Chapter 1

The air was much richer down here than it was in the mountains. Fuller, heavier, not as restricted. It had the ability to better hold in the metallic smell of freshly spilt blood. The valley that served as my battlefield was proof of that. The gentle air flowing throughout it was laced with the foul stench; my clothes became saturated with it.

The ground stained with the life-bearing liquid that once coursed through the veins of my opponents. I glanced down at my scythe and frowned at the thick liquid dripping from it. It'll rust if I don't clean it. With that thought in mind, I twirled the blade quickly, causing the excess blood to slide off and scatter onto the ground. There was still blood, but at least there was less to clean later on.

I had fought three men, and I must admit they were hard to overpower. They were quick and had so many tricks up their sleeves that even I could not escape the battle unscathed. My left calf pulsed with pain, a slowing stream of blood leaking from the open wound the smallest and most vicious of the three had inflicted upon me.

He had tried to cut my Achilles tendon, which would have left me incapacitated and an easy kill. Luckily a misstep on my part saved me from such a defeat. Instead his blade sliced further up and through my calf, which still had me faltering and earned me a close call, but it wasn't as life threatening as other wounds I had gotten in past battles.

I hummed a mindless tune as I let the blade fall securely into the hostler on my back, rather proud of this battle. It had been a long time since I last fought such a worthy group and I was thankful for the much needed exercise. I crouched by the barely breathing form of the leader. The man glared up at me, blood dribbling from his lips, clutching the large gash across his stomach. A small crimson pool was forming around him and the pallor of his skin showed his life was nearing its end.

The reflection of my plain porcelain mask glinted in his hate-filled eyes. "I'll take that scroll now." My voice was slightly muffled from the mask but the man could hear me clearly enough. He let out a gurgle; the blood had welled into his throat, and struggled to clear it. He leaned to the side, coughing violently and splattering more blood onto the ground.

His craggy face momentarily became red and he took in a ragged breath to speak, "You bit-" He let out a yelp of pain when I pressed my hand against one of the smaller wounds littering his torso, digging my fingers into the torn tender flesh.

"Give me the scroll." I repeated, becoming irritated with him. His breath was coming in harsh gasps now, his teeth gnashed together in an effort to contain his pain. I saw him glance at one of his fallen comrades before refocusing on me quickly.

I hummed and stood, turning toward the body and beginning a quick pat down. My objective was nestled deep in one of the younger man's inner trench coat pockets. I slipped the scroll into the small pouch tied to my waist and unclipped the small money purse from the man's hip, weighing it appreciatively in my hand before standing to leave the valley.

"Why?" The man croaked out, his worn voice defeated. He was coming to terms with his death. I halted midstride, why did I do this? Why what a stupid question. Everyone knew of my clan, knew of what we did.

"A mission." I answered plainly, half turning to regard his crumpled form. He half drew himself up, arms shaking from the exertion as he regarded me with ill-concealed contempt.

Finally his mouth opened and out tumbled bitter chuckles at my response. "A mission, eh? Just like a Mortifer, just for the money, the clan." He spit out dryly, anger seeping into his voice. "One of these days, your clan will fall, Mortifer. Death will come to you. The two clans will merge and out of the union will come death and destruction. Your era will end!" He cackled, continuing on with his crazed ramblings, choking every now and then when the blood welled.

I resumed my even strides once he began spouting that nonsense, that damned prophecy. About the destruction of either my clan, the Mortifer, or the Vita clan. The Mortifer clan, Bringers of Death. The Vita clan, Life. We've been enemies for so long that even the oldest records couldn't say how long we've been at war. We just know that we hate each other, there's no question of the logic behind it.

Both are specialized in the fighting arts, but only my clan readily kills. We are assassins, while the Vita are guardians. Life and Death. Light and Darkness. Protectors and Killers. We are natural opposites. There's no way we could ever coexist peacefully. And it is foolish for people to think otherwise.

