Emey flew through the northern sky, high above the ocean of clouds beneath her. The cool air breathed new vigor into Cail’s lunges. Vitality coursed through his muscles and he felt the power of the wind in his veins. All of the Air Runes in Kordon had been found, but more awaited Cail in the rest of the world. A slender, weak boy left Elona not much more than three years ago, but the magic of the Air Runes transformed him into a formidable foe, a nation’s liberator.
Cestmir swelled as Emey flew closer. It was hard for Cail to believe that a place as radiant as the Ivory City could be held under siege. White towers reached as tall as mountains and gleamed in the magnificent sunlight. From a distance, the city was glorious and peaceful, like a gem resting on a pedestal. Cestmir was so appealing to the eye that Cail had to remind himself of the malicious threat that awaited him.
Emey descended as Cail guided her toward the city’s entrance. She no longer needed to flap her robust wings, instead she held them out, allowing her to gracefully glide above the clouds. With a gentle thud Emey landed on the white bricks of Cestmir’s court, in front of a marvelous fountain with water as clear as the finest gems. When Cail hopped off his falcon, he expected to see a silent city, a city riddled with fear, but he actually saw a boisterous city. Little children were playfully splashing the fountain’s water while their parents chatted amongst themselves. Civilians were busily pacing in and out of the city’s streets, walking from shop to shop, buzzing like bees. Danger and peril appeared to be absent from the city.
“I don’t understand,” Cail said to himself, confused by the livelihood of Cestmir. The adults shot brief glances of suspicion at Cail, but then returned to their conversations.
Cail weaved through the clamoring crowd, slithering like a snake. He should have been happy to see thousands of people minding to their own business, but he couldn’t cast aside his suspicions. Cestmir appeared bright and cheerful, but a hidden darkness was waiting, remaining at bay until the opportune time to pounce.
“Cailean Ozean! The Last Descendant of the gods!” a womanly voice bellowed over the noise of the crowd. Cail turned and saw an elderly woman waving to him from inside a small jewelry shop. Fine gems and jewels glistened on the shelves and gold statues stood along all the walls. As Cail approached her, she said, “I’m blessed and overjoyed to finally meet the savior of Kordon.” Even though a long life wrinkled her face, her smile shone as bright as the sun.
Cail returned a gentle smile to her and said, “You are too kind.”
“Happiness is painted on your face, but I can see no small amount of fear in you,” the woman said, her smile fading.
Her words bit into Cail’s heart like a wintry gust. He felt a strong sense of worry, as though a dagger was just about to pierce through his back. “I must confess that my mind is troubled,” Cail responded with a hushed voice. “A man rushed to my home in Elona and spoke of the city being in disarray, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Is Cestmir truly safe, or am I too blind to see its peril?”
The woman stood before Cail, only rising up to his belly. She put a thin, scrawny hand on Cail’s forearm and asked, “Have you eaten yet on this fine afternoon?”
Cail was taken back by her response. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“You should place more faith in your eyes. Cestmir is alive and well, thanks to you,” the woman said with a soothing voice. Cail was perplexed by the warning given to him about Cestmir, but his heart was calmed by the light in the woman’s eyes. She led Cail out of the shop and pointed across the street. “That diner, The Dancing Dragon, serves the finest meal a young boy, such as yourself, could ask for. Tell them I sent you and you’ll be served well.”
“Thank you,” Cail said, giving the woman a slight nod. He proceeded across the street, swiftly avoiding the flooded traffic of civilians. Cail walked through the light wooden door and was greeted by a soft curtain of warmth from a snapping fire. All of the broad, oak tables were taken save for one in a dark corner. Cail quickly strode to the table before anyone else could steal it from him. Before a waitress could introduce herself, a cloaked man slid into the chair opposite of Cail. The man appeared to be much larger than Cail and a black hood hung over his head, veiling his face in darkness. “Can I help you?” Cail asked, surprised by the stranger’s audacity.
“You’re the one who needs help, coming to a broken city all alone,” the man replied, his voice as deep as a drum.
“Cestmir is very jubilant for being a broken city,” Cail responded, confused by the man’s claims. He tried to catch a glimpse of the man’s face, but all Cail could see was darkness.
“Only because they’re being watched. The people who surround you, even the ones in this very restaurant, are nothing more than puppets and the Blue Assassins hold their strings. If a Cestmirian does so much as slightly drift from conformity, they’ll be killed and cast aside like a dog.”
“But where are the Blue Assassins? And how are they able to stalk over an entire city? Especially one as large and diverse as Cestmir,” Cail asked.
