The candle flickered on the dusty table whilst Ayla sat meditating with her legs crossed on the floor in the middle of the log cabin’s dining room.
She’d managed to silence the voices. Now she was sure that they were a product of her own anxiety and insecurity. Understanding that the ‘calls’ prompting her to secure the chosen ones appeared in sequence helped, as it meant that all she had to do was wait. This made her a collector of souls at the moment of death, which simplified her task considerably. In order to be ready for the war, all she needed to do was gather information at the same time as she secured the chosen ones.
Deep in meditation, she could feel the mana she needed to be able to perform magic in Endarth pulsing through her veins with every beat of her heart. But she could sense another energy too, a dark, alien energy that enveloped her completely. And somehow, after all these years she could sense it, mould it, feel it as a living thing. She knew what it was, she’d read about the ‘aether’ in books, but there was scant information about it. Now she felt that the time had come to make use of it for her magic.
She concentrated hard, letting the force of it surge through her. Carefully, she expelled the mana from her body, leaving a space that was quickly filled. Behind her the fire was crackling fiercely; the books trembled on their shelves; the furniture in the room was gradually slipping away, millimetre by millimetre. It wasn’t that this was a more powerful force, it wasn’t even so very different from mana, it was simply another resource that she could call on, albeit one that she wasn’t used to. She took a deep breath, gritted her teeth and focused on the spells from the School of the Air. She got a great deal of satisfaction from making an untidy mess – and, when she was really furious, wrecking everything in the room – so that it reorganised itself all on its own later on. Those were some of the advantages of living in a fleeting moment of time.
A small tornado was starting to form around her. With her eyes closed, she listened to familiar sounds, the furniture dragging itself across the floor, the creaking of the wood. It was time to see whether the aether, that magic force from the other side, was as powerful as the mana.
Then she heard it. The noise wasn’t particularly loud, but, as this was the first time she’d heard it in years, it rang out like a gunshot in her mind. It was coming from outside the cabin, as if there was someone creeping through the undergrowth. She opened her eyes, jumped up and pressed herself against the window as the spell wavered and roared. As the furniture fell and splintered, she looked for the source of the sound, her gaze intense. She was not alone. Never, not once during all the time she’d been trapped in the Interstices, had it occurred to her that she might not be alone. She felt a wave of icy terror in the pit of her stomach.
The sky began to darken. Ayla covered her mouth with her hands. No, now wasn’t the right time, damn it! But a new call had gone out.
The full moon shone down on the ruins of Auldor, the sprawling capital of the ancient kingdom of Edannan. Now abandoned, this rich and powerful city was just a few dozen square miles of wasteland, littered with the small castles and palaces of the Elf Lords, the mansions and manors that had belonged to the nobles, and, as in every city worth the name, a mass of commercial and poorer neighbourhoods.
Aura Berkerville had been waiting for several hours, shrouded by the darkness, observing every tiny detail. There had once been hedges down the centre of the wide cobbled streets that stretched out before her. Now the vegetation had broken out of its stony prison and was running wild, leaving no doubt at all that time was always on its side. The city was a silent ghost, but that didn’t make it any less dangerous. That was exactly why they’d hired her.
Following her instincts, the assassin checked the shadows yet again: no enemy was in sight, nor was she expecting one. But the architecture of the city offered precious little cover, and that was lethal for her mission. Those bloody elves, always so full of themselves, had a penchant for wide streets and arches in all the houses, but no pillars or fences or walls. Aura sighed. She was a half-elf herself, and she had those typical silver eyes. She couldn’t make up her mind on which of the two races she hated the most: the stupid, dirty humans, or the unbearably supercilious elves. At least the latter were extinct, apart from a few wild ones left in the woods, somewhere Aura knew she would never go. She preferred the comforts of city life a thousand time over, being able to sleep in a big bed in a mansion – even though it might involve stabbing the owner first.
