When the World Falls to Darkness

A kingdom at war, a web of truth and lies, a vicious game of friendship and betrayal, and a world that will kill you, whatever path you take.
When the World Falls to Darkness, nobody is safe.
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Beautiful cover by River_Summers.

(I also promise much more frequent updates starting July, when exams are over. :D)

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14. Payment

"The money." Little else would be needed in terms of speech; there was simply no need to say any more as Jarl deposited the small pouch of gold coins into the assassin's open palm.

"I take it the killing went smoothly?"

"Why else would I be returning?" As he said it, Quartz noticed the hint of a snarl, as Jarl's lip curled upwards so very slightly it was almost impossible to detect. This was a man whose actions and skill in the battlefield had granted him almost eternal respect. But the assassin? Quartz would never bow so low as to respect another man simply because the earl was using him as a weapon.

A deadly, mysterious weapon that could quite possibly stab him in the back for enough money, but a weapon nonetheless. 

"Very well then, Wraith. You may leave, now," Jarl replied curtly, lifting his chin in an arrogant gesture. Without so much as a bow of his head, Quartz turned, wordlessly, and strode towards the giant doors.

A lesser assassin might have wondered why the earl had positioned no guards within the room; Quartz pretended not to notice the faint noises coming from behind the tapestries: guards hiding within concealed passages that had been crafted into the walls for the earl's safety. If the sheer noise of them was enough to judge by - each muffled scuff of their shoes or metallic clink of their armour as they moved - they weren't particularly skilled. Of course, they could perhaps just be loud, though Quartz had long since decided that their presence was of little threat to him. If Jarl ever became so bold as to attempt a murder on him, Quartz would merely have one less client. A good, well-paying client, but he supposed it wouldn't matter particularly. The deaths of his targets were the purpose of his being, the money was simply an added bonus.

Leaving the room, Quartz ignored the two guards standing at the entrance to the hall, flowing past them and passing silently through the corridors. Every angel he passed would bow to him, trembling and quivering with terror. He paid them little mind, remembering with disdain the maid who had merely fainted before him, the terror that shrouded him simply too much to bear. Such people were pathetic, he thought, passing yet another of Jarl's servants.

Servants. Guards. Why would Jarl want to be surrounded by such people? Why would Jarl choose to have living protection rather than powerful walls? Living beings could betray you with such ease. But a wall? That could crumble, or smash, but to betray you? No. So why did the earl decide to surround himself with angels that could quite easily slaughter him?

Besides, could Jarl simply not train himself to a point of unbeatable strength? Undoubtedly, Jarl lacked the motivation to commit himself to such physical training. But Quartz had every motivation he needed to be so elite, so powerful. He had every reason to commit himself to the life of a survivor, rather than the life of the pampered richling he could so easily be.

To waste his pay on luxuries would do him little good. But to kill? That, Quartz thought, was undeniably the only path for him to take.

He left the castle, spread his wings, and launched himself into the black night sky.

 

 

The Guardian was there when Quartz arrived, sitting calmly where she always sat, with her back to the fallen tree.

The outcrop on the mountainside had proved a useful meeting place; it was a naturally formed platform in the valley where angels very rarely ventured. Rumours had spread that ghostly winged wolves haunted the valley, their spirits bound to the land in which they had been slaughtered years before. People and their foolish superstition, Quartz reflected disdainfully. Of course, their fear had proved useful - he and Ghost had been able to terrify any passing angels. In the past year, he'd seen not one bold enough to cross into the valley, and that was certainly a good thing. If people like Jarl were to discover his alliance with the Guardian, business would instantly be obliterated, all ties to his clients severed through their hatred of the Guardian. Still, he was willing to take the risk for such a useful ally.

Landing beside her, Quartz drew the pouch of coins from his satchel, flashing it before her eyes briefly before returning it to its place in his bag.

"I'll collect the payment from the other clients tomorrow," Quartz announced, and the Guardian nodded.

"Then I suppose you'll be completely free of all duties to just sit here and admire the moon with me?" she laughed. Quartz couldn't tell if she was somehow mocking him in her own obscure way, but he sat beside her anyway.

"Admire the moon?" he echoed. "Is that what you've been doing as you wait?"