My clan resides deep in the mountain tops of the North. We're trained from an early age and prepared for our life-long occupation. Not all of us are assassins though, not even all of us are related. The main branch members are descendants of the first Mortifers and the secondary branch members are simply families that pledged loyalty to my clan in return for homes. The non-assassins could be called civilians of our clan; they are mostly secondary branch members. They are merchants, bakers, smiths, cloth makers; all of the non-life threatening jobs.

We are a feared people, but also a needed one. Those who would rather not get their own hands dirty enlist our help, for a fee of course. These missions range from simple courier missions, body guard duty, infiltration, to flat out assassination. The clan leader dictates what mission we receive, there is no argument. His word is law. There's no way around it, failure to comply results in a strict punishment, a painful punishment. To go against him is considered traitorous and is in no way tolerated. You're better off committing suicide than defying Aquila.

The Vita reside in the South. In the valleys and forests, places of beauty. I envied their homeland. It's alive, full of plants and growth, flowers, color! We only have rocks, drab, hard, and sometimes painful. They experience all of the good weather in their homeland. We must suffer through the horrid thunderstorms, wretched snowfall, and the occasional mudslides if we migrate lower on the mountains. But other than that, I hate them with a passion. They accuse us of being heartless murderers. Flesh born demons.

I wonder sometimes why they, and the vast majority of the continent, would think that. How is my clan the bigger evil? We simply do as requested. We do not seek out this work, others come to us. And, if the price is right, we may comply with the demand. If we do not concede to the terms of service we refuse and send them away. Yet they do not see that side of our business. They do not stop to think about our employers.

Are not the ones who seek out our help the true evil ones? Are not the ones who hide behind a peaceful façade, yet seek out others to fulfil their dastardly deeds, the real demons? And yet they accuse us of being the evil ones? As if we simply walk around and commit random sprees of murder for amusement, as if we as a people do not have morals. That we do not cherish life as much as others; that we are nothing but vile monsters in disguise, constantly searching for more victims.

They are blinded by the various deeds of the Vita, as if the Vita had not done wrong in their lives. They are the ones who protect the true evil. They shield the true demons from a just redemption at our hands. And yet, no one can see that. I wonder how blind the people in this world truly are. To disregard us in such a way, without ever once thinking about what they accuse us of. Such foolish and ignorant people, they've never given my clan the chance to show our true worth.

But it is their ignorance that gives my clan our income. They allow us to continue in this world, without them we would only be mountain people. Not the greatest title I must admit, but it is better than what we could be. We take on the title of murderers and demons to feed our children and shelter our poor. We turn away from the scornful looks and cruel words to build our homes and prosper in this world.

We fight for a better future, a place where our children's children would not have to survive the way we currently do. That is our goal, that is our drive, and until it becomes a reality we must strike down the enemies of those we are contracted with. And in doing so we rid the world of one more evil that future generations need not associate with.

I stopped walking once I heard the faint sound of running water. I cocked my head to the side, trying to find the direction the sound came from. After pinpointing it, I changed direction and quickened my pace. Soon enough the deep foliage surrounding me opened up to reveal a shallow river. I smiled in relief; finally I would be able to wash all the blood off. I crouched down beside the river and took off my gloves before letting my hands slip into the cool water up to my elbows. The water became red, then pink as the current washed the blood away.

To quicken the process, I rubbed furiously at my arms, all the while listening to my surroundings. When I was sure I was alone I removed my mask and began to wash it. I relished the cool air soothing my warm face. Though the mask was a necessary accessory to my attire, after all a faceless killer is an untraceable one, it does get rather stuffy to wear, especially during and after battles.

Sweat would collect on my face, and if the battle was particularly strenuous my harsh breathing would make the inside of the mask hot and uncomfortable. I set my mask aside and cupped some water in my hands before splashing it onto my face. Oh yes, that felt so much better.

I unclipped my scythe, my pouch, and much larger travel pack and set those to the side too. I began to strip out of my clothes then; intent on cleansing my body before I reached the small town I knew couldn't be much farther. I slipped into the water, and repressed an undignified cry at the cold. It was, after all, still early in the season, the cold rains would be arriving soon.

