Chapter 1

The best part about working, Illyis thought, was getting paid.

"Seventy-three gold coins as promised," the Associate said grimly, as if every moment standing in the darkened alley was wasting his time.

Illyis beamed at him, tossing the coin pouch up and down.

"Thank you for your patronage. I hope you'll hire me again."

The Associate sniffed prudishly, the chain in his hand jangling. It was attached to the steel collar of a young girl with long, elfish ears and a scarred face. A Mixed Race.

"Well, I suppose your work wasn't bad. For a Witch, anyway." He gazed at Illyis like he'd rather have hired one of those esteemed spies that cost a fortune. But a mercenary had been a cheaper option and he had taken that choice instead.

Illyis kept smiling widely, because it was the best way to deal with a backhanded compliment. She detested Associates, no matter what creature or race they were. They rode on the coattails of their association with the Great Houses even when they didn't have the actual title. But clients were clients and work was work.

This one in particular was a bastard of the highest calibre but it wasn't a good idea to go bad mouthing clients and Illyis had never been chivalrous enough to go around challenging all of the unkind. That was Wyn's forte.

"Thank you and have a lovely evening."

The Associate clicked his tongue and gave a curt nod. "Come on, Halfling, we've got other work to get done."

He pulled the chain roughly, sending the Mixed Race girl stumbling as he led her out of the alley.

Illyis frowned.

Halfling. It was derogatory term for the Mixed Race. Consorting between two different races was widely disproved of by most creatures but the Great Houses of Nephrite were the ones that had decreed the enslavement of the children that came out of those affairs.

Illyis didn't approve but she wasn't so heroic to stand against the Great Houses and most of the country's creatures. Not unless she had the power to change history and not even Circe-Sorona – the most powerful Witch to have ever lived – had been able to do that.

But enough of those thoughts. Illyis needed to rest and relax. She turned the opposite way the Associate went, heading to Lockleft Tavern, the best place to go after a hard day at work.

The back alleys were shortcuts that got you to anywhere and everywhere in downtown Ragus but they were filled with rather ravenous Shadow Creatures at night.

She turned down a narrowed lane where two ragged looking Shadow Creatures were crouched, muttering indecent things under their breath. Illyis walked down the alley, ignoring their presence.

"Ain't that a Witchie?" one said to his companion as she passed. "Not seen many of em' round."

She heard cackling laughter.

"Ho there, Miss," the other called out.

Illyis stopped when they stepped in front of her. She looked up at their dirt smeared faces, fashioned with the rune marks of Shadow Creatures. There was the pungent smell of alcohol in their breath.

Really, she just wanted to get to the tavern.

"What's a pretty creature like you doin' in the dark?" He smiled crookedly, eyes glinting tales of unsavoury thoughts. Illyis wasn't even wearing any finery, dressed plainly in her grey-green linen vest and dusty brown trousers. What did they see in her? "It ain't quite the place for a gal like you."

Illyis laughed jovially. A gal like her he said. She might've been slightly intimidated by their tone had she not been a thriver of downtown.

"I think you're the ones who aren't used to the dark. Don't believe I've seen you around here before." If they were from around here, they would've recognised her already. A red-haired Witch was well-known in these parts. Especially in Lockleft.

"Ohh she thinks she's witty, ain't she?" the second whispered to his companion. "Are all em Witches like that?"

"Wouldn't know. They don' leave em' nests too oft'n."

They looked back at Illyis, glancing up and down in a very disgusting manner. But who was she to judge? Ragus was a free town.

"If you're so used to this place, how bout you show us round, eh? Have a good time?"

Illyis smiled politely. "I'm having a great time on my own and I'd like to keep it that way."

The Shadow Creature unsheathed a knife from his belt and let the moonlight glint on it, turning it slowly as if to make sure Illyis knew its implications.

"Missy, I think you don' got our point," the one not holding the knife said, nodding to his friend. "We ain't really asking."

Except that he had asked. But Illyis could question their intellect later. She needed to hurry to the tavern and quench her thirst.

"You see," she kept her smile kind, "I don't really want your company, whether you're asking or not. And that knife of yours," She nodded to it in mock imitation of how the friend had done before "is rusting rather badly."

The knife-holding Shadow Creature snarled and lunged at her with his knife, apparently getting impatient. Illyis sidestepped him easily.

The thing about alcoholic folk was that they were so drearily slow. She grabbed his wrist for stability and drove her knee into his stomach. He yelped and went tumbling down, clutching his abdomen.

Illyis wouldn't even need to draw her spindle at this rate.

His companion growled low, affronted by her attack and a little surprised that she had it in her. She didn't bother to wait for his attack, shooting her hand out to grab his throat and slamming him into the stone wall.

She moved in close and he recoiled, trying to retreat into the wall. He eyed the iron earring adorning her left ear with dread. Shadow Creatures could be burned by iron. But even so, it wasn't worth drawing out her spindle.

"Now, now," she said, all smiling pleasantry. "Sorry for my behaviour but I'm just tired from a long day of work, you see, and I'm eager to get to the tavern. So if you'll let me pass, then there'll be no animosity between us."

