Trial by Fire

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Cloak and Dagger

“There, that is where they will be tonight.” Geralt said pointing to a large manor built on the highest hill that overlooked a magnificent civilization. Tootsie stared in awe of the walls, tens of meters high. There were men clad in armor walking to and fro, patrolling and providing constant vigilance around the walls. Just beyond the wall was a large moat, the water swirling around at a steady pace ready to sweep up any who would dare to dip in. The drawbridge was up, making this an all but unscalable fortress to nothing but an army. A larger contingent of soldiers camped in the distance, the fires burning smoke through the air. Xilo took this all in, frightfully looking at the defences.

“By the Great Star, what am I looking at?” She said.

Using the edge of the forest as cover the rest of the group took it all in. Tootsie shook his head, not believing his eyes. Conifer put a hand on Xilo’s shoulder.

“This is what we had briefed you on. Impenetrable. From what we gleaned from patrols they’ll be leaving here in two days, only we have one. That means once night strikes, we have one chance to get in, unseen.”

Xilo nodded. As the de facto leader of the operation she would be calling the shots. Lucky for them, she already had a plan. She motioned for everyone to come in close as she drew in the dirt below them.

“Can’t create an apparition like the highers can ya?” Geralt whispered loudly. Conifer snickered as he said “Yea, it seems these two have the titles but none of the glitter.”

Xilo rolled her green eyes then continued to draw her map. Poppy and Tootsie ignored them and craned in close to see what she was drawing.

“This is where their quarters are located. I have seen structures like this before and this is exactly where the nobility will be.” She pointed towards the eastern wing of the manor. “Thanks to Con and Alt, we have intel on how many family members Slade has. We are to assassinate twelve, leaving the youngest, a thirteen year old, alive. They are to confirm that Erodeseans murdered their kin. Under no circumstance do you murder this child, are we clear?” Everyone nodded. “We will collect their rings, they are unique, each one having a number, one through thirteen.” Xilo paused.

“Ah. Here we go, she’s gonna tell us how we’re getting in.” Conifer lamented.

Xilo nodded. “The iron-claw will dispatch the guard here and here.” Xilo pointed towards the back of the manor wall. “These guards have the longest post at four hours each, that gives iron-claw about thirty to forty five minutes to provide reconnaissance. He will infiltrate here, jump the moat, and use his claws to scale the wall.” Xilo pointed to the wall. “Then, having made it on the inside of the wall he will proceed to sneak into the manor through a similar method: by scaling down the outer wall, up the manor here, onto the roof, into the chimney, then down and into the manor. There he will locate their bedrooms, count any guards on patrol inside, then come back and lay this rope down the wall. After we scale the walls we will be entering through the chimney, and eliminate our targets.”

Xilo finished and looked around herself. She was proud of what she had come up with, but to all those around, besides Tootsie, there were worrying stares. Poppy’s blue eyes danced around her drawing trying to make sense of everything while Conifer and Geralt scowled, clearly confused.

“So, you want to take this little thing, drop his ugly ass into the hornet’s nest and he just becomes a superspy overnight? By all the Lunu in the Grand Tree, if I were any smarter than a stick I’d have walked back to Wenshe.” Conifer stated.

Xilo narrowed her gaze. “This is the plan. If you have a better idea, let’s address that now, because we are already losing daylight.”

Conifer looked at Geralt, then to Tootsie, then shrugged at Poppy.

“Is he any good?” He asked her.

Poppy nodded. “He’s bested Hillup, Drester, Vi, and Raes, even myself once or twice in Hide and Seek. He’s still jittery and skitters around like an insect, but I think that’s just how he is.”

All through this encounter Tootsie had been thinking to himself. He hadn’t looked at the drawing plans for long because he had already known what would be required of him. Nobody there had the agility to get past the moat, walls, guards, and into the manor without being seen but him. He remembered his training well and knew to play to his strengths. To him, Xilo’s plan was the only option. It was also an opportunity for him to redeem himself in the eyes of his kin.

“I am willing and ready, Lady Xilo.”

Xilo nodded in affirmation.

“That you are. We will wait until five hours before sunrise, that is when the guard shifts.”

So they waited, eagerly eyeing the fortress until the time was right.