Once my body adjusted I was quick to clean my body and climbed out once done. I reached inside my pack for my second set of clothes and hurriedly changed. I squeezed the excess water out of my hair before quickly plaiting it and letting it hang over my left shoulder. I placed my mask inside my pack and took out my med kit.

I sifted through it for a moment before I found the right medicine, a light green salve that promotes healing and acts as a mild numbing agent. It burned at first, something it does when neutralizing any bacteria that may have entered the wound, then numbed the area. Pulling out a needle and some thread, I sewed the skin shut and wrapped it in bandages.

With that done I turned to my bloodstained clothes. I fingered them silently, debating what I should do with them. Should I wash them here, or in the town? The longer I stayed here the more likely I would run into bandits, however if I waited the more likely the blood would embed itself in the fabric and would resist all efforts in cleansing it.

I quickly made my decision and threw them back into my pack; I really was not in the mood to deal with the lecherous bandits that were sure to emerge later in the day. But I had to at least rinse off my scythe; while it was not unusual for a person to be walking around with such a weapon, a bloodstained one was different.

Once that was done, I set it back in its holster, strapped my pouch back onto my waist, and grabbed my pack. Readjusting my attire, I sighed to myself. It was time to move on; it would take me several days to return home. If I hurried it may be less. I made my way out of the forest and onto the frequently trodden trail, and set out at a rather slow stroll to the town.

I took this as my chance to reflect. I had to travel three weeks out before I found those thieves, and then another two weeks before I was finally able to trace them back here. They were a sharp group, hardly leaving any evidence for me to go on. I had almost lost them several times, but the youngest of the three wasn't as cunning as the other two. He was reckless and had quite the temper, prompting many men into fistfights after trying to court their women.

It was a little embarrassing. I had been duped by a boy that didn't know how to control himself in more ways than one. But, on the other hand, his more experienced companions were admirable opponents. I don't know how long that battle was dragged out for, but it was entertaining. I had even learned a few tricks to use with my own weapons. And, of course, earning a few extra coins through pilfering had its own perks as well.

Finally, after an hour of walking, I arrived at the town. Though it was a small, not widely known town, it was still rather lively. People were bustling about, running errands, meeting with friends, and children were playing. In a few more hours the mothers would corral their children back inside, many of the shops would close, and those who thrived in the nightlife would emerge. Already, it seemed, a few were about.

A group of four women with their hair up in messy topknots, their faces painted, and dresses that were much too tight and made their already ample chests seem larger, were walking about. They winked flirtatiously at a couple men, waving their thin delicate hands and swaying their hips to further gain the men's attention. The men seemed to fall for the women's charm and ambled toward them dumbly, playfully grabbing at the women once they were within reach.

I turned away when the women began their high pitched giggling and sensual touching of the men in return. I didn't belittle the women for their choice of lifestyle; I just couldn't see how they would willingly give away something so precious for a few scraps of paper and hunks of metal. Though I guess I really shouldn't be one to judge, many would say the same about my job.

Spotting an inn, I made my way forward, sidestepping a group of hysterically laughing children. Seeing them made me think of Eloisa, my very best friend, and her one year old son Luka. It was quite the surprise when we found out she was pregnant with Milo's child. It wasn't that Milo is a bad person; it was the fact that he was the most hyperactive person I knew. That was the real shock. Who knew he could stay still and focus on one topic long enough to really do anything, let alone impregnate my friend?

Of course I always knew Eloisa fancied him. Ever since we were little girls, she would swoon over the mere thought of him. Shy and quiet little Eloisa fell for the loudmouthed brunette the day he declared he would be her husband someday. No one thought much of it before, we were just children and we would always make claims on each other without truly meaning it. But it seemed that Milo did. It's a wonder how no one really noticed the longing looks he would give her, or how peculiar it was that he would go out of his way to spend time with her, even harming himself to do so.