“The Blue Assassins have overtaken the Red Pumas and now control the chambers beneath the city; they’ve dismantled the protectors of Cestmir. The people of the city are ever fearful of the assassins because they are masters of disguise. There could be dozens of them in this restaurant as we speak.” Cail looked around at all the customers, none of whom looked peculiar. “That’s why the Cestmirians conform, that’s why they’re afraid. At even given moment, the Blue Assassins could pounce on their mistakes.”
Cail leaned in and whispered to the stranger, “Cestmir is a stronghold of Kordon, a symbol of fortitude. I must reclaim it, but I know almost nothing about who I’m faced against.”
The man said nothing for a moment. Cail could feel the man’s invisible eyes piercing into him, carving through him like a knife. “I surmise that’s your way of asking for my help?” Cail nodded in response. “Then tell me. Why should I help you?”
“If the Blue Assassins have as firm of a hold on Cestmir as you say, then we must do something to help,” Cail insisted in a hushed voice.
“I’m not from this city, I have no attachment to it. Why should I care?”
“If you’re not a civilian, then why are you here?” Cail asked, irritated by the man’s selfishness.
“I don’t have to explain myself to a stranger,” the man replied. Cail rolled his eyes in frustration. The man paused for a moment and then said, “If your mind is truly set on finding the Blue Assassins, then I’ll point you in their direction, but I’ll do no more for you.”
“Fine,” Cail said with a strong hint of vexation. “Where must I go?”
The hooded man leaned close to Cail and whispered, “Around the back of this diner there’s a set of storm doors that will take you to a tunnel that runs beneath the city. This tunnel will lead you straight to the enemy’s hiding chamber.” Cail motioned a thankful nod to the man and darted out of the diner.
The rear of the building was bleak and dark. Loud chattering oozed through cracks in the walls and the ground was carpeted with a layer of dirt and dust. The storm doors were made of thick maple wood and appeared to be just wide enough for Cail to squeeze his shoulders through. Cail quickly glanced around him, looking to see that no one was watching him, and then he flung open the storm doors. They beat the ground with a loud bang and Cail cursed under his breath for being so careless and noisy. He swiftly descended into the black, closing the doors behind him.
Cail slowly progressed through the blinding darkness, keeping one hand on the dirt walls of the tunnel. All sounds and sources of light abandoned Cail, leaving him in a dark void. The dirt beneath his feet was soft and he could smell the moisture in the air. A faint shriek resonated through the tunnel, a cry for help. Cail stopped in his tracks, paralyzed by fear. He remained as still as a statue, holding his breath. After several moments of silence, Cail slowly progressed until he saw a single source of light in the far distance. He was so desperate to use his eyes that he didn’t care what awaited him in the light. Cail sprinted down the corridor, his feet sinking deeper into the ground with every step. He progressed through a narrow archway and into a dungeon filled with despair. Rusted iron prisons held men and women who were beaten and battered, cold chains drooped from the prisoners’ wrists and ankles, and weapons and instruments of torture hung on the walls. Nightmares couldn’t even draw the atrocities that laid before Cail’s eyes.
In the cell nearest Cail, a scraggly and malnourished man trudged toward Cail and wrapped his bony fingers around the bars that confined him. “You there,” he whispered. Cail could see a mountain of fear in the man’s eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to rescue all of you,” Cail said with confidence as strong as steel. The prisoner’s body quaked and he violently shook his head.
“No. They’ll find you. They’ll kill you. Get out while your limbs are free.”
“Where are the Blue Assassins? They must be stopped.”
“One puny boy has no hope against an army such as this. The Blue Assassins are ruthless. They offer no mercy because none was given to them.” Cail leaned in closer to catch a clearer glimpse of the man. His pupils were void of hope, filled with the darkness of death. Gashes and wounds ran along his dry skin, leaving trails of dried blood. If the man had muscles at one point in his life, they had abandoned him. Cail looked around the chamber and saw dozens of prisoners staring at him with the same eyes as the man; their gaze flooded with hopelessness. Fear weighed on Cail's lunges and he struggled to breathe. He started to run through the cells, desperately trying to find an escape, but there was none. Cail was trapped within a labyrinth of prisoners, hopelessly searching for light in the dead of the night. He stopped and bent over his knees, gasping for air. Then a thick hand rested on his shoulder.
“It's a wonder they haven't found you already, with all the noise you're making.” Cail stood up and saw the hooded man standing just beside him, the man from the diner.
“I thought you weren't coming down here,” Cail said in between deep breaths.
“I wasn't going to, but I had a nagging feeling that you would need my assistance, and I was right.” Cail could see a slight smirk from beneath the man's hood. “If we are going to proceed, I need your word that you'll step as lightly as the wind and remain silent.”
