Prologue

The sound of water dripping echoed like the pealing of a bell in the underground vaults of Calondrone fortress. The thick, mildew covered stone was slick and slimy with fungus and moisture, and deep shadows hung in the corridors like curtains. Every twenty feet or so a torch was lit, but it did little to illuminate the darkness that clung so grimly to the walls.

He pressed himself closer to the wall, breathing imperceptibly as his fingers dug into a ridge of grimy stone. His dark brown hair was sweat soaked and matted, taking on a stringy look. The armor he was wearing, a deep green just a shade above black, blended perfectly with the mossy stone behind him. The man didn't dare move for fear - no, fear did not touch him - for concern of someone hearing him. He knew the guards would discover his absence any moment now; he had to escape before they raised the alarm.

The man slipped through the shadows soundlessly, like a ghost, staying clear of the sorry light cast by the far too smoky torches. Despite his dangerous position, he was calm and composed, his heart steady and his breathing light. If the guards found him outside of his cell, they would be forced to kill him - his knowledge was far too great for them to let him live.

It was now or never.

He slunk down another corridor, every sense on alert, and tried to become invisible. No, he was invisible, he blended with the darkness so completely that he was one with the shadows that flickered on the wall. His shrewd mind thought back on the course that the guards had followed when they had dragged him to his cell, and he began backtracking towards the surface.

Suddenly a call was sounded, dim and echoing eerily amongst the maze of passageways. For a moment the man was still, his heart giving an alarmed thump, then he knew he had to move fast. Without a backwards glance he took off at a stealthy run, passing into the next corridor and around a corner. If he didn't make it out of this fortress, existence as the world knew it would be lost.

Twang!

The sound reached him a moment before the arrow did, and abruptly pain was roaring through the man's lower back and belly. With a muffled gasp of agony he stumbled to a halt, falling slightly just to catch himself on the wall. How had they seen him? Where had they come from? I didn't even hear them approach. . . a spell, maybe that witch cast a spell. . . .

"There he is!" yelled a voice a moment later.

"He's wounded, get him while he's down!"

The time for stealth was over. The man sprang forcefully to his feet and practically flew down the corridor, flickering in and out of the shadows like a ghost.

"Damn," he heard, "I can't get a clear shot at him anymore! Token, how does he do it?"

Doubtless Token knows. The God of Luck wasn't aiding him now, it was purely skill.

He made his way around a few more corners with one hand strapped against his wound; gods, but it must have been a longbow since the shaft had gone straight through him. Any other man would have crumpled from the pain, collapsed from the damage, but no - he was not just any man. He was a Striker, trained to live through the unlivable, born to elude death.

The hot slickness of blood seeped through his fingers and across the palm, but he didn't let it stop his light steps. With a quick turn, he barely evaded another search party drawn by the first's crisis. The hallways were too dark to see his blood trail, and after a few more maneuvers he found enough time to pause and gather his wits. The strange armor made him invisible at the moment.

This chase can't continue, I'll get myself killed and the information will never get to the king. Between the guards, this fortress, and this wound. . . . He knew with a certain clarity that if he pulled out the arrow, he would bleed to death. Striker or no, it was inevitable – not even his armor could save him. He hadn't long to live anyway, but it did nothing to dampen his will; if anything, it only made it stronger. He heard the footsteps of the guards, and forced himself to continue.

Going a bit slower now though the soldiers weren't far behind, the wounded man jogged along a darker hallway. In his mind, he cursed the castle and its underground, maze-like dungeons. Blocking the pain from his thoughts, he stopped for a moment and concentrated to hear any sound above that of his own heart beat. Token! They're right behind me!

Leaping forward, he dove into a pool of shadows and pressed against the wall desperately. The footsteps drew closer at an aggravating pace, and the man thought hard as his mismatched eyes combed the halls. There had to be some route of escape. . . then a torch flickered and a draft of wind crossed his face.

That way.

He lunged forward just breaths ahead of the guards and ducked into a small passageway that his eyes had missed. The soldiers trooped past not a second later, missing his presence completely. For a moment he stayed completely still, then the man ducked around one more corner only to pull himself back just in time. A sudden pain ripped through his abdomen, but he had been trained not to react to it. His face expressionless, he peered around the stone.

A few crates were scattered around the small, dark room along with barrels and other things made for holding items. Soldiers and slaves carried them back and forth from another corridor, even darker than the one he was in. A slave driver cracked a whip cruelly, but it was past him that the man's eyes focused. Inky black water flickered with the light of the torches - drums and cases were being fished from the stream while crates were and other barrels were being shipped off on unmanned rafts. And there, sitting on the gently lapping liquid, was a small burial craft!

Of course, there was already a body in it covered with a blue, ceremonial blanket. . . some dead soldier or other. . . but it was heading outside. Perfect.

The slave driver suddenly let out a yell and the sound of a whip falling cracked the air. The man watched for a moment as the rest of the soldiers and slaves stopped in their tasks to watch. Screams echoed in the chamber masking any sound that he might have made. He slipped through the shadows and behind various soldiers and slaves as the unfortunate soul was beaten. Completely silent, he paused at the edge of the docks and let himself down into the burial ship, then pulled the blanket over himself. The corpse beneath him was wrapped in a white gauze like a mummy, though the sheets did nothing to mask the horrible smell. Now all he could do was wait. And pray.

After several seconds of holding his breath, the man heard the screams die down. There was the general shuffling of bodies, and a minute later a few words were uttered above him. He felt the boat rock sickeningly as the wooden cover was placed over the top of it. Only when he felt the boat start to drift down the stream did he dare to breathe.

Voices could be heard talking behind him, but they grew dimmer and dimmer until finally they were gone. He had escaped, now if only he could live long enough to finish his vital quest. . . .