When we were eighteen Milo went to her father, the head medic of our clan at the time, and requested Eloisa's hand in marriage. After much convincing (Milo was after all the oddest person in our generation and is known to not always be the most responsible) her father approved and a few months later the two were wed.

I was happy for them. They were a rather cute couple and Eloisa's natural calm helped slow Milo, something everyone was grateful for. And Milo's outgoing personality helped break Eloisa out of her shell and really blossom into the beautiful and strong woman I had always known her to be. The ceremony wasn't big or extravagant, they are only secondary members after all, but for them it was perfect.

During her pregnancy Eloisa glowed, she was so happy to soon be a mother. It was her calling in life, besides being a medic of course. She was too motherly and nurturing to become an assassin like the rest of us. Even if she had not been gifted with healing magic I doubt she would have been able to stomach our work. She could hardly bear it when we came to her with fractured bones or too deep slices after missions, let alone when we came to her in critical condition. Yes, she was better off becoming a mother.

Milo, however, was a nightmare throughout her pregnancy. Gone was the somewhat sensible man and back was the idiot that had somehow weaselled his way into my and my friend's lives. It wouldn't be too much of a lie to say that he was even worse then before. He was very much aware that many in the clan didn't think he would make a good father. So, in retaliation to their doubts, he did everything he could to prepare for their child.

Initially I was proud of him for taking a stand against them, but then he somehow dragged me into it. He would pester me constantly to help him, coming into my home uninvited to ask for my opinion on the most trivial of things.

Should we paint the room pink or blue? Maybe orange?

Do you think it's a boy or girl?

Eloisa's not eating enough! Tell her to eat more Nerine; she has to eat for more than herself now you know!

How do you make a crib Nerine? Could you help me?

Can babies have pets? I want one so that they can grow up together!

I just bought this little dress; do think it's fit for the baby? Is the baby even a girl?

Look Nerine! Look at the doll I made the baby!

Do you think the baby will have magic like me? Or like Eloisa?

I bet it'll be a boy! Strong and handsome like me! But if it's a girl she'll be beautiful like her mom!

Nerine! Eloisa's gotten really big, is it twins? Triplets? Quadruplets? Oh this is so exciting!

Nerine! Eloisa's going into labour! She's… Oh no never mind!

I was so annoyed by him that I wanted to tear my own hair out. And when I would demand thar Eloisa control her irksome husband she would only laugh. She found his antics endearing and thought that I would learn something by enduring Milo's insanity. The only thing I had learned from the whole ordeal was that Milo was more of an idiot than I had originally thought.

It was a relief when Luka was born, we didn't have to suffer through Milo's ramblings and antics any longer. However the happiness was short lived. Milo was sent out on a mission with other assassins and never returned to his wife and two month old child, dead at the age of twenty-two. We don't know how it had happened. He may have been a blundering idiot, but he was a skilled one. He shouldn't have died, not so soon, not just after he made his own family to love and cherish.

Eloisa was heartbroken; the love of her life was gone. She was a widow, also at the young age of twenty-two. Her son would never have the pleasure of meeting the man that had helped create him nor the man that had captured his mother's heart. She didn't have the time to mourn; she was head medic and was to be placed back on duty. But, through all the turmoil, she remained strong for her child, determined to raise Luka into the faithful young man his father would have wanted him to be.

I shook my head to rid myself of the melancholy path my thoughts were trailing and continued on inside the inn. It was rather vacant, only a few huddled figures sat at the tables near the fires, eating whatever it was the kitchen served and gulping down tankards of alcohol. I walked over to the innkeeper, requested my room, got the key, and walked straight upstairs to my room, I wasn't really one to sit and chat with strangers.

Once at my room I locked the door behind me and breathed a sigh of relief. This day was finally coming to a close, and I was none worse for wear. I fished my stained clothes out and moved toward the bathroom where I set them into the wash bin to soak before going back to the main room to sharpen my beloved weapons.

