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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18. Refusal

Quartz did not stop for the night.

Instead, he headed straight for the place of his next client - the ancient prison that once had been the grave of hundreds of Guardians. He didn't know why anybody would want to meet him in such a place: he thought the entire building had been left to crumble. The Alliance had a new prison for its captive Guardians, now.

"You should stop here," he called out to Ghost. "Just in case."

They were at least a ten minutes' flight away, and she seemed to know it. Quartz rolled his eyes, and hovered. She waited.

"It's safer, and if you get seen, they'll kill me, as well. Stay here."

With an irritable snort, Ghost sent him a piercing glare, but descended into the forest below. Contended, Quartz continued alone. It might be abandoned, but he didn't want to risk it. There was every chance it was being used as a form of temporary imprisonment for Guardians.

But what business would they have with him? Did they want him to assassinate somebody who was a threat to the prison? His mind played briefly at the possibility they wanted him to capture or kill a Guardian. At first, it seemed preposterous. Who would hire a single assassin to take on a Guardian? Of course, there was his completely faultless kill streak...

He spotted a glimpse of stone ahead, and a moment later saw a patrol of angels heading towards him. He slowed down. An escort into the prison? He was glad he'd told Ghost to wait behind this time. The approaching escorts looked like the sort of angels who would pick a fight with a Guardian.

The leader of the escort called out to him, "What business do you have here?"

Quartz furrowed his brows as he drew closer to them. "A man named Goro called me here on assassination business."

The other angel studied him for a moment, before nodding. "Very well. Follow me. The rest of you, continue patrolling."

As the other escorts ascended higher on their leader's command, Quartz noticed the bruises on their faces, black and ugly beneath the moonlight. Over half of them were bruised, he realised. And most of them seemed to by flying strangely, as though every motion hurt.

"Coming?" the leader of the patrol growled, his voice rough.

"Of course," Quartz replied smoothly, following the angel towards the prison. His escort, too, moved with what seemed to be pain, though he did a better job of disguising it. What had happened? Did they fight, constantly and without restraint? He made a note to find out from his client.

Landing heavily on the platform of the skyward entrance to the prison, Quartz's escort gave a sharp nod to the four guards.

"Security seems heavy," Quartz noted absently as they walked into the building, both of them folding down their wings.

"Yes," his escort agreed coldly, though said no more. Quartz did not push him. His client would provide him with information, if all went well.

They walked in silence through the network of corridors, and Quartz made note of the route, in the case of an ambush. It was unlikely they'd go so far just to try and ambush one angel, but it was always worth considering.

Stopping, the escort jerked his thumb towards a heavy door. "In there," he said, before stepping back. "I'll wait for you to finish."

Quartz nodded before pushing open the door.

Inside, he was greeted instantly with the heavy scent of lavender. It was an almost sickeningly sweet smell, and he glanced with disdain at the burning incense on the angel's desk.

"That smells disgusting," Quartz commented, meeting Goro's cold blue eyes with a steady gaze.

"I disagree. I take it you're one of the assassins?"

"One of?" Quartz echoed. "What do you mean by that?"

"I've hired others besides you. This is not a job for a single assassin."

Quartz raised a brow. "Have you seen my kill streak?"

"Have you ever fought a Guardian?" Goro countered.

Yes, Quartz thought. Now she's my weapon. He did not voice his thoughts.

Taking his lack of answer for submission, Goro continued. "Last week, a Guardian escaped this prison with the help of an angel. We don't know how many allies they have, but the angel was a powerful storm magic mage." Suddenly, the injuries of the other angels made sense. Storm mages were powerful, feared throughout the whole of Alphia. Quartz had heard only legends about them.

Goro pushed a small box forwards, and opened it with steady hands. Gold. The box was filled with pure gold.

Swallowing the gasp, Quartz narrowed his eyes. "You keep Guardians here, then?"

Goro nodded gravely. "Sometimes, while we wait for containment teams to take them to another prison."

"How many others would I be forced to work with?"

