Midnight Slicers were the silent artists, the secretive assassins of the martial world. It was unseemly that any within the Celebricate rank, 7th Class no less, be ordered to learn tactics from an outsider. So why was she, Katriyana Pusabunthri, singled out for this dubious privilege?
Her harrumphing startled her warbeast Flick. Tripping over an exposed root, the brown stallion whinnied but the Darsprian Forest’s infamous damp moss quickly absorbed the slight sound. Silently, Kat signaled with a firm tap and a smooth rub on the beast’s powerful neck. As the graceful, angular woman leaned over her saddlehorn, she whispered gentleness into Flick’s ear, letting him know that her disgust wasn’t with him. When he settled down without disturbing any of the other twenty-five mercenaries in front of them, the stallion gained a rare scratch of approval from the olive-skinned, leather-clad woman.
Though the trees in the Darsprian Forest were well spread out, the gnarled roots made travel within slow and they’d spent the past five days inside. Overhead the canopy was thick, allowing weak penetration by the sun and dappling the forest floor through small gaps in the morning mist. At seven chimes past midnight, sleep was already two chimes past, yet the band walked as if bogged down. Their pace was so slow that Kat had to criss-cross the forest behind them.
At first, entering the Darsprian Forest had seemed such an adventure. Like Katriyana, most of them had never breathed between its trees before. Their jangling procession sent a shock wave outward, driving countless creatures deeper into the elongated forest. The first night, however, robbed the band of sleep and confidence. Incessant, eerie, and unfamiliar noises buffeted them. As each night passed, only desperation and exhaustion lent rest for the lucky.
Daytime offered different shivers as the mystical alchemy of moss around tree trunks and moisture from the mists gobbled small sounds from the forest floor. Silence accompanied most of their travels now, except for exclamations of curses half-shouted as boots stumbled over roots.
Falls were especially painful; it hadn’t been long since frost last saturated the earth. This particular morning, the spring air had a bite when the sun first kissed the earth a chime ago. Though the day was heating up, Kat could still taste moisture in the air. She pulled her leather shawl around her. It didn’t help. The nippy air still penetrated and prickled her skin.
That didn’t help her mood any. Shifting her weight in the saddle, all Katriyana wanted was to be anonymous somewhere deep inside a city. Instead, twenty-five heads bobbed between her and Barmon Tuark, her current “boss.”
Five yards in front of the mercenaries he led, Barmon stood out in a beautiful set of scale armor meant to impress the ignorant. He couldn’t be missed despite his attempt. Hailing from the Mountains of Yifta, Barmon looked typical of its residents: a large heft and girth, along with a ruddy complexion and coarse blonde hair. As he led the band through the trees of the Darsprian Forest, Kat wondered briefly what contributed more to her dislike, his empty boasts or his absolute shallow nature.
If the Ruquine Arbiters, the defacto leaders in that town’s guild, had not given explicit orders, the black-haired woman would have chosen a competent teacher to learn open warfare from. But the orders were suspiciously specific; she was to join Barmon’s newly formed mercenary gang. Katriyana, being a 7th Class Celebricate, neither fed her suspicions nor questioned her orders. A high rank meant total acquiescence to the guild. Knowledge of guild affairs or even rules was kept to a minimum. Each Midnight Slicer only knew what he or she had to know, even a high ranked Celeb.
The deliberate obtuseness helped save lives and protect the guild. The less known, the fewer escaped secrets. Rank and file took orders from hooded, anonymous Arbiters without question. A disobeying assassin, no matter the rank or class, equaled a dead one.
Katriyana wasn’t about to start questioning with Barmon. Putting aside her disdain for his obvious theatrics, she dutifully signed up. Even though she never confirmed any guild affiliation, Barmon welcomed her as a veteran combat hand. When her signature hit the contract parchment, he made her his second-in-command. Because of this reception, Kat briefly wondered if there had been an arrangement between the blonde muscleman and the Arbiters. After all, Ruquine was known for its’ shady residents. But she shook the thought off: Midnight Slicers didn’t bother with details, only the assignment. Hers was clear: learn better open warfare skills.