To the untrained eye, my scythe was the only weapon I had, but in actuality I have a pair of claws strapped to my wrists. They look like nothing more than reinforced gloves to protect my hands, but when I press a certain spot on my palm, the blades slide free and curve around my hands.

I also have dozens of specially crafted poison dipped blades strapped to my forearms, and legs; I even have blades built into my boots. There is a reason I'm the greatest assassin of my clan after all, I'm always prepared and I never underestimate my opponent. Plus, being part of the main branch kind of demands that I am one of the best. I would be a failure if I was anything less.

Shrugging out of all my equipment, I carefully set my blades aside and sat on the bed with my scythe in my lap and my sharpening tools. It was a slow and methodical process but one that I was always happy to do. It was one of the things that helped calm me; it was a way for me to order my rampant thoughts. To know that the lightest touch of the tip of my blade could draw blood reassured me. This time, however, it was just for pleasure.

Moving the sharpening stone across the curve of the blade I studied the weapon stoically. The entire weapon was made out of some sort of ebony metal and was incredibly durable. It had been my mother's, she was a scythe master while my father had dealt with short swords and knives. The staff is six inches taller than me, while the blade itself is about the length of my leg. There were no intricate designs, my mother didn't care for that, but the blade shone regardless of whether or not it had been cleaned.

It's a difficult weapon to wield. It's heavier than it appears to be, with the blade itself being the heaviest part. It took me three years to gather enough strength to simply hold it. And then it took several more to learn how to properly handle it. There were a lot of mistakes, and I nearly severed a limb on more than one occasion. But, somehow, I began to make less and less mistakes. I didn't have to take periodic breaks when training. And then one day I realized that I had reached my mother's level.

I ceased sharpening the blade and simply stared at my reflection for a moment. Would my mother be proud of me? Would she have even wanted me to use her most prized possession? I blinked, disrupting my thoughts, and set the scythe to the side, leaning it up against the wall. And moved on to my knives. I had to clean the ones I had used in my last battle.

They were covered in blood and needed to be coated with fresh poison. Shaking the small vial I kept the poison in, I dipped them into the light purple substance and set them to the side to dry. Once they were, the poison would be clear and the blades ready for battle.

Finally I moved on to my claws, carefully sharpening the curved edges and inspecting them for any slight damage to the gears that allowed them to be sheathed and unsheathed. They were a last resort weapon and if any part of the delicate gears inside were damaged they wouldn't be able to unsheathe and I would lose not only a very valuable weapon, but also a much needed defense.

Once I had finished caring for my weapons I picked out my cleaning brush from my pack and moved on to the bathroom to scrub my clothes. The water in the wash bin was a murky reddish brown color, having loosened the stains as much as it could. I set to scrubbing, determined to rid the faint red spots from my clothes for good. This took longer than maintaining my weapons, which surprised me. I didn't think the blood had set in enough to give me this much a problem, but apparently it had.

Finally, after a few hours of work, the stains were gone. I wrung my clothes out and moved back to the main room. I had a few candles lit, so I was able to see, and I draped my clothes over a chair. I pulled the chair toward the window to let the breeze dry the clothes throughout the night. With nothing left to do, I crawled into bed for a well needed rest.

o0o

Finally, after a week of rigorous travel and outsmarting the mischievous creatures that dwell in the forests, I could see the hazy mountains in the distance. I was almost home. The first thing I would have to do is report to Uncle Aquila. I would have to give him a synopsis of my travels, who I'd encountered, who I'd slain, the difficulty I'd had.

It was a rather annoying process, but it couldn't be helped. Uncle Aquila, as clan leader, needed to know everything that went on inside and outside our mountains. He had to know to determine how to build our defenses, what to teach our young assassins in training, to better prepare us against the Vita clan.

Uncle Aquila has told me that he suspects they'll mount an attack on us sometime soon. He said they'll either directly target him or his daughter, my younger cousin, Cora. Cora is ten years younger than I, making her only thirteen. She has a heart shaped face framed by pale red, almost pink, waist length straight hair and blunt fringe. Her fair skin accentuates her round ice blue eyes.

