The assassin crouched on a thick tree limb, watching what was about to unfold before her eyes. She knew the position of this particular caravan of people and had been following them for a greater part of a week, but they were walking right into a trap. She sighed to herself and pulled her mask over her face as a precaution before leaping down the branches and landing on the soft forest floor. She ran quickly and as quiet as the ghost many believed her to be. Her bow was ready and notched with an arrow as soon as she had scrambled up another tree and took her aim. Her breathing slowed, eyes focused, exhale, and the arrow flew.
They were called yurdk and they were vile, repulsive beings. They had rotten skin, a disgusting odor, and a savage mind that only ever seemed focused on killing things. They lived in small packs, or groups, and ran around killing everything in their path. While they had a physical similarity to a man, they were stronger, meaner, larger, and could be manipulated by anything that was as dark as them, but just a little bit more intelligent. Yurdk were not smart, but what they lacked in intelligence, they made up for in brute strength. They often attacked small groups of humans that passed through the forest in the North without mercy, but even they knew the dangers that lurked in the shadows.
The arrow had met its mark and the result was instantaneous. The yurdk whipped their heads around in an attempt to find the source of the attack. More arrows were flying; she barely paused to fit another arrow into the string of the bow before it was sailing into a vital spot of another enemy. Many were running now, realizing just who they had run into. The girl knew that while they were unintelligent beings, the yurdk would pinpoint her location soon. She shouldered her bow, took out the knives that she used for close combat and jumped off of the branch that she had been standing on and descended to the forest floor with practiced grace. The yurdk saw a figure, cloaked in dark colors land in a crouch on the ground. As the figure began to rise they saw a flash of golden eyes and the figure moved.
Twisting, shifting, and weaving between blows, she whirled through her opponent’s defenses as she had been taught to do. Use their reckless blows to your advantage and don’t get hit. Their armor is weak beneath the arm and around the neck. Don’t block if you can avoid the strike. If they lose their balance they’re as good as dead. Things that she had learned a long time ago were now barely more than an instinct. All too soon the battle had come to an end and she was the only person left standing. She could hear the group of people getting closer to her and she melted into the shadows of the forest. The familiarity of the area due to living in the forest aided her as she left the area without a sound. She knew that they would find the bodies of the yurdk and wonder what had happened. They would tell the story to the people in the nearby capital city, Krey, and the people would tell them that they had heard the story a thousand times before. They would speak of the ‘silent guardian’ or the ‘hidden savior’ or, her personal favorite, the ‘death in the shadows’. The mysterious entity that had begun to protect the forest about five years ago that no one had ever seen and lived to tell the tale. She almost giggled to herself at the thought of being called that and kept walking towards the edge of the mountain she called home. Her sturdy brown boots made no sound as she made her way along the familiar path. Perhaps she would go into the city today, she thought, she needed some supplies anyway, so why not?
The city of Krey was full of the usual hustle and bustle that went on every day without fail. Vendors were shouting, wagons creaked along the dirt and cobblestone roads, and children ducked between legs to get to their destination as quick as their little legs could take them. No one noticed the girl in a plain brown dress with her hair braided and tucked into the back of her thin cloak. No one would even venture to guess that that particular girl was almost armed to the teeth. The girl actually liked going into the city, she could walk around without a worry and went about her business. It made her feel normal for once and it was a feeling that she almost craved. As she walked through the familiar streets and headed towards one of her favorite shops, one that sold a particular kind of chocolate, she saw a man in a dark cloak turn down an alleyway. Don’t follow him, she tried to tell herself, you don’t want to follow him. She scanned the streets for anything that may catch her attention in an attempt to distract herself, but knew that she was going to follow this mysterious person and let herself give in to her instincts. Dammit I’m gonna follow him.
