Free {Kingdoms of War}

An outlaw, tuned to kill. A shifter, transformed from myth to monster. A prince, denied rightful claim to the throne. An assassin, adapted to survive and to kill. Four monsters, and a common enemy to unite them.

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6. Chapter Five

The Shade.

The heart of the criminal underworld: the paradise of all thieves, murderers and smugglers, a literal black market built within a mountainside cavern. Lit solely by giant braziers scattered around the place, the Shade was as dark and eerie as it sounded. Axel loved it for this reason; he hated it for the hundreds of humans who filled it: criminals of all descriptions; people desiring rogues or assassins to do their bidding; leaders of lawbreaking gangs, here to discuss business.

They filled it like ants an anthill, though these ants served none but themselves. They may have traded within such close proximities, but that did little to help their loyalty to one another. No matter how close the myriad trading stalls might have been; no matter how many people stood in such a close space to discuss assassinations: they worked for themselves, and themselves only.

He didn't exactly come here often, but Axel had visited enough to know that this place was like the headquarters of Haven's greatest lawbreakers. They'd only just come in, but already Axel could hear the beginnings of a fight behind them. The so-called 'merchants' ignored the brawl. Evidently, such a scene was common here.

It was hardly surprising, though. Nobody trusted anybody, and yet the entire system was based on the trust that none of them would ever sell out the place to anybody with high enough standing.

Naturally, the Shade wasn't easy to find, but it wasn't exactly difficult, either. Built entirely within the concealment of a mountainside cavern, the Shade could be located by any who knew where the entrance was.

If so much as one of them reported its existence, the royal guard would undoubtedly be sent with one task in mind: massacre. The people inside would be slaughtered without exception, and the Shade would be forever gone.

Of course, Axel had been here before, to steal the treasures of famously rich smugglers; to sell off his own stolen goods; to find a new target who would fill his boredom. But never before had he been here with anybody but Skala.

Rubin guided them through, weaving between the guarded stalls of talented thieves and other such criminals.

"I love it here," he said back at them, no doubt grinning behind the mask. "Everything looks so... sparkly."

As Rubin passed one of the stalls, he whipped out his arm, snatching away a small red jewel in a movement that was so fast even Axel was slightly surprised. Could the assassin really move so quickly?

"Hey!" One of the smugglers grabbed Rubin's arm. The assassin's head snapped around. "Give it back!"

"Give what back?" Rubin asked innocently.

"The gem!" the smuggler demanded, fury written plainly into his features. Axel stood back calmly to watch. This could end bloodily...

"Really? I don't remember a gem, but I do remember helping you out a few years ago and being promised something in return. I remember freeing you from that other smuggler and not killing you. You said you'd repay me," Rubin shrugged casually. With his free hand, he lunged for another gem - this one of a transparent complexion. "Diamond? I think I'll keep that one. What else do you have?"

A few others had glanced over, Axel noticed, but they didn't seem interested. Thievery was common in the home of thieves. To keep your possessions close would give you a chance of ensuring they remained your possessions; to keep them anything but close was to give them away.

"I'll give you something else. Besides, they're worth more than just a little help!"

"I saved your life," Rubin said. "I can take that as well, if you want."

With that, he twisted his arm free, lunging for the neck smuggler's shirt and dragging him over the table of jewels. Gems fell to the floor, and two nearby thieves closed in instantly, snatching up the crystals before anybody else might get the chance.

"Take them!" the smuggler gasped to the assassin, desperate to stop his livelihood slipping away, and Rubin released him.

"As you wish!" he said cheerfully, scooping up a handful of the crystals and stuffing them in his pocket. "Good luck making money on invisible jewels!" he laughed over his shoulder. Humans - so easily surrendering. The smuggler was little more than a coward. A sly and intelligent coward, to be sure, but weak nonetheless.

Axel started walking again, following Rubin deeper into the Shade. Skala followed him, a silent shadow as she walked.

"You guys want any gems?" Rubin asked. "Not the expensive ones, of course, but I'm sure I could spare a sapphire or something."

"I won't take something stolen in such a manner."

"I didn't steal it!" Rubin protested. "I helped him out of the kindness of my heart! I just wanted something back for it, that's all!"

"You don't have a heart," Axel replied. "And I don't want your charity."

Rubin shrugged in that irritatingly casual manner. "Suit yourself."

They passed another brazier that had been set into the ground. A fire mage was refuelling it, willing the fire to rise up once more.

It was slightly interesting to see humans use magic in their own weak, pathetic ways. The mage could only move the fire slowly. It didn't blaze up instantly like the darkness would for Axel; it wouldn't obey him with such effortless simplicity that it could be used as an instant shield or weapon.

Humans, on the whole, were feeble.

Finally, they left the swarm of stalls, escaping into a slightly more spacious area. Here, buildings had been constructed in which people could negotiate over assassinations, private smugglings, or mercenaries. Sometimes, slavers would discuss businesses here with clients, though usually the client would simply head to the far end of the Shade to purchase slaves.

Of everything here, slaving was by far the worst. Axel valued his freedom highly; to spend the remnants of his days in chains would be the death of him.

"We just go into one of these buildings here, sort some stuff out, and then we get to go kill people. See? Simple!"

Axel ignored Rubin, following him wordlessly into a small building. Inside was a short, lithe woman with a string of shards of bone around her neck, displayed almost proudly. Something told Axel the bones had belonged to humans, once.

"Find us the hardest assassination you have requested," Rubin stated. "Hell, we'd kill the king if you had a request for it!"

The woman looked at Rubin sceptically. "You would kill the king, with your lack of intelligence and two children?"

"I am not a child," Axel growled. "And nor is she. Give us the most difficult job you have."

The woman shrugged. "Don't blame me when you all die, then." She flicked through a few parchments, and quickly selected a job for them.

"Some big city tax collector, spends most of his money on defences and guards. Apparently extremely paranoid."

"Easy. Where is he?" Axel replied. The woman slid the parchment slip over the desk, and Rubin stretched to snatch it up from the table.

"Yeah, no problem. He'll be dead by tomorrow night!"

Rubin strode again from the door. With a last irritable glance at the woman, Axel turned around to follow the assassin, with Skala at his heels.

They had a tax collector to kill.

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