I fly through the air with the grace of the royal blood that pumps in my veins. The Golden City of Turrack is a hodgepodge of shadowy shapes during the night, but I’ve patrolled this town long enough to avoid slamming into them. I may only have sixteen years of life under my belt, but I have four years of experience as Tina the Terrible, the most feared assassin in the land, to fuel my confidence. I leap from rooftop to rooftop like a cat, my disguise making me nothing more than a shadow of a shadow.
The lack of a moon doesn’t aid the visibility through the black veil sewn into my hood. I dash across a flat top building, knowing that there is a metal fire escape along the next building. I jump off the roof, summersaulting in the air as I prepare to land upon my boots. I’ve performed this jump several times before, but the darkness throws my calculations off. I miss the section of the metal platform I was aiming for, and my stomach does flips of its own as I fall.
I suppose I’m fortunate that there are multiple levels for the fire escape, but it doesn’t feel that way when I slam upon the lower shelf. My head bangs as I bounce off metal, the clangs of my error thundering through the silent alley. I roll until I crash into the metal bars, stunned by the force of my momentum. Although it was fortunate that the bars prevented me from falling into the streets, my brain is too busy spinning in my skull for me to show any gratitude for the designer.
“Get out of here!”
The gruff voice snaps me back into attention. I crouch as I press my body into the brick apartment building. A man sticks his head outside a window, the pathetic flicker of his candle barely illuminating the knife in his other hand.
“Get back inside,” a woman calls from inside the apartment.
“It could be him,” the man yells back.
“It’s probably just a cat,” the woman groans.
“I’m sick of being afraid to sleep at night. If no one will do anything about this foul bloke, then I will.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed, you idiot,” the woman shouts.
The man puts down his candle and knife as he wiggles his way out of the window. I’m curious to find out what he was talking about, but not foolish enough to linger—if he discovers that the kingdom’s most wanted assassin was the one who disturbed his sleep, he might still be inclined to use that blade against me. He wouldn’t stand a chance against my own hidden knives, but such a battle would not be worth my efforts. I’m not even certain I could hold my own with the throbbing that’s overtaken my body.
I jump over the railing. My muscles scream with agony, still not fully recovered from my crash. I bite my lower lip to suppress a grunt and hope that the sound of my boots finding the shelf below was not heard by the man above. I do my best to stay light on my feet, but pounding reverberates through my ears, and I’m not certain if it’s my head beating me for my foolishness or the man above stomping around in search of his mysterious foe.
The man doesn’t pursue me as I hoof it down the metal stairs. The thumping noises in my head dissipate as I make my way to the streets below. My footfalls seem to echo like a rock being dropped in a cave, but perhaps the noise is only emphasized by the silence of the night. It’s far too quiet for this area. Although my outfit covers every inch of my skin, I can imagine the bumps forming as the hairs on my body stand to attention like soldiers.
The fire escape ends several feet above the cobblestone street. I’m not willing to risk the noise of unlatching the last part of the metal ladder. I scour the area below, glad that there are enough street lamps lit for me to take in a clear visual. No one is patrolling the streets, nor are there any ladies of the night or vagrants slinking about—odd that the usual miscreants of this part of town are not performing their nightly business.
I drop to the ground with a soft thud and skitter into the shadows. I may be risking much by taking to the streets, but the skies have proven to be unsafe for patrolling.
I slip into the doorway of a butcher shop, the outlines of skinned rabbits hanging upside down glistening from the window. I cling into the dark crevices as I strain my ears for any sounds of a typical late night—cries of passion from a streetwalker, screams of men in a robbery, the slamming of fists as drunkards battle for pride—but I all I hear is the sharp intake of breath. I realize it’s my own, and I relax my shoulders to soften my own nasal noise.
The brisk spring air refreshes my senses. In a split moment I catch the creaking of a door. A solid click of its closing follows, and I dash before I can lose track of its location. I jog around a corner and the bright light of the pub across the street makes my eyes water. My sight adjusts, and I rush through the spotty darkness as I make my way toward the door.