She put a mask of innocence on her face and went down the same alley that the strange man in the cloak had just turned down. Eyes were searching over everything as she tried to pinpoint where he had gone. One thing about the city is that the back alleys are more of a labyrinth than a shortcut and were making her job significantly more difficult. She huffed and glanced around before scaling the nearby wall with a practiced ease from years of climbing trees. Without skipping a beat she ran across the rooftops, checking each alleyway as she went. There. She saw him walking quickly towards a dead end. Does this guy even know where he’s going? She slowed down and crouched in the shadows of a chimney as the alleyway came to an end and the man began to frantically look around. What is this guy’s problem? Seven men rounded the corner and the first man whipped his head around with wide eyes. Oh so that’s his problem. While none of them appeared to be armed, the lone man included, seven against one wasn’t particularly fair.
The fighting began rather quickly. She couldn’t discern why they were so intent on harming this single man, for all she could tell he was maybe the son of a lord. The man was holding his own fairly well considering the circumstances. He ducked and weaved, struck one man’s face hard enough for her to hear the crack of a nose. He took his fair share of hits to the ribs, but had managed to block most of the punches that were thrown. She caught the glint of a knife from one of the seven men as he now had a large hunting knife in his hand. That’s not a fair fight. The man with the knife was stalking around the circle of fighting to get behind the one that they were attacking. That guy is actually going to stab him! The man had turned at the last second, managing to avoid most of the blade, but she could see the blood on the knife. She wasn’t sure when or even if she had made the conscious decision to yank the hood over her head and jump, but the next thing she knew she was in front of the man she had followed and blocked the attackers knife as it came back to finish off what it started. She wasted no time in disarming the attacker and dealing him a swift jab to the abdomen, elbow to the jaw, and swiped him off of his feet. One down. She turned and mentally cursed the dress that was impeding her movement slightly as she moved into the familiar tempo of a battle. If she were to be honest with herself she was more worried about keeping her hood up and not tripping over her skirts than anything else. Fighting was second nature to her now. Breathe, block, counter, attack, repeat, be aware of your numbers, breathe. It took mere minutes for them to figure out that they weren’t going to win this fight, for she hadn’t even had to use the knife yet and they were getting beat.
“What are you, some freak!?” They spat at her as they turned to run back to whatever back alley they had come from. She let out a small sigh and sheathed the knife that she hadn’t needed to use after all and glanced back at the man that she had foolishly saved. What was she thinking? This is the opposite of laying low and being normal. The man in the dark cloak was holding his side with one hand and regarding her warily. He had no intention of letting his guard down. Good, she thought, maybe he isn’t a complete idiot. He’s smart to be afraid of what I am. She figured that even with his injury he would live and she began to walk away, back towards the busy streets where she could finish her shopping in peace and ambiguity.
“Wait! Why did you help me?” the man called to her, “Did my father send you? Are you one of my bodyguards?”
“No.” She told him, leaving him more confused than before.
Leah hurried away from the man. Trying to lose him amongst the maze of alleyways. Stupid. She didn’t know him, why did she think saving him was a good idea?
“Wait! At least allow me to thank you properly!” The man called after her. She glance back at him without slowing her pace and saw that he was gaining on her. Curse men and their long legs. She quickly assessed her surroundings and found a wall to scale with relative ease. Once she was about halfway up the wall she knew that he had noticed her.
“Hey! Why are you running away? Don’t you care what I have to say to you?!” He called up to her. She couldn’t help but roll her eyes.
“Do you think if I cared about what you had to say I would be up here?” She told him while climbing, which she found to be rather difficult in skirts.
“What about a reward then?” He asked her with a lilt in his voice. She blew some hair out of her eyes. Nobles. They think that they can buy anything with their money. Reaching the top of the roof, the girl hauled herself over the edge and took off. Roof top to rooftop she ran and finally managed to lose the young noble. Once she decided that she was safe she hopped off of the roof with a roll to soften her fall and dusted off her dress to resume her shopping. As soon as she stepped out of the shadows she nearly jumped back into the alleyway. A troupe of men on horseback were galloping through the street. Judging by the clothes that they wore she could tell that these were royal soldiers and they did no look happy to be here.
