- Red, toxic fog swirled around the towering black mountain that housed the city of Mhaldor, seeping into every crack and crevice and lending a crimson tint to the air. Slaves cried out in pain as they felt the unforgiving crack of the whip upon their backs, punishment for working too slowly. Nightmarish Baalzadeens trailed behind black-robed apostates, armour-clad Maldaathi knights lunged and jabbed at each other with flashing swords, and solemn monks of the Ebon Fist sat cross-legged in deep meditation.
- All in all, it seemed like a day of rest for the city of Evil.
- That is, until a familiar voice rang out over the shared mindlink of the Naga, Mhaldor's most secretive House.
- "So, kids, who's up for a trip to visit our dear friends in Hashan?"
- The question received responses of varying amusement, though all in the affirmative. A low chuckle resounded, and then, "Good. You have five minutes. Meet me at the gates."
- Five minutes passed, and not a soul was to be seen upon the thick wooden drawbridge that spanned the moat surrounding the mountain, the only entry point into the city by foot. Suddenly, a flash of movement; a lithe figure, shrouded in a swirling black cloak, strode quickly down the twisting mountain path towards the drawbridge.
- When it reached the portcullis, it stopped and reached up to pull the hood down from its head, revealing it to be a male Mhun with shoulder-length brown hair and pale skin, a quiver slung across his shoulders. The Mhun looked about himself, his half-closed blue eyes giving him an almost drowsy appearance; masking the cold intelligence that gleamed within what was visible of their icy depths.
- "Those of you who are here, follow me," he said, his rough voice resonating in the still air. To a casual observer, nothing seemed to change after his words; but the Mhun knew what he was looking for as he turned his head a fraction, glancing behind him.
- Four ghostly figures had materialised behind him, his keen eyesight allowing him to discern vaguely humanoid shapes through the odd glow, but little else besides. He nodded imperceptibly in satisfaction, and turned back to face the drawbridge, waving a hand in front of him as he did so.
- A net of ghostly light formed in mid-air, enveloping itself around him until he, too, was nothing more than a pale, faded figure of unknown identity. He drew his hood up and glanced down at himself, doing a last minute check on his equipment. Turning his head a little to the side, he said, "Stay with me. We move now." With that, he strode out of the city, trusting his group of Naga to follow behind him.
- Past the drawbridge lay only desolate fields of weathered rock and ravenous, thrashing lycopod plants, yet the Mhun threaded his way through the bleak landscape with sinuous ease, each step light and purposeful as he leapt over stones and dodged the flailing lycopod vines.
- After a few minutes of walking, the Mhun stopped and closed his eyes briefly. A brief pause; then his blue eyes flew open, he pivoted neatly on one foot, and broke into a short run that culminated in him hurtling himself forwards at an invisible point in the air. Just when it looked as if he would fall face-first on the ground, a swirling vortex of colours erupted from thin air, swallowing the Mhun and his companions whole before it faded from existence.
- In the sleepy seaside village of Tasur'ke, all the way on the northeastern coast of Sapience, business was going on as usual in the crowded central marketplace. Here a housewife haggled with a fishmonger over the price of fresh salmon (outrageous, simply disgusting, she said!); there a farmer hawked his juicy oranges and lemons, piles upon piles of the vibrant fruits almost seeming to glow in the radiant sunshine.
- Amidst the hustle and bustle, no one noticed a swirling vortex of colours burst into existence in a secluded side alley, spitting out a group of ghostly figures upon the sand-coloured cobblestones. Each landed lightly on the balls of their feet, like cats, careful to make as little sound as possible; their arrival so quiet a nearby tomcat did not even look up from the old fishbone it was busy chewing on.
- The rough rasp of the Mhun's voice was low and quiet, almost blending in with the chaotic din of the marketplace. "Split up and enter phase, then meet me back here and follow me. Make sure that you are all cloaked, ghosted and otherwise hidden from view," he instructed. Without waiting to see if his companions had complied, he took a deep breath and began vibrating his body at an ever-increasing speed.
- When it seemed that the Mhun was nothing more than a ghostly blur of movement, a short burst of azure light filled the alley, startling the tomcat from its preoccupation. This was followed by several more flashes in quick succession, and the tomcat yowled in fright as it abandoned the bone and bounded off towards the marketplace, deciding to take its chances with more mundane dangers.