"There are five others, all of whom have Guardians of their own." They'd be enslaved Guardians, of course - and working with people who so openly controlled their Guardians could turn Ghost against him. In the long run, her alliance was worth a great deal more than this gold, but while he was here, he might as well take the opportunity to inform himself.

"Then why try to recruit me, as well?"

"As you said," Goro replied. "Your kill streak is excellent."

"Would I know any of the others?"

Goro shrugged. "You might. The most famous is the one who calls himself Frostblade."

A scowl instantly found its way onto Quartz's face, and he could do little to contain it. Frostblade was an honourless traitor, and Quartz wanted him dead.

"I take it you know him?"

"I know him," Quartz confirmed, fighting to unclench his fists. Goro did not enquire any further.

"And what Guardian is it you want us to hunt?" he demanded, trying to keep the anger from seeping into his words. Frostblade. Traitor.

Goro paused, as though thinking through his answer. "A shapeshifter," he said eventually.

"A shapeshifter?" Quartz echoed, his eyes widening. What sort of twisted joke was this? "They're all dead."

"We found one," Goro said. "If you don't believe me, you can ask at the village of elves where it transformed."

Quartz paused. Shapeshifters had been destroyed years ago. There was no way there was still one now.

"Assuming there is one, how did you capture it in the first place?"

"It collapsed after destroying a dwarven raiding party. The village military leader gave it sleepsap," Goro replied. "The village was lucky it didn't turn feral before then."

"And the dwarves were attacking the village?" Quartz asked.

"Yes," Goro nodded. Quartz did not say that, perhaps the shapeshifter had been trying to protect the village rather than destroy it. Which meant that the creature was likely sentimental - and could perhaps be manipulated just as easily as Ghost.

"Were any elves wounded?"

"Luckily, no," Goro said. That proved it. Were this people really so foolishly blind?

"And you want me to help Frostblade and the other angels capture it?"

"Yes. And you are to kill the angel who helped it escape. Pitying the lower race is unacceptable, and even if the angel helped it for their own purposes, we do not want trouble being caused to the Alliance."

"And the others will arrive tonight as well?"

"Yes."

He had all the information he needed.

"It's suicide," Quartz said simply. "I'm not going."

Goro's eyes widened in shock, and he threw himself from his chair, rage flashing in his eyes.

"You've got five Guardians and five other angels, and all of that gold!"

"Gold won't do a lot when you're dead," Quartz shrugged, turning around. "I'm not going. Besides, I'd never work with scum like Frostblade."

He left Goro to hiss obscenities after him, walking calmly back through the door. The escort glanced at him suspiciously, but led him back. Quartz allowed the man to believe that he had no idea of his location - his knowledge of the place might come in useful another time.

The escort gestured to the door leading to the platform. Nodding, Quartz left, opening his wings and launching into the sky.

It was when he landed beside Ghost that he looked back through the trees to the prison, and saw him.

Frostblade.

The white-winged rogue approached astride his Guardian - a monstrous black dragon with eyes like polished jet and an ugly coat of scars, layering its body in pain. Years in Frostblade's service had transformed it into this - a bloodthirsty beast of heartless nature.

A riptide of rage swept through him, and from somewhere deep in his gut a dormant power tugged at him because Frostblade had sold out everybody he had ever known and for nothing and now Quartz was lost and empty and broken-

"Don't," Ghost hissed, grabbing his arm. "Quartz, you can destroy him if you wait. You can't take him on now."

He anchored himself to her voice, to her cold iron grip. To his weapon.

"Fine," he choked eventually. He watched as Frostblade's Guardian transformed, pacing after him and into the prison. He was arrogant. He would accept the gold, and then Quartz could follow him and ruin this assignment for him, could crush him, could tear him apart, limb by limb...

It might have been stupid to hunt a shapeshifter, but what he was about to do was even more foolish.

"Ghost," he said slowly, "are you strong enough for a long fly and a fight? There's a shapeshifter we're going to save."

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