Cold air howled through the barred window, freezing the grim chambers that imprisoned the captives of the Blue Assassins. Iron cells with rusted bars were stacked side by side, creating an organized array of agony. Mossy stone encompassed the prison, allowing no illumination save for the small rectangular window near the ceiling. The cells were lifeless; jars filled with poison. Every prisoner was beaten and battered, tortured like wild animals. Some of the newest captives fervently searched for ways to escape, while seasoned prisoners didn’t move, fully aware that any attempt to leave the depraved labyrinth was futile.
Every day the guards worked their way through each of the cells, mercilessly beating their prisoners. The Blue Assassins didn’t pummel their captives in an attempt to gain intel or items of value, but they did it for pleasure. Screams of agony, pleas for salvation, and begs for mercy were all that satisfied the Blue Assassins.
Cail didn’t allow his pain to surface. It was impossible to hide all the gashes and bruises he had been dealt over the two weeks of his imprisonment, but he blanketed his fear and torment deep within his mind. No matter what the Blue Assassins did to him, he would protect Serafine with all his might. Only he knew that she had the Shadow Stone and as long as that secret was kept, Serafine’s life would be sheltered.
The chamber doors flung open, sending a thunderous pound through the prison. Even though Cail couldn’t see the doors from his cell, he knew what approached; he knew the guards had come to unleash their punishment on the prisoners. Cail closed his eyes, focusing his mind on creating a shelter, a refuge from all pain. He heard a faint click of the first cell. Then onerous thuds beat deep like a thunderous drum, each pound followed closely by a shrilling shriek. One by one, the guards progressed through the cells, wailing on the prisoners as though they were meat being tenderized. Cail was the last cell in the prison, so he had to hopelessly watch everyone endure their anguish.
The guards opened the door of the cell neighboring Cail’s and immediately assaulted the prisoner with vicious aggression, but the prisoner didn’t scream or beg for mercy; he accepted his fate. As Cail’s neighbor was snapped by thick leather whips and broad wooden clubs, Cail wanted to look away, but couldn’t. In an odd way, watching another person’s torture prepared him for his own. It hardened his skin and closed his mind from any torment that would be thrown at him.
The prisoner’s body collapsed onto the hard stone of the floor and the guards stood over him, each wearing a sinister grin. After admiring the pain they had administered, the guards turned toward Cail and then whispered amongst themselves. Fear shot through Cail’s spine, but he refused to allow it to surface. He tried to have a sealed mind and a skeleton made of iron, but his trepidation outweighed his courage. All four of the guards strode from the neighboring cell to Cail’s. One of them retrieved a brass key from a leather pouch hanging on his waist. With an onerous click, the door of Cail’s cell swung open and the guards filed through. They all wore thick black armor, completely covered from head to toe. Their clubs were longer than Cail’s legs and the whips were broader than his palm. “I’m ready,” Cail said in a soft voice, succumbing to the punishment he was about to endure.
The largest of the four guards stepped forth, each step sending a tremor through the ground, and through yellowed teeth he said, “We have very strict orders to take you to Barok unhurt.” Cail was leaning on another day of agonizing torture, not expecting to be taken to the King of the Blue Assassins himself. Although, he was now presented with a slither of leverage, which he fully intended to use.
“And if I refuse to come?” Cail asked, firmly standing his ground.
“Refusal is not an option,” the guard snapped back.
“It is if you can’t hurt me,” Cail responded wearing a sly smirk on his face. The guard immediately recognized that Cail was using him like a pawn. He lunged toward Cail, trying to snatch him by his thin, ripped shirt. Cail swiftly dodged the guard and blasted him in the side with a powerful gust of wind, flinging the guard against the cell’s bars. The guard slammed headfirst into the iron bars and laid still on the ground, unconscious.
The three remaining guards quickly shuffled out of the cell, not afraid of Cail, but of what would become of them if they allowed Cail to escape. One of the three stood at the cell’s door and growled, “You’ll pay for that. Barok will make you suffer in ways you couldn’t possibly imagine.”
“What more could he do to me?” Cail responded, almost daring the guards to defy their King’s orders and hurt him. The guard let out a menacing chuckle and then led the other two out of the prison.