She pressed him further into the wall to add to her point.

He nodded in quick succession. Illyis let go and took a step back. She wasn't really the brawling type. She was a cheerful girl and she didn't hold grudges. However the same could not be said for the Shadow Creature who drew another knife from his pocket as soon as she let him go.

She laughed again, a merry sound. "Well, alright then. Have it your way."

oOoOoOo

Illyis walked out of the alley onto the main road. She brushed the blood off her sleeves. It would probably stain. Shadow Creatures bled way too much. She didn't even cut them that deep.

Ragus was a happening Wake Town, especially at night. All sorts of creatures were out and about at this late hour. The road in front of Lockleft Tavern was one of the busiest streets in downtown Ragus. Creatures from dainty, dripping naiads to the nocturnal, grumpy Vampires hustled down the cobblestone street with their own destinations in mind.

Illyis weaved through them, walking to the large tavern carved into the side of the street. The lumen lamps glowed with Firefly Fairy magic, making her wavy red hair shine gold. Shadow Creatures stood on the doorsteps of the graffiti splattered buildings, whooping and wolf-whistling at young ladies as they passed.

Illyis heard Lockleft's blaring low bass music before she even reached its towering oak doors. The tavern looked desolate from the outside with darkly tinted windows that were half boarded up with rotting wooded planks. Its faded sign was crooked and someone had bitten a chunk out of the left corner.

A wall of noise hit her when she opened the doors. It was rowdy inside. Loud voices chattered with well-timed guffaws interjected here and there. Merry tales were being spun amidst the crowded room, some truths hidden among fibbing stories of false grandeur. Drinks clinked together and the darkness of the tavern fought with the blaze of hearth fires, creating thousands of flickering shadows and warm glows to light the creatures' faces.

Illyis stood at the entrance for a moment, letting the tavern's giddy cheer spill over her. How she loved the place.

A few creatures waved and some hollered her name. Illyis gave them her greetings as she made her way in. The interior was furnished in a contrastingly gaudy manner compared to the exterior. There were polished wood-panelled walls and bone chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, though they didn't give off much light compared to the bonfires. Some mounted heads of bears and wolves hung from iron hooks.

"A pint of the usual for me, Mister!" she called to the bartender, dropping a handful of coins on the counter before going to sit at her usual spot; the old bench by the hearth fire.

Dark green flames danced upon black charcoal, making the bench look like it was deep underwater. Illyis knew the alchemic formula to its undying blaze but she didn't dare to make her own. The stuff used could be explosive if combined wrong.

She looked across the room, spotting familiar faces; Rinette the information broker, Wes the demonic charlatan that was actually a charity worker and so on. Some used to wonder why she didn't always sit with them. It wasn't as if Illyis didn't enjoy friendly conversation. In fact, she liked to talk. But Illyis sometimes preferred to just watch and listen, to absorb the heat of people's happiness. She relished the freedom of it.

A Nymphaea barmaid sauntered over to her with a large glass of sloshing liquid.

"Here you are, a pint of beetroot juice as per usual," she said with a voice full of sugar.

Illyis thanked her and she sashayed away, the water lily on her head swaying. She took a gulp of the beetroot juice and let out a satisfied sound. Nothing like fresh vegetable juice to ease the stresses of a working day.

For a few hours, she enjoyed the night life of Lockleft, listening to wild spun tales from afar and sipping at her third drink of juice for the day. This was her usual routine. After a few days of relentless work, she'd settle her free evenings at the tavern until a new job came in, listening and watching.

The creak of the tavern door opening couldn't be heard over the chatter but when two creatures stepped in, all noise feel into a sudden hush. Silence in Lockleft was unusual. Illyis followed everyone's gazes to the two figures standing at the entrance.

She almost chocked on her drink in surprise. At the door, standing as rigid as a statue, was a young boy with the distinct shadow runes of a Necromancer running across his face; over the nose and from ear to ear.

But he wasn't any ordinary Necromancer. He was a young lord from the Great House of their region.

A tall Elf girl dressed as in a black maid's dress stood beside him. She was a patchwork of stiches and discoloured skin, ranging from pale grey to shadowy purple. Some parts of her body didn't match with the rest. Illyis realised that she was an Undead, the summoned puppet of a Necromancer.

Not a single soul in the room dared to speak, not even Mister Rodney, the hulking giant of a tavern owner. No one here liked the Great Houses and their oppressive rule but no one dared to defy them either.

The young lord scanned the room, seemingly oblivious to the hush. Illyis stared like everyone else, unsure of what someone like him would want in a downtown tavern.

Then his eyes locked on hers and recognition appeared. Illyis knew trouble as soon as she saw it and averted her eyes. She had a few second to contemplate whether this trouble would be fun or bothersome as he took confident strides towards her table.

Creatures moved out of his way, peering at him like he was some sort of curious museum exhibit, all while he didn't seem to notice at all. The maid padded behind him, poised and graceful in her steps.