But none of that mattered now, she had to move. She pulled on her gloves and adjusted her deep purple hood. Slipping out into the street, she advanced in silence, as if she were just another shadow. She walked on stealthily for a while, stopping in the darkest pools of shadow from time to time, alert to the slightest sound or movement, before coming to a junction in the shape of a T at the end of the avenue. Spotting some overgrown acacia bushes, she used them as camouflage. For a few minutes she was on alert, listening intently. Hearing nothing, she set off along the branch of the road that headed north.
It hadn’t been easy being half elf in a city as fanatical as Quibar. But Aura had the physique, the skills and the brains to make her way in a dangerous world on the fringe of the law. And my, she had made it. She’d accepted any and every kind of mission, and had completed all of them with flying colours. Morality was for those who had wealth that put food on their table every day, and who didn’t have to worry about being gutted with a knife somewhere in a back alley in the Holy City. For those who lived in the brutal world of the underclass, it wasn’t that simple, and Aura had learned that the hard way. The scar running across her neck bore witness to that.
So, little by little she’d made a name for herself in that sordid underworld. They called her ‘Silent Death’, although she was well aware that they had other far worse nicknames for her too. Her fame had grown steadily, as had her price. That said, she’d been surprised when she’d negotiated payment for this mission – the amount they’d offered her bordered on the obscene, and they were even paying for a journey to the other side of the Great Continent with a small troop of soldiers. In Aura’s line of business, everything smelled bad, but this mission positively stank. Why had she accepted? Because she trusted her intuition. And she had the feeling that they’d underestimated her as well, which was an added incentive. Either she’d get the job done, or she’d flee to Tyrennor and spend some time there; she’d been paid half of her fee up front after all. Taldrim could be a good place to disappear in for a while.
Suddenly she saw an unexpected light in the distance. The road came to an end in a park with a small pond in the centre, flanked by stone ruins. The style of the buildings suggested that she was no longer in the wealthy district, but in some kind of residential neighbourhood where traders had once lived. Aura carefully moved closer, under the cover of the ruins. Coming to a fallen pillar, she hid behind it and listened. She realised that further on she’d run into a group of mercenaries. Judging from the number of voices, there had to be at least four of them. She peered out cautiously, and confirmed what she’d already suspected: there were four men standing around a fire and talking. Aura studied the scene and saw that there were two more lying on the ground who looked as if they were asleep.
For a while she watched the shadows, making an effort not to focus on the flames to avoid losing her night vision. Eventually she spotted two sentries on the edges of the camp. They’d divided the perimeter up into equal parts, which meant that the third sentry would be somewhere near to where she was now. The half-elf focused her attention on the area closest to her, and then she saw them, just ten metres away, standing on a half-ruined wall.
They were no amateurs. Two were resting, three were on guard, and the rest were eating and drinking, but they were still armed. Nine in all. That was a fair-sized force for a mission in a fallen city.
There was nothing of value left in Auldor. It had been thoroughly looted, no stone had been left unturned. The two powers that had brought doom to the city, the Tirkahans from the west, and the Corrupts from the north had brought death in their wake, but hadn’t taken anything of value. That had been left to the few surviving peasant elves in the vicinity who felt that they were taking their revenge, seeking retribution by stealing, mostly food, focusing on the huge warehouses packed with foodstuffs and the extensive larders in the mansion houses that were filled with all sorts of delicacies. Later, the professional thieves had made off with the gold and jewels, together with anything else they could find that might have some value and that wasn’t screwed down. A hundred years after its fall, Auldor had little left to offer. But even these days it wasn’t unusual to see groups of bandits descending on the city, prepared to move heaven and earth in search of some hidden treasure.
And even though many of them never returned, further fuelling the capital’s grim reputation, the flow of those seeking their fortunes went on.
But this wasn’t her war. She decided to just walk away. Attracting attention in the city with so much light and noise might not seem particularly smart, but then it shouldn’t really be a problem either. All she needed to do was to wait for the guard to look the other way, and then… well, that was odd, the last time she’d looked the guard’s head had still been on his shoulders, but now he’d just been decapitated and was slumping backwards.
Aura scanned the camp again. All the mercenaries were dead. Covered in their own blood.
