The Ashirae Khan; or the Traders Shadows

Part I: origins

The Ashirae Khan are a powerful guild of assassins whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Indeed, not even the guild or its members know where their kind originally hails from. Hearsay would place their point of origin on almost every kingdom and people known to man. Tales abound of (likely fictional) forgotten kingdoms and ancient peoples beyond memory, or of slighted crime lords or rulers of fallen empires spawning a horde of killers to take bloody vengeance upon an unjust world. That is, tales abound where there are those that know anything about these nightly hunters and dare to speak of them. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth amongst all these legends, perhaps not. Perhaps it does not even matter; after all, it has little to no bearing on the guilds work.

The only possible clues as to the origin of the Ashirae Khan are the name of the guild and the god they worship. The name "Ashirae Khan" is a name that is a term known to translate as "Traders Shadows". This translation has been handed down from assassin to assassin and eventually found its way to ears beyond the halls of the guild. Sadly to interested scholars, even the guild does not know which, if any, language or dialect the term is originally from. The god worshipped by the guild is Ozar, also known as "The Master of Webs", or "The Great Spider" or "The Schemer Lord". He is the god of ploys and games of intrigue, patron to all those who deceive, betray and create networks of secret control to further their own power or the power of their chosen others. According to guild mythology he is the child of order and chaos, an entity forged to seal a peace accord to a war between gods "in the days of the world's youth". Because he is a god of both order and chaos, he embodies "orderly chaos" where the power is held by a few powerful, caught in an eternal state of conflict and competition that never truly results in a lasting or meaningful victor. It is this kind of world that the Great Spider supports and seeks to promote in his endless plans and schemes. The guild also believes that Ozar best embodies the true nature of humankind, that is both orderly and chaotic, kind and cruel, foul and fair, an endless mass of opposite truths that should contradict themselves but do not. Because he so truly embodies their nature, Ozar is the secret master of "all who build civilizations". Other gods may claim lordship through creation or dominion, but the ways of men are the ways of Ozar, and all who can reason, even other gods, are his disciples in the end.

Ozar is not a god one would pray to or ask for assistance. An individual either has a place in the Schemer lords' designs or he does not, and no amount of whining or begging can change that. Likewise, Ozar has no priests or temples to his name, he and his believers have no need for such things. Instead, those who seek the approval of Ozar do so through their actions. Cunning planning in games of intrigue gains his attention. He watches approvingly those who upset the existing balance to create their own, or those who promote an existence of constant struggle and the balance that results when two of equal strength seek to overcome each other. Those who have great insight in the workings of the halls of power or the ability to effortlessly to steer such systems to carry out their will are said to be blessed by him. It is universally acknowledged however, that Ozar is a fickle god; once a favorite of his has risen far enough; his attentions are likely to turn to another, often to the detriment of the previous favorite. The age old axiom: "play long enough, and eventually you lose" is very true when dealing with this particular deity. Thus Ozar is the god of those who seek to rise, not those who seek to remain high.

To the Ashirae Khan Ozar is their chosen god because the form of existence he stands for is the medium where assassins can thrive. In a world where authority is too centralized and absolute, none dare rise against it and the assassins have no place, except perhaps to shatter that authority. Furthermore in such a world assassins of all stripes have to live in fear of being crushed in the name of defending that very authority. In a world of utter chaos, where an individual's rights are determined by their strength and skill at arms, all are focused in securing their survival in the immediate and none have use for such specialized and precise tools as assassins. It is only in between these two extremes that assassins can find a place in the world, and so a god that embodies the "in between" of these states is an obvious choice. Furthermore, the Ashirae Khan are ever seeking to expand their power base, and often hope for and seek the favor of Ozar in such endeavors, even knowing that their efforts may go unanswered. Such ups and downs of fate are in their eyes meant to be weathered, survived and used to improve oneself when the pendulum next swings their way.

Part II: Known presence and methods of expansion

The Traders Shadows are present in several cities across the world, focusing their attention on important trade cities. The Ashirae Khan are very much bound up in the merchants of the world having cut several deals with various trade families, large and small (hence the name of the guild). Most notably guild recruits spend the last two years of their training with a group of tradesmen, learning to function in normal society without attracting excessive attention. These traders are often secretly the eyes, ears and voice of the Ashirae Khan. Those that seek to contact the guild know that the best way to do so is to spread rumors among the tradesmen. The Ashirae Khan also spread to new areas alongside merchants, at first through final stage initiates that are allowed to begin operating independently after their training completes. Later when the said operative has established connections and some reputation through successful missions, the guild will follow this up with establishing a fully fledged safehouse. Since few cities are willing to bar access to merchants and the wealth they bring, few are able to stop the advance of the Ashirae Khan. In this way the Ashirae Khan can also survive even the bloodiest reprisals and cataclysms of the world. Even if most of the guild were to be destroyed, some cells would likely survive in far away trade cities, from where they would begin to spread again when trade routes are reestablished. Merchant cities are also known to be independent –minded and not welcoming of outsiders who might interfere with business, which in return makes the guild difficult for an organized effort to destroy. Like cancer, unless all "tumors" of their existence are removed, the Ashirae Khan will inevitably return sometime, somewhere, somehow.

