"Legends are not born, and they are not made. They are discovered, accidentally, by the most normal of people who just so happened to be in the wrong place at the right time." ~unknown

Deception's Blade
[Prologue]

-xxxXxxx-

It was a crisp, clear night.

The full moon shone like a beacon in the sky, illuminating the snow-strewn fields and casting the high stone walls of the city in a soft, hazy glow. A cool breeze wafted lazily through the air, disturbing the branches of the surrounding trees and stirring the white powder from their gnarled fingers.

Crouched in the midst of a small grove of applewood trees at the top of a distant hill, a dark figure cast a wary glance skyward, observing the stars above. Barely visible next to the brilliance of the moon, the twinkle of countless dots gazed down over the earth nonetheless, like the curious eyes of a child watching an extravagant play for the first time.

The crunch of booted feet upon the ground behind them drew the figure's attention, and in the light of the moon a glint of silver emerged from the depths of their cloak.

"Ari," a voice whispered in the dark, and the flash of silver quickly vanished back into the shadows. "Ari!"

"Be quiet, Gereth," the figure, Ari, hissed, turning her attention back to the walled city below. "Have you retained nothing from your years at Hellfire? On a night such as this, your voice will carry."

The taller man, Gereth, mumbled a quick apology before crouching next to her, his eyes surveying the snowy fields before them. "Talon and Flex returned with the supplies half an hour ago," he explained, then paused. "Are you sure it's enough?"

"Yes."

Ari pushed herself to her feet, glancing once more at the stars before turning around and walking back to their makeshift camp in the woods. Gereth was right on her heels, snow and fallen limbs crunching loudly beneath his feet; Ari had to keep from cringing. Lady's tits, is this what passes for a Ghostwalker these days? she thought, shaking her head in shame. Devourer, take my soul if I was ever that naive!

Not far from the cove where Ari had hid, a low fire burned in the middle of a small clearing. The warm embers were barely visible beyond the thicket, so the risk of their encampment being seen was minimal; still, Ari had instructed her charges to maintain an air of caution this close to their objective and build a wall around the flames. She was pleased to see that they had obeyed.

"Is it ready, Talon?" Ari asked, removing the hood of her cloak as she emerged from the shadows; stunning amethyst eyes, accented by the short locks of black hair that hung before them, glistened in the dim firelight.

Hunched over the campfire, spindly arms outstretched as pointed claws stirred the contents of an overhanging pot, Talon gave a sharp nod and pushed himself to his feet. "The berries melted quick enough," he stated, grabbing the wire handle with both hands and setting the kettle on the ground by his feet. A thin trail of steam rose up from the rapidly melting snow beneath the pot, twisting and curling like a serpent as it climbed through the air.

Removing a glove, Ari knelt next to the steaming container and dipped a finger inside; the dark liquid was thick, and warm to the touch. Rubbing her fingers together, she watched as the black juice smeared across her leathery skin like ink. "Is there enough for the group?"

Talon shook his head, shadows flickering across his gaunt face, and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. "Figured the eumbrox Flex snagged can make up for the rest."

Ari glanced past Talon to the dark figure at the edge of their camp, and then gestured to Gereth behind her. "Help him." With a grunt, the burly man unsheathed his blade and shouldered past the two.

"What about the berries?" Talon asked, drawing Ari's attention back to the pot by her feet.

Ari stared at the dark liquid for awhile, absently rubbing her fingers together, before glancing back up at the shadowed figures on the edge of camp. "We'll use a light coat on the face," she explained, scratching the tip of her nose with a clawed hand. "With what's left, we'll paint Badalan war symbols on their walls. You should be familiar with those," she added, tossing Talon a sidelong glance.

Even in the sparse firelight, Ari could make out the tufts of thick brown hair sticking out through the gaps in his leather armor. As the light from the fire danced across his thin face, his brown eyes glinted with a yellow hue—Ari always did marvel at the race's impressive night vision.

Catching her gaze, the young Badala shot Ari a grin, jagged fangs peeking at her from beneath thin lips. "I know them all too well."

Nodding, Ari stood up and wrapped a scaly hand around the metal handle, hooking the pot back onto the spit. The kettle hissed as the liquid inside began to bubble. "Don't need our paint to freeze over."

"Do you think this'll work?"

Ari was silent for a moment, watching as the fire crackled and snapped beneath the iron pot, before shaking her head. Life as an assassin had not been what she had expected when she graduated from the Hellfire academy just two short years ago. The element of danger was still very real, as the scar across her left eye—a gift, presented to her by a graduate of a rival academy while completing a small-paying bodyguard mission—constantly reminded her, but the assignments she had been given up until now had bored her tremendously.

Still, she remained hopeful that this job would more than make up for the lack of excitement.

"Nothing's ever certain in our line of work, Talon." Then, shooting Gereth and Flex a quick glance, Ari leaned closer to her companion. "Keep an eye on those two."

Cocking his head to one side, Talon raised a thick eyebrow. "They're only skinning a bull, Ari. How hard could that be?"

Ari shook her head, black tresses of hair bouncing back and forth with the motion. "They may have survived long enough to become Ghostwalkers," she started, pulling her hood back over her head. "But they're new blood, fresh out of the academy. I don't trust them."

This elicited a snort from Talon. "You don't trust anyone."

"Nonsense," Ari snapped, but her smile belied her tone. "I trust you."

Talon shook his head, but even without night vision Ari could see his smirk. "I'm your year-mate. Thirteen years of suffering your scathing wit makes me an exception."

Rolling her eyes, Ari cast one more glance skyward before turning around and heading back to her post. "Just watch them."

"Always gazing at stars." Talon had meant for it to be a whisper, but Ari was still close enough to their camp to hear his words.

The eyes of Thosol are upon us, Talon, she thought, a small sigh escaping her lips as she crept towards her perch. May He forgive us for what we're about to do.