Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
Since I was absent for awhile, I'm making up for it by posting the next chapter! Enjoy! And as always, your feedback is most appreciated! :)
Aryana ran the edge of her dagger over the guard's throat, watching with grim satisfaction as his life blood bubbled from the gash and dyed his chainmail a deep maroon. Next to her, Talon dispatched another guard with practiced ease, though it was hard to discern any emotion from behind the silver mouth guard he wore.
"That's the last of them," Aryana said as she wiped her blade clean against the fallen guard's boot.
"For now, at least." Flex withdrew his sword from the chest of a serving girl and turned around. "But we have yet to find our target."
Aryana glanced at the slender man. He was tall and lanky, his long hair pulled back into a tight bun and his clean-shaven face speckled with the blood of his victims. In the glimmer of the torchlight, he looked every bit as content with his job as one would expect a Hunter to be. It was his enjoyment, however, that sent shivers up Aryana's spine.
"We have no target, Flex," she said after awhile. "A few deaths, some drawing on their walls and then we slip out just as we came in—unnoticed."
"We're getting paid a hefty sum for a few deaths and some painting?" Gereth spoke up, scratching his beard with the curved point of his battle axe. He glanced at Flex and chuckled. "If only more jobs were this easy!"
After traversing through the underground passageway and striking down the two guards that blocked their entrance, they had armed a handful of prisoners and set them loose on the keep. By the time the royal guard secured their Noble and dealt with the escaped convicts, her group would have exhausted their paint and disappeared into the woods. No one would ever be the wiser, and their pockets would be heavy with gold come morning.
Shaking her head, Aryana absorbed their surroundings. Books lined the sturdy wooden shelves of the small library they had entered; a few lay open on a table in the alcove to her right, their pages stained with the blood of a scholar that Gereth had killed when they first entered the room.
They had followed the two guardsmen and the serving girl as they fled from the prisoners' dining hall massacre, determined to leave no witnesses.
"Did you remember to paint the war symbol back in the dining hall?" Aryana asked, turning her gaze to Flex.
He nodded in response, his fingers twitching anxiously against the sword hilt. "I even mixed some blood into it this time." He shrugged. "For added effect."
Aryana grimaced, but made no comment. Turning to Gereth, she asked, "And how are we on the berries?"
The broad man fished the wooden bowl out of the depths of his cloak and tipped it over. "All gone."
Aryana cursed and turned to Talon. "You're sure they paint a symbol at every scene?"
The Badalan nodded as he untied the leather strap and removed his mouth guard. A smirk played at his lips as Flex and Gereth took a noticeable step back, finding humor in their obvious concern. "The Shyrr would use the blood of their victims once their paint ran out," he explained as he met Aryana's gaze. "At this point, though, we've painted symbols for each of the tribes so it really doesn't matter what we use anymore."
With a hesitant nod, Aryana motioned to Flex and Gereth. "Do it."
Gereth tossed the wooden bowl out of the alcove window before dipping a gloved hand into the hole in the scholar's chest and drawing swirling red patterns along the wall. On the other side of the library, Flex did the same.
Stripping the last chunks of eumbrox fur from the chinks in her armor, Aryana knelt down and placed the bits strategically on the guards' bodies for what she hoped would be the last time tonight. To the angered, untrained eyes of the remaining guardsmen, it would look as if their fallen comrades had managed to tear out chunks of Badala fur from their assailants before their untimely demise.
Everything had gone according to plan thus far—they executed their orders with the precision only a Ghostwalker could provide, and they did so undetected. I can only hope the night stays in our favor, Aryana thought as she applied the finishing touches and stood up. Maybe after this is over and my purse is filled, I'll retire, myself.
The thud of hurried footsteps drew Aryana away from her thoughts. "Talon!" she cried, brandishing her dagger and turning to the library entrance.
With a grunt, Talon reattached his mouth guard and flanked Aryana's left. Gereth and Flex stood to her right, weapons at the ready as the wooden door was flung wide open.
"We've found them, sir!" a man called out as he gestured behind him.
Before her group could flinch, six guards in heavy plated armor entered the library and encircled them, shields raised and lances aimed for their throats.
Aryana cursed and leaned into Talon. "These men are better armed than their comrades," she observed as her mind raced with different scenarios. "We've been careful; there's no way the guards would've been able to mount a counter-attack so soon. It's as if they knew we were coming!"
"How right you are, lady Hunter."
The guardsmen parted to allow entry for the newcomer, a tall man with peppered hair and an unnerving look in his gray eyes.
Aryana blinked in disbelief at the man's attire. By the circlet crowning his head and the many rings that adorned his fingers, it would not take much for Aryana to guess that he was a Noble; however, the color of his jewels and the crest on his breastplate—two scythes crossed above the half-circle of a wheat stalk—told her that he was not the Noble of this realm.