In return for the valuable services they provide, merchants aligned with "their shadows" receive a degree of immunity from guild blades. Such merchants also enjoy a preference for assassination contracts they might ask for from the guild. Sometimes they do not even have to ask for such things, and instead find that their competitors and enemies have mysteriously died "free of charge". Where the guild controls such things, allied merchants may also be informed of trading opportunities and allowed access to illicit goods that the guild has to offer.

When the Traders Shadows establish themselves in a new location they seek to assume control of its underworld, and eventually beyond. In cities where the Ashirae Khan have held dominion for a long time this is obvious: Smugglers, informants, thieves and other such groups all answer to the guild and care for their needs. Other assassins are subjugated to their service, supporting their operations or going after targets the Ashirae Khan cannot be bothered with, all the while a large portion of their profits go to the guild as "tribute". All who refuse face death and destruction. City guards and other security forces refuse to investigate any case where they suspect Ashirae Khan involvement, while the private militias and bodyguards of important people may inexplicably disappear on the last night of their lives and city officials go out of their way to protect the Ashirae Khan from outsider investigation. Nobles, merchants and other likely assassination targets pay the guild exorbitant sums just to keep themselves alive, often in vain, as others have already paid more for their deaths. Amidst all this, the Traders Shadows quietly pull the strings, encouraging conflicts between the powerful, conflicts that the guild will inevitably be dragged into. The Ashirae Khan are not stymied even when their control of a new territory is contested by existing criminal factions, but instead have the patience to slowly grind their opponents to oblivion, one bloody effort, one move in a game of intrigue, one favor rendered and collected at a time. In many cities where the guild presence is still new, the Ashirae Khan are engaged in a bitter underground war against all who would deny their dominion.

Part III: recruitment, training and life of an assassin

Every Ashirae Khan assassin that has ever been was trained from birth to their role. Older individuals have never been accepted to the ranks of the guilds assassins, as they are considered simply too old to be properly trained. These infants come from various sources. Within the guild there is a tradition called "the debt of life", from where the guild draws some of their recruits. Ashirae Khan assassins that have reached the final stages of their brief life spans, form selected couples as dictated by the grandmaster of the guild and the heads of the safe houses. The purpose of these selected couples is to produce a child to be trained as a part of the next generation of assassins, as their final duty to the Ashirae Khan before their life is to end. New blood is brought to the guild from various other sources, forming the bulk of their initiates: foundlings abandoned by others are claimed by the guild. Newborn children are stolen from their families in the dark of night. Sometimes instead of coin, the Ashirae Khan will demand a baby of their choice in payment, a term often presented only after their contract is completed, made at swordpoint if need be. Those that are smart and fond of their own life know better than to refuse (and for some this represents a handy way to get rid of otherwise unwanted children). Suitable children from inducted craftsmen are occasionally selected for training. Where such trade is in operation the Ashirae Khan are known to purchase healthy infants from various slavers.

The training of Ashirae Khan initiates begins in their infancy through the introduction of several body altering chemicals and substances meant to enhance performance in adulthood. These substances have to be applied during infancy to have the desired effect. As a side effect of these treatments, many Ashirae Khan have startling sunflower yellow irises, instead of whatever normal colors might be expected. This change occurs in the early childhood and is irreversible as far as anyone is aware. While not universal, the trait is sufficiently common that it is considered something of a trademark feature of the Ashirae Khan. The treatments used are highly stressing to undeveloped bodies, and a number of infants always perish in the attempt. For a number of others, the treatments fail to have the desired effects, and these infants are properly disposed of as rejects. The Ashirae Khan are always on a lookout for improvements to their treatment processes in order to further improve their cadre of trained killers, as well as to improve survivability so that more initiates would survive to the beginning of their actual training process.