Then she saw them, by the light of the fire. A handful of small monsters. Half the height of a man, with pointed heads, sharp noses and long ears. They were dressed all in black, and they were hissing to each other. But her eyes were drawn to the katars they were holding in their small hands, katars that were dripping with the mercenaries’ blood, and that gleamed treacherously in the firelight. The assassin knew she had to get away from there, right now.
A pebble fell on her shoulder. Aura looked up and saw one of these creatures on the parapet, watching her with cold, black eyes. It opened its mouth to reveal a set of sharp little teeth, about to shout out to its companions. But Aura’s knife flew through the air, piercing its skull. The beast fell back, a death rattle in its throat.
She shot forward , reached into one of the pockets of her belt , and pulled out a small potion. After giving it a good shake, she tossed it behind her and the glass shattered, releasing a greasy purple smoke. Straining every muscle in her body she ran down the empty street as fast as she could.
Just a few moments later there was a whistling noise at her back, and for a split second the city lit up as if it were full daylight. Aura was glad that she’d brought her whole arsenal with her. The pure light trap had activated, and now the enemy would be stunned. All she needed now was to increase the distance between herself and them, and to escape.
Arriving at a crossroads she veered left, swift as an arrow. She leapt over some carts that formed a rough barricade, and used the last of her energy to slip into an empty shop doorway, jumped over the counter, and fell on the other side. She lay still, trying to control her breathing and straining to hear anything above the pounding of her own heart.
Her night vision was exceptional, and she scanned her surroundings. Judging from the smell that still lingered on the air and the half-empty shelves, she was in an herbalist’s shop. She spotted a door at the end of the counter, closed. Moving closer, she reached out, touching it hesitantly with her fingers. To her surprise, the wood was a lot more fragile than it looked. Even in this sea of opulence there had been the truly super rich, and people had fought to hold onto their status. Aura smiled sadly. That was something she’d seen plenty of. And this door, once exquisitely carved and painted, was now simply a crude slab of poor-quality wood. But there was no more time to waste on reflection. She pulled out a small leather object, opened it to reveal a single thin metal blade, and then used it to work on the lock for a few seconds. There was a satisfying click, and when she tried the handle it turned easily.
Aura found herself faced with an even denser darkness. An intense aroma of spices locked away for a hundred years and left to rot assaulted her senses: it stank. Aura swore under her breath, and went quickly back to the first room, shutting the door behind her. The powerful stench had numbed her sense of smell. And worse still, it had got onto her clothes, her hair and her skin. Now it would be much more difficult for her to slip into anywhere unnoticed. She started taking off her cape and hood, not making a sound. It was better to be more exposed than to leave a scent trail behind her, and she didn’t want it to cling to her skin even more. And then she heard a crunch. Something or someone had just stepped on some glass. Inside the herbalist’s shop.
She took another vial from her pocket, and flung it over the counter without looking. Heard it hit the floor and shatter. She unsheathed her daggers, made from a black metal that reflected not a glimmer of light. A sweet penetrating smell came to her immediately, and her eyes started to water. But she knew that she could stand it, she’d been taking small doses of the antidote over the last few days. She counted to ten, and leapt over the counter.
Three of the creatures she’d seen earlier were writhing on the floor, desperately trying to breathe. Aura slit their throats with cool efficiency and hid, looking out onto the street. It was now clear that what she was being paid for this mission wasn’t nearly enough, considering the dangers involved. The assassin regretted having been so ambitious. It had seemed like such a well-paid job that she’d wanted it to be true. She’d even dreamed of living like a king for a while. But now she’d settle for simply getting out alive.
There were nearly twenty of those quick little monsters in the centre of the square, swarming like cockroaches in front of something that was emitting a powerful greenish light. To her horror there was a handful of some other sort of beasts as well; these had long muscular arms and carried axes.
There was no time now to think about these abominations. It was obvious that she couldn’t take on this small army, so she focused her energies on getting away. And when it came to escaping, nobody could hold a candle to Aura. Under the cover of darkness, she rummaged around in her pockets, grabbed two potions and mixed them together. They hissed, adding another note to the smells of the herbalist’s shop. With extreme caution, she stepped out into the street, blending into the shadows. She threw the vial towards the crowd as she ran off in the other direction.
