The night was one of obscurity. The overcast sky was a shroud that kept the secrets of the stars and moon hidden from spies and thieves alike, and it had been to no one’s surprise that the torches had been set ablaze much earlier in the evening than usual. Each brilliant flame danced in tune with the rhythm of the night’s wind, holding the obscurity back with their intensity.
The well packed snow that blotted out the cobblestone street, lent its deceptively yielding body to a nearby guard whose steady pace contradicted the torches’ liberal dance. He kept his march slow and steady, so as not to disturb the citizens who had just settled in for their late night stroll through the realm of the Dreamer. Each step, however, rang out clear enough to a mass of swirling shadows watching from the corner of a nearby rooftop.
After the guard had passed, the shadows silently slid across the snow covered roof until they were ten paces away from the edge. Pausing for a breath, they swam up out of the roof, coalescing into the featureless shape of a man as they rose. Just as quickly the darkness was replaced by color and tone until the shadows were gone and a swordsman wearing robes the color of stone was left in their wake. While his face remained hidden within the confines of his cowl, the wind sent a gentle zephyr across the area, blowing the robes out around the swordsman’s legs and waist revealing a set of blackened leather armor. A dagger and a longsword, each as simple in design as they were, undoubtedly, sharp, were strapped to the man’s left hip.
He slid his feet, toes first, into the snow with each step. Despite his brisk pace, each step was little more than the sound of a whisper on the wind compared to the tromping of the guard’s march that still reached the swordsman’s ears from further down the street. With movements as flowing and graceful as silk, he took the last few steps until he reached the edge of the roof.
Without slowing, the man leapt from the roof out over the open street. His form melted back into a shadow until it landed on an opposing roof in a mass of shadows that surely would have splashed had it been but mere water. However, within a second of landing the swordsman surged back up out of the shadows. He continued his brisk walk across the roof and down a nearby set of stairs that led down to the alley below, pausing briefly at the top step to take notice of a movement that turned out to be nothing more than the rummaging of a stray cat.
At the bottom step he turned his hooded head, first left then right, and found the alley empty of any other human presence. He walked down the alley with ghostly silence, until he found the door he was looking for.
He closed his eyes, placed an ear to the door and listened for several moments, but the only sound he could discern were those of the tromping guard making his next pass back out on the main street. Satisfied that all was in place, he opened the door quietly and stole away inside.
* * *
The room was as dark as the void between waking and sleeping. If not for the training in his youth, even the swordsman would be hard pressed to see through the subterfuge. As it was, he was so at home in the shadows that his eyesight was actually better in the room than it was in broad daylight and it was with practiced care that he surveyed his surroundings. The room was small and simple in design, housing little more than a couple of chairs, a table and a wash basin. The wood used in each item was as plain and simple as the rest of the room. The floor between him and the only door in the room was warped, easily making each step, someone might take, destined for a soundly doom. Again, such would be the case for anyone without his training.
Closing his eyes, he focused on shedding the facilities of his physical form until he became as one with the shadows as he was with the darkness behind his closed eyes. For the briefest of moments there was a shifting motion all around him, as if the very air had come alive, but then it was gone. When he opened his eyes he saw not the sparse furniture of the room, but the door that had been several noisy feet away but moments ago.
He placed an ear to the door and listened. It was quiet on the other side for several moments, and then he heard it; the sound of someone breathing. It was the steady breath of someone waiting for something. Only by accepting who the target was, could he forgive himself for having been discovered. He took a deep breath and, smooth as ice and swift as wind, swung the door open. A single candle, alight on a table to his right, flickered quickly as he opened the door. By the time it had returned to its silent post, his eyes adjusted and he found his target, sitting casually upon the bed.
The candle light cast deep shadows over the various crevices that had begun to form on the man’s face. The man’s age was just as exaggerated by the whiteness of his hair in the open candlelight as by his various wrinkles, making him look much older than the swordsman knew him to be. The man, with sullen eyes leaden with bags of weariness, silently turned his attention to the swordsman.
“It took you long enough, Grehem” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper.
“I was in no rush,” the swordsman name Grehem retorted as he pulled the hood from his head, revealing his own tired expression, to the man upon the bed. Black hair cascaded to his shoulders and framed a gaunt face with glazed-over blue-gray eyes. He was neither unattractive nor old, but his countenance was that of a man who had seen equal parts bloodshed and hardship.
“I could have run.”
“You could have tried, but we both know that no one ever escapes.”
“So you think,” the man said with sad eyes.
“So I have seen.”
“Then you have been unable to break the compulsion.” It was a statement declared, not a question asked.
Grehem clenched his teeth together tightly for a short moment.
“Have you even discovered how he does it?”
Teeth still clenched, “No.”
“I see. Then I make but one final request,” the older man said with tears in eyes. “Don’t let my death be in vain.”
“I promise,” the assassin vowed solemnly, before a compulsion drove him to draw his sword.
* * *
Tima the cat had made her way down the stairs as the man had left the stairway. She was so hungry and had not found any edible scraps in any of the nearby trash bins. The man had smelled decent enough, not like the mean men that threw hordes of food out each night, only to scream and kick at Tima and the other strays that came by for a decent meal. She had stopped on the last step and watched him walk down the alley, searching for something. He had finally come to a stop in front of a door that Tima instantly recognized as her friends door.
This man must be nice if he had come to visit her friend. Kind and warm, her friend always left some food outside the door for the local strays. Tima knew this and usually stayed nearby in hopes of being the first to get some, even though she had not seen her friend in some time. She held still for several moments until the man went inside and she quickly pranced her way down the stairs. She crept into the recess of the doorway across the alley from her friend’s home, and decided to wait, hopefully, for someone to bring out some food.
Tima was just about to crouch down and relax while she waited, when a scent reached her sensitive nose. This was a scent that always put her on alert. It was the scent of blood. Creeping back further into the recessed doorway she cautiously sniffed the air, trying to figure out where it was coming from. After a few seconds, she started to sneak out to track the scent, when the door opened and the man stepped out. The smell of blood invaded each of her senses as it washed out over her. Screeching in fear and panic, she bolted down the alley to the open street.
* * *
Holding his blood covered sword limply with his right hand, the assassin, for that was what Grehem truly had become, emerged from the small flat without bothering to check for anybody around him. He barely took notice of the stray that screeched its way down the alley. His eyes reflected the distance that separated the man’s thoughts from his surroundings, yet it was with uncaring grace that he pulled a piece of paper from inside his robes and swiped it across the flats of his blade in one pass. With only his left hand, he folded the paper in half then quarters, his fingers moving as nimbly as one of the decorative paper artists that could be seen folding different shapes and designs for the parties of the local nobility. As he finished the final crease, he threw the paper up into the air, and, as if it passed through an invisible brazier, it burned away leaving only the faintest wisps of smoke to be blown away by zephyr agents of the wind.
“Who’s down there?” a voice called from back out on the main street. It was the guard coming to check the alley after the stray cat had come bolting out. But the alley was empty aside from a few quiet shadows.