At first glance, I was not quite sure if I was hallucinating. Some of the men partook in Ulyrian Truffle, but I did not find reality overbearing to the point where I wanted to fill my vision with wild colours and ghosts. I blinked twice and the spectre-like figure was still there, completely clad in black.
Perhaps the tales about the Shades were true, because everything about the killer seemed to match the description of the myth accurately. It stood tall, completely eclipsing me with its shadow. It did not have a face, as it was hiding behind a white mask which only betrayed its eyes and mouth. Its eyes were not human, much less even mortal, effervescing a bright yellow. Nevertheless, the figure maintained the form and essence of a human female for reasons that still seem to escape me.
She did not even bother to wipe the blood off the blade, instead pointing it at me, gently running its cold tip up my neck before lifting me up by my chin. Naturally, I shrivelled and flattened up against a wall, blood crawling away from my face as I made a futile effort to avoid having my throat slit. It took every last fibre of my strength to keep myself from needing new shorts.
I closed my eyes and awaited the inevitable. All those years in the service of the army, fighting for the glory and honour of Arcadia, bringing empires down to their knees, gone at a simple stroke. Dying in some dark corner in a room full of crazy artefacts was not the glorious death I was looking for!
I closed my eyes, hoping that my end would be swift and painless. If I was to go to the afterlife, I hope I would do so with dignity.
But no, it seemed the Great Divine was not done with me yet. I was knocked over by a sudden rumbling in the ground. I opened my eyes to the entire place coming down. Columns, beams, and all those other wacky things holding place together came tumbling down.
The killer was nowhere to be found, but that was not important at all. I ran as fast I could towards the crevice I snuck through. But I was getting nervous, and when I get nervous, I forget important things very fast. Beds, tables, bookshelves, and other pieces of furniture above us were beginning to fill the room along with the increasingly larger boulders that used to form the walls of the fortress. Perhaps this godforsaken hole full of crazy voodoo objects would be like my resting place after all.
Boulders were beginning to fill the room, and my options were growing scarce. Of course, suffocating to death under the weight of an entire fortress and die completely forgotten by the world was still a feasible option, however unpalatable it might have been.
But there was yet another way out, hiding underneath my nose.
Where did the killer go? Surely she would have already escaped, or suffered the same fate that I myself was about to face. But at the far end of the room, through all the gaps the rocks and remnants of the building seemed to leave behind was a strange-looking portal that look like a pool of blood.
Of course, walking into a pool of blood in the shape of a mirror was not exactly a preferable option too, but I resolved that I had more things to do before I was to meet my demise.
Without giving it a second thought, I dashed towards the portal, jumping past the boulders, squeezing myself through crevices as quickly as I could if I needed to, and rolling under anything that nature seemed to hurl at me.
At last, I stood face to face with the abomination, but then the forces of logic and reasoning began to catch up with me. What on earth was waiting for me past the portal? Perhaps this was some kind of practical joke gone too far? But it seemed that curiosity and intuition prevailed, along with a desire to survive, prevailed over rationality as my feet moved by themselves towards the portal.
I felt like a whale was swallowing me whole as I passed through the portal, along with feeling that I was drowning in furious waterfall as strange, dark energies swirled around me as I was being hurled towards whatever destination lay ahead. A strong current of wind was constantly blowing at my face, taking away my ability to breathe.
But it was not long before I was thrown back into the mortal world. I tumbled into a small stream before being thrown over an actual waterfall into another stream. It took a few more minutes before I washed up on a cove.
I was welcomed yet again with a piece of steel pricking against my neck, a very familiar feeling.
‘My Master wishes to know why you are following her.’
The voice was monotonous and droning, as if spoken by someone who has taken leave of all emotion and feeling. Whatever it was, it could not have belonged to the killer. I could not open my eyes just yet, nor would I wipe the water off my eyes since I was being held at sword point yet again. Why the killer did not just do away with me and be done with it, I do not know, but I guess I was about to find out.
‘No… escape,’ I coughed out as I gasped for breath. ‘Fortress… destroyed. Nowhere to run.’
‘That reason does not suffice for my master.’ The tip of the blade pushed deeper into my throat without piercing the flesh. ‘Tell her why she should not kill you where you stand.’
My eyes finally opened, and though blurry, I saw another man standing over me, clad in similar garb as the killer, but not as concealing. He was much shorter, having the stature of a small child, but nevertheless maintained a voice that did not quite fit his height.
‘Who are you?’ The words slipped from my mouth.
‘My master asks you a question and you ignore it?’ The only thing moving was his lips. He did not raise his hands to accentuate his point with gestures, nor did it look like he was breathing. What kind of otherworldly dimension did I step into?