It was a solid steel door, rusted from neglect of its owner. The image of a flea chomping upon the flesh of a rat carved upon it informs me that I’ve made my way to the Biting Flea. The creaks seemed like screams as I open the door, and I grimace underneath my mask. It’s heavier than it looks, and as I struggle I wonder where the doorman who usually opens this monstrosity is located tonight.
No one offers a hand, but I’m not expecting any such courtesy. I manage to get it open after a few hard tugs and slip inside. A fire crackles from the hearth on the other side, making the place warmer than it needs to be. Red bricks add to the bloodsucking motif, the steel furnishings as rustic as the door. The few patrons littering the place whisper to each other, if they bother to have conversation at all. I’m not certain if they have been so quiet throughout out the night, or merely hushed their tone because of my presence.
I stroll to the booth in the back, glad that there isn’t anyone who I’d have to threaten to move. The grey metal bench freezes my skin through my outfit, adding to the chill that already grips my soul. The owner at the bar can’t see my glare through my mask, but he knows better than to dawdle. He doesn’t bother to take off his apron as he rushes a pint my way.
“The usual mead, my dear?” Eugene says as he forces a smile, a chipped mug trembling in his hands.
I snatch the drink without looking directly at him.
“Thank you kindly,” the man says.
He usually skitters away, but the gaze of his mildew-colored eyes lingers on me for a moment. My fingers find their way to the hilt of one of my belted knives—some people have tried to rip off my mask before. I’m not sure if that’s what he’s thinking of doing, but I prepare my muscles just in case.
“I don’t mean any offense,” Eugene says, his tone lacking the confidence to proceed with his thoughts, “but are you old enough to be drinking?”
“Like it matters,” I snarl, flipping a gold coin into the air with my free hand.
I’m not fully dexterous with my gloved fingers and the payment veers to his left, but he catches it before it flies past his head.
“Always a pleasure to serve you,” he replies, the glittering gold in his hand erasing his fears.
Funny how money changes a man’s attitude so quickly.
I nurse my mead, allowing it to flow through the mesh of my mask. The liquid sticks to the cloth like the drool of an infant, but I can’t risk exposing any part of my flesh for a moment. Anyone in here could identify my true self in an instant if they were to see my countenance. One mistake like lifting my mask for a drink could ruin years of all my efforts to keep my kingdom safe from the slime of the city’s underbelly.
Speaking of such filth, a familiar stench assaults my nostrils as I finish my sip. Glurm the Worm slides into the bench across from me without an invitation. His tattered cloak is stained with who knows what, but my nose informs me that it’s mostly body fluids. His oak-colored skin is blotched with bruises along his right arm, bare from the sleeveless yellow shirt specked with dried blood—an indication of his addiction to bamboo thorns. His hair drapes over his shoulders, the blackness streaked by rivers of grey. He stares at me with amber eyes, flashing a grin of missing teeth.
“It’s been a while since you’ve last visited this booth,” Glurm says, the pitch of his voice too high for him to be considered a man. “I was beginning to think that some evil fate had befallen upon Tina the Terrible.”
“It seems as though I wouldn’t have been the only lost patron,” I reply, my voice deepened enough to question my own gender. “This place is dead for a weekend.”
“Aye,” Glurm replies, “there is an evil stench that lingers in the air, keeping all of us miscreants hiding in our rat holes.”
“Are you sure that it is not the stench of your own armpits that gags your breath?”
Glurm wheezes out a laugh. “Your wit is as sharp as your knives.”
I roll my eyes, but the gesture is lost underneath my mask. “Do you have something to share with me, Glurm?”
“I always have something,” he replies, wiggling his thin eyebrows, “but can you afford the information?”
I release a growl, but it fails to intimidate Glurm. He holds out a hand, the boney fingers twitching for payment. I take a gold coin from the pouch on my belt—a coin with the image of my face etched into it—and drop it into his palm.