- Now shielded from most forms of detection, the Mhun's tense stance relaxed slightly as he gazed about himself, counting the ghostly figures that surrounded him. He frowned.
- "One of you is missing."
- The shrouded Naga shifted restlessly, heads swivelling to search for the missing person. Suddenly, yet another figure materialised, bowing its head in apology. "Apologies, Naga Levan, it took longer to find a secure spot to enter phase from," it said, the voice decidedly masculine with a slightly cultured lilt.
- Levan simply shrugged and waved a dismissive hand at the speaker, beckoning him to fall in line. "Come, Naga Tane. We don't have time to waste."
- As one, the group moved stealthily through the market, along the smoothly paved road and past the whitewashed limestone walls, sparing not a backwards glance for the gleaming white and azure buildings of Tasur'ke.
- The crunch of sand under their boots faded into the muffled thud of packed earth as they crossed into the dense forests of the Northern Ithmia, the small party of Naga following closely in Levan's footsteps as he led them quickly and silently through the seemingly impenetrable forest, retracing a path through the thick foliage from memory.
- They rounded a grove of cedar trees, the dirt floor of the forest hardening into the beginnings of a small trail that wound northwards through the thinning wood. The trail gradually started to widen and become more defined as the forest receded, until finally they pushed past some low-hanging willow and aspen branches to lay eyes upon the high walls of the city of Hashan, Crown of the Ithmia.
- The only point of entry was a pair of gleaming bronze gates that guarded the southern walls of Hashan, allowing people to pass through them and beneath the Porta Inferus, the towering black guardhouse that loomed over the gates. Bright blue and silver flags brought a touch of gaiety to the otherwise imposing facade, fluttering merrily in the slight breeze. Stern-looking guards flanked each side, checking the documents of all who sought entry to the city.
- Levan paused just before they left the dwindling shelter of the trees, his voice a low hiss as he whispered, "Now is the time to truly bring your stealth skills into practice. Evade past the guards, and meet me on the other side of the gates." As his voice trailed off, the Mhun melted into the shadows and was gone.
- One by one, each of the Naga followed suit, keeping close to the walls as they slunk carefully past the watchful eyes of the guards, every movement swift yet silent as death. By pure luck, a group of travelling jesters chose that moment to cluster at the gates, keeping the guards busy and distracted as they tried to sort out the access documents for each cartwheeling, balloon-animal-riding, high-spirited troublemaker.
- Levan was waiting impatiently within the guardhouse as the last of the Naga fell into step behind him. Turning on his heel, he crept slowly up the silver-speckled black marble road that formed the southern Parade of the Founders, following the bubbling stream of water that split the path evenly down the middle.
- The stream widened as the road stretched on, flanked with stately mahogany trees that lent the promenade a sense of refinement. Towering statues of white marble, carved in the likenesses of human women in elegant poses and the sacred bulls of Neraeos, the Ocean Lord, provided a startling contrast to the polished dark marble underfoot.
- They soon came upon a point where the black walkway forked abruptly off to the east and west, the path encircling a clear, bubbling spring that gushed out into a small lake and formed the start of the stream. A tiny peninsula jutted out into the middle, and upon it sat a simple white temple for people to pay homage to Lord Neraeos. Slumped mournfully over the water was a young willow tree, its feathery boughs trailing ripples upon the surface; underneath it stood two benches of solid oak, creating a relaxing place to sit and enjoy the relative tranquility of the atmosphere.
- Pushing back his hood, Levan's cold eyes narrowed slightly, peering straight ahead. From where he was standing, he had a clear line of sight to a great crossroads some distance north of him, surrounded by towering buildings of varying importance. He concentrated harder, and was able to make out the figure of a female Rajamala among the milling crowd, her thick white fur covered by a silken robe embroidered with a black lotus upon the breast. A smirk curled his thin lips, the familiar gleam of bloodlust stirring in his eyes.
- Reaching back, he drew a finely crafted wood grain bow from a black leather baldric slung next to his quiver, running his fingertips briefly over its smooth surface before he pulled a red-fletched arrow from his quiver, taking care not to touch the venom-laced point. His sharp hearing caught the soft whisper of identical movements next to him as the Naga drew their own bows, ranging from obsidian darkbows to rune-engraved, high-velocity bows.
