Darkness covered the forest like a spiderweb—insignificant at a casual glance, but fatal to anything it trapped. Though the night already warped the mind into an uneasy disposition, a sinister presence invisible to the eye permeated the air. Like a hungry beast, the darkness skulked through the trees, waiting to devour its next prey.
Few traversed the night, but one soul dashed alongside the gravel paths, sticking to the shadows outside the torchlight. Annilasia struck through the darkness with ease. A recent rain had muddied the dirt, quieting her boosteps and maintaining the eerie silence that deterred curious minds.
A cool breeze whispered through the trees, scratching the leaves together. All else remained still. Weaving through the tents and huts, the gravel pathways to the Fortress looked clear. Wither Season had ushered in cool weather, but that was hardly the reason for the empty trails. The citizens of the Ikaul Tribe had learned long ago not to linger outside past sunset. A thick heaviness like tar hung in the air, dripping over the forest. Ever present, it seeped into skin and mind, conjuring a sense of danger and dread.
Annilasia slowed her pace before halting at the last line of tents. She studied the length of the wall looming before her. The fortified timber, built in a circular formation to protect the precious dwellings within from intruders, rose just above the treetops. Numerous scouts trailed the alure, their thin silhouettes stark against a night sky of twinkling lights.
Beyond the barrier stood the Sachem’s Temple and the towers—Annilasia’s destination. She settled into a purposeful walk down the gravel path. No doubt the scouts had already seen her and she’d be met with a small troop of warriors at the gate. Although stealth had been necessary thus far, it wouldn’t get her past the wall undetected. There were too many eyes. Routine and custom would now direct her passage through the wall, and she hoped her presence wouldn’t arouse suspicion.
Annilasia emerged from the shadows where the trees gave way to an open area outside the gate. Four men stood at the post. The two on either side of the troop, stationed farther back along the wall, held torches. Another warrior wielded an unsheathed sword that glinted in the torchlight. Each wore linen or mesh suits overlaid with thick animal hides and fur pelts to ward off the chill. Sporadic patches of exposed skin revealed tattoos, displayed most prominently across their faces.
Annilasia relished their passive stances. They didn’t yet see her as a threat. She glanced at the member whose garb differed drastically from the others’—the head of the group. Her heartbeat quickened, but she refused to let her fear show.
The hirishu warrior looked twice the size of his comrades, but Annilasia knew it was only his uniform conjuring an illusion of grand stature. Snowy grey pelts, their tips matted in a crimson crust, flanked the hirishu’s shoulders. Fitted bracers of obsidian leather ringed the arms and legs, and a breastplate formed of the same dark hide was overlaid by a white tabard. Frayed at the edges, the knee-length linen was meant to instill dread. Paint smeared across it to depict a deformed skeletal face. Minuter themes of mutated beasts locked in battle circled this inimical motif, further tainting the otherwise pale cloth.
Annilasia made quick note of the oval shield hiding a large portion of the hirishu. Doused in white paint and reinforced with a dark metal rim, it, too, battered the gaze with crude depictions of howling skulls in bright red paint.
Yet Annilasia fixated on the thick blade of moon-white metal that tipped skyward, held in the opposite, visible hand. Annilasia knew from daylight glimpses that a defying, atramentous halo shimmered around the sword’s blade, now lost in the night’s darkness.
An aether weapon.
Annilasia’s gaze trailed past the sword to the hirishu’s arm. Skin ink traveled in brash edges and squared lines across the exposed skin. An intricate maze-like design in the shape of a soaring eagle, the tattoo served as a telling sign for Annilasia. She now knew the identity of the man before her.
Dying stars, I would come across this dirt eater tonight.
From beneath the skull mask covering his forehead, the man’s gaze pierced her. White spikes of sharpened bones protruded from the drawn hood of the tabard, amplifying his foul stare.