He sneers at the glimmering gold. “Eugene got a coin with the king’s face, but I only receive a princess?”
I reach over the table, glad for the gloves on my hands as I grab the slimy collar of his cloak. I drag him over, and the lightness of his frame surprises me. He feels more like a shell than a man of flesh and bones. I whip out a knife, pressing the tip against his neck. “I can pay you in steel, if that is your preference.”
“The princess has value,” Glurm chuckles, the fear in his voice taking over his fake mirthful tone. “She is worth the information I have.”
“Then spill it,” I say as I release him.
Glurm rubs his neck as he recoils to his side of the booth. “There is a shadow more terrifying than you lurking in the streets of the Golden City,” he croaks. “He is a man with skin so dark he doesn’t require an outfit of black to remain hidden, unlike some people,” he adds as he stares at me with a flippant glare. “Some say that he appears to be an average man, but he can grow to be taller than a street lamp.”
I snort at this, and Glurm shakes his head.
“Do not be so quick to dismiss such a claim,” he says. “It’s said that he is not a normal man, but a shadow of magic.”
I take a sharp hiss of air through my nostrils. “Preposterous,” I snap. “Magic was banished from our kingdom thousands of years ago. Magical beings only live in Quaal.”
“So we all believe,” Glurm snickers. “I don’t know if you are aware about the War of Nuns in the Kingdom of Quaal, but it’s said that the wizards who survived have crossed into our borders. Some believe they are plotting to take back the land that once belonged to them, and this new villain is their scout.”
Memories of my misadventures in Quaal flood my mind. I was there when the female wizards revealed themselves to the world nearly two years ago, but never found out what became of them after their leader enchanted a dragon to take me back to Turrack.
“How would anyone know what a wizard looks like if Turrack doesn’t have any?” I ask, adding to the pretense that I have never seen such a creature.
“They’re a queer folk,” sneers Glurm. “People say they have unnatural color hair, like bright orange that will melt the eyeballs out of your skull, and silver as rich as the metal. One bloke said he was visiting his cousin in the farmlands when he saw a woman with twisted hair of teal. She was chanting a spell, making dark clouds appear from the sky, and it rained when there had been a drought for a month.”
The description reminds me of the leading wizard I met in Quaal—Halotana. It seems doubtful anyone would make up such a colorful hair description, Glurm least of all.
“So wizards exist in Turrack once more?” I mutter.
“It seems like a children’s tale,” Glurm replies, “but sometimes legends come to life.”
“Not in this kingdom,” I grumble. “So what has this magical warrior done to people?”
“Care to give specifics?” I ask after a lingering pause.
“I haven’t heard of anyone surviving an encounter,” continues Glurm, “but there have been a few witnesses. They say the man grows in height, lifting his victims off the ground as he sucks them into oblivion.”
“What does that mean?”
Glurm shrugs. “A whore told me that one of her customers was sucked by the magical man. She said it was as if the creature just stared into the man’s eyes and his entire body became a wisp of air sucked into the villainous shadow’s mouth. There’s no blood or discarded body or any indication of a murder. What else but a wizard’s pet could do that?”
I shift upon my buttocks. “How long has this been going on?”
“About three weeks now,” Glurm replies as he scratches his armpit. “I swear upon the queen’s tits, he’s attacked this neighborhood five times in the past two nights alone.”
“Why would this pub even be open if this area has become so dangerous?”
“Some men can’t afford to close their doors,” Glurm snorts. “Business goes on, just as life. You must have been busy to miss out on all this action. Out on an assassin’s holiday?”
“I have been preoccupied with… business,” I sneer, twirling the hilt of my knife through my fingers.
“Word of your conduct with the Lady Hollyberry have reached the people’s ears,” Glurm chuckles, staring at the gold coin I gave him. “I see you are paid well for your skills, as am I… unless you require any other information of the streets?”
I shake my head—he wasn’t going to get another coin from me tonight.
Glurm nods as he slinks away from the booth.