The training proper is equally brutal and uncompromising for the initiates. During the various phases of their training the initiates build up a resistance to many diseases, poisons and toxins through controlled exposure, create a resistance to both mental and physical pain and discomfort, and are taught a significant collection of different forms of combat, stealthy movement, infiltration and interrogation. All stages of training are potentially deadly, and many training courses are deliberately designed to be lethal to anyone who is too slow to learn or too clumsy to make use of their learning. Initiates of 10 years or older are also expected to care for the younger initiates as their instructors command and to assist inducted craftsmen in their duties including the maintenance of the safe house and the equipment stored within. Any kind of incompetence or failure to meet the demanding standards of the guild results in immediate execution, often done publicly in front of other initiates to remind them that their lives are finite and continue only so long as they are of value to the guild. Any perceived disobedience, insolence or refusal to follow orders also carries with it the penalty of death. Most initiates never make it all the way through the training process. Those few that do however are the most skilled, most efficient assassin known, more so than almost any other assassins guild can field. It is said that an Ashirae Khan child can be mortally dangerous to a normal individual twice their age. An adult guild assassin can be a terrifying opponent, able to face down several fully trained and equipped opponents at once. These are also people whose loyalty and obedience in the guild is absolute, unchallengeable. Such is the loyalty of fully trained Ashirae Khan that they would slay themselves or any of their number, without a moment's hesitation or remorse, simply because their superiors commanded it.

The Ashirae Khan are well aware that their training methods do not provide very good instruction on how to live in the normal world. For this reason the final two years two years of an initiates training involves them being placed in one of the allied merchants families under one cover story or another. In the last two years of their training, these young assassins are taught how to live in the real world of normal people; how to manage everyday tasks and social circumstances that they never came across before without appearing awkward or attracting undue attention. They are taught about the society they will live in, their customs and traditions, their beliefs, how they live and how they rule themselves. They are also often taught as much about the profession of the family they live with as is possible within a two year time span. Because merchants and tradesmen tend to travel a lot, the initiates also get around a great deal, learning about the cities they will later be operating within and identifying interesting areas for the guild to expand into. After their final two year period of training is complete the initiates are elevated to the status of "operative", and are assigned to a specific safe house, often the same one they themselves were trained in, and will from that time forward expected to answer to the head of that safe house. When possible, they are assigned to a safe house in the same city they themselves are in. The safe house the operatives belong to can be altered, and for instance when a new safe house is established in a new city, all local operatives are assigned to that safe house. While they are assigned to a specific safe house, the operatives are allowed to operate in the cities they have visited, completing missions according to the commands of the leader of their safe house. The operatives are expected to spend at least part of their time as instructors in the safe house, training the next generation of initiates.

The heads of safe houses are of higher rank than rank and file operatives, but their only privilege is one of command. They still have the same duties and responsibilities as the other members of their safe house and often still take part in assassination contracts. Because they often rank among the foremost fighters among their safe house they are often assigned on the most challenging contracts that are to be completed. They are also responsible for the acquisitions for their safe house and are the ones who accept contracts in their city and its immediate surroundings. When a new head of a safe house is needed the previous head will select a successor that the grandmaster of the guild approves of. If the previous head of a safe house is no longer alive to make such a choice, the grandmaster will appoint the next head of the safe house directly. The proper way to address a head of a safe by those of operative rank is to use the honorific "Honored" before their name. For example an operative would address a head of a safe house named Brian as "honored Brian". Collectively the heads of the safe houses may be called "the Honored". Initiates are to address all ranks above them as "Master" or "My Master".

The head of all Ashirae Khan is the grandmaster. The grandmaster controls the fate of the guild and sets the overall strategy of their operation where they spread and when, what they do, who they side with and who they fight against. The grandmaster also has the rare responsibility of testing recruits in the rite known as the "trial of the survivor", and also attends the ceremony of accepting initiates to the guild when their training is complete and they reach the rank of operative. For this reason the grandmasters spends a great deal of their time travelling between cities with an Ashirae Khan presence. This has the advantage that the grandmaster can keep an eye on the various safe houses, ensuring that their operations go smoothly and that the safe houses stay loyal to the guild as a whole, and in guild history has often been useful for grandmasters to keep out of reach of those who would strike them down to deliver a blow against the Ashirae Khan. If a grandmaster considers him or herself too busy or otherwise indisposed, they can empower the heads of the safe house to act in their stead, to perform any duty of the grandmaster, for as long as the grandmaster wishes. This has resulted in grandmasters that have delegated almost all of their responsibilities. When the grandmaster so wishes, he or she can even have a conclave of the heads of the safe houses make the decisions that affect the guild as a whole (also known as the honored conclave). Beyond such a conclave however, only the grandmaster may make such decisions. All ranks of Ashirae Khan are to address the grandmaster as "Master" or "My Master". Grandmasters may address other ranks as they wish, often resorting to titles and honorifics when they wish to show a modicum of respect and authoritative distance, and use names of individuals when they wish to discuss privately or on a personal level.