“Halt, and speak your purpose,” bellowed Terrizo. His voice seeped through the mesh cloth wrapped around the lower half of his face.
Annilasia complied, keeping a stern expression as she placed a hand on the sheathed sword at her side.
“Annilasia, tillishu to the Sachem,” she replied, announcing her warrior status. “I need entrance to the Fortress.” With her free hand, she moved to retrieve a feather from beneath her layer of armor. Her fingers trailed along the various quills, quickly identifying the coarse barbule of a yellow salutation feather.
“Tillishu,” Terrizo said suspiciously. He grunted. “I thought your kind were on special order—on the Hunt.” He shifted his weight and tipped his sword in Annilasia’s direction.
Annilasia knew Terrizo meant to intimidate her, but she remained unfazed. She’d expected wariness at her arrival. He was right after all—tillishu weren’t supposed to be in Ikaul territory. The last order given to the trained assassins had placed them on the Cleanse Hunt past the border.
“My orders are rarely proclaimed to the masses,” said Annilasia. “The secrets of my kind aren’t your concern.”
“Usually there are at least whispers traveling the wind,” huffed Terrizo. “Not even hermits escape the gossip of ravens.”
“I was chosen to be a shadow, Terrizo,” she responded with a clear note of challenge, “and shadows remain elusive, even to rumors.” She threw her arm forward, the gold feather grasped in her outstretched hand.
The two stood fixed in place for a long moment as a struggle of willpower waged in the confined space of silence. Annilasia didn’t blink. Lesser men had challenged her, and mightier men had faced the consequences. Terrizo was no exception. If she had to cut her way past the Fortress wall, the task would be messy but worth it.
Whether by wisdom or the inability to perceive a false note in Annilasia’s words, Terrizo relented. He nodded in her direction, and the warrior at his side marched towards her.
Annilasia remained tense as she tightened her other hand around the hilt of her sword. Even when the warrior extended his own salutation feather and the two acted out the customary Ikaul exchange, she stayed alert. These men were not beneath trickery. She watched as the warrior returned to the hirishu’s side.
“What matter do you attend to here, tillishu?” asked Terrizo.
“Your tribal status doesn’t grant you that knowledge,” she said. “If you wish to wait for the Sachem’s arrival and bother him with the minutiae of my duty, then we can wait until morning. I imagine he’ll be so pleased that you delayed one of his tillishu from completing their task.”
Terrizo swore violently. “I don’t forget that you’re Vekuuv. You hail from a tribe of slaves—our slaves. You may have the title of tillishu, but your status is far below mine.” He gnashed his teeth, the sound muffled by the mesh covering. The other warriors grew tense at his words, and they pointed their blades at Annilasia.
Annilasia bit her tongue, holding back the spiteful responses twitching on her lips. “Will you let me through, Terrizo?” She cocked her head, a final gesture of challenge.
Terrizo’s eyes screamed of a desire to hack her down. “Commit your violent sins, and then be gone,” he said abruptly. “The Sachem may have graced upon you the rank of tillishu, but that doesn’t erase the dishonor of your tribe.” He barked a quick order, and his troop moved from her path.
Annilasia wasted no time as she strode past the men, ignoring their murmurs. Terrizo’s eyes bore into her back as she walked through the gate. Eager to escape his sight, she disappeared once again into the shadows.
Past the wall, she was met with a labyrinth of multi-storied buildings constructed of clay and wood, interrupted only by the wide streets between them. Annilasia chose her path carefully, avoiding the main streets in favor of more secluded paths that interconnected with the others. Like the pathways outside the Fortress, these streets were empty. A few windows flickered with candlelight, but only tribal warriors dared to roam outside in the open air.
Annilasia avoided these troops as often as possible, managing to expose her presence only to a passing few. Her armor signified her tillishu ranking, and she assumed this to be the reason no one else questioned her presence. Being an elite warrior had its benefits.
