmaster title sat uneasily on me and eventually I passed it to Paladium to administer, the more aggressive of the twins, my Sisterhood of the Sun. This was not my kind of war.

    I began to feel unworthy. I had gathered my friends and asked them to fight my fight, yet I was not fighting. I was of little use in the heat of combat. I never rode a mount and so the battles would simply out pace me. I would wander behind, in the shadows, finding the fallen. Healing our own (and the occasional foe who I deemed a fair combatant). More and more I felt unworthy.

    And eventually, I just slipped away. I returned to Felucca. I went in search of sensai. Of course I found him fishing by his hut.

    “Hail sensai.”

    “Eh? Oh, it’s you. Cook these fish. I am hungry.”

    “Yes, sensai.”

    I sat down next to him on the shore and watched him cast out into the waves. “What?” he asked, pulling lightly on his line.

    “Where’s Picollo, sir?”

    “Gone.”

    “Gone?” I was hurt by that syllable. “What do you mean, gone?”

    “Gone is what I said. That is what I meant. Stop wasting breath and cook.”

    “Gone. . .” I repeated, scaling and filleting. I lit a small fire.

    He snagged something and hauled it in. A smelly old pair of boots. With an expert flick of his wrist he tossed the boots backwards onto a pile of smelly old boots. Oceania’s Oceans were plagued with the things. Some divine cobbler must have emptied his stores into the seas. I watched him fish as the fish fried and wished I still had the skill. Fishing was a pleasant pastime. One of the orphans, Leaf, was becoming quite practised. And Hecate was herself a master. I was master of little it seemed. I was a master of the shadows, and what are shadows but gaps in the light of the world? The places where the Sun will not go. I was not worthy.

    “I am not worthy, sensai.”

    “Worthy of what?” Cast. Reel. Flick. Cast.

    “Of my guild. Of Sun.” I sighed. He said nothing. Cast. Reel. Flick. “They fight for me, yet I do little for them.”

    “They fight to fight.” Cast. Reel.

    “You mean I don’t matter? They’d fight anyway? Then what am I? Nothing.”

    “You chose to be nothing.”

    I pondered that as I served us each a portion of fish. He set his rod and ate. “You are a terrible cook,” he muttered between bites.

    “I’m terrible at most things.”

    We ate in silence and it was not until he had finished that I received my short lecture. “You are good at one thing. You taught yourself. How many others have you seen who do what you do?”

    I laughed at that, “Well, that’s an awkward way to phrase it, sensai. But of others like me? I have seen none.”

    He nodded and picked up his rod again, saying nothing more. I cleaned up, scoured the pot, tossed the bones back into the sea and doused the fire. Silently I saluted sensai and crept away. Had I ever met a man like me? Never, I realised. There were no men like me. There was just me.

    My roaming took me all over. I was in Felucca again with little desire to return to the hubbub of the Trammel Bank, the Trammel Dungeons, which envoked as much fear as my cooking. Bland, occasionally threatening, but never scarey.

    I looked for the Reds at the graveyards. Maybe I could ask them what I should do with my life. Maybe. . . I found none. I looked for the Great Guilds, the Elite in their castles by the swamp. I saw nothing. Empty buildings. Untroubled lizardmen and slimes. Who is this J Wilson, I pondered. But it was a short respite from my boredom.

    I ranged out of Skara, out of Vesper, out of Cove and Trinsic and Yew. . . And then I came upon something I did not remember seeing there before. A great crypt had thrust itself out of the earth. Pesky undead vermin swarmed its entrance and these I sidestepped to descend within. Strange.

    I picked my way along dark passages and came upon a series of inner chambers. A vast hall squatted atop the construction, eight great spikes erupting from the floor. Each was named for a city. Stranger.

    I found a stone below. A gravestone. Something magical pulsed within it and inscribed across the stone, “The Shadow Lords.” What the hell was this? Shadows. . And I heard voices and saw torches and I became one with the shadows. They entered the chamber I hid in. A half dozen. Warriors and Mages mostly. They wore black robes to a man and bore strange titles. Servant. Bringer. Purveyor. Leader. One of those with them was not robed as the others. They formed a ciricle around him before the stone and began encanting, singing, chanting. And suddenly, he was one of them. Suddenly, he too wore a shadow robe.

    “Welcome to the shadows,” a mage of power stated.

    “Thank you, Thornn,” the inducted replied. “I will not fail you.” And as one, they left. Strangest.

    Men like me? These were not men like me. They rode horses and made more noise than an arrogant Red. And yet, they called themselves Lords of the Shadow. . .Shadow Lords. If anyone was a lord of shadows, I thought. I left. I pulled the shadows around me and exited past the rattling animated bones that guarded the entrance.