‘I’m a ranger. I scout enemy defences in the name of his Majesty.’ I said, not given much thought to what I was saying.
‘I can…’ I stopped, finally listening to what I was exactly saying. ‘I can…’ It was as if I was choking every time I tried to speak. It was either submit to the mercy of this thing or die. I have been in few tight places before. Hell, I almost forced myself to chop my foot off when it got caught in between a boulder and the floor while escaping from the Royal Palatian Baths, and please do not ask who I ended up in said Baths in the first place.
‘I can scout for you. Whatever you need, whatever buildings you need to sneak into, whatever information about people you want dead, I can bring you. Just please, let me live.’
It all came out forcefully. None of it sounded like something I would say just a few hours ago, when I was simply doing the bidding of my legion. Now, I was pledging servitude to this murderer I just barely became acquainted with, and there was no telling what horrors would lie ahead of me if I was to be spared.
The blade was lifted, and I could finally move, standing up to face the killer.
‘My Master has found some use for you and has decided to spare you, but you must prove yourself.’
I breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
‘Who are you?’
‘Who I am is of no relevance. I am but a servant to my Master. Now, your task.’
The killer reached into her satchel and pulled out a scroll. The scroll was a schematic of a building of some sort, which seemed to be some sort of government building. I could not recognise it, since I tend to recognise buildings from how they look from the inside, not by some random drawing of all sorts of lines and diagrams.
‘The Rutulian Governor’s villa, have you been there?’
Only when the servant mentioned the name of the complex did I recognise the diagram.
‘Yes, I have passed by the area a few times with my unit. What do you wish of me?’
The killer reached into her satchel yet again and placed in my hands a few stone-like objects with strange runes encrusted onto each of them.
‘You are to take these and place them in the office of the Governor. My master shall accompany you every step of the way.’
I was to act against the wishes of the King for the sake of survival. But faced with the alternative of death, what else could I have done? I was also confused. I could do the whole thing on my own; I have never scouted with others, but I guess they were afraid of me escaping and alert my unit of their presence, which I was planning on doing anyway, of course. But I was simply to do my duty and remain alive so I could live to tell the tale.
It was what I have been trained to do anyway, since I have spent most of my years in the army far from the safety of my legion, deep behind enemy lines. Dying in the service of His Majesty? Bull! Mindlessly throwing your life away for some selfish, prideful idea of honour is foolish and cowardly, but struggling to live so that you can continue to serve His Majesty is more glorious.
The killer gestured me over, prompting me to follow, but there were burning questions that I had yet to ask.
‘That Magister? Why did you kill him? And what happened to the fortress?’
‘Silence! You, a lowly piece of rotten filth, are not in position to question my Master!’ The servant’s eyes started glowing, his face wrought with anger.
The killer turned around and raised her hand, a symbol glowing in her palm. The glow in the servant’s eyes dimmed, and his anger subsided, returning to normal.
‘Very well. You survived this far, anyhow, and my Master deems you worthy.’ The servant was still struggling however, taking several deep breaths to lower himself down towards a calmer tone.
‘My Master deemed the Magister Hori Ishimura unworthy. He was dealing with powers far beyond his understanding and tried to bring forth demonic forces unto this world.’
‘The artefacts are demonic?’ I was no archaeologist, and I had really no taste for history, so I really did not give a care in the world about the ancient artefacts that lay beneath the fortress, other than the fact that they were wacky, alien, and the stuff of mythical drivel.
‘The fortress was filled with powerful things that the Magister wanted to abuse. It was pretty likely that many men would wish to abuse these powerful items as well, so its destruction was necessary.’
I had a very hard time believing that the killer was doing humanity a favour by killing the Magister. Sure, he was an arrogant bastard and treated his peers poorly, but that surely did not warrant his death. Not to mention, what of the legion itself? Taking all those lives just to safeguard a dangerous secret, one that could be mastered and cared for by those toffs at the Order? Surely not all mages are as awful as that late Harukan.
But who was I to peer into the secrets of Elysium? At any rate, the killer gestured me over with her hand, and we stepped out of the dark, damp cove into the outside world.
What surprised me about the killer was how knowledgeable and well-prepared she was. It turn out, the cove was just outside the very villa in the map. We simply had but to cross the road into the complex. Of course, there were a few guards, but they would prove no match for the First Ranger of the Fifth Legion and this mysterious assassin who bypassed an entire army to dispatch a Magister.
So we went. I had barely any time to beg Arcos for forgiveness for the terrible things I was about to commit.