The mountain wind snapped Eriyana’s cloak as she surveyed the fortress below. Her breath would have billowed around her like a cloud if not for her veil. She paid the cold no mind. Distant guards patrolled the snow-covered battlements, silhouetted against the setting sun and oblivious to her presence atop the cliff. She patted her shadow drake and waited for the signal.
A light materialized from one of the towers. A torch. The signal.
She pressed her heels into the side of Valkerion. Go. He waddled forward and started to freefall toward the ground. Valkerion leveled out after flying below the ground level and surged through the ravine. He turned down one corridor of stone and then another, taking a silent, meandering approach toward the Fortress of Shadows. The darkness of ravine reminded Eriyana of the tunnels in the Mountains of El.
They flew beneath several bridges as they went. Bridges that could be used as choke-points in the event of an assault, or burned as a last resort. But the bridges would not be burned this night, even as the fortress came under attack from an unexpected enemy.
They reached the base of the fortress and Valkerion flew straight up, so close to the building that Eriyana could have extended her legs and brushed the cold stone with the tip of her boot.
Straight as an arrow they went, hidden by the shadow cast by the tower in the dim light of evening. They flew above the walls and landed atop the tower. The torch continued to glow there, the flames struggling against the wind, but there was no one around. Eriyana dismounted and approached it. She picked it up and thrust it down into the snow. She lifted her eyes to the Obsidian Tower at the center of the fortress. Better to go on foot, she thought. Not even Valkerion could hide in the wide open area around the Obsidian Tower whilst the sun still shone and she could not wait for night. She had an appointment to keep. Hide and await my call, she ordered Valkerion.
Behind her, Valkerion lay down and faded into the shadows, obeying her telepathic command.
Eriyana spotted a hook lodged at one edge of the roof. A rope extended from it and drooped over the edge. She approached and looked down. The rope led to a window. As if I need a rope, she thought. Nevertheless, she would need to conserve her energy for the fight to come, so she jumped off the roof and caught the rope, using it to swing into the tower.
Once inside, she crouched, listening. No light illuminated the room, but her eyes adjusted effortlessly. Growing up in darkness has its advantages, she thought. Ornamental armaments and several paintings hung from the walls of the circular room. A trap door in the center of the room provided the sole way out. She approached it on silent feet and lifted it, straining for any hint of breath from the space beneath. There was no one there. She slipped through the opening and descended the wooden ladder. She stopped at each landing as she went. Odd that no torches illuminated the tower. They jutted from the walls like sleeping gray sentinels. Had the ones who summoned her extinguished them intentionally, or was this tower always dark?
After pausing at several landings, one of which led to the battlements, Eriyana drifted to the ground level. A closed wooden door stood in front of her. Eriyana tried the handle. Locked. No matter, she thought. Keeping her hand on the handle, she drew upon the magic within her. Cold many times that of the outside air flowed from her into the handle. Instantly it turned white and brittle. She pulled, it snapped off in her hand. She tossed the broken handle toward the wall where it shattered with a tiny ting like a chime blowing in the wind. She pulled the door open slowly using the hole left by the removal of the handle and peeked around the corner.
The courtyard stretched out before her, snow having mixed with dirt to form a brown, well-trodden mush. She need not worry about her footprints being noticed. She looked around at the walls to the left and right and the squat buildings scattered around
the Obsidian Tower. The sun had continued its nightly decline and shadow covered the doorway in which she stood. Could she run straight down the path? She had no choice, assassins never missed an appointment. She never missed an appointment.
Eriyana closed her eyes, took a deep breath and focused on the power within her. The shadows wrapped around her like armor, banishing the small remnant of cold she had felt, and comforting her. She held a hand in front of her face. Only inky blackness met her gaze, her hand concealed by darkness. It was time. She stepped through the opening and shut the door behind her. Then she crept toward the tower. Although she could not be seen while her concentration held and she remained in the shadows, she could be heard, and the archers of the Engrall were not to be trifled with. Many assassins had tried, and failed, to breach the Fortress of Shadow through the centuries.
When she was perhaps one hundred feet from the entrance to the tower she froze.
Two guards stood next to the heavy wooden doors. They wore thick leather chest armor and held their spears upright at their sides while shields peeked over their backs. They each wore a scabbard housing a sword on their right side and a morning star hung from their left. Fur hats, fur-lined boots and thick pants completed their outfits. One of the guards grunted.
