The grasslands outside the palace were still and motionless, disturbed only by the hushed whispers of the night wind. The warm summer nights, made darker still by the absence of the moons, swathed the country of Tophet in black gauze that rendered human eyes all but useless; but from the shadows, a pair of not-quite human eyes noted the barely visible landscape with an obsessive-compulsive’s attention to detail. From the castle’s wall to the tree line lay no less than three-hundred steps of pristine grassy field, picked bare of trees and stones by the castle’s builder and first occupant, a paranoid war monger with many enemies.
Wrapped in drab leather armor and a brown scarf that fluttered loosely in the wind, Katzel stood under the bough of a tree and studied the scene patiently. Four guards patrol the parliaments, reaching the western wall every fifteen minutes, making a complete circuit of the perimeter every twenty minutes in a clockwise motion that starts at the eastern wall. He didn’t bother hiding as the armored sentries swept their lamps across the landscape; the average lamp casts light in a forty-five degree arc that extends sixty feet from the light source. Little do those idiots know that nothing short of the sun will reach the trees, let alone any gatecrasher worth his salt. Katzel smiled wryly beneath his scarf.
His armor, designed with hooks and rivets rather than buckles and snaps, was further proof against detection; the surface had been roughed with silverthorne to destroy the leather’s sheen, making him invisible in full moonlight at a distance of thirty feet. Every scrap of metal on his armor, every hook, loop, and rivet had been crafted of liquid night. His throwing blades were concealed by a series of leather flaps that blended flawlessly into the surface of the armor, creating the illusion that there were no pockets at all. As usual, Katzel wore his sword across his back, upside down, so that additional leather flaps concealed the immaculately polished metal.
Katzel’s hands brushed through his short brown hair, long elegant fingers gliding fluidly over every knot and strap on his armor, tightening and re-tightening them with succinct motions as he went over the infiltration plan in his head; After the sentries leave the western parliament I cross the green, reaching the wall’s top and the northwestern parapet in under five minutes. Descend eight flights of stairs, cross inner courtyard, and reach the castle in five minutes. Gain entry to king and queen’s room, fourth window from left on third story of southern wall, before guards leave eastern parliament, and assassinate both. Slip down castle hall to prince’s room, second door on left side past stairway, assassinate prince and move across hall and assassinate princess. Move to second floor, enter middle princess’ room and assassinate her, plant ‘evidence’ of Countess Liona’s son’s attendance. Lastly, move down to basement and assassinate youngest princess, escape the castle before the clock tower at Prometheus’ shrine tolls the first hour of the day. In and out in an hour; six dead, one every ten minutes, and a full fifteen minutes better than Templar predicted.
Under the scarf, the assassin’s lips curved into a reserved smile; he had days where the only thing keeping him going was his rivalry with Templar, the closest thing he had ever known to a friend. They wouldn’t gather as allies when their order gave them leave, or if asked they would not be filled with kind words for the other. Katzel and Templar had a bond of a different sort, a blood pact of hatred; each loathed the other to the point of obsessing over their demise. They bore an equally powerful respect for the other and his skill, and each had sworn that the other would die by no hand but their own, and so honor bound were the warriors that they would fight back to back to keep their word.
As the guard’s lamps turned to shine along the northern expanse, Katzel leaned forward, one arm up as if to protect his face, while the other was behind him as if to draw his sword. As the light swung away entirely, Katzel began to run, his figure cutting a swath through the knee high field. To any observer, as he left the tree line his body seemed to lengthen into an indistinct blur, a gray-brown stain against the shadows. As he moved, his perception of the surroundings began to change; the grass that rustled along his leggings soon seemed to caress his naked flesh, just as the wind that ruffled his crisply cut brown hair seemed to skirt along his uncovered face and shoulders. He was likened unto the air, a creature of nature whose feet made no sound as they struck the earth. He was aware of the quiescent will of the land, the capricious nature of the breeze, even the protective intent of the stone castle partition that rushed up to meet him.
The wall was immense, an obelisk of black marble that stretched one-hundred and forty feet toward the night sky, smooth as glass from ground to archer’s nest. The prior owner must have spent a mountain of gold for a summoner, he mused to himself. Only Mason, the Golem King and guardian of the element of earth, could conjure such an impressively impregnable fortress. No ordinary man could scale the impossibly sheer walls.
Fortunately, Katzel was no ordinary man. That was his gift.