Laughing softly, the Guardian shrugged carelessly. "I suppose. That, and thinking."

"Of what?"

"Nothing important. Anything and everything. Death, suffering, pain... The usual."

Their conversation went somewhat like this for the following hour, as the strangely acquainted killers exchanged conversation. Ghost would laugh: a soft, almost silvery sound, like she was happy, like this talk of killing amused her somehow. The angel, however, would make shorter comments, allowing the Guardian to speak for the most of it with her mockeries and laughter. Her teasing was harmless, they both knew it: as harmless as the sarcasm that seemed to creep its way into Quartz' speech.

And then, at some point, they stopped talking, doing little but looking out to the valley below.

It was almost peaceful, thought the assassin, too peaceful to be physically possible. He was sitting beside a powerful being who could easily tear him apart; the atmosphere should be anything but tranquil. He supposed, somewhere in the complex interior that was his mind, he liked the unusually calm moments spent with the Guardian. At the same time, he hated that he enjoyed it, because allowing himself to fall to pleasure was weakness. Even if that pleasure was a few rare moments of calm.

But Quartz would always return to spend these hours, as infrequent as they were, with the Guardian, no matter how much his mind told him that he shouldn't be. Sometimes, he decided, it was acceptable to merely relax. If you could even call it that, with Ghost laughing insults every minute.

For a while longer, they sat, in silence, until the Guardian sliced through it with her voice.

"I wonder what the moon would be like if we could fly that far."

Shooting her a sidelong glance, Quartz raised an eyebrow.

"Why ponder on that, when you know you'll never reach it? You'd fall from the sky and die."

The Guardian laughed. "Has thinking become a crime, recently?"

"No. Sometimes, thinking is a useful skill. Unfortunately, you seem incapable of using it realistically, instead wasting it on pointless dreams."

"For somebody who can fly, you're very down to earth, aren't you?" Ghost replied. Her eyes glinted brightly as she waited for the angel's reply.

"Down to earth? I simply follow that which is within my grasp," he replied with an expression that was almost cynical. She laughed again - that somehow joyful sound that echoed through the night like a ringing bell. While it was irritating, Quartz supposed the noise was bearable, if only for a few hours a week.

"Well, perhaps you could train enough. Your wings could be strong enough to reach the moon, and then you would be able to see what it was really like. If you don't try, then how will you ever know?"

"And how would knowing about the moon enhance my life, in any way?"

Tilting her head with an amused gleam to her eyes, the Guardian paused to think for a moment. Patiently, Quartz awaited her reply. How two such different being could coexist, he still wasn't completely sure. But they did - somehow - and, to say the least, she was a useful ally. 

"Well, I suppose it wouldn't really make your life better, since you don't care about what view you've got. But I think that looking down on the four kingdoms would be interesting."

Quartz sighed. "Whether you find it interesting or not isn't the point. How does it make your life better?"

Grinning, the Guardian replied, "Because I can reflect on the memory of the sight whenever I don't have a good view before me, and I can feel more free. That way, I won't be so bored if I'm somewhere dull."

Wondering why he was trying to talk sense into a mind that evidently would never accept it, Quartz spoke again. "Well, since you're never going to actually reach the moon, why would you think about it? Why waste so much time chasing such a trivial matter?"

"Why waste so much time discussing such a trivial matter?" Ghost smirked. Quartz ignored her, but clearly the conversation about the moon was finished. No doubt, the Guardian had convinced herself she'd 'won' a fight between them: Quartz didn't consider the conversation a fight, merely a debate for the Guardian's amusement.

Yawning, the Guardian stood, stretching out her stiff limbs as she looked down to the angel. Quartz, too, stood.

"I suppose I'll see you later," she commented cheerfully. Quartz gave a simple nod, spreading his wings as Ghost prepared for a transformation.

When he looked at her again, the dragon was there, eyes still containing the same level of predatory amusement. What she found entertainment from, Quartz did not know - nor did he particularly want to. Snorting farewell, the dragon spread her wings and launched herself into the sky. With little else to do, Quartz watched her fly away, her body melting into the night: a shadow into an ocean of darkness.

He turned as she left his view, and opened his own wings. Tonight, he would rest. Tomorrow, he would collect his payment.

The payment for death.

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