Grandmasters are fully trained assassins themselves (and because they are to face initiates on a regular basis in the trial of the survivor, they have to be the absolutely best Ashirae Khan fighters) and so may undertake assassination contracts personally. This, however is exceedingly rare since the grandmaster is considered a precious resource that will not be risked unless necessary, and the level of skill the grandmaster brings to the mission is usually not required. If a Grandmaster of the Ashirae Khan takes to the field, something grave is afoot.

The lives of Ashirae Khan are considerably shorter than those of most people of the world. The thinking within the guild is that their assassins are weapons, built for a singular purpose, that of stealthy killing. When the Ashirae Khan operatives can no longer be of use for that purpose, so too will they no longer have a reason to exist, like there is no longer a point in keeping a sword that has become rusted and blunted beyond repair, except for sentimental reasons that the Ashirae Khan tend to lack. In practice there is no such thing as a retired Ashirae Khan. When an Ashirae Khan becomes of such an age that their physical fitness begins to truly deteriorate (usually not significantly above thirty years) or if they sustain some injury so severe that they can no longer perform assassination contracts, they will present themselves to the head of their safe house. The head of the safe will then proceed to execute them, after the debt of life has been provided of course. In the case where the person in question is unable to complete the debt or somehow happens to have already provided it, the execution of that person can proceed straight away. Heads of state houses are not immune this practice and when their time has come they summon their successor in front of witnesses, before the said successor executes them, again in front of witnesses. The only member of the Ashirae Khan assassins to lead a somewhat longer lifespan is the Grandmaster, so that the guild might benefit from the wisdom of age. Because of this Grandmasters are expected to attend to the matter of the debt of life as their first responsibility. In such cases the Honored Conclave usually selects the appropriate pairing. When the Grandmaster considers him- or herself unable to perform their responsibilities, they will nominate their successor, usually from among the heads of the safe houses. This successor will then execute the pervious grandmaster in front of witnesses. If the Grandmaster has not named a successor by the time of his or her death or is unable to do so, the Honored Conclave will instead nominate a successor; again typically from among the Conclaves own members. The Honored Conclave can also choose to replace the Grandmaster if a consensus of majority is reached that the current Grandmaster is unable to satisfactorily perform their responsibilities. If a member of the Honored Conclave is elevated to the rank of Grandmaster, they must name another to be the head of their safe house. Members of Inducted professions can live as they choose, and as long as their natural lifespans extend, but any children born are automatically assumed to be members of the guild, counted as part of the inducted professions unless otherwise specified.

Many would assume that this mechanism of killing off those who can no longer serve would lead to betrayal and rebellion, but this is not so, for the Ashirae Khan are trained and indoctrinated from birth to accept this outcome, to share the guilds utilitarian way of thinking about its assassins (and so about themselves) and to think of the guilds needs first and their own needs only as they relate to their ability to serve the guild. Those who cannot adapt themselves to this kind of thinking are identified and weeded out during the training process. Since no one of the actual guild members, the assassins, is truly beyond this system it is also not possible to call the guild out on unequal treatment. Even the grandmasters continued survival is a matter of practicality that offers protection only so long as this practicality remains a valid gain. Also, the Ashirae Khan are people who have been around death all their lives, with its threat constantly hanging over their heads. To such people the certainty of an early grave brings a kind of peace. To these people the only thing left to fear is death as a traitor, as a source of shame to the guild. The surest defense against such is to do their duty as is expected of them. In truth, since the Ashirae Khan have nothing to look forward to except more service, they are not afraid to die, and can take risks with themselves. It is worth noting that they will still seek to preserve themselves, since they generally recognize themselves as valuable investments, with nearly two decades of effort going into making each one of them. Only when it is time, as dictated by their guild, will they permit their own destruction. The Ashirae Khan do not restrict this almost fatalistic approach towards life to themselves either, but are often noted to have a certain disregard as to the sanctity of life, both as individuals and as a whole. Anything that can die from a blade is open to dying from theirs. It is need and need alone that dictates whether or not his actually happens.