The lord stopped in front of her and Illyis couldn't really ignore him then. She glanced up carefully and was just as careful to make it seem casual, lifting her mug to drink. She had some pride after all.

The Necromancer's eyes were a startling, vivid blue. He had a crown of inky black curls upon a face of sickly pale skin but it was the fanciness of his clothes that stood out to Illyis. He wore a dark navy coat with chain-link silver buttons the shape of lion heads. The collar of his white undershirt was of heavy ivy lace and was tied with a green spidersilk ribbon. She had never seen anything so expensive-looking in her life.

"Are you the mercenary called Illyis?" the lord asked, eyeing her with a scrutinising gaze.

"That'd be me," she replied over the lip of her cup. Her brain whirred, wondering what someone from a Great House wanted with her of all creatures.

"I've heard tales that there's a heroic swashbuckler who's particularly savvy with a spindle in this town and after asking around, I believe that is you, Miss Illyis."

"That's a bit of unworthy praise," she said, swirling the frothy purple-pink liquid in her mug. "I'll do a fair bit for coin and I'll admit I've got skills with the sword but I'm not really the chivalrous sort."

The Necromancer frowned. "You're well-reputed in these parts."

"Probably because you don't often see a Witch out of her coven, let alone one working as a mercenary." She took another big swig of her juice and set in on the table with a rattle. It made the boy flinch and Illyis began to see the cracks in his mask. He was too far from home here; out of the water. She locked eyes with him, her confidence growing. "But I believe it's more astonishing for someone of your status to be in these dark parts of downtown. Tell me, what is a young lord from the Van Ellery House doing here?"

He looked taken back that she knew who he was. That was silly because he wore the emblem of the Van Ellery House proudly on the lapel of his fancy coat. Only those of the Great Houses had family names and anyone could tell apart a common creature to the esteemed Necromancer before her.

"I'm looking for a bodyguard." He kept his voice steely but Illyis detected its waver. The little lord was frightened to be in an unsavoury part of town. She felt a smile curl on her lips.

"Are you willing to take the job?" he asked.

Now anyone would be a fool to turn down an offer from a member of one of the Great Houses. Illyis disliked lordlings as much as the next creature but it was common knowledge that mercenaries were dazzled by gold.

But it would also be just as foolish to accept a job without finding out all the details. The Great Houses were rich enough to have an elite force of bodyguards of their own. They didn't need to go around spending their gold on mercenaries.

"I'll consider it. But for now, why don't you take a seat?" She gestured at the bench opposite her. "You draw an awful lot of attention dressed in all your finery. Standing so stiffly isn't helping anyone either."

He looked around the room quickly and noticed that indeed, many heads were turned their way and staring agape. It was only natural. It wasn't every day the son of your region's ruler appeared in the local tavern with his maid in tow.

He sat down on the bench, clasping his hands on the wooden table and trying hard to conceal how jittery he was. He must've been quite desperate to come out this far. It meant the job would be all the more dangerous. Not that the threat of danger was anything but thrilling.

Illyis gestured for his maid to sit down too but she shook her head demurely.

Illyis shrugged, downing the last of her drink before pushing it aside and sitting up straighter from her forward slouch. It was time for business.

"So then," she began, throwing on a confident smile, "how about some more details."

The young lord took a breath as if to steady himself. Had Illyis been a bit more lacking in morals, she could have swindled a fair bit of gold from such an obviously inexperienced lordling.

But alas, Illyis wasn't a bad creature.

"My name is Nian Van Ellery, the second son of Naiphas Van Ellery. This is my maid, Agna." He gestured at the patchwork woman who gave a low bow. "For the final trial of my coming of age, I am to raise an ancient creature worthy of my house. I plan to raise a Mountain Giant and I need to get to Lune Valley to do so."

Lune Valley, otherwise known as the Land of the Haunted, was the necropolis of an ancient race that perished over a thousand years ago. It was in the heart of the Liosese Mountains, settled in the northern region of Divinia. They'd have to cross the border to get there. It was exceedingly dangerous, but more for the boy than Illyis herself.

"So you want me to escort you there?"

He nodded curtly. "I want you to ensure my safety until I get there."

It was a common role for a mercenary. Nothing absurd. No, the absurdity was something else.

"But why do you wish to hire me?" Surely someone from one of the Great House had better, more skilled creatures to hire as bodyguards than a mercenary.

"I didn't say I'd hire you yet. I'm assessing you."

Illyis wanted to laugh. He wasn't scaring anyone. But then his eyes grew suspicious and he said something that made her mouth sour.

"I've heard that you're a Witch who can't use magic."

Her merriment faded and she frowned, fingers tracing the blood rose tattooed on the back of her right hand. Above the knuckles, a single black rune was tattooed on each of her fingers. It was a traitor's brand.

"It's not that I can't use magic," she said softly. "My magic is sealed."


Author's Note:

I'm buzzing with anxiety like I always am when posting new stories.

Illyis is pronounced 'ill-is' with a silent 'y' but feel free to pronounce it in any way you like.