Continuing his dizzying stride, Katzel ran straight at the polished stone until his stride met it; he turned his foot parallel to the barrier, shifting his momentum, and Katzel found his horizon filled with nothing but endless sky as he ran straight up the castle wall. Staring at the starry canvas before him, Katzel mentally tracked his progress up the vertical highway. Ten feet . . . twenty . . . thirty . . . He scaled the wall with blinding speed, one-twenty . . . one-thirty . . . one-forty. As his foot reached the horizontal plane of the archer’s nest he pushed off, and the momentum carried him thirty feet over the wall’s apex in an extended back-flip that left him staring down on the castle’s layout, headfirst.
I’ll enter there, he noted as his eyes skimmed across the northwest parliament stairwell, and cross t- . . . wait! Dimly visible in the night, Katzel could make out a row of flagpoles set along the inside of the wall, their banners fluttering gently in the night breeze. A smile formed beneath his scarf, I see a shortcut. Katzel shifted his weight, passing the walkway’s edge and diving, face first, towards the iron poles that lined the wall’s fifty foot mark as if soldiers sat entombed at the haft of each. He snatched one in both hands, the force of his descent coming down on the spear’s length. It groaned and curved under its rider’s weight, threatening to snap; Katzel streamlined himself, swinging his body so that the momentum pivoted along the flagpole, and at the zenith of his rotation he released his grip. The rod twanged back to its position, and the assassin was sent spiraling through the air, passing through a window on the castle’s third floor.
Landing silently, the sound of bestial grunts led him out of the lavatory and into the adjacent master boudoir. As he entered the bedroom his eyes adjusted quickly, and Katzel held his breath at the sight of the king in the throws of passion with a woman who was clearly not the queen. His majesty’s lycanthropic change well under way, the massive man-beast heaved and roared atop a small woman whose legs flopped limply with each of the monster’s powerful thrusts. Wrapped in shadow, Katzel easily made out the queen, her form motionless beside her lecherous spouse. A surge of rage welled up inside the assassin; the queen was a woman of insurmountable beauty and great wisdom, a descendant of an ages old nymph bloodline. The concept of a great ruler, oblivious and probably sedated, while her monstrous husband plowed away at one of the waiting staff was too much for Katzel to stomach.
The assassin slipped a hand along one of his armor’s invisible seams, and drew a spike from one of the pockets, rasping its edge against the cured leather sheath. Startled by the sound, the shape shifter leapt off the woman with deceptive speed, turning to face the assassin. Well into the change, King Basilio bore the exaggerated under-bite and cracked tusks synonymous with all were-boars. Eyeing the assassin’s weapon with tiny black eyes, the creature bared its foul tusks and charged, reaching toward the smaller man with its massive, meaty hands.
The were-boar managed two steps before Katzel’s hand flashed out, releasing the glittering blade. Basilio’s head jerked backward as the silver spike pierced his brain, his guttural squeal reduced to a high pitched gurgle as the mammoth beast tipped backwards, the bed’s oak frame splintering as the full weight of the corpse hit it.
Cursing the inconvenient noise of Basilio’s death, Katzel drew two knives and leapt onto the were-boar, determined to slay both women before they could react to the monster’s demise, but as he peered closer he found the act unnecessary. When the change had come upon him, Basilio had wrapped his thick fingers around the girl’s slender throat, crushing the life out of her in minutes, deriving pleasure from her desperate thrashings. Her pleading eyes bulged in their sockets, the skin of her neck a mottled purple-blue. The queen, he found, was likewise deceased, and from the state of her decay she was most likely one of his earliest victims. How any man could sleep, surrounded by the corpses of his victims, was a concept that escaped Katzel; Basilio, though, was not so much a man as a savage beast, and like all savage creatures he had been put down. Too late for some, Katzel solemnly remarked. He threw the bed clothes over the king and queen’s bodies, stopping long enough to place a gold coin over each of their eyes. To the Dark Realm with the whore, let the carnal charms that earned her death, purchase passage into judgment. Wordlessly, the assassin eased the bedroom door open, slipping out into the dimly lit hallway.