"I feel I must commend you on your performance. You've done quite a good job, and releasing the prisoners as a distraction was an especially nice touch. Roren must be proud to call you his best Hunters."
"You kill us," Aryana spat, "and our Headmaster will come for your head himself!"
"Your Headmaster won't come after the man who employs him. Especially when that employer makes good on his promise." With a grin, the Noble moved a hand to his belt. Instinctively, Aryana raised her dagger, but the man tsked and waggled a finger. "Ah, ah, ah," he said as his guards stepped forward, the tips of their spears pressing closer to the Hunters' throats. "Take care, young Hunter, or you will fall where you stand."
Her nostrils flaring in frustration as she blew out a gust of air, Aryana dropped her dagger to the ground and held her hands above her head. The clatter of her companions' weapons as they hit the floor echoed in the small library, and Aryana shook her head. They allowed themselves to relax before the job was completed, and this was their reward for such reckless behavior.
A Hunter should know better, she thought as she glanced back at Talon. He caught her gaze and nodded, discretely patting the bag hanging from his sash. She felt the weight of her own bag of nightbloom, tucked into a pocket on the inside of her cloak, and her heart sank in her chest.
"Now," the Noble began as he removed two pouches from his belt. Holding them up, he grinned as he turned his gaze to the Hunters on Aryana's right. "I believe you'll find this to be sufficient compensation for your troubles tonight."
Aryana whipped her head around, her pupils narrowing in anger as she hissed. "What?"
Flex bent over to pick up his sword as Gereth shrugged. "You had your orders," he said as he took his axe from Flex and secured the haft to his side. "We had better ones."
She felt the heat of vexation flush her cheeks as she watched her fellow Ghostwalkers slip past the armored guards and accept their reward from the Noble.
"Inform your Headmaster that his payment will be delivered as promised, along with an added bonus for handing over the Asiri woman intact."
Flex snorted as he pocketed his bounty. "A shame she's worth more alive than dead. Would've been a pleasure to split her prissy little face in half."
"What's so special about her, anyway?" Gereth sneered.
"She's no longer your concern. Keep in mind that her life is worth more than the both of yours combined."
Gereth pointed to Talon and grinned. "Can we at least kill the barbarian? They're a copper a pound out there, and with this war we just started—"
The Noble frowned as he stared at them. "You've outlived your welcome here, Hunter." He motioned to his guards. "I suggest you take your leave before your comments end up costing you your life. And take care not to be seen!"
"Don't wander too far," Aryana growled, drawing the attention of the room. Her slitted gaze remained fixated on Gereth and Flex. "Once I get out of here, I'll be coming for your heads."
"I wouldn't wager on it, sweetheart." Smirking, Flex slapped Gereth on the shoulder. "C'mon, let's go."
Aryana glared after the two Hunters until they disappeared from view. "I told you I didn't trust them," she muttered to Talon over her shoulder, then turned her attention to the Noble. "How did you know I would be here, Lord Divikus?"
Dominik directed his gaze to the remaining captives and chuckled, amused. "You know me? I'm impressed."
"Don't be," Aryana snapped. "I'd be a piss-poor Hunter if I failed my lessons in politics. Now, how did you know I would be here?"
Dominik shrugged and tucked a thumb inside his belt. "Who do you think recruited your services for your little 'mission' tonight?"
Aryana shook her head. "No, how did you know I'm Asiri?"
"You mean, besides your pointed ears and amethyst eyes?" Dominik scoffed as Aryana averted her gaze. "Please, lady Hunter. You aren't the only one who did their research. Your people are renowned for their...colorful attributes, though I must admit I'm amazed to see one outside Tandros at all. After the Great War, your kind withdrew from the world and went silent."
Aryana clenched her fists as she raised her eyes. "Roren told you he had an Asiri in his employment, didn't he?" She shook her head as she answered her own query. "He must've, if you're giving him a bonus for turning me over."
"Enough gold can sway even the most devout of friends, I'm afraid." Dominik quirked a brow, his lips raised in an amused smirk. "If it's any consolation, it took a considerably larger offer than I anticipated to earn his favor. He spoke admirably of you—before taking the job, of course."
Her eyes flashing, Aryana turned to Talon. "When we finish slaying these bastards, Roren's going to have a lot to answer for." The Badala nodded, his eyes conveying the same anger and betrayal that she felt burning in her chest. Then, turning her fury back to Dominik, "What do you want with me? What makes my life so valuable that my own Headmaster would betray me?"
Dominik laughed and spread his arms wide. "I have no desire for you, lady Hunter!" he exclaimed. "Nor do I owe you an explanation. Just know that I have my orders, as well."
Dominik turned as one of his guardsmen approached from the hallway.
