Gathered around the viewing pool – held in a large, round basin of black opal – stands four cloaked figures. Hunched over, they stare at the glassy surface of the water, filled to the brim. Through it they can see the young assassin training in the castle courtyard. Her emerald eyes glow with their own wildfire, the beads of her honey-gold braids winking in the light.
The pool itself is ancient – its ornate carvings long since eroded away by the hands of time, areas of the lip smoothed inward from the many others before who have rested their hands on it.
The basin sits at the epicenter of the stone rotunda, thick columns supporting the intricately carved dome above. Their painted colors have also faded into a dull mute of what they used to be; the priests and priestesses having long since vanished, though the room still vibrates from ghostly prayers carried on the winds.
A single ray of silver moonlight pierces the darkness of the room through the oculus at the top of the dome. With it, the glassy water is illuminated to show whomever they wish.
Each of their faces are concealed in the shadows of their hoods; each sparing a glance at the other. Barely a turn of their heads.
"She is strong." Whispers the voice, a lilting hiss through the shadows.
"Physically, perhaps. Magically, she leaves a lot to be desired." Says another, quick to counter the first. "It is nonexistent."
"It exists . . . it is just, slumbering." Chimes a third, its voice smooth and light like a spring day.
"Are we sure she is the one? The girl barely shows any signs of abilities." The fourth cloaked figure speaks, angling its head ever so slightly. A cat observing its prey.
"We shall test that soon," a male voice that is both young and old, amused and soulless, purrs. "Opportunities are arising."
Approaching the front of the viewing pool is a man who bears no cloak. Instead he wears jacket of mahogany brown, covering him from neck to waist. The fitted jacket resembles a dashiki with its ornate gold embroidery contrasting with the turquoise brooch sitting at the center of his chest. Gatherings of his glossy ebony-black hair spill over his shoulder, half of it pulled back and secured.
The fabric of his loose pants hiss and whisper as he mounts the steps with sandaled feet. Regal and stunning, a king without a throne. Even the gold and turquoise circlet about his head, the dangling earrings emphasize a sense of etherealness, all while still remaining masculine.
"Shall we continue to use the citizens to our advantage?" Hisses the first figure.
Barely acknowledging their existence, the man says, "Yes." A callus finger taps the gemstone basin. "But we must get her alone. Her blood must flow so we many know if she is the one."
He places both palms on the lip of the basin. He casts a shadowy gaze to all of the figures gathered. A rippling of the cloaks, the only sign of surprise as they step back, disturbed.
He smiles at their fear, drinks it like the finest wine. Revels in how they yearn to get away from him.
He's grown to love having that effect on people. The only semblance of pleasure for his hollowed heart.
With his palms still on the lip, he looks down at the picture: the young assassin is gathering a mountain of food on her plate, a younger woman – as pretty as a forest fairy – pours her a glass of water.
He extends a hand as tan as chestnut over the pool. The rings of his fingers gleam as he taps the water as gentle as a butterfly. Deep ripples spread across the surface of the pool, distorting the image until it is gone. The surface glazed once more.
After a moment, he speaks to no figure in particular. "I've noticed your little spells have worked."
"Perhaps too well, My Liege?" the figure responds, bowing its head low. When he doesn't respond, it continues, "Too many were eagerly awaiting to cross through and into their new hosts. The number was, unexpected. Even close to disastrous."
"Perhaps." he says, folding his hands behind his back. "We're going to have to limit how many can come through; but it was a success, nonetheless. Seeing how they adapted well they adapted to their new skins."
They still have plenty of work to do. Still plenty of experiments to try.
But all of it means nothing if that woman lives.
The figure nods, still keeping its head low. Its bony, gnarled hand barely visible in the moonlight. "And those are ones who are dead. What if we were to extend that reach . . . to the living, My Lord?"
A spider's smile.
As if on cue, a pained cry erupts from behind them. The man only chuckles, as though he forgot he had the water running.
He turns and observes the altar – the large rectangular stone stained red, the color both bright and darkened – and the woman chained atop it. Stretched long and wide, the broken bits of her arm dangle off the edge, pieces of bone protruding where is shouldn't, her one knee shattered beyond repair, the other already having been severed.
Clenched between her teeth, the rag has become stained and wrinkled. Her beautiful magenta eyes are filled with tears, her moon-white hair a tangled mat, stained with blood from the altar.
Another pained scream.
With a casual gait, he approaches the altar. Arms still loose behind his back, his steps unrushed. The figures follow him like he's the axis of their world. "We are still not yet ready to fulfill such requests. For now, we keep finding the magic wielders. Keep bringing them here to me. We must first gain the power if we are to expand it."
A shift of the hoods – a collective bow of their heads.
The woman begins to sob erratically as she hovers over her. His face unreadable, she screams and cries and yanks on the chains despite one arm being ripped open, the other currently bending at a grotesque angle.
In wisps of black smoke, the figures disperse.
The man continues to stare at the girl with a placid expression. Still she writhes, her eyes pleading for death. But her talents as a fire elemental prove to be as enduring as the flames. Just when he thinks he's sucked her dry, the next day her well has refilled – even despite the injuries he and his associates inflicted upon her.
A spirit as strong as her flame.
It's almost admirable.
Her sobbing worsens as he places his hands on either side of her face. He hushes her, a sickening parody of fatherly pity. "Hush, child. You have been very good. I'm so proud of you."
She continues to cry, her nose turning red and drool slipping past her gag.
"Just a little longer, sweetheart. It'll all be over soon."
In a flash, he smashes his fist atop her already broken hand, causing her to strain against the chains, her back arcing off of the altar.
He turns and leaves without another word, descending the three steps with his grace and poise.
Her howls of agony echo in the chamber around him as shadows shift from the corners of his eyes.
She is hard to find. For so long he could always hear that echo of power wherever she went. A dull, dull vibration through his bones; a skip of his heartbeat. Could barely feel that thin string of power that always seemed to tug at his rib; let alone try and follow it.
Now he's found her, and he won't let her slip away again.