Authors: Anna Kashina
Tags: #fantasy, #warrior code, #Majat Guild, #honour, #duty, #betrayal, #war, #assassins
Prince Kythar Dorn waited for his friends at the entrance to the small courtyard. It was a perfect, secluded spot. A cool breeze wafted through the columned gallery at the far end, carrying the fresh smells of lake water and bread baking in the palace kitchens. Up above, a lonely watchtower crowned the jagged line of the battlements looming against the clear morning sky. A hawk shrieked overhead, out on its early morning hunt.
Feet rustled on dry stone and a shadow fell across the pavement by his side. Kyth turned and met Ellah’s sharp hazel-green eyes. He nodded to the girl, his gaze sliding past her to where his foster brother Alder had just emerged from the garden passage behind. He looked sleepy as he hurried toward them, straightening out his shirt.
Kyth’s smile faded as he realized that the passage behind Alder was empty. “Kara couldn’t make it?”
Ellah shook her head. “She said to start without her. She’ll try to join us later if she can.”
Kyth nodded, swallowing his disappointment. Without Kara, a Diamond-ranked Majat warrior and the girl of his dreams, it wouldn’t be the same. Her fighting skill would have allowed Kyth to test the true level of his newly mastered ability to focus the wind onto the tip of his sword. Not that he could ever hope to match her.
He glanced at his foster brother, who was rolling up his sleeves to expose the impressive muscle of his forearms. Alder reached for the axe strapped across his back, then caught Kyth’s gaze and grinned. “We don’t need Kara – let’s first see if you can handle me, brother.”
“Just don’t lose your axe.” Kyth drew his sword and moved into position.
Ellah’s eyes darted across the yard and to the top of the wall. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Kyth inhaled a full breath of the Lakeland wind, feeling it course through his body with new energy. He grinned. “You
want to see how my gift worked, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but suppose someone sees us.”
“No one’s going to see us.”
“What about the guards on that watchtower?”
Kyth narrowed his eyes, glancing at the massive stone structure overhead. “Empty. This one overlooks the lake, so it’s rarely manned. Besides, even if anyone saw us they’d just assume we are out for weapons practice.”
“With a sword against an axe?”
“Come now, it’ll be all right. Trust me.”
Ellah pursed her lips, subsiding into silence.
Kyth edged further into the yard–
A sense of foreboding, just at the edge of consciousness, held him in place. He hesitated, feeling the small hairs on his neck stand on end.
Ellah frowned. “What is it, Kyth?”
“I’m not sure.” He strained his senses to penetrate the corners of the courtyard, all the way into the deep shadows under the columns, but couldn’t detect anything out of place.
“Well,” Ellah said. “Why don’t you get on with it, then?” She shielded her eyes against the sunlight and swept past, heading for the shade by the far wall.
A warning cry caught in Kyth’s throat as he finally realized what was wrong.
There were no sounds.
He could no longer feel the wind. Morning air wavered over the smoothly hewn stones of the ancient pavement with the rising heat of early sunbeams. Ellah’s short brown hair and the folds of her dress hung limply as she strode across the yard.
She paused and glanced at Kyth with a questioning look. Alder lowered his axe, his eyebrows shooting up in surprise.
Kyth’s skin crawled. An invisible blanket of power descended onto the small courtyard. It rolled over his head, smothering sounds, absorbing all movement into its blunt softness.
Someone nearby was using a strange sort of power. A gift, strong enough to penetrate the entire area.
A lot stronger than Kyth’s.
Great Shal Addim.
“Ellah, get back.
” Kyth locked his eyes with Alder’s, both raising their weapons.
“Greetings, Highness.” The voice that echoed behind them crept through the yard like a snake poising to strike.
Kyth spun around.
Shadows by the wall shifted and became a hooded shape, wrapped in a black priest-like robe.
Kyth gasped and backed off. He could have sworn there was no one there when they first arrived. Too late, he noticed the deep protrusion of the wall by the arched courtyard gateway. He had never realized the niche was so deep.
How the hell did he get in here?
The hooded man chuckled. He clicked his fingers, answered by movement beside the columns at the far end. At least a dozen men stepped out of the shadows and fanned out, blocking the way to escape. They were dressed for action, folds of their black robes tucked into their belts, loose pants girded at the ankles by the tall cuffs of their leather boots.
