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Only an assassin can save a corrupted kingdom. Taria, an assassin with a penchant for all things alchemy, is ambushed when a contract goes wrong. In desperation she reaches for anything that will save her. Magic—real, natural magic—answers. The kind of magic that was lost for centuries, that was said to be myth. With forces arrayed against her, and time running out, she must cultivate the magic before it devours her from the inside out. If she doesn’t, all of Arralesh is doomed. WARNING: This story contains depictions of violence, gore, and/or graphic depictions of death that may be upsetting to some readers. Reader discretion is advised. Cover design by Etheric Tales
WARNING: This story contains depictions of violence, gore, and/or graphic depictions of death that may be upsetting to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.
Chapter 1: Assassin
Blow darts are a lost art form.
Even as it flies through the air with pinpoint accuracy, its beauty is evident. The tiny projectile impacts the side of the sleeper’s neck. Poison forces its way into the bloodstream through the tip of the minuscule needle. My target doesn’t even stir.
Silent. Accurate. Deadly. That’s me.
There is a moment when the target wakes up, their eyes widening as a scream freezes in their throat. The fast-acting poison—a little mix of my own with a base made of argus tree sap and a touch of belladonna—hits the bloodstream, diving straight for the heart.
My favorite method of execution.
This abusive slumlord crossed the wrong people; my order’s Prefect always charges more for my specialty services. Tate Jondry really pissed off one of the more powerful Court families. Aggravating the Jentaa family is always a guaranteed death sentence.
I walk over, my soft-soled leather boots making no sound on the wooden floors, and poke at his leg with my toe. Clean kill, barely any death throes. Squatting down, I check that the entry point of the dart is clear, leaving no evidence that this is foul play. Sometimes the fine glass casing doesn’t shatter into dust like it’s supposed to. But this kill is according to plan.
Sighing, I stand up and close my eyes for a brief second.
Something is off. I hear it, on the landing just outside this door.
People. I’ve always been able to detect people approaching no matter how well they conceal their movements. Ever since I was a child.
I move with speed and silence to the back of the room, blending into the shadows like we were taught as Novices.
Never hold your breath.
Two people stand on the landing. One of them rests a hand on the doorknob, I think, from the slight creak.
Always inhale evenly.
Did I cut it too close?
There’s a harsh whisper, something I can’t quite make out, and the doorknob is released. It’s followed only a moment later by footsteps retreating down to the lower level of the house.
Definitely a closer call than I like.
Counting to five before moving, I let myself back out the way I arrived: through the open window at the back of the master bedroom. I’ll never understand why people think it’s safe to leave any points of entrance wide open.
The body won’t be discovered until sometime during the course of the day. And by then, I’ll be long gone.
This contract is fulfilled; however, the job isn’t quite finished yet.
I still have to get out of the city.
Perrukai has never been my favorite place in Arralesh. Our Nightshade division here is tiny. Nestled in the heart of farmland, the city is famed for its bustling markets that start at five sharp every morning, regardless of the season.
I don’t like it when my potential work hours are limited. Everyone here gets up and about at four, preparing, getting things ready.
At least the busy streets make it easier to blend into the shadows when leaving. No one watches too closely when they’re busy.
The cobbled streets shine as the moonlight hits them, their surface dry and well-worn. In the center of the city, the fountain depicts a farmer and his horse tilling a field. Each city has its own unique fountain, a beautiful work of art, depicting what that city is famous for. Perrukai is home to the Poplar guild headquarters, to those who provide us with sustenance and information—the farmers and couriers.
Thatched roofs lend a softness to the way the moonlight suffuses the streets. It spills over each log cabin, adding a cozy feeling to the town, even in the darkness.
Everything here is peaceful, reminding me of my childhood. Before it was cut short.
Though the sun won’t rise for another two hours, people scurry back and forth, their cheeks flushed with the activity. They’re all oblivious to my earlier actions, to the death that visited this town but minutes ago.
As it should be.
I eye the gate and let out a soft sigh.
Yet another reason I’m not fond of this town.