He counted every step he took as he walked to the prince’s room; if he had to, he could navigate his way out of this place blind, and that was a comforting prospect. Testing the handle of the door, he eased it open, allowing himself silent entry into the new heir’s quarters. As he approached the bed where the sleeping prince lay, the unmistakable musk of sex hung heavy in the air. Apparently the young prince shares his father’s delightful indulgence of the carnal arts. Hopefully, his tastes do not run so . . . exotic. Katzel cautiously peeled back the bed sheets, exposing the naked bodies of Prince Albert and Princess Laura, entwined in a lover’s embrace and sleeping soundly. Katzel’s eyebrow crooked upward at the sight. Huh . . . apparently, Hades was right about the family’s moral state of mind. Drawing the long sword from his back, Katzel lifted the blade high and swung, decapitating both of them in a single stroke. He turned their faces to look toward the heavens, laying a gold coin over each of their eyes. At least they died happy . . . Wiping the sword clean on the sheets, Katzel sheathed the blade and returned to the hallway, seeking the bedroom of the next heiress, Princess Claudia.
As he walked through the cold hallway, silent but for the murmurs of the guards outside, he reflected on the unfortunate events that had led him here; so deep was he in his reverie that he almost walked blindly into the next juncture, but he caught the sound of footsteps and drew back, narrowly avoiding being detected. The lone sentry thudded along the stone walkway, the clattering of his heavy mail loud enough to wake the dead. Katzel held his breath, focusing his chi in his hands, until he could literally see the scintillating energy between his palms. As the guard stopped to look out the window, Katzel stepped around the corner and released the sphere of energy; the blast was little more than a ripple of air as it whizzed past the guard and smashed the head of his torch, plunging the hallway into darkness.
“Wot the ’ell?” The guard’s voice was panicked as he fumbled for his flint and tinder. A long pause and a few tender strikes later, the torch sprung to life. The guard smiled and put the torch back up in its sconce.
Katzel, unseen, stood heel-to-heel with the guard, a dagger in each hand, poised to end the guard’s life if he showed even the slightest sign of detecting the assassin’s presence. Please don’t see me, he quietly prayed. The guard stared out the window for one minute, two, and then continued on his watch, blissfully unaware of his brush with death. Katzel broke away from the man’s shadow as he turned the corner; the assassin released the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, continuing on toward the princess’ room.
As he approached her chambers, he spotted thin curls of acrid gray rising from under the door, and as he opened it he was bathed in a dense haze of smoke. As someone who did not regularly smoke spirit vine, he was without defenses against it and failed to even realize it was in his system as it liquefied his inhibitions, filling him with a sense of invincibility. Rather than stealthily slip inside the room, he entered as casually as if the castle were his own, resulting in his immediate detection by Princess Claudia. The black-haired heiress sat on the floor, hugging a hookah with her legs as she languidly puffed on one of its arms. She exhaled the toke of vine as she sighed, squinting through the din at Katzel, “You know Albert, this whole ‘Raped by an Intruder Role-play’ scenario is terrible. I know that it gets Laura off, but I’d just as soon be onto it.”
Katzel smiled under his scarf, waving the princess over with the blade of the dagger in his hand. With a hungry smile she rose and walked toward him, every movement an intoxicated attempt at seduction. As she reached him, she wound herself sensually around him, giggling drunkenly. He moved as if to kiss her neck, pulling down his scarf, but instead bit down on her throat as if he were a vampire. Though the attack was mostly ineffective, he did taste blood, sucking at the wound until the coppery taste coated his mouth.
She stiffened and cried out into his shoulder, pressing hotly against him rather than pulling away, “Oh gods, foreplay? I don’t know what you’ve been reading, but do it some more.” Her voice was husky as she begged him, and he obliged, slipping his hand along her thigh and under her nightgown. Claudia howled in his ear and pulled away, panting heavily as she grabbed a handful of his shirt. “Let’s move this to the bed, I’m anxious to see what other surprises are in store for me A-“ she froze as she saw his uncovered face, the fervor blush fading away to a terrified blanching as she realized that the amorous man in her room was not who she had expected.
Katzel pulled her into his embrace, clamping his mouth over hers in a passionate kiss as he buried the dagger in her chest, the blade’s point piercing her heart. Her short cry of pain was muffled by the assassin’s mouth, and after Claudia went quiet he released the kiss, clamping the princesses’ shuddering body against his own. She looked at him with great, terrified eyes, sucking in pained gasps of air. “I don’t . . . want to . . . to die” she said in an impossibly small voice, broken by ragged wheezing.