She had been led to believe that Barmon had started a gang when in truth, Kat was his first recruit. In subsequent days, Barmon with his charm and rugged good looks, convinced mostly youngsters from the uncivilized border town that he knew where good plunder and buried treasure were. “It’s there, jus’ for your easy snatchin’!” he’d declare. Upon signing, the concerned “leader” would make quick arrangements with richer families for the proper transport of corpses should their relatives not survive their big adventure.
When the motley gang set out eight days ago, the mood had been charged and anticipatory. After all, varying ages and talents had joined Barmon and most could see no possibility of failure. Following a gathering of supplies, the plunder party left the town heading east towards Valkunia, a small trading hub at the eastern base of the Mountains of Yifta, away from the more civilized. Three days wandering on and off a small path plus grumbles about “Barmon’s only following a road” drove them deep into the Darsprian Forest and there they stayed.
Most of the youngsters who had signed up foolishly thought they’d have riches within a few days’ walk. Eight days later, discontent piled high enough to transform into malcontent. With the situation deteriorating, a change was needed whether it be Barmon who initiated a raid upon victims or whether his hirelings, anxious for any action whatsoever, turned on their leader instead.
Kat watched the morale decline with muted fascination. Assassinations worked best solo, and her prior jobs had been simple slicings on common folk, with a few of the aristocracy thrown in. She wasn’t used to working with people. Actually, Kat’s efficiency and effectiveness rather depended on not involving others because they were factors she couldn’t control. Success was easier to achieve if everything was meticulously maintained by her, for her.
This included the armor she had on now. Standard for most Midnight Slicers, the protective wear had been modified for speed and stealth, in exchange of protection. Forearms and shins were shielded by light leather coverings held in place with thin leather strips braided through parallel rows of grommets. Though the design offered freedom of movement, in battle opponents often sliced through the leather strips, leaving Kat exposed. Had it not been for her quick responses, her limbs would’ve been scarred throughout.
Since the body armor cut off at both the shoulders and the waist, it allowed greater freedom of movement than conventional armor. Bending wasn’t a priority for most warriors; for a Midnight Slicer, it was imperative. The single sheet of light form-fitting boiled leather laced up the front and offered minor protection against piercing and hacking; Kat again relied on speed and agility to be the majority of her defense. Under the armor, she wore a form-fitting cotton tunic, but other than her leather shawl, she had little to buffer herself against the chill in the morning air.
Kat’s pride about efficiency also extended to her weapons: her two special knives and her blade-darts. Given to her by her father, Iskanuth Pusabunthri, the twin double-edged Trabian steel blades had been molded to fit Kat’s particular grip. Two-inches-wide at the base, the blades abruptly became half-spheres as a counter-balance. They then flattened sharply back into one-inch-wide double-sided blade that curved slightly before meeting at a point six-inches away. The counter balance gave both edges a deep cut and the curve allowed slashing as well as piercing. Three-inch-wide guards mirrored each other and a four-inch cherry wood handle wrapped in the finest Izthician red leather gave each knife an excellent grip.
The secret about those two knives was that they could be fitted together. When married, the mirrored guards made a full guard, while the half-sphered counter-balances formed a complete sphere. Iskanuth’s present, a double-bladed double-edged sword, in the hands of a Celeb was an effective weapon, together or apart.
Though the twin knives were fairly short, Kat’s other weapons were shorter. Her thirteen blade-darts, standard weapons that had to be mastered during Ordinere, 4th Class, slid through notches on a belt that slung over both shoulders. Six on each side with one slot along the spine, the blade-darts could be drawn out three at a time. Used as medium-ranged weapons, they fitted Kat’s small hands nicely. Easily purchased from any Midnight Slicers’ guildhall or even common marketplaces, Kat wasn’t hesitant about using or losing them.