- "Our first target is Mafina," he murmured to his teammates. With a slight nod of his head, they took their positions on either side of him, fanning out into a horizontal line, bows at hand.
- "Snipe her on three. Use your prefarar-tipped arrows. Are you ready?"
- Silent nods of assent.
- Arrows were nocked to bows, strings drawn taut.
- Soft intakes of breath as each archer focused their aim.
- One by one, each Naga materialised abruptly out of thin air as they let their arrows fly free, homing in towards their target with unerring accuracy. The first arrow struck the unsuspecting feline deep in the throat, releasing a gush of crimson blood; she barely had time to clutch at the shaft before a second red-feathered missile buried itself in her shoulder, the third in her stomach and the fourth in her calf - but the arrow that finally felled her was the fifth and last, struck dead centre in her forehead.
- The group of black-cloaked archers lowered their bows, near-identical smirks barely visible beneath their hoods as they watched her crumple to the ground, the last of her lifeblood trickling away into the cobblestones and staining them a deep red. They did not have long to savour the scene, however; already concerned onlookers were converging on the area, some of the more alert among them pointing back to where the arrows had originated from.
- Quickly, Levan slid his bow back in his baldric and gestured towards the gates. "Go. Get out of here. Meet me at the pool near the gates in the forest."
- Without wasting time, the well-trained Naga split into two groups; two disappeared quietly into the west alley off the parade, while another two snuck down the path leading to the opulent home of Damaris, the Learned. Seeing a few suspicious Hashani start towards the spring, Levan too drew up his hood and began to focus on vibrating his body as quickly as possible, preparing to enter phase.
- A flash of azure light, a spot of quick footwork, and by the time the first Hashani burst onto the scene, Levan was already halfway through through the towering bronze gates. The Mhun slipped neatly past the frantically searching guards, keeping well away from their clumsily brandished swords as they tried to find the invisible intruders.
- It was not long before he melted into the protective embrace of the dark Ithmian forests, the wavering shadows and thick foliage providing many opportunities to conceal a Serpent. Picking his way carefully through the undergrowth, he soon came upon a small clearing, in the middle of which was a deep, quiet pool. Various types of trees grew closely together over the pool, shielding it from view and making it almost impossible to see if one did not know where to look.
- Levan pushed his wiry form through the thick brush, taking care not to snag his cloak on any stray branches. Already four figures were waiting for him, grouped around the edges of the water; no longer shimmering with ghostly light, but all clad in the identical black hooded cloak that he wore. They looked up as he entered and moved towards him, stopping just as he reached them.
- He nodded in approval. "Good. You're all here. Who was it that sank the killing arrow in that failure of a Black Lotus monk?" he inquired.
- One of the hooded figures drew back its hood, revealing it to be a young female Mhun with serious silver-grey eyes and night-black hair drawn up into a tight ponytail. "I did, Naga Levan," she said, her voice low and silken.
- He flashed a quick grin at her, revealing two gleaming fangs. "Well struck, Naga Jariel." The young Mhun inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement, faint pride gleaming within her grey eyes.
- "Indeed, well done, Naga," said another of the hooded figures, two dark paws emerging from beneath the cloak to pull its hood down and exposing the visage of a black Rajamalan female with deep blue eyes. She turned to him. "Thank you as well, Naga Levan, for leading yet another successful assassination attempt."
- He bowed respectfully to the Rajamala, one hand swept gallantly behind him. "It was my pleasure, Nagarani, and what a pleasure it was."
- Sharing a quick grin with the feline as he straightened, he hastily composed himself and made a beckoning gesture to the group. "Come. We have lingered long enough - our work here is done. Let us return to Mhaldor, and may they live ever in fear and paranoia until our next...'visit'."
- Silently, they gathered behind him, drawing up their hoods, bows neatly tucked behind their shoulders for safekeeping. First Levan disappeared into the forest, swallowed up by the enveloping darkness; then one by one, each of the Naga vanished until there was nothing left but the eerie silence of the forest, no physical imprint left behind to suggest that anyone had ever disturbed the tranquility of the woods - least of all a group of Sapience's most dangerous assassins.
StoriesbyJurixe Apr 4th, 2013 48 Never
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