I watch him struggle with the steel door for a cheap laugh before I return to my mead. Its warmth tickles my throat as I reflect upon Glurm’s information. The cryptic grumblings of the man from the fire escape could coincide with the story of the magical man, even if it did seem impossible.
What if the wizards had followed my father out of Quaal? He went there in secret to help Queen Renee defeat those nuns, but what if he had killed some of the magical folk in the process? I reckon that the wizards would have sent dragons upon us if they really wanted to, but I haven’t seen any of those winged beasts since the one that dropped me off at my parents’ castle. The wizards may think dragons were too obvious and created this mysterious figure for tactical reasons.
What if the wizards don’t even care about the people they kill, but rather about exposing my father’s secret quest? He broke ancient Turrack law by going into Quaal, and perhaps this is some kind of plot to expose him. Father finally got the law changed so that a royal can leave as long as an heir remains in the kingdom, but would he still face death as the full law was in force at the time of his journey? My aunt and uncle covered for him, and Mother knew of his trip as well… would they also be executed for helping him? I’m not sure if there’s a connection, and perhaps I’m jumping to radical conclusions, but it just seems too coincidental for me to dismiss it. Any threat to my family shall taste my knife—and I offer no exception for magical people.
I finish the last drop of mead, leaving the mug on the table as I leave the pub. The liquid has a surprisingly warming effect on my body, easing the pain of my muscles from my previous fall. I must have dwelled in postulation for a long while, for the candles in the street lights were halfway melted. It was probably tomorrow morning already, but I knew I wouldn’t get any sleep until I found this magical man for myself.
I stroll in the open, my boots barely creating a scuffle upon the cobble stones. Perhaps I can lure this man out of hiding if I present myself as easy bait. I grip a knife in each hand, straining my senses for any sign of an impending attack.
I lose track of my whereabouts as I wander through the streets. I glance at the street lights, noticing that the candles have melted another inch. Perhaps this man was not hunting tonight, and perhaps I would have to return tomorrow.
Then the warmth of my body drains as a chill wind blows up my back. The same gust blows out the glass of the street lamps, snuffing out every candle on the street. I nearly jump out of my own cloak, clenching my steel in anticipation. I search for any signs of life, but I can’t see anything in the darkness or hear anyone approaching. The air around me disappears, and my throat tightens. Pain tingles through my neck as I realize I can’t breathe.
That’s when I notice the pulsating yellow dot.
I never saw him coming, and he already had me in his clutches. His hands stretch so that they wrap completely around my neck, squeezing the life out of me. His torso grows as he lifts me toward his face, and my boots can’t find the ground. My toes slam into his groin area, but no amount of kicking seems to hurt him.
I stab his wrists with my knives. The thunks that resonate indicate I hit flesh, but I don’t feel the usual warmth of blood flowing onto my hands. It sounds as though sand seeps through his punctured skin like a broken hourglass.
I can’t do anything as he tightens his hold. It feels like he’s crushing my windpipe, or perhaps he’ll just snap my neck.
“Show me your eyes,” he hisses, the yellow dot glowing with intensity.
That blasted light was the only thing keeping me from losing consciousness. Glurm mentioned that the wizard’s pet sucked people in, and perhaps the light was the key. I conclude that he needs a person to look directly at it to suck them inside, and if my mask wasn’t hiding my eyes I would have already been his late night snack.
I throw one of my knives into his forehead. My dizziness makes me uncertain of my accuracy, but I must have hit that stupid yellow light. The man screams as he grabs his forehead, allowing me to crash onto the ground below. I gasp for air, stumbling as I get back onto my feet. I do my best to ignore the pain that stabs my muscles, but falling hard twice in one night has taken a toll on my body.
The villain is gone before I can breathe normally again. The street lamps don’t reignite, but the ones further down the street are like a beacon calling a ship to shore. I dash toward them, but I fail to find any indications that the man went that way. It’s like he disappeared.
Just like magic.
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