While the assassins of the Traders Shadows are the most visible members of the guild they are not in fact the only members of the group. There are also a number of craftsmen, healers, smiths, alchemists and herbalists, smugglers, informants and servants. Their abilities may differ but one aspect of their story is the same: at one time they or their ancestors were brought to the halls of the guild for the skills they possessed and presented with a choice. They would agree to dedicate their lives to the service of the guild, and neither they nor any of their following generations would ever lack anything they might need or want and would never run out of chances to create or serve. If they refuse, they die, at once. For great many the choice is not in fact all that difficult. These people live and work within the halls of the guild, only allowed to leave when their duties require it, although for some inducted professions this is naturally quite often. It is these people that supply the supplies and poisons needed by the Ashirae Khan, who create their weaponry and their armor, who gather information about their targets, tend to their injuries and do the hundred other little things that ensure that the Ashirae Khan do not have to go without needlessly. Collectively these myriad people are called the inducted professions. When the members of the inducted professions inevitably have offspring of their own, they are taught to believe in the guild and take pride in whatever work it is they do for the guild. Some of these children are even taken to be made in to the next generation of assassins. For those who for generations have known a life of service to the guild and little else, this can actually be considered quite an honor. In their way the services contributed by the various induced guilds are critical to the success of the Ashirae Khan guild as this means that they have to rely on outsider assistance less, even as they seek to make outsiders dependant of them. This way of providing for themselves without the aid of others can be a useful edge where the control of the Traders Shadows is still a tenuous one, when such procurement chains can be controlled by rival crime organizations. In considerations of rank, the inducted are considered to be of the same rank as initiates. There are no specific methods to address members of inducted professions. Members of inducted professions are to address other ranks as initiates would.

Part IV: notable equipment

The Howling sword

The Howling sword (also sometimes known as the banshee sword) is a weapon more or less unique to the Ashirae Khan, produced by inducted weapon smiths. It takes the form of a falchion, its middle third serrated, so that the blade causes large messy wounds when used in a slashing manner or when inflicting deep stab wounds. The name of the weapon derives from the loud, metallic whistling or buzzing noise the sword makes when wielded at high speeds. This noise is achieved through tiny air – ducts in the sword's blade. While this noise makes it slightly easier to track the swords movements, it is also a highly distracting weapon, drawing attention from the thing that actually warrants following during melee combat, namely the wielder itself. The blade is also extremely well balanced and light, so much so that those few who have been privileged to wield such a weapon have said that they might have as well been wielding air rather than a blade of steel. At the same time the sword is extremely strong, almost never blunting or breaking.

Amongst the superstitious folk in the world the Howling sword commands dread as it is believed to possess all manner of unnatural abilities. The most common folklore legend would have you believe that these weapons are empowered to steal souls, and that it is the voices of these lost souls that one hears when the weapon is wielded. The Ashirae Khan are not in a hurry to dispel such rumors, recognizing how such things give them power through irrational fears. Even those who are not of a superstitious mind know a degree of fear towards these weapons, since they know that such weapons are entrusted only to the finest warriors of the Ashirae Khan, and that the blade is often poisoned, with the tears of agony being the most common substance used. Those who fail to show either kind of fear when facing such weapons and their wielders in battle may soon learn fear through practical demonstration, although that might very well be the last lesson of their lives. The Howling blades also have a degree of ceremonial value, in for instance being the weapon wielded during the "Sand Dance" ritual and during the "trial of the survivor".

Many of the details regarding the construction of these weapons are unknown to the larger world, since the guild jealously guards these secrets. What is known is that the creation of these weapons is extremely difficult, an undertaking fit only for the hammer of a master blacksmith. It is a common observation among smiths that an apprentice is not fit to even gaze upon a Howling sword, let alone touch one. Even for a master the process of creation is complicated, and it is estimated that less than one in ten attempts will actually produce a proper blade. All others have a fatal flaw in their construction or fail to meet the standards of these blades. The air ducts are particular complication in this process as they must be done in a manner that does not weaken the structure of the sword in any way. Fortunately, once made, a Howling sword can survive for centuries in pristine condition, even when purposefully neglected or abused. Some have noted the analogy between the Ashirae Khan and the Howling swords, how both are the product of a difficult process that most attempts do not get through with, but the few that do are damn near perfect in their design.

The Ashirae Khan hold most of these swords in the world, although some have been recovered from foiled Ashirae Khan missions or even stolen by particularly daring thieves. These often find themselves to the hands of collectors or master swordsmen, although these swords are considered risky to buy, sell, or own, since they may be a sufficient prize for the Ashirae Khan and others to come after them.