Kyth recognized their weapons, spiked balls hanging on long, thin chains. Orbens – powerful, but extremely hard to master, banned for centuries after the fall of the Old Empire. A sword was all but useless against them, at least for someone with Kyth’s limited skill.
Pits of hell.
He edged further away, keeping as many men as he could in his line of sight. They idled, holding their weapons but not attacking.
The hooded man stepped forward. Sunlight fell onto his face illuminating gaunt features, his eyes of such pale brown that they looked yellow. Animal-like.
“So, we finally meet, Prince Kythar.”
“Who are you?” Kyth demanded.
The man’s smile wormed over his thin lips. “You may call me Kaddim Tolos.”
The strange title echoed in Kyth’s mind with a half-memory. A blend of opposites in the old tongue,
– Destroyer, and
– Creator. Where had he heard this before? His skin crept. “What do you want?”
“You.” The man raised his hands, palms downward.
A silent thunder rolled through the courtyard. Waves of smothering force pounced onto Kyth’s head. Alder and Ellah gasped and doubled over, sinking down to the stone pavement.
Kyth rushed to his friends but the attackers closed their ring, forcing him to a halt.
“Ah,” Tolos said. “I can see your gift has grown strong enough to resist our power, Highness.”
Kyth clenched his sword.
How does he know about my gift?
The attackers drew closer, spinning their weapons with a short leeway. Spiked metal balls blended into gleaming circles. Kyth felt the wind on his face as he edged around their line searching for a possible gap.
“They will not harm you,” Tolos said. “Unless I order them to. All in all, we would like to capture you alive, but if we have to injure you in the process…”
Kyth swept his eyes around the group. Too many to face by himself, but he would be damned if he gave in without a fight. He concentrated. As the attackers neared, he feinted at the closest one and countered the anticipated block by shifting the other way. He aimed low. His sword ripped through the cloth with a satisfying crack, but didn’t graze the flesh as the attacker twisted out of the blade’s way with snakelike speed.
. He crouched, trying to keep as many attackers as possible in sight.
Too late, he noticed more shapes sliding in from behind.
Where the hell are they coming from?
He yelped as hands gripped his elbows with a numbing force. Their clammy fingers once again made him think of snakes. Constrictors, judging by the way his arms were rapidly losing feeling. His sword clanked on the stone pavement, an oddly loud sound in the smothering stillness of the windless air.
Kaddim Tolos chuckled. “There, Highness, see? No need to trouble yourself with pointless fighting.” He nodded to his men. “Let’s go.” He headed for the outer castle wall, but a new sound at the courtyard entrance forced him to a halt.
A lithe, muscular figure burst into the yard. A woman, moving so fast her shape blurred as she darted toward Kyth’s abductors.
. Despite the danger, warmth rushed through Kyth’s body at the mere sight of her. Slim and neat in her closely tailored black outfit, she wielded two narrow swords as if they were a natural continuation of her hands. Her short blond hair gleamed against her dark skin, the ranking diamond in her Majat armband shining in the sun.
The air exploded with steel, Kara’s blades hacking through the hooded men’s line. The grip on Kyth’s elbows eased. He dropped to the pavement, searching for his sword.
Kaddim Tolos raised his hands again.
Waves of smothering force pounced onto the courtyard. Kara stumbled, hovering like a tightrope walker losing balance. Then, to Kyth’s horror, she swayed and collapsed onto the stone pavement, swords sliding out of her hands.
No one in the world should have the power to disable a Diamond Majat.
Great Shal Addim.
The attackers regrouped, fanning out among the bodies of their fallen comrades.
“Finish her off.” Tolos held his hands steady to maintain the flow of force.
Kyth’s mind raced. He would be damned if he stood by uselessly, watching Kara die. He would fight for her to his last breath.
If only Kaddim Tolos didn’t smother the wind. Without it, Kyth couldn’t use his gift. There was no power he could focus.
Could he use Kaddim Tolos’s force?
He opened up his senses, absorbing the smothering waves rolling through the courtyard. The dark power felt strange, bitter as it entered his body. He steadied himself, letting it flow freely into his calm center, out to the limbs.
New strength coursed through his veins. He focused, concentrating its flow on the tip of his sword.