Unlike the vicious, bold aesthetics of the hirishu garb, Annilasia embraced the element of obscurity expected of the tillishu—the elite assassins. A snug leather breastplate coiled around her chest, the black animal hide painted with grey diagonal stripes for a camouflaging effect. An equally dark skirt of the same material, tucked under her belt in a seamless transition from the breastplate, came to her knees. Beneath this armor she wore a suit of grey mesh with a linen shirt added against her skin as a buffer. Additional animal hide wrapped over her arms and legs, fastened by leather string.
Together with her light brown skin and raven hair, the ensemble cloaked her like a shadow. When coupled with her honed skills of stealth, she became one with the night. Like most Vekuuv, she lacked any extraneous skin ink—an art associated mainly with the Ikaul tribe. Neither did she flaunt decorative jewelry or paint. Tillishu weren’t meant to be seen. Assassins killed—and this duty choked out the freedom of artistic identity.
The stretch of buildings gave way to a clearing that preceded three grand structures. The central one was the Temple, an impressive display of majestic design and grand staircases. Unlike the wall and surrounding buildings, the Temple alone boasted the honor of stone material in its formation.
Torches dotted the Temple grounds and its staircases, aiding the dozens of hirishu warriors who maintained vigilant watch over the sacred grounds. These Temple warriors stood like statues, and could easily be mistaken as such. At her wary distance, Annilasia couldn’t discern the details of the grotesque designs on their tabards. Yet the skeletal themes fanning across the cloth, coupled with bone-riddled armor pieces, still provoked unease.
On either side of the Temple stood identical towers that soared higher than even the Fortress wall. Despite having even fewer posted warriors than the Temple, the towers were the most protected buildings in the Ikaul territory. Annilasia wasn’t sure how many aether wards shielded these structures, but she wasn’t foolish enough to suppose the wards were weak. Invisible to the naked eye, such barriers and traps would deflect any attack of aether energy on the towers.
Fortunately for Annilasia, she planned to use the archaic method of physical strike.
One other unique monument—a lone obelisk somewhat lost in the grandeur of the Temple and its towers—graced the Fortress grounds. One of the tribe’s oldest structures and twice as tall as Annilasia, it stood a few yards from the first set of Temple stairs. Etchings of fantastic beasts and a lone wisdom verse were carved into its smoothed stone. The only vestige of tribal history that hadn’t been desecrated by the Sachem’s touch.
Leaving the comfort of the shadows, she strode deliberately towards the obelisk. Her eyes flashed from one hirishu to the next. None of them made a move to approach, but their gazes latched onto her as she trod across their holy ground.
A loud groan rumbled through the silence. Annilasia’s attention turned to the Temple’s east tower. The entrance door stood cracked, permitting some light to escape. A silhouette appeared and paused in the doorframe, and despite the dark, Annilasia knew it to be Delilee.
The young woman glanced at the two hirishu flanking the door. Clearly hesitant, she lingered with one foot in the safety of the tower. As if urged by Annilasia’s silent command to hasten, Delilee finally stepped out and closed the door behind her.
Annilasia’s focus shifted to the guards who silently watched Delilee as she hurried away from the tower. The hirishu made no move to sound an alarm, but Delilee’s presence outside the tower would certainly be noted.
Delilee joined Annilasia at the obelisk clothed in simple travel garb that struck Annilasia as odd. It was strange seeing Delilee solo, let alone lacking her typical wardrobe that mimicked the ornate attire of the Tecalica. As decoy to the chieftess of the Unified Tribes, Delilee was required to look and act exactly as the chieftess. It was uncommon to see the decoy without the Tecalica outside the tower. Without direct permission from the chieftess, Delilee could be executed for such treasonous dereliction.
To Delilee’s credit, her current outfit had come from the Tecalica’s wardrobe, albeit one the chieftess rarely wore. The clay-colored overhead shirt, its matching skirt of cattle hide, and the tan wool sash around her waist were hardly enough to please anyone, much less the chieftess.