“Of course, but first I must know your name.”
Two thick, strong, pale hands removed the black hood, revealing a boy, who looked approximately the age of Cail, standing before him. The boy had hair as radiant as the sun and eyes as blue as a clear sky. His neck was thick, but not overly bulky. He stood a full head taller than Cail, outmatching him in both height and width. “My name is Micah.” He extended a pale hand toward Cail and Cail shook it. “I may not have ever lived in Cestmir, but I remember its days of glory. I remember the streets being flooded with friendly folk and gleeful children, not this world of puppets we see now.”
Cail reached up to put his hand on Micah’s shoulder, “If we work together, we can take down the Blue Assassins and free this city.” Micah smiled with ivory teeth and led Cail onward through the dungeons. As they wove through the jail cells, Cail desperately desired to free all the prisoners, but he didn’t dare to leave his guide. The corridors came to an end and they stood in a circular chamber with no doors save for the one through which they entered. Micah stood still in the middle of the chamber and Cail approached from behind.
“I thought you knew where you were going? This is a dead end,” Cail said, irritated with Micah.
“I do,” Micah responded with a smirk on his face. “This is only a dead end for you.” Cail spun around and saw that the entrance was now blocked by dozens of men, all as large as Micah, with matching black cloaks. If these men were the Blue Assassins, then Cecil’s description of them was far from accurate; Cail had no hope of overpowering any of them. None of Cail’s abilities could help him escape the fact that he was grossly outnumbered. Micah’s strong hands gripped onto Cail’s shoulders and he said, “It would be wise to come with us without a fuss.”
“You lied to me?” Cail asked through gritted teeth. He was fuming from his seething anger. “Why are you betraying the one person that can protect Kordon from the Blue Assassins?”
“Because I am a Blue Assassin. We all are,” Micah said as he pointed to all the men surrounding Cail. “You fell into our trap like a mouse. To be honest, I thought it would be a little more difficult. Nonetheless, my master will be happy. Now, will you come quietly, or will I have to drag you along the way?” Cail saw no need to waste his energy fighting a futile battle, so he dejectedly surrendered.
Micah and his legion of cloaked soldiers marched Cail through the depths of the dungeons until they arrived to a place that wasn’t unfamiliar to Cail; the Chamber of the Red Pumas. Thousands of men were waiting for Cail in the chamber, but instead of the Red Pumas, these men were all dressed in black cloaks. As Cail walked forth, he could feel thousands upon thousands of eyes turning toward him, casting their malice and spite at him. He was stranded in ocean infested with bloodthirsty sharks. Micah led Cail to the throne that once belonged to Beda, but was now taken by a giant man, twice the size of Cail. The man had a rough face with dark skin, his red eyes pierced through Cail like a knife, and his broad feet were planted into the ground like trees. When Cail arrived to the throne, the man stood up and approached Cail, rising high above Cail’s head.
“I’ve waited a long time to meet you, Cailean Ozean, savior of Kordon,” the man said with a thunderous voice. He wore a dark smirk on his face, which allowed his yellowed teeth to surface “There’s a sage, not far from here, who would pay a pretty price for your head.”
“Calling yourselves the Blue Assassins is a bit misleading since all of you wear black,” Cail said, trying to ignore the man’s attempts at intimidation. He stood as confidently as if he had an army with him.
The man reached into his black cloak and from his pocket he retrieved a flower and held it in his rough, thick hand. It was an object of beauty, boasting pedals that were deep blue and as soft as velvet. As the man observed the flower he said, “This flower is called The Sapphire Rose. It can only be found in the gardens of my ancestors, in the nation of Aithnen. There are two groups of people who may possess this flower: my kin and the people we kill. The reason we’re called the Blue Assassins is because this flower is the only trail we leave. We’re an army of shadows, with feet as light as the wind.
“For centuries, we have traveled throughout the entire world, doing our deeds for the highest bidder. A couple thousand years ago, we came to Kordon for a job, which we completed with ease, but then something happened that we did not expect. Our home, Aithnen, disappeared behind a floor of clouds, stranding us here in the nation in the sky. We sought out refuge on an island far to the west, creating a suitable settlement for our new home. For three thousand years, we lived in peace and tranquility, until a few weeks ago. The Sages of Pazia came to me, presenting an offer I simply could not refuse; the promise of our return to Aithnen.”
“So, you intend to strip an entire nation of their protector just so you can get a free pass to your home?” Cail asked, failing in a futile attempt to pass guilt onto the man.