It wasn’t the same as the wind, but it would have to do. Grasping his sword, he took a running leap through the hooded men’s line. They met him with spinning orbens, but he was faster this time. He sidestepped the figures rushing at him without really seeing them, his entire senses focused on Tolos standing motionlessly by the wall. He had to get to this man, take him out before he did any more damage – before his men killed Kara, who was sprawled helplessly on the courtyard stones.
A spiked metal ball whizzed by Kyth’s ear. He half-saw the surprise on his enemy’s face as he danced around the weapon. Ducking and jumping, diving and rolling over the ground, he broke through the attackers’ line and launched himself on Tolos, using the momentum to thrust an upward blow straight at the man’s chest.
Tolos moved with unexpected speed. Kyth’s sword harmlessly brushed the black robe and the man’s fingers caught his wrists in an iron grip. The sword slid out of his hand, but the pressure stayed, until he could no longer feel his hands.
He slowly raised his head and looked at the sharp features framed by the hood. The man’s yellow eyes were hypnotic. Kyth felt like a fly trapped in a web.
The attackers surrounded them.
“No more distractions, I think,” Kaddim Tolos said with a smirk.
“Think again,” a deep female voice echoed through the yard.
Kyth’s heart pounded. Was the delay provided by his attack enough to give her the advantage she needed?
“Blast,” Tolos said through clenched teeth. “Didn’t I tell you men to finish her off?” He raised his hands again. A new wave of force hit the courtyard.
Kyth’s eyes locked on Kara’s.
This time she remained upright, caught in the onflow of force, her violet eyes shining like amethysts against her dark skin. Her face became hollow, ashen gray with the strain. A streak of blood oozed down from her nostril. The attackers closed in on her like vultures.
Kyth groaned, uselessly struggling in the hands of his captors. He couldn’t bear to see her die. If it wasn’t for his stupid, careless wish to sneak out to a remote place to practice his forbidden gift–
Please, don’t let them win.
He held her gaze.
Fight them, Kara
, he thought, sending the feeling toward her with such force that he was sure she would sense it even without words.
Fight, for I cannot bear to lose you.
Her eyes widened. She hovered for a moment, then slowly steadied herself, straightening against the oppressive flow. Her muscles rippled, a barely perceptible wave that ran down her body, restoring her graceful, confident posture.
The attackers sensed the change. They raised their weapons with renewed urgency, but none of them could possibly be fast enough to match her. She slashed into their line, her shape a blur as she swept through like a human whirlwind. Men fell to her blades left and right, their blood painting the stones dark crimson. Others backed off, their faces showing fear as they kept their distance.
In mere moments the impressive attack force was reduced to a disorderly group, huddled together in a fight for their lives.
“Retreat!” Kaddim Tolos commanded. His yellow eyes sought out Kyth’s and fixed him with a chilling stare. “We’ll meet again, Highness.”
He turned and darted toward the castle wall. A small grappler hook shot out of his sleeve. He flung it up to catch on the edge of the wall high above his head and flew up the rope so fast that he looked like a grotesque black bird with his wing-like robe flapping in his wake.
His men followed. In a blink of an eye they were gone, leaving their fallen comrades, black heaps on the bloodstained pavement of the courtyard.
The smothering blanket of power lifted as the attackers disappeared. Sounds of the outside world filled the courtyard: the chirping of sparrows in the palace gardens, the high shriek of a rivergull out on the lake, the distant hacking of an axe chopping wood by the kitchens. A fresh morning breeze gently touched Kyth’s cheek.
A group of Kingsguards poured into the courtyard.
“Your Highness!” The guard captain looked badly shaken.
“I’m fine,” Kyth snapped. “Help Ellah and Alder!”
But his friends were already getting to their feet, looking dazed. Kyth rushed to their side.
“I’m all right,” Alder said. “I think.” He rubbed his face, smearing the drying nose blood all over his cheek. Kyth reached past him to help Ellah, struggling upright. She looked pale, her hands shaky as she smoothed her dress with a nervous gesture. “Th-thank Shal Addim Kara arrived when she did.”
“What kind of a power did this man have?” Alder wondered.
Kyth shrugged. No power he had heard of, for sure. No power any man should ever have.
“Their leader called himself Kaddim,” he said. “It sounds familiar, but I can’t remember why.”