The two-inch-long thin blade with the two-inch skinny handle was effective from a distance of two-feet to twenty-yards. Aimed at up to three targets, the darts could also be thrown separately or simultaneously, the very model of efficiency. Kat preferred them to unwieldy throwing knives and ineffectual tossing stars that had little stopping power. For this assignment though, Kat was forbidden her favorite weapons. Instead in Ruquine she had to purchase a serviceable longsword, now strapped to Flick’s saddle. A slow, clumsy longsword.
Cursing her current orders, Kat ducked under a low hanging branch. Glancing north, Kat saw unobstructed sunlight just beyond some trees in front. She sniffed and tasted the air, which seemed to be losing moisture. They must be getting near the edge of the Darsprian Forest.
Ahead, Barmon jumped down and signaled for his band to lay low. Not so silently, the twenty-five men and women took places behind trees and bushes. Kat, for her part, got off Flick and loosely looped the reins around a shrub growing at the roots of a nearby tree. If need be, the stallion could tear away from the branches and get away, but if unthreatened, he would stay put. She grabbed her weapons and sheathes from her saddle.
Kicking away his black warbeast, Barmon went to scope out what lay beyond the forest. Without being told, the twenty-five mercenaries left their hiding places to gather where the mountain man had just vacated. Kat almost recoiled from their joint body odor when she reached them. They had been sweating heavily under their newly bought armor. Suddenly, it was clear to Kat why no creature had disturbed them during the eight-day trek; their collective smell indicated larger numbers than were comfortable for any creatures to disturb.
Ahead on the crest of a hill, Barmon signaled for Kat to join him. Moving past the mercs, the Slicer slid next to the tall Yiftan, crouching on a small hill looking down into a valley. Two farms lay below, both with smoke rising out of their respective farmhouses. Barmon, with a gleam in his eyes, turned and whispered loudly, “Plunder!”
The wind had to have picked up his word because behind them, murmurs started and excitement fanned out. One by one, swords were drawn.
Eyeing the scenery before them, Kat thought “plunder” was a generous term. The two farmhouses seemed practical, not fanciful. As houses, they could fit five people at most in each. The Slicer studied and compared the light from each window on the houses. No changes in intensity indicated one room each, no walls.
Both houses were wooden, most likely made from the Darsprian Forest’s own timber. One farmhouse looked sturdily made with planks, well thought out and designed. It had a porch, a backdoor, and shingles for a roof. The other looked hastily made of logs, with one entrance, and one small window in each wall. Even the roof was made from timbers and looked to be heavily tarred. The two front doors faced the same direction with a vegetable garden in front of them.
If Kat was a betting woman, she’d have guessed that her fee for this job would be more than either farm cleared in a year. The only way the farms could be plunder was if there was gold buried under the plowed fields. She sniffed derisively. That had the same chances as she running into a Goddhai on her travels, namely zero. Still, she held her tongue and waited for the blonde mountainman to make a move. It was not for a Midnight Slicer to question.
For half a chime, the two lay flat on a grassy hill watching typical farm work below. Of the five fields surrounding the farmhouses, only the last two were being used for growing crops. The other three were used as fields for farm animals. Four of the fields lay beyond the vegetable garden. The fenced-in fifth one, attached to a barn, lay past the back doors of the two houses.
During the time the two mercenary leaders spent studying the farm, they saw four people: a red-headed man and woman, a blonde female, and a red-headed lad. Fairly obvious it was at least one family. The man was in one of the far fields, plowing the hard ground for sowing. He was driving a rather old looking ox. Meanwhile, the red-haired woman was like a blur in motion, one moment getting eggs from the hen house, the next getting wood from the woodpile. All her efforts concentrated on the planked house. The last pair they observed were in a yard just off to the side of the planked farmhouse. The tall blonde woman was teaching the boy how to parry with a wooden sword.
Creeping back to the others to avoid detection, Barmon whispered to them, “Ready yourselves, plunder is at han’!” He signaled for them to assume a ready position. To Kat’s amazement, the twenty-five dropped to the ground in near synchronicity. Could their need for adventure have honed their reactions? Giving it no further thought, Kat waited for Barmon to return and inform her what her part of the raid was.