    I ranged seeking answers. What was this new cult I had stumbled onto, for surely nothing like it had existed in Felucca before. I knew where I would find my answers. In Britain, in the the libraries of Castle British, or in the words of the sages who lived there.

    I found the castle guarded by many soldiers. Some I recognised. Some had once been Reds. No longer it seemed. Our liege was definitely in sore need of men. First Arc, now this. They patrolled the walls. They held the gates. They lowered the portcullis and only raised it to admit their own. I slipped through during one such raising.

    The throne room was crawling with them! All bedecked in gold and purple, the colours of our liege. And more spikes. Identical to the Shadow Lords' crypt, only some of these held shining orbs upon their points. Orbs named for cities. Britain. Moongloow. Magincia.

    What? No wonder the graveyards held nothing but ghosts. No wonder I had found noone while ranging. It seemed the entire remnants of the Feluccan population was here. Or at that crypt. This I would most definitely have to investigate. This was monumental. What were they all up to? Were these Shadow Lords opposed to the throne? I could conclude nothing else. And if they were, as suited to their cause as my path seemed, could I possibly enlist? Would they have me? Thornn. I needed to speak with this Thornn. Who was he anyway?

    I left full of questions. I trod lightly away from the Castle and travelled to a familiar spot. The first spot. Where I had cast my line and sang my fool’s song. “Food for the. . .”

    A man stood there. On MY spot. A peculiar man. He wore nothing but a loincloth to keep him modest. The Bank of Britain, the Feluccian Bank of Britain, was active once more, though not as it once was. More Britainnians gathered here. Guarding. Watching.

    I ignored them for the strange one. He had a tuft of red hair sprouting from the top of his head and over one shoulder, hung a bow. I fingered the harpy-feather of an arrow in my quiver. I stepped out of the shadows. “Who are you? Why are you standing there?”

    He looked me up and down. We were both almost naked, though at least I had the decency to wear pants. We both held bows and quivers. He suddenly moved towards me and yelled “Dance!”

    Kingfisher’s dance? I flinched back into a combat stance, bow ready. Yet he never grabbed for his. “Dance!” he yelled again. And then began to dance. There was nothing combative about it. He was just. . .Dancing. Jigging, spinning, bobbing up and down. He was dancing!

    “Stop that!” I commanded.

    “Dance!” he retorted and two-stepped fully around me. A few Britainnians glanced our way and chuckled.

    “No,” I defied. “Stop that. Stop it now.”

    “Dance!” He shuffled backwards, feet flicking.

    And the attack came. A great posse mountained on crimson horses came tearing into the square. They wore robes of red and armour of red and when their attack had passed, they left red splattered across the cobblestones.

    I turned to the stranger. He had stopped dancing. “What was that?” I asked him, stunned. The ferocity of the battle was like nothing I had ever witnessed. It made the cavorting of Order and Chaos look like children at war. And perhaps that’s exactly what it was. It was not the guerilla strike of Reds. It was not the ***** and mutter and moan of dueling. It was war. Bloody war. “Who were they?” I asked. They had worn red, but were they Reds?

    “Minax,” the strange one replied. A squad of Britannians charged through the square, seeking their foe, who had already ridden on. They picked up their broken then without even a glance at me and the other, rode back in the direction of Castle British. “Dance?” he seemed unperturbed by all of these developments.

    “Stop that!” I commanded again and again was not obeyed. “Alright, bloody dance then. But answer me a few questions.”

    “Only if you dance.”

    Oh, crap. I looked him up and down. Was it worth the price? I tapped a toe. “Who are you?”

    “That’s not dancing.” He jigged left, right, left.

    I grimaced and, and I’m ashamed to say, I wiggled. Badly. Before the entire Bank of Britain, empty, thankfully. I shook a leg and an arm and I punctuated my cavorting with questions. “What is going on?” Step. Step. “Who are all these soldiers?” Jig. Jig. “What are they fighting for?” He was not answering. Angered, I came to a stop, grabbed his arm and gave him the full force of my glare. “Answer me!”

    “Factions.” He shook off my grasp, and rolled his fists over one another. “They’re all in on it.” He pointed at the sky. “Britannians.” He pointed left. “Minax.” He pointed right. “The Council.” He pointed down. “Shadow Lords. They’re fighting.” He did a spin. “They’re fighting for it all. For control of the lands.” He shuffled backwards and came to a stop, hands out, palms up. “I’m Fu.” He gave a mock bow. “The assassin.”

    Not the end. . .