The assassin looked into her face, guileless green eyes wet with tears that raced down her cheeks in anxious rivulets, and her fear quickly soured the euphoria of his high. The smile died away, and painful regret filled his face, “I’m sorry Princess Claudia, but your family’s fate was sealed the moment your mother conceived of Basilio’s seed.” The princess looked deeply into Katzel’s mournful gray eyes, her emerald orbs slowly glazing over as her dying breath rattled free of her chest. Katzel laid her swiftly cooling body down on the bed, Damn you Hades. Damn you and The Order both to the depths of The Dark Realm. Killing politicians and soldiers is one thing, but these are children. It’s too far.
Katzel placed a gold coin over each of Claudia’s eyes, then clasped her stiffening fingers around a gold signet ring; bearing the crest of Lotushunter, the family that Basilio had beat to the throne, The presence of Count Claudio’s missing signet ring on the dead princess will make them prime suspects for what will be labeled a ‘politically-motivated’ assassination. Unable to assume the throne without appearing guilty, they will look on helplessly as The Order’s anonymous client fills the power vacuum. I don’t know who the he is, but he certainly planned this out well.
The deed done, Katzel slipped out of her room, beginning his descent towards the castle’s main floor. The assassin had relatively little trouble navigating the halls, considering the bulk of the guards were focused on the outer perimeter, but as he reached the foyer he encountered the first major obstacle; from the shadows of the door arch he saw the basement guardian: a Killing Jack. A nightmarish seven foot tall golem, it consisted of two muscular torsos sewn together at the waist, with one head and arms working as its legs. Like the image of a face card given life through necromantic magic, these beasts were the vicious servants of Basilio’s youngest daughter, princess Odessa.
A magical prodigy, at the tender age of eight she was an accomplished necromancer, so much so that she was considered on par with Necron Demonslayer and the circle mage Cerberus. While Basilio kept human guards stationed throughout the grounds, Odessa kept her dungeon laboratory guarded by the beasts that she created in its depths. Constructs were immune to pain and fear, and their lack of functioning organs made one-hit dispatches all but impossible, something that made Katzel hold his position in cautious consideration. On a perfect strike, it would take two blows to kill it, one to sever each head. I could probably take it down without giving it a chance to raise an alarm, but if there is another Killing Jack in the stairwell, I’m doomed.
Katzel flattened himself in the archway as a guard raced in from the front hall, gesturing toward the Killing Jack. “You there, dead thing, there’s been an assassin caught at the rear gate. Get your rotting arse out here and lend a hand!”
The massive thing emerged from the hall, followed by not one, but two more of the necromantic monstrosities. They tromped after the guard, oblivious to the shadow curled into the archway as they left. Sighing in relief, Katzel emerged only once the trio of golems had left. Good thing I favored to hold my position, else that would have made a fool of me. Checking the downward racing stairs for any other foes, Katzel began his descent into the basement, where he would find Princess Odessa’s laboratory.
The assassin continued to count each step in his descent, further developing his escape route. He had been trained from the very beginning that every step into a place was a potential ambush or tactical levy, and it was in his best interest to memorize every stone and stick of furniture he might encounter. Every one of the Order’s assassins was trained to use every weapon available, and Nallsangir was made by Katzel and used so often that he could fight blindfolded. But it wasn’t the blade or the skill that made him exceptional. Mathematics was the key to Katzel’s success; knowing the length of his sword, the length of his enemy’s weapon, and the space between himself and every escape or enemy gave Katzel control of his environment.
Two hundred and thirty-eight steps later, Katzel emerged into the vast underground aqueduct that Odessa used as a lab. The ancient stonework was stained with dried gore, but though the central drain was the most grotesque of it, a river of blood that churned from a hole in the earth and out a drain that poured into the eastern sea; no one was exactly sure why the aqueducts started gushing blood, although some thought it a sign that Odessa’s dark magics had left the land cursed. Others believed it to mark the burial place of the first god of war, but the young princess was not one to allow strangers to dig up the floor of her laboratory.
As Katzel emerged into the stark lighting of the magical sconces a Killing Jack emerged from a nearby stairwell, its weapons drawn. It opened its mouth to call an alarm, but Katzel was already in motion. Ten steps between the Killing Jack and I; its weapon is thirty-six inches and its arm reaches forty-five, making a total clearance of six steps. Nallsangir reaches sixty-six inches, and my arm reaches twenty-seven inches, meaning . . . the silver blade arced out, cleaving the top head off in a single blow. The lower head’s expression registered horror as the first gush of putrid blood spurted from the exposed veins and arteries, but Katzel brought the weapon around, cleaving the arm and lower head off in the same motion. The creature hit the floor with a thud, and Katzel stooped over, wiping the blood off on its mottled tunic. “. . . there are two steps between the point of his blade and my chest while Nallsangir is primed to split its necks like over-ripened melon rind. Beautiful, the work of numbers be.”