While she waited, she watched the red-headed woman walk in and out of the planked farmhouse, her mouth constantly moving. Was she singing? No one was close enough for her to be conversing with… unless that person was in the farmhouse. Briefly, she wondered if she should inform Barmon. Since he was the leader and her boss, he should be good enough to spot the unaccounted person on his own, shouldn’t he? She kept her mouth shut.
The second thing Kat noticed while she waited for Barmon’s return was that the blonde woman teaching the boy to parry was good, extremely good. Not only did confidence show in her footwork but her corrections to the boy’s arm movements displayed an exactitude few but perfectionists would demand. An interesting development, indeed. The blonde woman was large, and in fact, could be mistaken for one of Barmon’s relatives. She resembled no farmer Kat had ever seen. Was this a set-up? Kat decided to hang back and watch instead of joining the rest. Twenty-six against three adults and a child did not seem like the open warfare skill she was supposed to be acquiring.
Movement to her right caught her eye. A dozen of her fellow men and women mercenaries were squat-walking their way through the tall grass that marked the perimeter between the farm and the Darsprian Forest. They were headed for the two women and the boy.
Sounds of breaking twigs yanked Kat’s head to the left. Barmon led the remainder towards the red-headed farmer. Apparently, one male warranted as many attackers as two females and a child. Barmon shot a barbed look at Kat, then jerked his head towards the farmhouse. She was to lead the other faction then. Without another glance, the blonde man turned his attention back to the farmer.
Kat didn’t budge. Wasn’t twelve enough? Within moments, the twelve reached and jumped the blonde woman. The boy ran off screaming for help with no obstruction. None of the twelve wanted to be the one to kill a child. By the time the boy reached the first building, one of the mercenaries was writhing on the ground. The blonde woman, standing above him, stared down another; in her clenched fist was the wooden sword.
When Barmon and his crew reached the red-haired farmer, another two people burst out of the planked farmhouse, shocking the mountain man. A handsome red-headed man ran towards the farmer while the woman stayed to help the other women.
The farmer reacted rapidly. He turned the ox around and ran it straight at Barmon’s bunch, scattering everyone. One mercenary died instantly, gored through her chest. Using his whip, the farmer kept others at bay but was overwhelmed within moments once his plow stopped.
Katriyana looked back at the band she had been tapped to lead. The dozen was now ten, one rolling around in obvious pain and the other dead. The three women, having ensured the child’s safety, stood ready to engage the mercenaries as well. The Midnight Slicer thought ten versus three was about time for her to engage the fray. Kat ran silently with her head barely bobbing above the tall grass. Over the waving meadow, Barmon’s reedy voice floated to her, “Kat! Get what’s killing my mercs!”
By the time Kat reached the fracas, another hired hand fell, this time to a… completely scarred woman? The Slicer skidded to a stop just on the perimeter of the farm and, still unobserved, dropped below the tall grass’s horizon to watch the three warrior-women for a moment. She had to see more.
Kat already knew that the blonde warrior-woman was quick. Still, the combined savagery of speed and size shocked the Midnight Slicer. Easily a head taller than the mercenaries, the warrior knocked one mercenary off his feet with a sweep of her outstretched leg. Before his ass hit the ground, the warrior had already knocked another out with the wooden sword’s pommel.
Years of training went into converting this natural talent into a realm-class one, Kat knew. Despite using only a short, blunt wooden sword, the blonde warrior had no issue defeating the mercenaries and breaking bones. One clash actually resulted in a riven leather shield from the sheer impact of the wooden sword. Definitely an opponent to be wary of.
Just as impressive as her talents was the woman’s armor. A hardened leather corset gave her maximum protection along the torso. In the middle of the corset, a metal plate with a diving hawk design fitted under her breasts and protected the lungs and heart. Because it was a corset, her shoulders swung free from the main body of the armor. Instead, the shoulders were protected by bronze oval plates that connected to the corset with loose leather strands. The resulting freedom allowed her to swing her weapon and shield with ease. Because of the ease in mobility, her legs were armored only along the most vulnerable spots – along the shin and up to the knee, wrapping at the bottom around the Achilles heel. Around her waist was an interesting skirt made of metal-tipped leather flaps. When she spun, the tips slashed anyone standing too close. Besides the armor, Kat noticed the warrior’s physique looked incredibly sculpted; each muscle flexed with confidence and certainty.
