“Bruises are deceptively painful.”
This thought was foremost in Captain Valesar’s mind as he tried to saddle his dusty, trail weary horse. No one paid mind to bruises as an injury, but nonetheless, the fact remained that the veteran’s side felt as though molten sand lay just beneath the skin. Needless to say, it had been a long night.
Kaliev, the murderer, the assassin stood several paces away, standing over the charred corpse of their would-be attacker, mindlessly prodding the grisly corpse with a stick as one would a fire. After only an hour or two, the dead creature had begun to reek, stinking worse than a decaying body left in the sun for days on end. At that point, the vote had been unanimous to burn off the stench, seeing as how the two men were not in a fit state to move for a while longer.
Captain Valesar could not make up his mind about his ward. The man did not fit with the Captain’s experience. Criminals where typically either bad men who did bad things for selfish reasons or, more rarely, good men who did bad things because they were driven to it. Kaliev was not a good man. But neither was he bad. The captain couldn’t put his finger on exactly what the former assassin was for a very long time. Then, it had come to him. Kaliev was simply dark. He killed out of profession in The Guard, and on the streets, lurked in the night, doing what he had to. He even had a good reason for the murder of the District Lord, a selfless reason. But he was guilty. And there, Captain Valesar drew his line. Guilty was guilty, consequences were inevitable, and a criminal Kaliev was. Still, the man had saved his life last night. With the bracelet that the magus, Rulin Daya had placed on him, the captain doubted it was a selfless effort, but the action still remained.
The captain tightened one last strap on his saddle, wincing at a vicious stab of pain.
“Kaliev! Let’s move!”
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The former assassin bounced in his saddle. His muscles were weary and more than a bit sore from the more-strenuous-than-usual battle with the alien creature only hours ago. He couldn’t complain though. His companion, the prestigious Captain Nurin Valesar’s side was beginning to turn dark, almost black with the bruises from the previous night. Kaliev himself, toughened and hardened far beyond the average man by years of brutal trading, and even more brutal missions did not at all envy the look of the wound. Internal injuries were the worst, he knew. They looked the least vicious, but felt as bad or worse as a gaping cut. And even worse, there was no easing a pain you could not touch. Kaliev had gained much respect for the captain from observing how he handled the pain. Not a single complaint did the soldier give other than the occasional wince. He was tougher than Kaliev had originally judged him to be.
Their journey should be closing soon. Just judging by time and distance, and the fact that the mysterious vandal had literally run into them, the enigmatic, troublesome gateway to the creature’s origin should be all but upon them. There would wait a small detachment of magi and members of The Guard waiting for them there at the small, makeshift outpost. There, the two men the authority had deemed expendable, the murderer and the veteran soldier, would take a brief rest before throwing themselves into the dark, terribly unknown. The thought strangely chilled Kaliev. He had thrown himself from rooftops and cliffs many times before. He had stepped into the gateways to the lower Circles. But now, he stepped over empty air, the ground that would catch him unknown, and the results far from begging optimism.
“But forward is the only direction that bears fruit.” he thought ruefully to himself.
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The ground dropped harshly and unforgivingly away from Kaliev, his hopes for rest plummeting away with the terrain. He and Captain Valesar stood overlooking the outpost where the portal, and their destination lay. Or at least, they looked upon the remains of the outpost. The scene closely mimicked that of the hut they had happened upon several days earlier. The crude, makeshift palisade lay torn apart, leaning every which way as though it had forgotten how to stand up. The central courtyard, as far as the two sets of stony eyes could see from the distance they stood, was littered with debris and what appeared to be bodies.
“Well,” said Captain Valesar under his breath, “Damn.”
The curse captured Kaliev’s sentiments on the issue to a tee.
“Just one of those creatures didn’t do that.” rasped the assassin with a dry throat.
It was as this brief exchange occurred that small movement became visible below. Kaliev felt a surge of hope as he thought that some survivor still lived, the bodies possibly not all human. But the figure was a black speck in the bright sun, crushing the vague hope as soon as it formed. One of the creatures. Two of them, Kaliev realized as the large speck split in half.
“Well,” the former Shade said, “Damn.”
“We can’t let them go free.” Said the captain vaguely.
“You’re in no condition to fight them”
“Not with blade,” said the captain pulling a shortbow from his back, and stringing it. The effort of drawing the string was almost too much for the grisly soldier, and he staggered back from the effort of it. He did not have many arrows, maybe ten. The bow was a backup weapon, but it would suffice.
“Can you even draw that?”
“We’ll see I guess,” wheezed the captain, face contorted in pain, “You draw them close and I’ll do what I can.”
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Kaliev ducked under the darting swing of the creature’s barbed claws, the wind from the attack ruffling his hair as it passed. One of the predators lay dead already, one of Kaliev’s throwing knives in its eye socket, another in the joint in its exoskeleton right under the chin. That was good work. Kaliev riposted off of one of the attacks, his sword sparking as it glanced off the hard exoskeleton on the creature’s arm.
“This is quite the adversary indeed.”
As an assassin, most of his killing had been from behind, catching the target off guard. However, he was well trained to fight one on one with an opponent, very well prepared indeed. Shades were, after all, the very pinnacle of skill in that area.
The creature swung just a hair wide, and Kaliev stepped in, his dark blades a blinking, flitting shadow in the sun. The tip of his short sword clipped the creature right under its chin, a perfect blow, scoring a deep gash in its throat tissues. Kaliev wondered for a moment, if the anatomy of the creature would prevent it from being a killing blow, but black blood bubbled from the slit, and the alien toppled sideways.
“Good work if I say so myself.”
Kaliev turned from his work, and found himself staring into black. A split second of confusion hit him before he realized what it was. He was staring into the chest of an advancing alien, its presence catching him completely off guard. It was the first time Kaliev had been surprised in a fight in a very long time. It was his own fault of course, for devoting too much attention to the attacker in front of him, and disregarding the one that could, and did come from the back. He only just managed to avoid a crushing, rapid thrust from one of the razor sharp claws, the blow grazing his cheek and sending him staggering backwards. Blood trickled instantly from the wound in his face, and the creature made as though to advance and finish him off, but it was deterred from this effort by the fact that an arrow grew suddenly from its side, punching cleanly through its natural armor. The predatory attacker staggered, let out a hiss and a low moan, and fell to the ground.
By this time, Kaliev was well recovered, darting forward to finish the creature off from the crippling wound. His sword impaled the struggling creature through the gut, pinning it to the hard earth. It stopped squirming, perhaps realizing that it would do no good, and raised its eyes coolly up from its wounded abdomen, looking directly at Kaliev.
“We are but the forerunners,” rasped the alien creature much to Kaliev’s shock. The thing spoke in perfect Common Tongue, though its voice remained a low, clicking hiss. “The tide falls toward you now, and soon the Vegadi will reclaim this world as it was in the Old Time.” Melodramatic perhaps, but last words could be like that.
Kaliev eyed the dying alien, the Vegadi as it had called itself, with stony impassivity. Then he cut its throat.
“That is not my problem.”