The explosion of fire and light was behind her. Aura had already covered a hundred metres or so, and kept on accelerating until she was gasping for breath. She slowed down to a jog and headed for her camp outside the city, stopping occasionally to look back to see if she was being followed.
Dawn was breaking by the time she got there. Her guards on the journey from Damardas greeted her as she drew near.
“Everything alright, Lady Bekerville?” asked Rickert, the leader. He was a tall, gruff man with a lopsided smile.
“No, Rickert. Everything’s all wrong. This stinking city is infested with creatures straight out of a nightmare,” said Aura, pointing back over her shoulder towards the ruins with her thumb.
“So, what happens with the mission then?” asked the mercenary innocently. Aura picked up on the implicit threat.
“Oh, nothing, Rickert. I’ve come to get my strength back, and I’ll try again tonight. I made a mistake – I had to hide in a herbalist’s, and I couldn’t get rid of the smell. I need to get some sleep, it’s been a long night,” said Aura easily, taking off her cloak and throwing it on the fire. The flames caught in no time.
Before the astonished eyes of the other guards, she took off her vial carrier and the belts where she kept her arsenal of alchemical products, placing them delicately on the ground. Then she undid the clasps on her leather bodice and took it off with a sigh, letting it fall. And finally she pulled the tight-fitting doublet off over her head, revealing generous breasts, covered only by a small but sturdy bra.
“Everything stinks of that damned shop,” said Aura, smiling her most beguiling smile. The man returned the smile with his eyes glued to the assassin’s breasts, just before Aura cut his throat.
She’d located them all: there had been four of them, and now three were left. Aura threw two knives at the man furthest away, one hit him in the head, and the other in the chest. She jumped towards the one nearest to her, drawing her other dagger, and stabbed him several times in the torso, giving him no chance to defend himself.
The final guard had his sword in his hand, but he’d understood the situation. He’d just seen Aura in action, and was familiar with the legend of the half-elf. Hurling his sword away from him, he went down on his knees, clasping his hands together in supplication.
“My lady, I beg of you, please spare my life! I surrender! We were only obeying orders!” he pleaded.
Aura was a whisker away from killing the boy. Something sounded very wrong.
“What orders did you have to obey?”
“We were told to poison you when you came back from the raid on Auldor once you’d given us the gem.”
Aura sighed. There went her last chance of getting paid for the job. The question was, why kill her? Were the four mercenaries who’d acted as bodyguards any more trustworthy? Someone had made a big mistake in trying to use her like this. As soon as she got back to Quibar, she’d follow her contract until she found the person who’d contracted her, and pay them a very unpleasant visit.
A black bolt slammed into the mercenary kneeling before her, the force of it throwing him backwards. Aura turned and was surprised to see a man dressed in a white tunic flanked by four warriors encased in full war armour and carrying heavy crossbows. How could they have got so close to her without making any noise? They took aim.
“The gem, please,” said the man in the tunic.
“Ah, yes,” said Aura patting herself down. But her vials weren’t there. She felt a stab of desperation. Her daggers were useless against these mountains of metal. But even so, she wasn’t completely unarmed.
“My Lord, I think we can come to an agreement,” she said, moving her shoulders to squeeze her breasts together. “There are many ways that I can help you to get it…”
“Don’t worry,” answered the hooded man. “We’ll look for it amongst your things.”
And the four crossbows all fired at the same time. At point blank range.
Ayla didn’t take her eyes off the hooded figure until the dawn of Auldor faded, giving way to the eternal afternoon of her log cabin. Her hands moved swiftly, capturing the assassin in a soul gem, which started to glow, purple.
But her thoughts were elsewhere. This was the second time she’d come across a hooded figure, and this time she’d studied it carefully. She’d felt a huge quantity of aether flowing from this enemy, and that could only mean one thing: the pieces were sliding into place.
The Eleven Exiles were on the move. And, as for herself, she still had a lot of work to do…