Tears of Agony

The substance aptly named Tears of Agony, is a clear, sticky liquid easily applied to weapons or surfaces. When the substance makes contact with a wound, it massively amplifies all pain signals received. This amplification effect can last for several minutes and causes pain sensations that can be tenfold compared to the usual. A small cut on a limb that barely draws blood may feel like having that same limb cut off. Larger injuries may well cause sufficiently severe reactions as to render the victim unconscious. The Ashirae Khan commonly (but not universally) apply this substance to the weapons they use in combat. This way they inflict distraction and a deep psychological fear of their weapons on their opponent. An enemy that is afraid and shying away from the weapon of his opponent is not very effective in his or her efforts. The tears of Agony is also used as a useful assist in interrogation situations, allowing the interrogator to inflict significant discomfort without inflicting great bodily harm.

Outside the Ashirae Khan the Tears of Agony is a fairly well known substance, available from many suppliers if one knows where and how to ask. It is a common tool to the more sophisticated interrogators and torturers who prefer a degree of subtlety instead of purely brute force methods. Apothecaries and alchemists at large advice extreme caution when handling the substance as some marketed versions of the substance can be absorbed through skin, triggering the poisons primary effect. Also, once introduced, residual amounts of the substance can remain in the body for months, introducing randomly occurring but intense pain signals, even after the primary period of poison viability has expired. This side effect applies to all known variants of the poison. It is also advised that the substance not be swallowed under any circumstances. While doing so does not cause the actual effects of the poison, it can inflict a variety of unpleasant symptoms, including cramps, spasms, nausea and severe indigestion.

Barrier of the Dreamlands and the Dreamers Blessing

The barrier of the Dreamlands is a rather peculiar substance. Once swallowed or introduced to the bloodstream, the substance can totally prevent the subject from falling unconscious. It can also deprive the affected person of the need for sleep, although this symptom can be circumvented by using a diluted form of the substance. It is to be noted that this means the feeling of requiring sleep, not the physical requirement of it. The Ashirae Khan make use of the Barrier of the dreamlands as a method to prevent interrogation subjects from falling unconscious, allowing the Ashirae Khan to work without disruption. They are also known to use the substance on themselves in circumstances where they must stay awake under long circumstances. Since the antidote of the substance, the Dreamers blessing, causes instant unconsciousness, the Ashirae Khan sometimes coat their weapons with these substances as a devious method of neutralizing their enemies. It is worth noting that the antidote only has this effect when the Barrier of the Dreamlands is already present in the body of the subject, or when the two substances are mixed together. On its own, the Dreamers blessing is completely harmless. It is also clear that the Ashirae Khan have managed to introduce some kind of congealing agent to the mixture, since the normal states of both substances are too runny to be effectively applied to weaponry.

Both the Barrier of the Dreamlands and the Dreamers blessing are fairly common substances in certain circles. While the both substances are again a part of the arsenal of the more sophisticated interrogators and torturers, they also have less sinister uses. Many scholars for instance make use of the Barrier of the dreamlands when they work late and they feel that they cannot allow such a trivial thing as sleep to interfere with their work. Similarly in professions where it is necessary to work for extended periods without compromising work efficiency or safety, the Barrier of the Dreamlands can be a blessing. Caution is advised with this kind of use, since the Barrier of the Dreamlands can remain in an individual's system for days or weeks, and repeated dosages taken too often can extend the period before withdrawal exponentially. Not only this can make the person lose track of the time and push themselves too hard, it can also prevent the said individuals from sleeping even if they would wish to do this on rational grounds, with predictably disastrous effects on the physical body. Those who make use of the substance are advised to practice moderation and to keep stockpiles of the antidote readily at hand at all times.

Clear Recall

This substance is fairly simple in its effects. It enhances the person's short and long term memory at the expense of the ability to reason or think logically. The qualities of this mixture make it a favorite in any situation where information needs to be extracted from memories, whether at the hands of an interrogator, or when a forgetful person need to remember a detail quickly. Since forming a coherent and fact – proof lie takes considerably more concentration and logical thinking than simply speaking the first truth that pops into a person's mind, the Clear Recall can be considered a truth serum of sorts. This substance does not force a person to answer questions asked, however. It merely makes it harder to create convincing lies or misleading information, as well as making it harder for the affected person to realize when the questioning party is leading them to a trap with their questions and makes it difficult to think what information can be revealed and what must be kept secret at all cost. The Ashirae Khan make extensive use of this substance, applying it almost every time they have to extract information from an unwilling subject. It is also used when an operative is required to provide a clear and detailed account of past events that is beyond their immediate ability to remember.