Royal guards, she thought. Unlike the ordinary soldiers on the battlements, the royal guards were highly trained. She would not be able to slip past them. She crouched and rolled back her right sleeve. There, attached to her arm brace, was her dart shooter. She silently pulled the slide back with practiced movement, activating the internal gear mechanisms to add tension, and a dart entered the firing chamber. She aimed for the neck of the guard on the right, taking into account the wind speed, and pressed a button.
The dart shot through the air and pierced the guard’s skin. He lifted his hand to his neck but did not let out a sound. He slumped to the ground as the paralysis from the poison took effect. One of Master Vlakov’s special concoctions, it was the fastest-acting poison known to the Guild. The guard would strain to scream in agony in vain as the poison stopped his heart over the next twenty seconds.
Without waiting, Eriyana pulled the slide back again, loading another dart. She took aim at the neck of the second guard.
He turned his head to look at his fallen comrade.
The second dart found its mark and the second guard dropped silently to join his partner.
Eriyana stood, rolled down her sleeves, and strode toward the doors of the Obsidian Tower. She did not bother to hide the bodies. Her work here would be done soon enough. She pulled open one of the heavy oak doors and slipped inside, closing it gently behind her and dropping the shadow armor.
No shouts of alarm or cries of warning came. Odd that no more than two men guarded the entrance to the Obsidian Tower. Her contact must have pulled many strings to make that happen. A pity, she thought. She longed to feel blood coursing down her wrist as she slit the throats and stabbed those who stood in her way.
She heard voices in the distance, down a hallway to the right, but her target was at the top of the tower. She ignored the grand staircase to her left which spiraled up into the darkness. First torch on the left, she recited in her mind. Twist it to the right and pull toward myself. She approached the proper torch and twisted it to the right. The flame extinguished. She pulled it toward her. A grinding sound rumbled in the wall and she released the torch.
The wall depressed and slid to the side, revealing a secret passage. Eriyana took one last look behind herself and slipped inside. As before, her eyes adjusted instantly to the dark. A few seconds later the door slid shut with a crunch.
A staircase lay before her, mirroring the official one. A servant stairwell, perhaps? It would be the unfortunate servant who ran across her in the darkness. She ascended the stairs, choosing haste over silence. Round and round she went, passing landing after landing and climbing the spiral stairs until arriving at the last landing.
Male voices came through the stone to her right. She pressed her ear to the stone.
“Am I making the right decision, Oba?” the first speaker asked.
“Your Eminence, the Shardis are abominations. For Rai’Vynn to dare suggest we…I cannot even speak of the act…it is heresy.”
“Careful, Oba,” the first speaker warned. “That is my son, and the crown prince, you speak of.”
“I do not serve your son, Eminence. I serve you.”
The first speaker sighed. “A fact you never fail to remind me of. What did I do to deserve such loyalty from you, Oba?”
“It is not for you to earn my loyalty. It is my honor to serve you. My life before yours.”
Eriyana peeked through a hole in the wall. A man in robes with a top-knot sat cross-legged on the floor, his back to the wall. A small table sat in front of him. He sipped from a cup.
“Have you summoned Saibinn Rue?” the sitting man asked.
The target of his question, a man in full Engrall armor and with a red tassel sprouting from his helmet shook his head. “I requested her presence, but she did not respond. I thought it odd.”
“She is probably preoccupied with more pressing matters. Training warbinders cannot be easy.”
Oba scoffed. “It cannot be any harder than training warbound.”
The first man laughed. “A feud I fear shall never be decided, Oba. You should give up trying.”
A knock came at the door.
Oba frowned and turned toward the door, placing a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Who is it?” the seated man asked.
“Tis I, Rai’Vynn,” a muffled voice came through the heavy wooden door.
“Ah, we were just speaking of you. Enter.”
The door opened and a man entered. He wore no armor, only a pair of brown leather boots and a heavy tan tunic, with a scabbard hanging from a belt. He gave Oba a cold look before breezing past and smiling at his father. “You look well, Father,” he said.
“Gromm root tea soothes the ache in my bones, my son. What brings you to my quarters at this late hour?”
Rai’Vynn cast a dark glance over his shoulder at Oba, then looked over his father’s head toward the hole which Eriyana peeked through. “I have some unfinished business to discuss.”
The first part of the code word. This was her contact. Now to wait for the second part. She found a lever on the wall to her right and prepared to sidestep and pull it down.
“Can it not wait until the morning?”
His father waved at him. “Then speak your mind.”
“I wanted to say goodbye. May the light of the ancestors shine upon you.”
Oba took a step toward Rai’Vynn. “What did you say?”