Silently stepping over the corpse, Katzel broke into a run as he started toward the center of her laboratory. The aqueduct channel is a quarter mile long, with no shadow or covered area to shelter myself. The only chance to get down here without incident is to take the offensive, and kill before they can respond.
Katzel was a blur of brown leather and glimmering steel as he silently ran across the stone bridge. A duo of Killing Jack’s did not hear him approaching, and his sword easily sliced one’s heads off with a soft hiss of steel through flesh. The second spun, but before the menacing growl could leave its throat Katzel sealed it shut with a steel spike that burst through the back of its neck in a gory pop. He slammed the weapon with all of his might, embedding the point in one of the stone blocks that made up the bridge’s railing wall. The assassin channeled chi into his hands and slammed both palms into the golem’s chest; it would kill a man to have the force of energy shatter the bones of his sternum and ribcage, but it only served to enrage the Killing Jack. Katzel smiled as he heard the masonry crack, the piece of stone that he’d pinned the golem to lurching over the side, carrying itself and its unwilling passenger into the depths of the river of blood below. He dispatched two more Killing Jack’s in a similar fashion as the first, already past before their bodies hit the stones. The third one he cut its limbs off and tipped it into the river, letting the heavily muscled thing sink to the murky depths below. Finally, he slowed down in cautious preparation, as he set foot in the laboratory itself.
The aqueduct chamber ended at a stone ledge, overlooking a great hole in the earth that oozed blood like a mortal wound. A great many cages sat around him, some suspended from the ceiling, each one containing some horrid thing that one had been human, before Odessa’s cruel hands had laid upon them. Many stared through him, their minds literally turned off by the horrors they had witnessed. Some quivered and wept in their cages, trying to hide from his emotionless eyes. He ignored them and continued on, walking past tables strewn with odds and ends that he had seen previously in alchemist’s shops and mages ateliers. Some of the devices he’d even seen in war-crammed triage stations, their ends caked with blood and other forms of gore. A half-completed Killing Jack stared hatefully up at him from a table, only one of its two heads animated, the other staring blankly at the wall opposite of the assassin.
At the end of the menagerie of horrors, sleeping in a hammock of dried hide that he hoped was animal, lay the angelic form of Princess Odessa Rubiconvoitise de Boule. She looked like a doll, her bone-white skin almost glowing in the candle light of the lab, a small china dolly grasped in her tender ten year old arms. Her flaxen gold hair spilled over one side of the hammock like a waterfall of orichalcum, her chest rising and falling with each gentle breath. Dressed in a one-piece burgundy nightgown, wearing a ribbon of lace around her neck and atop her head, she looked like the baby girl of a father who loved her more than life itself.
Katzel stared at her sleeping form for a long time, contemplating; would not killing her truly herald the horrors of the de Boule’s continuing for another generation? Necromancer or no, would she continue in her father’s footsteps? Or, more likely, would she shirk the yolk of her family legacy and strive for her own way? Would he really kill a child? The sword slipped out of its sheath with a gentle hiss, and without a sound, he drove it up through the hammock, the triangular point of the blade pushing her nightgown up like the center of a carnival tent. She moaned softly, almost a sound of pleasure, but her eyes did not open. He drew the blade out of her body, and the girl’s lifeblood spurted out in a garnet rush, signifying the end of Odessa de Boule.
Katzel wiped her blood off of his blade and laid two gold coins over her eyes, offering up a prayer to Nemesis that she be received with open arms. “I hate myself,” he cursed softly as he sheathed Nallsangir and turned away, lamenting ruinous fate. He had taken only two steps before the guttural snarl alerted him; rising from the moat of blood, something that would have made most men befoul their armors towered above him. Its manmade jaw was filled with misshapen teeth from a hundred creatures, protruding from its mouth in utter vicious disarray; its skin was black and slimy, trailing some foul ichor that made smoke rise from the cobblestones where it stood, the stench so foul it burned the assassin’s nose. The thing’s fingers ended in metal claws, fused to the bones through Necromantic power, and as it fixed its many eyes upon Katzel a shiver of dread ran through him. Some sort of necromantic golem, using magical fear through its eyes, secreting acid through its skin; Nallsangir is immune to acids and the like, however, I am not!