Bright and early guard changes mean that right now there are four guards gathered around their main gate instead of the two who usually attend it.
I retreat into the shadows of the houses next to the wall instead. Too many eyes. I’ll need an alternative.
Not that I’m averse to climbing, but if I can sneak out using the shadows as cover with no one the wiser, it’s usually easier. Scaling a wall brings the chance of being seen, of knocking rubble loose and causing too much noise, or worse, of slipping and falling if luck is not on my side.
Several seconds later, up on the thatch roof of the one-and-a-half-story cabin, I double check the placing of the tresses. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that someone in my line of work needs to know how thatch roofs are built. Falling through them is not fun. And it draws a lot of unnecessary attention.
Three running steps, and I push off, grabbing onto the top of the wall. It’s slightly lower where the woods meet the wall, and I land easily on the other side, crouching down low to take the impact.
Now I just have to retrieve the horses and get out of here. Well, we.
I’m only marginally irritated that I have to wait for Xalin. The trees here sing to me, with their vibrantly green leaves that gently offer shade during the day and a solid hiding place at night.
This trip was a matter of convenience; two contracts in one night meant Prefect Aarron insisted on sending two of us, even if I swore up and down that I could do both.
Xalin’s target had to look like an accident, though, and they are slightly better at that than I am. Likewise, no one rivals me for natural-looking deaths, or even sending a message.
We all have our strengths.
We all have our codes.
Usually, the local chapter handles all contracts within its boundaries, but this target required my very specific skill set.
“Hey, Jax,” I whisper to my horse. He’s a beauty. Black, because blending in at night is paramount in our line of work, and because it’s gorgeous. Jax snuffles my hand, mildly offended that I have no treats.
It’s only a matter of minutes before I feel Xalin approaching.
Being able to tell when people are coming is just something I’ve always been able to do. That sixth sense, the sensation rippling across my skin. It’s the only reason I survived the accident that claimed my parents. That sensation of wrong—the need to get away—warned me before the fire claimed their lives.
If only I’d known why I wanted to leave the house back then. Maybe I could have saved them, too.
They were assassinated. Just not by our guild.
And that’s a whole other problem right there.
Nightshade doesn’t look kindly on others encroaching on their territory.
“Ria?” Xalin has one of those husky voices that soothes despite my irritation. “You beat me again! Damn it.”
“Don’t call me Ria,” I snap, almost reflexively.
Xalin chuckles as they stow items in their pack, and then flicks the end of their dark blonde ponytail back under their head covering. “You know that just makes me want to do it more, right Taria?”
I can’t be bothered to glare at them, even though I want to. Xalin, or Xan as they prefer, and I were recruits together, Novices and Apprentices, too. We even moved into the Initiate ranks together a few seasons ago.
There is a lot of history there. A lot of baggage, frankly. But they’re the closest thing I have to a friend, and if anyone but my dead father is going to call me Ria, I guess it’s okay if it’s them.
They don’t need to know that, though.
And I still refuse to call them Xan outside of my thoughts. It lets them get too close. I can’t allow that.
“Let’s put some distance between us,” I say, instead of the forty snappish things that fly through my mind. Anyone else might think I want to spend time away from Xan, but they know I’m referring to the city and its corpses.
“Good plan. My accident got a little out of hand. There’s a bit of a commotion at the far end of town.”
Before mounting Jax, I check that the horse’s feet are muffled with a mallow-root binding. It’s close enough to morning where we might otherwise be noticed. Only then do I address what they said. “You did it again, didn’t you?”
“Yes. Yes, I did.”
I roll my eyes and mount Jax, fairly certain Xan is grinning at my irritation. We steer out of the trees. They probably used a little too much explosive powder in whatever they did to create their accident.
It will take us about a day and a half of riding to get home. If only magic was still around like it used to be, when portals could be opened.
I imagine assassinations were a lot easier back then.
Night riding has always been precarious, but the moon is bright tonight, and the sky lightens as we ride farther from the city.
The twilight hours are my favorite time to ride. Shadows play on the edges of the paths and through the silhouettes of trees. We move swiftly, at a fast trot. There is little traffic at this time of day, if any. Jax’s muffled feet make a comforting sound.