Rai’Vynn looked back toward the wall Eriyana hid behind. “Only that the darkness comes.” He smiled. “I have a council meeting to attend.” He turned and walked toward the door.
The second part of the code. Eriyana pulled the lever down. The mechanism engaged and the wall slid aside. She stepped through and withdrew her daggers.
Oba stepped in front of him. “How dare you threaten your father?” he asked, raising his voice.
“It was not a threat,” Rai’Vynn said softly. “I would attend to your king now though, brute.”
Oba turned and spotted Eriyana. “Assassin!” He withdrew his sword from the scabbard hanging at his belt and held it two-handed with the tip pointed toward her.
Rai’Vynn opened the door and slipped out.
Eriyana paid Oba no attention. She thrust her daggers toward the emperor. Easiest kill in a while, she thought.
The emperor leapt up and spun, kicking Eriyana in the chest and sending her stumbling backward.
Spry for an old man, she thought. I should have expected something like that. He was no match for her, though.
Oba stepped in front of the emperor. “Run, your Eminence.”
Instead of running toward the door, the emperor ran to the wall where a blade staff hung. He pulled it down. “I will stand and fight beside you, old friend.” He pointed it toward Eriyana.
Oba looked back toward the emperor.
Eriyana took that opportunity to lunge toward Oba, daggers ready to pierce his neck.
Oba lifted his blade in time to parry the dual daggers. He swiped his blade in a counter-attack with the speed of a serpent, causing Eriyana to leap back. His reach was too long.
Eriyana circled around to Oba’s left, looking for a weak point in his armor to exploit.
Oba watched her in turn, his face scrunched in fury.
The emperor skirted the edge of the room, blade staff pointed in her direction.
Enough of these games, she thought. She would not allow a lowly bodyguard to delay her further. She concentrated and felt the hilt of each dagger grow cold. Clouds of condensed water vapor wafted from the surface of the night-forged blades as they grew colder. She lunged again.
Oba lifted his blade as he had before. Their blades met. Only this time, a crackling sound came from his blade. Frost formed on its surface. Oba furrowed his brow.
Oba’s blade shattered. Pieces flew outward and fell to the floor. He wore a shocked expression.
Eriyana wasted no time. She withdrew a small packet from her pouch. She tossed it toward Oba and slashed it as it flew. Silver powder bombarded Oba’s face.
He coughed and tried to wave the powder away, but, an instant later he stiffened.
Eriyana crouched and swept Oba’s legs out from under him.
He landed with a thud and a grunt. His eyes remained open but his body was immobile.
She leapt to the side as the emperor’s blade staff pierced the air in the spot she had just vacated. Make it look like murder by the bodyguard, Rai’Vynn had said in his letter, along with a heavy bag of gold. That had a the need for paralysis powder instead of outright killing the bodyguard. It had to look like an inside job. She didn’t care what the reason was. She spotted a long piece of Oba’s sword and rushed toward it, sheathing her daggers along the way. She picked it up and turned to face her target.
The emperor wasted no time checking on his bodyguard. He attacked with a flurry of stabs. Eriyana dodged the staff with ease. He may have once been a formidable warrior, but old age had made him weak. She clutched the shard of Oba’s sword and sought a shadow. There, the emperor’s own shadow. She concentrated and envisioned herself appearing in the shadow he cast. She unleashed her power and the scene changed before her eyes. The emperor’s back was turned toward her now.
Eriyana thrust with the shard, stabbing him in the lower back and thrusting upward.
The emperor froze as the shard severed his spine. He gasped as it pierced his lungs and heart.
She left the shard inside of him and he crumbled to his knees, the staff falling with a clatter to the floor.
Come to me, she ordered. Eriyana picked up the staff and replaced it on the wall. Then she withdrew another packet of powder and broke it above Oba’s body. The antidote, white instead of clear, rained down like snow on the bodyguard’s face. It would still take a minute for the antidote to take effect. She took that moment to lean down and whisper in his ear. “How does it feel to know you killed your emperor?” she asked. “The one you were charged to protect. Such a shame.” She stood and smirked.
His arms twitched as he fought for control of his body. His eyes bulged.
Eriyana smiled, walked to the secret entrance and pulled the lever to close it. Then she went to the window and threw it open.
Full night had fallen and Valkerion hovered outside the window, camouflaged wings flapping. He came closer to the ledge.
Eriyana leapt off and landed on her drake’s back. Fly us home, she thought.
Valkerion turned away from the window and flapped his wings, gaining momentum.
A roar of anger, pain and anguish followed her into the swirling wind.
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