"The fire's been set, m'lord. We must hurry before we're seen."
"Were there any witnesses, captain?"
"No, sir! None that we left alive, anyway."
Nodding, Dominik shot Aryana a grin. "I'm afraid out chat has come to an end." Then, placing a hand on the shoulder of the nearest guard, "Kill the barbarian. Bring the girl and join me outside the city when you're done."
Before Aryana could protest Dominik was gone, leaving six of his men to carry out his orders.
"You heard him, men!" one of the guards hollered out. "Kill the barbarian, keep the girl alive."
"Lady's tits," she whispered as the men tightened their circle around her and Talon. When I'm done with Roren I'm coming after you, Lord Divikus, she thought as she glanced over each guard. There were two with their spears pointed at her throat, and four focused on Talon. Aryana smirked. You're worried about the wrong Hunter, boys.
"Talon," she said, shuffling her feet in his direction. The guards moved with her, and Aryana halted. "Fada dí kumla jèdama!"
Before the guards could react, Talon dropped to the ground and rolled to his right, grabbing his weapon as he emerged outside the circle and plunging it into a guard's neck.
At the same time, Aryana fell into a split and picked up her dagger. Quick as lightning she slashed at the closest guard, her blade slipping past his armor and biting into his lower abdomen. Before a drop of his blood hit the floor, Aryana leaned forward and pivoted on the heel of her hands, knocking him and two of the other guards' legs out from under them. Grabbing one of the lances, she shoved it forcefully into a guard's chest and used the momentum to propel herself to her feet.
As she glanced behind her, Talon severed the head from one of the remaining guards' shoulders in one clean swipe and tossed it at the other. The bloodied stump smacked the advancing soldier in the face and sent him flailing backwards, landing hard on the flat of his back.
"Thank the gods you still understand the Badalan tongue," Aryana laughed as Talon finished off his last opponent. "Or should I thank you for teaching me a few words to use in moments like this?"
His shoulders heaving, Talon unfastened his mouth guard and shook his head. "Let's thank the gods once we're free from this hellhole, Ari," he said as he wiped blood from his brow.
Nodding, Aryana picked up her dagger and glanced at their handiwork. "Even after all these years, I still best you at close combat."
A gurgle came from behind them, and Talon shook his head. "It's a tie this time, old friend," he grinned as Aryana moved to the remaining guardsman's side. He was a young lad, his brow thick with sweat and his eyes filled with the kind of fear only a boy out on the battlefield for the first time would know.
"Where has your lord gone?" she asked, pressing the point of her dagger into the man's neck.
Air rattled noisily in his chest, his breathing hindered by the weight of his armor crushing his torso, and his pulse throbbed against the blade as he pleaded for mercy. "W-when we don't show up with you in cuffs, he'll ride for Delkai," he gasped. "He won't be pleased—"
"I'm not pleased right now!" Aryana snapped. "Why does he want me alive?"
The boy shook his head. "Please, I don't know."
Aryana was unconvinced. She applied pressure on the blade and the boy screamed as blood seeped from the puncture. "I won't ask again."
"I don't know, I swear it!"
Shouts echoed down the hallway outside the library, and Aryana cursed under her breath.
"It's time to go," Talon said, gesturing to the boy. "He knows nothing, Ari."
Clenching her fist around the dagger hilt, Aryana pursed her lips as she placed a hand in his matted hair. "You'll only feel a little sting." Before the boy could speak, she pushed the dagger through the center of his throat and watched as the life drained from his young eyes.
"Ari, let's move!"
The shouts grew farther and farther away as Aryana and Talon slunk quietly through the dim hallways. "Divikus is heading to Delkai," Aryana said as they turned left and backtracked to the dungeon. "And Roren's back at Hellfire."
"Delkai's on the way to the Northern Plains," Talon mused. "But after what we've done here, we'll never get close enough to him. And once he learns of our escape, he'll be expecting retaliation."
"Roren won't expect a thing." Aryana bit her lip as she stopped and turned to Talon. "Flex and Gereth would be heading that way, too."
Talon studied her gaze as if reading her future. His brow furrowed as he tipped his head in a slow nod. "They left me for dead, and on Roren's orders. Our Headmaster has a lot to answer for."
Aryana grinned and placed a hand on the Badalan's cheek. "You were right about this being a suicide mission, my friend," she whispered. "I'll never doubt your judgement again, that I promise you." She lowered her gaze and sighed. "I just hope we live long enough to find out why a human Noble wants me alive."
They spoke no more as they wove their way to the dungeon and through the underground passageway. If they failed to catch Flex and Gereth in the woods where their equipment was buried, then Aryana hoped with every fiber of her scorned soul that they caught up with them on the road to Hellfire.
Not even the gods can save them now.