After the guards were out of ear shot, the man trapped in the cell next to Cail’s said, “What madness is in you? Barok will unless his fury on you!”
“How can he do that if I’m no longer caught in his trap?” Cail responded with a smirk. The prisoner said nothing in response as he cast an expression incredulity. Cail walked over to the unconscious guard, who remained in his cell. “Only a fool would leave a guard with a prisoner,” Cail said as he kneeled beside the limp body. He reached into the guard’s pouch, ignoring the dried food crumbs, and retrieved the brass key. Proud of his cunning theft, Cail held the key in the light, admiring its rough edges. He weaved his arm through the bars of his cell and unlocked the door. For the first time in weeks, Cail had the freedom to go wherever he wanted, he had the freedom to jump, run, sit, rest, and most importantly, he was liberated from the torture he had endured.
Cail tossed the key through the bars of the neighboring cell and said to the prisoner, “Empty all of the cells. There’s someone I have to find, the only person who can rid this city of the Blue Assassins.” That person was Beda, the girl who had taught Cail in the art of combat, the Queen of the Red Pumas. She and her army were buried somewhere deep in the dark chambers and Cestmir would never be free until they were found.
As Cail sprinted toward the prison’s doors, he could hear the cells clicking open and the prisoners’ clamoring grow louder. The excess of noise would undoubtedly attract the guards, so Cail had little time to spare. He darted through a towering archway which led him into a labyrinth of hallways. Each hall was dimly illuminated by a single torch perched into the side of the wall. Three options were laid before Cail, one to his left, right, and one directly in front. He had no choice but to blindly trust his instincts. He chose the right hall.
He jogged as swiftly, but also quietly, as he could. Every step sent a jolt of pain through his bones. The weeks of torture had taken their toll on his body and his muscles had weakened. Cail pressed onward nonetheless. The hallway curved like a snake, twisting and twirling, testing what little strength remained in Cail’s legs. At last, Cail reached the end of the hallway and arrived in a small chamber that looked to be a small bedroom. It was far from luxurious. A short bed with a thin mattress and dull sheets was pressed into the corner, a dirt-stained wooly rug was matted in the middle of the floor, and in the corner opposite the bed, a rickety dresser stood, barely large enough to hold a few changes of clothing. Not wanting to waste more time than what was necessary, Cail quickly spun around to leave, but before he could take another step, the rug coiled around his foot and Cail plummeted to the cold, hard floor. Cail cursed at himself for being so loud and clumsy. His hands and knees burned from scraping against the stone bricks. Cail grimaced from the intense searing sensation, he felt as though he had walked straight through fire.
Cail shoved the pain aside and, in a similar fashion, pushed his body off the floor, but before he rose to his reddened knees, he noticed something peculiar beneath the bed. From his distance, it appeared to be another leg of the bed, but it was directly beneath the center, suggesting that it was something else. Curiosity won the battle and Cail crawled beneath the bed on the floor carpeted with dirt. In front of Cail was an iron lever, nearly rising to the bed’s mattress. Cail pulled on the lever, it didn’t budge. He tugged harder until it finally started to shift, grinding against the stone floor on either side of the stem. The lever snapped into place and then a low rumble reverberated from behind Cail and the floor beneath him quaked. After the room quieted, Cail laid still, frozen by the fear that someone heard and was on their way to take Cail back to his cell of anguish. There were no approaching footsteps, though. He pushed himself from underneath the bed and when he rose to his feet, he turned around and noticed that the dresser had slid from the corner, revealing a small crawlspace, ever so slightly wider than Cail’s shoulders. The crawlspace was just wide enough for Cail to crawl through, but also narrow enough that he wouldn’t be followed.
He slithered into the hole, moving through darkness. Once his entire body was in, the dresser slid back to its original position, engulfing Cail in complete darkness. The darkness was heavy, weighing on his eyes. Cobwebs were draped along the walls and the stone bricks turned to cold, moist dirt. After progressing through the darkness, Cail heard faint voices above his head. “We’ve rounded up nearly all the escapees, sir,” a voice said. The voice was shaky, riddled with fear. An unmistakable voice boomed in response.