The thing shrieked in a monstrous voice that sounded as if plucked from the devil’s lyre, and it lunged with inhuman speed, its metal claws gouging the stones where Katzel had been moments before. The assassin swung the sword out, burying it in the thing’s arm, but with the loud tang of metal against metal, the blade stopped at the bone. “Metal bones?!” He glared at the small corpse behind him, “I take back anything nice I might have said about you!” He tore the blade free, grimacing as its ichor spurted onto his forearm, burning his flesh through the armor. He leapt back onto the short wall at the bridge’s edge, sheathing the blade, “This is not about killing, but about escaping.” He reached deep inside, drawing on magics he seldom used, “Foss if shu sphoros ronj!” As the creature came at him he released it in the form of a massive glowing sphere of light that set the thing’s flesh ablaze, sending it skidding backwards across the stone bridge toward where Katzel had first entered. The recoil of the blast catapulted the assassin backwards and over the side, plummeting into the blood river with a sepulchral splash.
Holding his breath, Katzel pushed himself to swim with the current, trying to ignore the horrid reality of what he was swimming through. He kept his eyes closed, swimming as hard as he could, ignoring his body’s cries for fresh air. There was a rush against the edges of his aura, and suddenly the monster’s hand snaked around his ankle, the vicious metal claws piercing the meat of his leg. The assassin’s air escaped in a rush of bubbles as he screamed in pain, immediately cursing himself for being too distracted with the river’s contents to sense the beast’s approach. He rolled onto his back, opening his eyes against the gore, sensing more than seeing the beast as it pulled him toward its monstrous fanged maw.
“Laumunsausoins if shu llaucr wonks hiwlonj!” The hurricane of force that exploded from Katzel’s hands carried within itself countless shards of steel, each one hungrily tearing into the monster; the attack shredded flesh from its bones, finally snapping off the claws that it had impaled through his ankle, functioning like a jet engine as it sent him rocketing down the river. He managed to get one breath before the whirlpool sucked him under, plunging him into the submerged aqueduct tunnels. Trapped in the endless spiral of rough water, rolling end over end as the current slammed him into the walls time and again, Katzel could not hold his breath forever; the deafening roar and the painful battering began to numb him, and slowly, the assassin slipped into unconsciousness.
Curious as to the red ooze that made it so that he could not swim in the river that summer, Trean Alsoo was semi-content to stir the waters with a stick, hiding beneath the shady bough of a tree. The eight-year-old didn’t know where the sludge came from, or what effect it might be having on whatever it touched; all he knew was that he couldn’t go swimming that hot day, and hitting the water with a stick made him feel better about it.
Something stirred; small, alive, it thrashed and squealed and struck the water repeatedly. He drew closer; if the thrashing thing could sense his proximity, it made no sign of it. He didn’t know why the foul monster was making all that noise, but he would slash and stab and gut and eat the squealing little thing.
Trean did not see it, until the black arms had clamped around his legs, jerking him into the air. It snarled and hissed, lashing his arms and chest with thin, whiplike fronds, drawing blood from the screaming boy.
Katzel exploded from the river, sword flashing as it severed the thick, root-like tentacle that had snared the boy. He caught him and leapt back, avoiding the furious swipes it made at the thing that had stolen its lunch. Setting the boy down, he flipped Nallsangir in his grip, laying the blade parallel to his forearm as he dashed at it. The mutant tree strained against its roots, trying to crawl toward the thing which hurt it, and its meal.
The assassin slashed his palm open, smearing blood along the blade of his sword as he chanted, “I onziru shu maujoc if mw swirks sreu naumu.” The weapon glowed a radiant red as he became a blur; the tree-beast screeched when the enchanted blade slashed through the trunk, spraying green ichor as he cleanly bisected the massive body of the monster. He slashed through again, planting a kick against the body that sent the tree toppling over, exposing a throbbing black heart and reptilian eyes. Katzel thrust the blade into its heart and with a great cry, and the thing went still. Panting wearily, he lifted the unconscious boy and limped away from the carnage, his eyes fixed on the radiant white towers of Ardent, set off in the distance.
“Very well done, as expected of The Order’s Sword Prince,” Hades’ voice boomed throughout the cavernous confession hall. Decked out in the most gaudy of robes and anointed in precious jewels, the high priest appeared to be little more than a greedy merchant, the Staff of Solon clutched in his fat fingers. “The contract you have completed will line the Order’s coffers for generations to come.”