Locks of ginger hair fell across Delilee’s shoulders, the rest hidden beneath a drawn hood. Pale skin projected like moonlight from the expanse of animal hide wrapped around her petite figure. Sweet perfumes drifted off her, a result of the cremes and incense her role both afforded her and required. After all, she had to mirror the chieftess in absolutely every sense.
Delilee stared at the hirishu.
“Is it happening tonight?” she asked. When Annilasia nodded, Delilee quivered.
“You need to drink this,” said Annilasia. She retrieved a small vial from one of her belt pouches.
Delilee’s face grew taut, her eyes now latched on the vial. “Are you sure we need to do this? Isn’t there another way? What if this doesn’t work or—”
“We’ve discussed this to a thousand stars and back. There isn’t time to discuss it anymore.” Annilasia inched closer to Delilee. “The Sachem is on his way back from Vekuuv. We should have done this when he first departed.” She paused and mulled over whether to say more. “Whatever he’s doing in Vekuuv and planning over there—it’s going to happen soon.”
Delilee’s eyes widened. “How do you know?”
“I’ve heard rumors from men and women as disloyal to the Sachem as the two of us. We’re running out of time to stop whatever it is.”
Delilee’s face fell with dismay. “Then what are we going to do? What’s your plan?”
Unspoken strategies played out in Annilasia’s head. Her plan. Such a dodgy bastard. Delilee knew only that Annilasia would be taking Jalice away from the Fortress—away from the Sachem. All Delilee’s role required of her was to drink of the damned vial in Annilasia’s hand. The decoy knew nothing of Annilasia’s intent to journey with Jalice to the Nova Oasis, where the chieftess would undergo the removal of several pesky aether wards.
Yet the whole scheme would deflate if Delilee could not rise to the occasion. Annilasia pressed the vial toward her.
“You know the plan,” said Annilasia.
Delilee took the vial reluctantly, rolling it around between her hands. “I don’t think this is going to unfold like you want it to,” she murmured. “The Tecalica”—she blinked and cocked her head—“Jalice isn’t as naïve as you think she is.” Delilee’s doubtful eyes flickered from the vial to Annilasia.
“You underestimate my capacity for persuasion.” Annilasia crossed her arms. “My only concern is if you will do your part.”
Delilee squared her shoulders. “You know I will. I’ll do anything to restore peace.”
Annilasia pursed her lips to avoid a chuckle. Delilee had courage, and for that, Annilasia valued her. But the decoy was far from intimidating.
“You know what to do, then,” said Annilasia.
Delilee’s bravado quickly faded as her eyes returned to the vial. “Keep her safe, Annilasia. She’s not the same childhood friend we once knew, but . . .” She paused. “Just keep her safe.”
Delilee removed the cork from the vial. Without further hesitation, she threw her head back and poured the vial’s contents into her mouth.
Annilasia watched Delilee wrestle with revulsion. She didn’t envy her; the tincture resulted from aethertwisting, and its intended effects would soon take hold of Delilee in a rather torturous way.
“Where is the Tecalica now?” asked Annilasia.
“Oh, great stars,” cursed Delilee. The decoy coughed violently and flicked her tongue with blatant disgust at what she had tasted. “She’s asleep in her bedchambers. How are you going to get her out without the alarm sounding?”
Annilasia shook her head. “The less you know, the less you’re able to reveal under threat.”
Delilee winced, and Annilasia cringed in turn. Getting Delilee involved may have been a mistake, but they couldn’t turn back now. She knew the risks and what awaited her.
“Let me worry about getting out with the chieftess,” said Annilasia. “If an alarm sounds, that changes nothing for you. You play your part.” Delilee nodded while Annilasia observed the height of the east tower. Her sight landed on the highest visible window.
“Let us kill this darkness by any means,” she said. “The end of the Sachem’s tyranny begins now.”