“Nearly? ‘Nearly’ isn’t good enough. ‘Nearly’ allows for the return of the Last Descendant! I don’t want to see your face again unless you have Cail in chains. Now, get out of my sight!” After Barok’s tirade ended, Cail heard shuffling footsteps above him, shortly followed by the heavy thuds of Barok’s feet. I must have found a hidden system of tunnels, Cail thought to himself. He continued trudging through the darkness, ignoring the footsteps and clamoring above his head. Without warning, Cail’s hand fell through a hole, followed by the rest of his body. His body flipped over and solid concrete smacked his back after a short fall. Throbbing paralysis froze his spine for a moment. Tall, muscular men ran to Cail’s side and surrounded him as he laid motionless. Dread settled into his mind as he knew that he was about to be taken captive once again. A silhouette of one of the guards leaned over Cail’s head, but this guard had slender shoulders and a thin face. Then Cail realized it wasn’t the silhouette of a guard.
“As clumsy as ever. Did you learn nothing from me?” Cail let out a sigh of relief. Beda and her army of Red Pumas surrounded him. He was safe at last. She offered hand and Cail accepted. Beda tugged Cail upward and launched him off his back. She was deceptively strong for her size and every bit as fast. Beda’s appearance had changed a lot since Cail had last seen her. She had grown taller so that her eyes were level with Cail’s, her brown hair had darkened, almost to a shiny shade of black, and her muscles were much more defined than ever before.
“I managed to escape only minutes ago,” Cail said looking around at all the soldiers. “You’ve all been hiding underground?”
“Temporarily,” Beda responded. “I weaseled from my miserable prison a few days ago, and I’ve been slowly smuggling my soldiers to safety ever since. There’s only one more man to free and then we’ll be ready to charge the Blue Assassins. I don’t know what their motive is, but I will exact my revenge, Barok will pay for what he has done to Cestmir.”
“He took Cestmir so he could strike a bargain with the Sages of Pazia,” Cail said. “They come from Aithnen, but they’ve been trapped in Kordon for centuries. The Blue Assassins were promised a safe return to their home if they delivered my corpse and the Shadow Stone to the Sages.”
“If you’re still alive, I’m assuming the Barok doesn’t have the stone?”
“That’s right. The Shadow Stone is held safely in Serafine’s hands, although I don’t know where she is now. She could be anywhere in Kordon, assuming she hasn’t returned to Aithnen already,” Cail said. Then he paused for a moment, allowing Beda to ponder over what he told her. “Is Barok really so powerful that he could overcome the Red Pumas?”
“He needed the perfect storm, and he got it,” Beda answered. She proceeded to say, “Months had passed since our victory, months of recovery and replenishment. Cestmir could breathe the free air once again, thanks to you. The Blue Assassins slowly seeped into the city, appearing as innocent and guiltless as a tourist. They seamlessly molded in with the rest of the civilians, perfectly camouflaging as natives. I was blind and blissful; I never expected the city to be hit so soon, especially after we had just freed Kordon from the malicious tyrant.
“The Blue Assassins waited until all their warriors had trickled into Cestmir, then they attacked at night. I was woken from my slumber by shrilling screams of agony. Cries for help echoed through the black sky, I can still hear those voices, they’re ghosts that haunt my sleepless nights. By the time I was ready to rally my soldiers, they had already been taken as hostages. I had no choice but to go into hiding. While Barok’s guards searched the White Castle, I attempted to free some of my soldiers, but the Blue Assassins are much more swift than I. They found me and, until a few days ago, tormented me in a wretched prison.”
Silence fell over the room. Cail could see the pain in the eyes of the Red Pumas, he could see the city being seized by Barok’s army. He could hear the screams of helpless men, women, and children. He could smell the smoke of houses and stores caught ablaze by the cruel mercenaries. He felt the blistering heat of the fire; it pierced through his skin. Without realizing, Cail clenched his fist as his anger flared. The atrocities committed by the Blue Assassins were unforgivable.
“What can we do now?” Cail asked, desperately wanting to exact revenge.
“Three of our strongest generals are still imprisoned. They’re tightly guarded by a legion of guards, so using force to break them out would be nigh impossible,” Beda answered, sorting through their options.
“We’ll have to use stealth, then?” Cail proposed.