Dawn sweeps through behind us, like we didn’t just leave death in our wake.
For once Xan lets me ride in silence as we quietly navigate the roads and intersections on our way home. Hours pass as we put miles between us and the town.
I remember a time when I wanted to be a sage—someone who works with herbs and plants and alchemy. But that was in the before, when I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps.
Then again, maybe I have sort of followed her example in a way. After all, alchemical potions, tinctures, and poisons are my specialty. I have a way with plants, coaxing the best possible results out of them.
“I hate this terrain,” Xan grumbles next to me, gesturing vaguely all around us. “Flat farmland as far as the eye can see.”
I shrug, already missing the trees as the sun continues to rise. “It is what it is.”
“You’re not fooling anyone, Ri-Taria.” Xan pauses and flashes me a very deliberate wink. “You know you love my company.”
This time I raise an eyebrow. “Love is a strong word. Tolerate, perhaps. ‘Don’t hate’ would be most accurate.”
“See? You’d just ignore anyone else.” Their tone is smug, and probably rightfully so.
Still. Sometimes I hate that I let them get close enough to heckle me. We’ve known each other almost a decade, and I wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of being right. “It’s difficult to ignore a gnat.”
“You wound me, friend. You wound me.” Xan’s still grinning.
Mid-morning hits as we close in on an offshoot road that leads to a grove of trees situated behind an old mill. The waterwheel lends background music to the setting, making it almost idyllic. I glance up at the sun, shading my eyes.
“Let’s camp here and avoid the worst of the midday heat,” I say, steering Jax gently off the path we’re on. There is water here, lush, green grass, and plenty of shade. If we venture in enough, no one will see us from the road outside.
I always prefer traveling by night. Assassins shouldn’t be seen, and the roads will start cluttering up soon. After almost seven hours at a brisk pace, it’s better to rest the horses during the hottest hours.
Xan, silent for once, leads their horse in first, weaving through the underbrush until they come to a small clearing about twenty feet in diameter. Perfect.
I close my eyes briefly when we stop and just breathe in the nature around me.
My mother was a sage, my father a tanner. But Mom always nurtured my love of nature and affinity with the herbs and plants she used in alchemy. Some of my fondest memories involved coaxing and speaking to all the different plant life she surrounded herself with.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that nature isn’t alive.
The smell around us is fresh but musty. The scent is a wonderful mixture of underbrush, mud, trees, and what I think might be an impending storm. It’s perhaps still a day or two away. I’ll know closer to the time.
It’s amazing what nature will tell you, if you listen.
Bedroll spread out, I pull Jax’s saddle off and slap him on the butt. He’ll go graze and then snooze. He knows the routine by now.
I grab some dried meat and fruit from my pack, and pull out one of the journals I always carry with me. No time like the present to figure out some new potential concoctions. My mentor, Lennick has a bet with me and I’m not about to lose it. When I win, he’s going to let me expand my experimental lab, something I very much need.
“Stop studying.” Sleepiness hazes Xan’s voice, slurring their speech slightly. They are already curled up in their roll, not even looking at me. “You haven’t changed in years.”
I ignore them.
The density of the canopy overhead only allows soft slivers of light to reach us on the floor. In more ways than one, it feels like home.
Cozy, protected, and safe.
Eventually, I push my notebook back into my pack and lay my head down, focusing on the glimpses of blue sky visible through the leaves. The weather is warm, and the added padding of laying on top of my bedroll and its cover is almost luxurious.
A few hours’ shut-eye and we’ll be ready to ride through the night.
The complete and utter feeling of wrong—of danger—wakes me. My breath catches as the presence of others screams a warning. The ground practically vibrates beneath me.
Glancing over, trying not to move as I get my bearings, I realize that Xan is still fast asleep. I can’t see the horses from where I lie.
Instinct takes over and I roll to the right, coming to rest in a crouch. My left hand reaches for my weapons.
Just as a dagger lands right where my head was only moments ago.