The Blazing Sun

The Blazing Sun is a yellow and orange powder that rapidly turns to a gas upon contact with air. When imbibed through breathing by humanoids, it induces a strong sense of Euphoria and, as known Ashirae Khan accounts have described it, sense of completeness and perfection. This drug can be addictive, but typically causes such a condition only through constant, steady use. Isolated cases usually do not cause an addiction, even when the dosage is significant. The long term effects of the drug on addicted individuals are unknown, as no scholar has yet studied this. Likewise unknown are the effects this substance can have on non – humanoids. This drug plays a key part in the Ashirae Khan ritual known as the "Sand Dance". In the wider world the substance is commonly known and is used as a recreational substance by many wealthy, corrupt and/or less than lawful individuals. Many cities and nations have outlawed the substance, but most have only succeeded in driving it underground. Great many smugglers have thriving business in selling the drug to the Ashirae Khan and other interested parties, at least until the Ashirae Khan wrest control of their supply chains away from them and turn them from sellers to servants.

The Black Tendril

Of the poisons employed by the Ashirae Khan, the most sinister, the most lethal and the least well known is without a doubt the Black Tendril. Unlike the other substances herein listed the Black Tendrilis unique to the Ashirae Khan. Almost nothing is known of the methods of creating the toxin, or even what it actually is. Some have hypothesized that the substance might not be a traditional poison at all, but might instead be some kind of disease or parasite. Once again the folklore would have you believe that the substance is created through some dark magic. This, while an understandable superstition, is refuted by every respectable scholar. In its base form the Black Tendril is a dark gray dust, easily mistaken as fine ash by the less experienced observer. If the intent is to apply the substance to weapons, it is common to mix it with a small amount of water, which turns the toxin into a form of wax. The toxin can be applied also in its dust form, where it can be effectively used to poison food or drink. It is unknown if the poison has a distinct smell or taste, as there is no way to test the possibility. However, some unconfirmed eyewitness reports have spoken of the victims complaining about a taste of tar and liquor before they died.

The effects of the Black Tendril are horrifying. Once the poison enters the victim's body it starts forming a weave of durable, pitch black tendrils that spread along the individual's blood veins. Significant amounts of blood is absorbed and used as a key catalyst in this process by the poison. The tendrils spread quickly across the individual's body, in an agonizing process, twisting and tearing flesh as it goes. Where the blood veins run close to the skin the black tendrils may even break through, revealing the vile substance to the eyes of whoever is unfortunate enough to witness the event, all the while excess blood is evicted through every available aperture. The process can, according to eyewitness accounts take anywhere between thirty second to two minutes to complete, and at the end the victim ends up a mangled, torn husk that does not have so much as an ounce of blood left in its body. Afterwards the poison changes into a dormant phase that is safe to handle. This final phase also seems to destroy the chemical composition of the poison, making it almost impossible for alchemists and apothecaries to study it. While the dormant phase of the substance poses no threat, it is recommended that individuals avoid touching the base form or active phase tendrils at all costs as the latter two are known to cause the effects described above. Even a small amount of the poison seems to be able to trigger the effect.

To date there has been no known antidote developed against the black tendril, and no poisoned individual has been known to survive it. Some surgeons have considered the possibility of stopping the effects by cutting away the affected tissue. Obviously this measure would only work against localized, early stages of the affliction or when the afflicted zone is located in the extreme parts of the limbs. In such an event it would be recommended that the removed area should be removed at least 10 – 20 centimeters around or above the afflicted area and to make the removal as quick as possible, preferably a single cut. This should be done because the afflicted area spreads very quickly, and cutting that takes too long or occurs too close to the afflicted zone may prove to be for naught. Of course the significant tissue loss may prove as lethal to the patient as the actual poison. Thus far there has been no chance to attempt this solution in practice.

As mentioned before, the Black Tendril is only used by the Ashirae Khan, and even they use only occasionally. This would imply that the substance is difficult to create or acquire, or that even the famously ruthless Ashirae Khan are unnerved by it power and horrific effects. The Black Tendril is reserved for situations where an edge is needed against a particularly dangerous opponent or when the target has to die without the slightest chance of survival. To be poisoned with the Black Tendril is to be considered sufficiently impressive to require special means, and sufficiently threatening so that death by blade or gentler poison cannot be afforded. It is a twisted and perverse form of honoring someone as a worthy foe; an honor that most victims would prefer to do without.