Tootsie was the only one who meditated while the time passed. In his vision he saw the little girl Juniper. She was holding something that glowed in her palms, but he couldn’t quite see because she had her back turned towards him. As he walked nearer, seemingly floating on undefined space in air, Juniper tossed the orb in the sky. Much like his training the ball ascended slowly, until finally reaching its apex and coming back down. This time it came down, quickly splitting into two balls that sat on either side of Juniper. They materialized into two figures on the left, and one on the right. On the left was Nike and Onyx, only that they looked slightly different that he remembered, more reserved, fierce, determined. On the right was Seyl, her body was crushed beyond belief like a partially squeezed tube. Some of her features were so malformed it contoured her body in a way that looked much like an exquisite vase. Seyl looked straight into his eyes, the feeling cold and dark. Onyx and Nike stared off into the distance statue-like. As Tootsie moved left and right Seyl’s one good eye followed him. He looked on in horror as he realized it was really her.

“Seyl, I-” Tootsie went to say as Juniper turned around suddenly and interrupted. Her face was a husk, no eyes, no spirit, nothing, dead as a rock, but her mouth moved as she spoke. A voice much older than a five year old escaped her dead open maw.

“You failed to save one and the two are in peril. Shall you fail today, none will find rest. You know what has to be done.”

An hour past midnight Xilo nudged Tootsie from meditation. He shook his head then nodded.

He sped off through the tall grass towards the first guard on duty. Using only his claws he sneaked behind the man, jumped on his back and severed his spinal cord by pushing his blades through his neck. Quickly, he got on all fours and took down the next guard the same way. The adrenaline rushed through his body as he jumped over the moat with ease clearing the distance then scaling the wall. Once on top he scaled it down, then up the manor to the roof and crawled down the chimney. Everything was a blur, he didn’t stop to check his surroundings, but made sure he was silent.

Reaching the bottom of the chimney he scanned his surroundings and to his surprise there were no guards, no patrols inside the house. He crept up the wooden stairs towards the second floor then went left down a hallway. There were six rooms the doors unlocked and left open to let out the heat. He scanned each room and counted twelve bodies. As he finished the last room which only contained one bed he panicked. Where was the thirteenth?

As he exited the room his eyes went red and he slashed to the left of himself in complete darkness. His claws whiffed through the thick air the figure of a child of around thirteen turning to smoke. Tootsie took two steps back in caution, clearly something had gone horribly wrong. He looked around in fright, had he killed the thirteen year old? Tootsie could hear a whisper that came not from the ear, but inside his head.

“Shhhh.” it said.

Tootsie wasted no time, he knew what he had to do.

_____________________________________________________

Xilo whispered to Poppy as they awaited Tootsie’s return.

“That’s forty five minutes, where the hell is he?”

Poppy shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t sense his spirit, but they haven’t raised the alarm. What should we do?”

Geralt whispered nervously. “If we don’t finish this we are as good as dead. We have to find another way to get in.”

Xilo shook her head. “No, we stick to the plan. If day breaks we have to cut our way in.”

Conifer’s eyes went white. “Are you fucking insane? We’d get reduced to branches. Great Star Almighty, please save us from this calamity.”

Another hour went by, still no Tootsie.

“Xi. We have to do something, day will break in a couple hours.” Poppy said.

Xilo scanned their surroundings finding no sign of the tiny Erodesean. Another five minutes went past then Geralt gave a sign that someone was approaching. Everyone unsheathed their blades and prepared to cut their way to the castle, dead or alive. As the figure neared, Xilo held her hand out.

“Stop, put your blades away, it’s… it’s him and another.”

As the two figures neared it was clear that one was a child and the other Tootsie. The child floated, it’s body shrouded in a manufactured blackness, completely unrecognizable. It spoke through a veil around ten paces from the rest.

“He has a gift for you.” It said in a metaled voice.

Tootsie walked towards the group and displayed twelve fingers that barely fit in his tiny hands. All twelve had golden rings attached to them, some of them still bleeding from being severed. He was splattered with blood from head to toe, the liquid still warm as it steamed off his body in the night. The group looked in shock and awe.

“Unbelievable.” Geralt said with his hands on his head clearly relieved.

Xilo looked at Poppy, shaking her head with disbelief. She then walked to Tootsie, but addressed the child.

“Floating spirit child, will your people be convinced that this was the Lunu’s doing?”

A sliver of laughter escaped the veil. A few moments later and the features became apparent. The child was nothing but bones that were loosely held together by small bindings of flesh. No energy could be seen, but Xilo felt a darkness creeping around them as it talked.

“Yes, yes. They are stupid, simple. Already scared of the unknown. They will rally to your people, savior of Slade. Give me the fingers little one.”

Tootsie obliged. Another bit of laughter escaped the skull as it addressed Xilo.

“That is, if you can keep him alive.”

Xilo’s eyes went purple as the child floated away back towards the castle with a parting message.

“Leave, immediately, your work here is done.”

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