“Now we’re on the same page,” he said with no sign of remorse. The man looked down to the flower once again. “This is the final rose that I have with me, and you are my final target. Come tomorrow morning, I will give you the gift that you are destined for; the gift of death. Then I will drag your wretched corpse to the Sages so that I can return to my home.”
“Who do you think you are to threaten me? I saved Kordon from the suffocating grasp of a tyrant, I’ve attained power that was divinely gifted to me, and you have the audacity to abduct me?”
The man let out of a soft chuckle, mocking Cail’s arrogance. “To answer your question, my name is Barok Zilith, King of the Blue Assassins. I’ve lived for thousands of years, killed thousands on the battlefield and thousands more away from it. You should look around you. You’re surrounded by a legion of my finest warriors, all of whom could kill you in the blink of an eye.” There was no denying that Barok was right. Cail would struggle to fight off a dozen of these warriors, but battling against an entire army of them was beyond hopeless. “The Sages don’t just want your corpse, but also something that you possess; the Shadow Stone.” Cail shot a glance of intrigue at Barok.
Ever since Cail had gifted the Shadow Stone into the rightful hands of Beda, he had cast it out of his mind. The Sages had stolen it from a sacred temple in Aithnen, and they intended to steal it again. Quietly, Cail said, “I don’t have it.”
“Excuse me?” Barok asked, glaring with burning eyes.
“I don’t have the Shadow Stone. I gave it to a friend a few years ago.”
“And who is this friend?” Cail could hear fierce anger rising in Barok’s voice. His temper was building like a wave rising above an ocean.
“Why should I tell you?” Cail responded with a sly smirk on his face. “You’re going to kill me regardless of whether I tell you the name of my friend, or not, so I think I’ll hang on to that tidbit of information.
Barok’s face grew as red as his eyes and a sonorous growl oozed through his teeth. Despite the assassin’s rage, Cail’s conceited smirk remained on his face. Barok swiftly snatched Cail by the collar of his shirt and hoisted his body in the air, his feet dangling over the ground. Cail knew that Barok was no weakling, but he didn’t expect the King of the Blue Assassins to be the brute he was. Fear crept back into Cail’s mind and his confidence was swept away like a scent in the wind.
“Yes, you will die regardless of what you tell me, but I can make the remainder of your life unpleasant if you continue to vex me,” Barok growled. His thick hand clamped down on Cail’s shirt and his ire possessed his entire body. “I’ll ask you one last time. Who has the Shadow Stone?”
Torture and agony loomed over Cail like an oncoming storm. This storm had black clouds of death, threatening the lives of all those living beneath it. Fierce winds and pelting rain accompanied the storm, wreaking havoc on a world previously at peace. Fear gripped Cail and paralyzed his muscles, froze his mind. He had encountered countless dangers and perils on his quest to kill Kalil, but this was entirely. Cail was engulfed by the shadow of a sinister army; all alone while he stared into the dark eyes of death. It would be easy for Cail to accept his fate, to tell Barok the truth, to betray the Serafine’s safety, but what is easy is not always what is wise.
“I’ll never tell you,” Cail said with a menacing smirk. His victory was brief as Barok let out a thunderous roar and slammed Cail’s back onto the rigid stone, knocking the wind out of Cail’s lunges. Cail tried to recover to his feet, but his body remained as still as the stone beneath him. He gasped time and time again, desperately trying to cling to even a tiny wisp of fresh air, but there were only venomous fumes of the Blue Assassins who surrounded him. After several of lying in throbbing agony, Cail rolled onto his belly and began to crawl on the cold, hard stone. Then a massive wooden club pounded onto the middle of his back, viciously plopping Cail onto the floor once again. He let out a cry of pain and tears were forced out of his eyes. The Assassins surrounded Cail and started to kick and beat him mercilessly, fracturing his bones and gashing his flesh.
“Enough!” Barok shouted after what seemed like an eternity of punishment. Cail laid hopelessly still. Crimson blood flowed from dozens of wounds on his body and his eyes were glazed with tears of pain. The King of the Blue Assassins walked over to the battered boy before him and kneeled down by Cail’s ear. Softly, he asked, “Have you had your fill of pain?”
Cail ignored the foul stench coming from Barok’s breath and whispered, “You’ll never beat the truth out of me.” Barok rose to his feet once more without saying anything in response. He snatched the broadest club he could find and, without a word of warning, crushed the back of Cail’s head with it, knocking him unconscious.
“Get this wretch out of my sight,” Barok said, looking over to Micah.
“To the dungeons?” Micah asked as he reached down for Cail’s arm.
“Yes. Once he wakes, his true punishment will begin.”
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