Part V: known rituals and ceremonies

The trial of blood

This is the first of a number of rituals known as "trials" that the Ashirae Khan initiates face during their training, done at the age of eight. In this ritual the initiates face each other in a fight to the death. The survivor earns the right to continue their training and eventually carry on to further trials, most of which are unknown to the wider world. In the event that both initiates refuse to begin combat or carry it out to its conclusion are slain by observing operatives that function as instructors. Pressing reasons, like a lasting illness or injury can delay the trial of blood, but an initiate that has an ongoing sickness or injury after a year is judged unfit for further training and is executed. The primary purpose of the trial is to ensure that teachings given in the previous year have taken hold and the initiates are able to win against an opponent of more or less the same capabilities. In part the trial is also about the survival of the fittest: the best fighters survive, so that only the most capable form the assassins of the Ashirae Khan. Since the initiates facing each other are selected from the same class (A class is a group of roughly several dozen initiates or less that train as a group) whenever possible, the trial of blood is also an early test of loyalty. It shows that the initiates will not refuse a difficult order, such as killing a person of a group that they likely identify themselves with, even at this young age. Those that cannot accomplish this are likely to hesitate with other orders as well, and are thus unsuitable to become full Ashirae Khan operatives.

The trial of the survivor

This is a second known trial of the Ashirae Khan, completed at the age of sixteen, eight years after the trial of blood. In many ways the trial of the survivor and the trial of blood are similar. For instance the points of the two trials are more or less the same. This time however, the initiates face off against the grandmaster of the Ashirae Khan, their objective being to survive his or her assault for ten minutes. Since the grandmasters are always among the foremost fighter of the Ashirae Khan this can be a surprising challenge, lethal to many unprepared initiates. If the grandmaster is simply unable to attend, the head of the safe house can take the place of the grandmaster. However it is a tradition that the grandmaster attend this trial personally when and wherever possible. Leniency from other duties are even granted so that the grandmaster can attend the trial. The only real reasons to delegate this duty to others is that the grandmaster is too occupied with even more critical matters, or as is sometimes the case, due to advanced age. It is an unspoken consideration that when the grandmaster is too old to attend the trial of the survivor, he or she should be replaced, unless his or her experience is exceptionally significant. When the guild has been at its largest, its members have been forced to recognize that the grandmaster is just one person that cannot be in two places at once. Still, the matter is a point of pride for the initiates and the Ashirae Khan as whole, something that most of the guild agrees should be observed if the circumstances can at all be made to allow this.

This is the final formal trial of the Ashirae Khan Initiates. By surviving, the initiates prove that they can hold their own even against a superior opponent, that they are ready and worthy to begin the final phase of their training, that of learning of the larger world. This trial also serves to give the initiates a degree of humility, to prove that there might always be someone that is better than them, lest they become too drunk of their own power. Confidence in ones abilities is a good thing, and something to be expected, but being overconfident can compromise an operative's ability to work and make them overreach themselves needlessly. The true fighter assesses the strengths and weaknesses of their enemies on honest grounds. The true fighter does not allow their personal pride to cloud their judgement. The true fighter will always seek know the measure of his foe, and if he discovers himself to be in error, he is not afraid to correct his estimation. The true fighter, when facing an enemy greater than they are, will fight smart, and seek to find a way to overcome the power of the enemy, to turn their advantages against them. The true fighter is not afraid to wait for the right moment to strike, nor is he afraid to admit that there can be those that are better than he is.

The Sand Dance

This is the final ceremony of that the Ashirae Khan training process. It serves as a welcome to the guild and the final link in the mail that is obedience. The initiate stands in a round room, on a field of sand, surrounded by pedestals on which are fragile, sealed jars containing the Blazing Sun substance. Before the ritual begins the initiate has imbibed some of the same substance to prime their minds and to familiarize them with what is to come. The initiate then performs a regular training pattern of Ashirae Khan sword fighting moves, beginning slowly. This is the "Dance" after which the ritual is named after. During the course of the dance the jars are shattered one by one by sword strokes, releasing more of the substance to be breathed in and signaling the initiate to enter a next, faster paced stage of the dance. The ritual continues until all jars are shattered or until the initiate is rendered unconscious. The latter is by far the more likely option. After this ritual is complete the initiate is declared an operative of the Ashirae Khan that may be assigned on missions. The ritual is thus a coming of age to initiates that make it this far. After the first ritual, the Sand dance can be awarded to any operative or Ashirae Khan of a higher rank for doing a great service to the guild. Only a deed of exceptional skill and service will lead to such a reward. The ritual is intense and intoxicating and it is the private aspiration of just about every Ashirae Khan to experience the Sand Dance ritual more than once in their life. This potential reward is the final reason given to remain loyal to the guild.

From the book "Nightly hunters of the cities: an encyclopedia on orders and legendary individuals secretive, sinister and mysterious" by Arturious Kero, a scholar, ex – adventurer and expert on scientific knowledge of hidden societies, occult lore and ancient legends.