The Midnight Slicer harbored little doubt that in an open confrontation, she would emerge the loser. Still, the assassin wondered what the outcome would be if the battle was waged on her terms. Why, when Kat reached the Mythos rank, victory might even be possible without subterfuge.
The two women, the red-head and that scarred woman who rushed to the blonde’s side, also fascinated Kat. For very different and unique reasons, though.
The short red-head wasn’t a fighter. Not really. Compared to the martial quality of her companions, her movements had a certain artlessness. Using the two fighting sticks as clubs, the talkative red-head pushed and batted weapons away from her body, a technique in which she had proficiency. The other technique she excelled at was driving opponents towards her blonde companion, whenever the warrior was freed up.
Strangely enough, the red-head wore little protective gear despite her lack of prowess with a weapon. Her only clothing was a light cotton blue blouse, with a thin brown leather belt holding up a pair of brown cotton loose pants. Perhaps the blonde’s protection sufficed.
Even while she observed the others, Kat’s attention kept doubling back to the scarred, brown-haired woman who managed to maneuver two hired swordarms away from everyone else. Besides being covered in scars, the woman wore a mish-mash collection of armor as if the pieces were taken off corpses in the field. The Hessian Guard’s body armor clashed with the fur leggings of the North. The gauntlets looked Izthician and the leather boots had Trabian influence. Yes, the common denominator looked to be a battlefield.
Was that how the brunette got her scars? How was she able to move, with seemingly the entire body covered in skin-tightening scars? Some even looked relatively fresh. Incredible. Even when Kat’s attention was elsewhere, she kept thinking about those scars. The fight drew her sight back.
Of the two the brunette had separated, the lanky black-haired one brought his greatsword down on her with all his might. Simultaneously, the shorter mercenary woman swung her longsword right at the brunette’s waist. It seemed blood was inevitable.
At the last moment, the brunette caught the shorter woman’s wrist and aimed the longsword upwards. The momentum threw off the greatsword’s swing so that it missed the brunette by less than an inch. The lanky man growled at the brunette in frustration. Circling around to the brunette’s blind side, he waved for the shorter woman to distract the scarred brunette.
Complying, the shorter woman screamed. It worked, or rather it seemed to Kat that it was the scarred woman who complied. With her back to the lanky mercenary, he lunged extending the greatsword at her. In the next moment, he gored his companion instead. The scarred woman had moved.
Why was she waiting until the last moment? It was obvious her skills outmatched theirs. Did she not want her hands dirty? But every move had been so close, a slight timing off could have lead to her death. What was she doing? Daring the Weaver to end her life-thread?
The red-head’s abrupt cry captured everyone’s attention.
In the second after, the scarred woman drew her short swords and with two moves, killed the lanky mercenary where he stood, still agog that he had slain his companion.
The moment the corpse hit the ground was the first time Kat noticed that brunette’s right hand looked different from her left. Not only was the hand scarred, but it was missing the forefinger and the middle finger. Her left hand looked merely scarred not mutilated. Did her hand’s mutilation have something to do with the scars on her body?
Moving closer for a better look, Kat saw that the right sword had a modified hilt. Instead of an elongated handle like most swords, it had a bulb that fitted into the brunette’s palm quite snugly. The other difference was that the blade extended from where her forefinger would’ve, rather than between the thumb and the forefinger. As for the blade, the wavy double-edge provided more cutting space with less effort. Smart. The designer knew weaponry and had her in mind.
Another cry from the red-haired woman hurried the scarred woman. She kicked the lanky man off her blade and sprinted towards the barn where the red-headed woman ended up, disarmed and held by one of her underlings. Kat looked for the blonde. Ah, surrounded by four mercenaries by the farmhouse. Too far to be helpful for a change.