“Good, then as we discussed, I want my freedom.”
Hades raised an eyebrow, “Still going on about that?”
“I want out.” Katzel crossed his arms, “The Order sets the price of a man’s life at ten-thousand gold; my share of the contract is easily ten times that. I am buying my freedom.”
“You would wish to forsake The Order?” The priest’s voice rose to an epic roar, “You would renege your vows to Nemesis?!”
“What do you care?” Katzel scoffed, spitting on the temple floor, “Since the day I walked up the order’s steps fifteen years ago, you’ve tried to kill me almost daily. My being gone will absolve us of our . . . relationship.”
Hades chuckled, a sound that sent warning waves down the assassin’s spine. “True, I have found you to be a nuisance in the past.” He shifted his grip on the staff, “But your performance today only recertifies how needed you are to The Order.”
“And certain member’s tastes for fineries!” The assassin unlatched his blade, “I want my freedom, old man! Nemesis and her vows be damned!”
“Blasphemer,” Hades’ brows knitted in fury as he hefted the staff. “You would dare draw your sanctified weapon on me?”
“I would bury it in your lying heart!” Katzel roared in fury and leapt upon the old man.
“Nex Levitas!” Hades’ staff belched forth thick bands of lightning.
Katzel spun under the blast, rising before the man with the blade clasped in both hands. “I judge you guilty; to The Shade Realm with you, false priest!” The sword lanced down, spearing through Hades’ heart and out his back, imbedding itself in the stone floor with a loud chink; blood geysered out of Hades’ mouth and chest as he uttered a gurgling cry, and as the assassin withdrew Nallsangir from its temporary sheath, the priest fell to the floor with a wet thud.
Katzel turned to go, but only managed a few steps before Hades’ laughter filled the room. The assassin spun, finding the bloody old man standing before him, a fanged smile upon his face. He tried to draw the blade, but Hades clamped an iron grip down on his throat, choking him. “You thought you were the Golden Child of the Order . . . but now, you’re just another dead mercenary.” He flicked his wrist, and Katzel’s life ended with a loud crack.
A groan signified he was alive again, and slowly, Katzel opened his eyes. The stark stone walls, the soft whimper of broken souls, the stench of blood; he instantly realized he was back in the bloody aqueduct beneath Castle de Boule. A quick check found him shackled to an examination table, relieved of his weapons and clothing.
The worst would come when he heard the soft moan, and something stirred on his chest. Wrapped in her burgundy nightie, angelic blond hair cascading around her like a waterfall of spun gold, Odessa de Boule smiled down upon him with desire in her ten year old face. “Good morning, lover, sleep well?”
“What have you done to me?” Katzel’s voice was quiet and hard; he favored anger over fear, but the charade was hard to maintain.
She giggled and slid off his naked body, combing her fingers through his short brown hair. “Hades requested I kill you for him, and I had planned to, until you ‘killed’ me.” She smiled, licking her lips, “The way you slipped in, slaughtering my guards, and drove that blade through my still beating heart without hesitation was erotic. I wanted you; so forceful, so animal.”
“I killed you.”
She grinned, showing him her lengthened fangs, “I’m a vampire, my sweet assassin. Around my first hundred years, I learned to simulate all the signs of life, to ‘fly low’, as the Angelos call it. I told Hades I would grant him the immortality he desired, if he gave you to me.”
“He snapped my neck, killed me.”
“He almost robbed me of my prize,” she grinned, “However, he did not know about your special gift. A heretic soul, how exotic; each time you die, your mind awakens in a new body, aware and ready to go. It explains why you’re so . . . good . . . at what you do.” She began running a finger along his body. “Fortunately for me, your Sanguinous Magicks worked to my favor; imbued with the necromantic power of the blood river, your body is now a spirit tomb; your soul will never leave, and you will awaken to the same face over, and over, and over again.”
Katzel began to tremble, “No . . . it’s not possible . . .”
“Oh, it is.” Odessa licked a bead of sweat from his chest, “You will never age, or grow sick. You will never pass into the Light or Shade realms. You belong to me.”
As she kissed him, Katzel lost control, screaming the wail of a man falling into Hell. Odessa drank in her new toy’s anguish with no small degree of delight. If he ever got free, if he ever got his hands on a blade, he would try and end his own life again and again . . . to no avail. He would never know the sweet release of a human death.
That was his gift. Now, it was his curse.