She's Uncle Aquila's only daughter, the only child he'll ever have. She's a treasure, the soul heir to our clan. She hasn't trained in the martial arts because she's such a sickly child. She was born with a weak heart and this has restricted her from doing much. But she would have to become leader someday, it's her born right.

It would have been me, had my father been born a minute earlier instead of Uncle Aquila. I'm actually a little glad I'm not the heir; that my father was the younger twin. I've seen the toll it takes on my uncle; it's amazing how strong he is. Though I am sad Cora must someday uphold his legacy, it's a relief to not have any more expectations thrust onto me.

At long last I arrived at the base of my mountains. I ascended a couple meters until I found the passageway that led straight to my village. Only those of my clan are able to use it, it requires our blood to be activated. It's really nothing more than an enchanted circular stone that, when activated with a few drops of blood, is able to take us straight up to our village. I stepped onto the stone, pricking my finger on the tip of my scythe, and let a few drops fall onto the stone. Immediately, the stone began to glow a soft blue, the stone levitated, then began the steady ascent to my village.

Once it arrived, the glow faded and locked into place, dormant once again. I stepped out of the small cavern and out into the sunlight and smiled. I was home. It's not a beautiful village lacking in color and plant life besides a few straggling weeds, but its home. We have several settlements scattered all throughout the mountain range for migration purposes and then four more created deep in the labyrinth like caves to escape to if the need ever arises.

My clansmen were all up and about, doing their daily routines and attending to whatever matters they needed to. In front of one home the elder women clustered, eyeing the young men that walked past them and gossiping about neighbours. A few houses down several men stood, their bellowing laughs echoing off the rocks; a typical day in my village just as it is in many others.

After admiring the scene I headed straight to the center of my village, where Uncle Aquila lived. I had to school my features into the careful mask expected of me once I entered his home. The home was large compared to the others surrounding it. There are dozens of rooms inside; one of the largest is placed in the right wing of the home and is used for the frequent meetings Aquila has with the village elders to discuss important matters.

In the left wing the second largest room is used as a meeting place for potential clients and is also where we are assigned our missions. In the center of the home there is a courtyard primarily used as a training room but also a place where Aquila goes to meditate. The house is an easy place to get lost in, what with the numerous rooms and various people that come and go, but having been inside it numerous times I can easily navigate around.

I stood silently outside the large oak doors of the meeting room. Breathing deeply three times, I squared my shoulders and rapped twice on the door. It didn't take long for Uncle to reply, a faint "Enter," was heard and I pushed aside the door, closing it firmly behind me. I turned to face my Uncle, and bowed in respect to him.

Uncle was at his desk, his interlaced fingers over his mouth and his elbows resting on the table before him. His hard obsidian eyes bored into me, searching for anything to criticize. His brown hair is cropped short, with stray gray hairs woven throughout. He's a muscular man, and his height of 6'2 certainly adds to his intense level of intimidation. "Report." His deep baritone voice echoed within the walls of the room.

I quickly complied with his demand, "The mission was a success, there was little trouble finding the group. I dispatched them easily and retrieved the scroll, no signs of the Vita clan around our borders." I offered the scroll to him and he took it with a grunt. I turned to leave when he spoke up, "I have another mission for you." I froze, and stiffly turned back to my uncle.

Another mission? We were usually given at least three days to recuperate after each mission. Why would he assign me one so soon? "I expect you are up to the task?" He smoothly asked with one eyebrow raised. I gave a curt nod, choosing not to answer verbally in case my voice failed me.

Uncle surveyed me for a few moments more, making me stiffen even more. "This is a special mission Nerine, a very dangerous mission." Special? Dangerous? Just what was he going to send me that he had to warn me about? "You are to infiltrate the Vita clan and assassinate their heir Cecil."

My heart stopped and my breath fell short. Assassinate the Vita heir?