The scarred woman closed the gap between her and the red-head within seconds. Handing her right sword to the other hand, she scooped up an empty water bucket lying on the field. With two one-legged hops and a hurl, the brunette heaved the bucket. It hit the man holding the red-head hostage, square on the back of the head. Roaring, the mercenary whirled around and leapt, knife drawn. The scarred woman slid under the leaping man. She stabbed him four times in the chest before he even fell to the floor. If Kat didn’t have Slicer training, she doubted she could’ve seen all that, it happened so fast.
Jish, Kat thought, that one’s just as good.
Before Kat could decide which of the three women to engage first, the red-head spied Kat approaching. She said while helping the scarred brunette up, “Tristien, a reversal of body might reduce or eliminate your exposure to violence.”
Tristien Waef turned around and met Kat’s gaze. The moment their eyes entered each other’s inner space, Kat’s knees buckled for a second before she caught herself. What could be happening? Her mouth dried. Kat tried to swallow but gulped instead. This was not good. Not for a 7th level Celebricate. So, Kat did what she always did in fractured footings like this. She emptied her mind and focused on her breathing.
With two quick breaths followed by a deep one, Katriyana Pusabunthri moved her consciousness to a mental hallway, a plane of existence hovering between the Material and Immaterial Realms. Within this plane, the Material Realm where her body and all the action were, became a heightened experience.
She was at one end of the hallway and at the other was a symbol suspended in mid-air. For some reason, despite all attempts and efforts, Kat had never been able to get closer to that symbol and so, had never solved how it stayed suspended. She’d seen the symbol elsewhere though. Three spiral curves spun out from a center to form a circle around the center dot. Each spiral arm also cradled a floating sphere. It was the Triliska, representative of the Triune faith, a coalition of three Goddhai.
Standing there at the end of the hallway, Katriyana Pusabunthri could also see the Material Realm because she was standing in it. In a curious way, the mental hallway almost acted like a veil over the Material Realm. The Triliska hovered in the physical space between each of the three women she faced. As soon as she turned her attention to one, the Triliska swung towards her.
How it worked if she got near to one of her opponents was, the Triliska that would float higher and higher above her, out of reach, ever the same distance. Annoying in a way. Kat had no concept how or why this quiet mental hallway played or displayed its tricks, only that it did. As a Midnight Slicer, she was taught not to care, only to use whatever tools she had at hand.
As a tool, the mental hallway had come in handy over the years. In a way, it had been a lifesaver as well. Allowing Kat to block out unpleasantries in the Material Realm was the first of many ways the hallway helped propel her career. Without the mental hallway, Kat doubted she would’ve ascended the ranks as easily or as fast. It was the biggest reason why solo assignments were her most effective and efficient.
Her senses prickled when she entered the quiet hallway. They had never done that before. Yet, she could see nothing but the hallway and the Triliska as usual. Shrugging it off, she focused on the symbol, despite the futility of never getting nearer. Focusing was what allowed her to be extra vigilant of everything happening in the Material Realm where she approached the three women warily and cautiously.
Out of the dozen mercenaries attacking the three women, only four still stood. Kat expected less. Two were giving the tall blonde a wide berth. Offering no resistance to the warrior, they backed quickly towards Kat once they spied her. The other two shuffled by the barn, uncertain what to do since the three women stood between them and Kat.
Also by the barn, the red-head picked up her battle-sticks off the floor and brushed herself off. Moving next to the blonde warrior, she kept between Kat and the other two by the barn. The blonde held her position between the barn and the farmhouses.
Tristien, the scarred woman with the maimed hand, walked calmly to the nearby well and drew a drink from a water-filled bucket. She seemed no more perturbed by the situation than by the chickens scattering before her. The few mercs shuffled nearby, unsure and looking to Kat for guidance, but Kat had none to give. All she could see was the three formidable women in front of her.
As Kat readied for the expected fight, Barmon’s vibrating catgut of a voice echoed back to them, “Mercs! To me!”
A settling of the dust later, Kat stood alone. All four of the mercenaries vanished down the path between the farmhouses. As if on a signal, the three women aimed their weapons at the Midnight Slicer.
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