“There he is!” One shouted, causing her to jump and duck into the shadows without a thought. She peeked out from her hiding place to find that a few of the guards had dismounted and had grabbed a man from the crowd. What she found interesting was that they weren’t doing anything to the man, just yelling at him. She slipped out of the shadows to get a closer look as the strange spectacle. Once she was close enough to hear what they were saying she was shocked to find that the man they were lecturing was the young noble from before. So he is definitely a noble then, she thought to herself.
“This is the fifth time this month that you left without guards! What are you thinking? Do you understand what could happen to you? Your father doesn’t give you these orders for no reason!” The guard yelled at the young man who was already getting on a dark horse that didn’t have a rider.
“Yes, yes I know I know.” The nobleman drawled at the guard as he turned his horse towards the road.
“No you don’t know! You have responsibilities and it’s dangerous out here. What if you had been killed? What would I have told your father?” The guard questioned.
“Honestly Gabriel, you worry more than my mother. I’ll be going now.” And with that the young man wheeled his horse around towards the exit and took off at a gallop out of the city. The guards scrambled after the prince, but it seemed as though he had the superior horse and they may not find him if he chose to enter the forest.
The girl watched him leave with amusement. On one hand it must suck to be cooped up in your home, but on the other hand he had his life so easy and really didn’t understand what it was like to live as normal people did. Neither did she for that matter. Once the guards cleared out and went after him the girl pulled her hood down and went back to finding her favorite chocolate vendor.
“Leah! It’s been awhile since I saw you last. I hope that you are well!” The chocolate vendor greeted her with gusto when he noticed the girl in the crowd. She smiled at him and nodded. Though it was still strange to her when people called her by her real name she knew that it was a necessary transition away from her old life. Besides, these people had helped her get back on her feet five years ago and she owed them a great debt.
“I’m well! I hope that you and your family have been doing good as of late,” She told him with a grin as she looked over all of the chocolate that he had for sale in his store. Leah noticed that the man had a tired look in his eyes at her question that gave her pause, “is everything alright Mr. Purcell?”
The man before her looked around his shop as though someone were listening in in their conversation. He wrung his hands through an old rag that hung at his belt as he leaned toward Leah.
“Things have been happening around here Miss Leah. People are disappearing in the night. Just the other day Mr. Conway, the baker down the road, his boy hasn’t been seen for a week. I’m afraid for my family and the guards and nobles act as though they don’t care one bit.” Mr. Purcell shook his head, “These are dark times lass, I hope that you look after yourself ya hear?”
“Don’t worry about me, but is there anywhere you and your family can go for awhile?” She asked him. Her question was met with a kind smile.
“I’m afraid that we don’t have the money to move the entire family as well as the shop, so we must stay here for now I’m afraid, but don’t you go worrying after us.” He told her as he grabbed her favorite chocolates and put them into a small bag.
Leah nodded at the man and paid for her chocolate before leaving the store lost in her thoughts. After stopping at a few more shops and running out of money Leah began to head back towards the forest that she called home. The guards at the gate did nothing to stop her from leaving, but even they gave her a warning.
“Be careful miss, strange things are going on lately. One shouldn’t go into those woods alone these days.” One guard warned her when she kept walking towards the forest. Leah heard the other guard mutter to his friend.
“Maybe the shadow guardian will watch out for her. All I hear are stories of that ghost in the forest these days.”
Once Leah was out of earshot she had to laugh at what he had said. Oh, the irony. If only they knew.
A/N: Okay I'm putting a quick note here since this is the first chapter. First and foremost the cover art is not by me it is by Senfeng Chen and I claim nothing of it other than I think it's pretty great! Let me know what you think of the story and any constructive criticism is very appreciated!