“I would say so,” Beda answered. She rubbed her thin chin, lost in her own pondering. “I think the wisest choice would be for you and me to go alone and free the generals ourselves. A large crowd would draw far too much attention—” Beda was interrupted by grunts echoing through the cramped tunnel that Cail had crawled through. The Red Pumas moved swiftly to form a defensive wall protecting Cail and Beda. They drew their pointed, glistening swords and tall shields, bracing for whatever escaped the tunnel. Beda stood on her toes so she could peer over her soldiers’ shoulders. No one dared to say a word or let out a heavy breath. Cail decided not to spend any energy trying to see over the wall of soldiers. A man escaped from the narrow tunnel and Beda hollered, “Halt!” She wasn’t yelling that command at the mysterious person, but at her soldiers.
Beda weaved in between the Red Pumas and Cail followed closely behind her. Standing in front of the army was Kadir. His clothes were powdered with dirt and his hair was dry and brittle. Soon after, Serafine emerged from the tunnel and rose from her feet. Seeing two of his best friends filled Cail’s heart with overwhelming joy. “How did you find us?” Cail asked. He couldn’t help but let a smile crawl onto his face.
“Quite by accident, to tell the truth,” Serafine responded, walking toward Cail. Her long, brown hair was tied into tail, seemingly untouched by the dirt in the tunnel, her eyes possessed a piercing focus, like a tiger staring down its prey. “We managed to slither through the castle unseen. It appears that the will of fate has brought us all together once again.”
“Fate, you say?” Beda repeated. A clever smile emerged and confidence radiated from her face. She turned to Kadir and asked, “Kadir, would you like to be the commander of a great army?”
He was taken back by the question. Leading an army as powerful as the Red Pumas was a dream he always fantasized, but he never imagined that the opportunity would present itself to him. Stuttering, he said, “Y-y-yes. But what army? The Red Pumas belong to you.”
“True. However, Cail, Serafine, and I are going to find a few prisoners. That means you’re going to be in complete control of the Red Pumas while I’m gone. Do you think you can handle that?” Kadir swiftly, and quite clumsily, saluted Beda, almost smacking his hand against her forehead. Satisfied with Kadir’s acceptance, Beda turned to Cail and Serafine and said, “Let’s move. There’s no time to lose.”
Traversing deeper into the castle also meant traversing deeper into darkness. Guards heavily monitored all the chambers, especially those holding prisoners. The trio didn’t want to risk being caught while freeing random civilians, their sole focus was on the generals. Beda led Cail and Serafine through the murky dungeons of the castle, slithering as brisk and silent as a shadow. She found a corridor that was impassable for the Blue Assassins, being the broad men that they were, but was just wide enough for them to squeeze through. The corridor curved back and forth until it led them to a steep ledge. It overlooked a massive dungeon flooded with rectangular, iron prison cells. Cail’s heart sunk when he saw the hundreds, if not thousands, of Blue Assassins walking throughout the dungeon, clamoring amongst themselves. They were a pack of wolves, ready to pierce their teeth into whatever came before them. The very sight of them sent chills down Cail’s spine. All too well he remembered the weeks of torture he endured, he remembered the clubs bruising his skin.
He looked to Beda and whispered, “Now what do we do?”
She remained silent, closely looking over the guards like a hawk searching for a branch to land on. The expression of incredulity on her face told Cail that she didn’t imagine that there would be this many Blue Assassins guarding her generals. With a hushed voice, she said, “We need a distraction to draw them away from the cells. We’re going to need Kadir and my soldiers to do that.”
“What do you want us to do?” Serafine asked.
“Wait here. I’ll bring a small group of the Red Pumas along to create a diversion. Once we do so, you two need to move swiftly in order to free the generals. Then we can all retreat and prepare to take the Blue Assassins down once and for all.”
“Have you completely lost your mind?” Serafine interjected, nearly shouting so that all the Blue Assassins could hear her. “You truly expect to elude these murderers like a rabbit running from a fox?”
“I think you underestimate the speed of some of my fastest men,” Beda responded with a sly smile. And with that, she darted off, running in the same direction they had come from, vanishing into the darkness. Serafine plopped onto the ground, with her legs crossed, and cursed beneath her breath.
Cail stayed silent for a moment until Serafine calmed down and then asked, “Why did you go back to Elona? I thought you were going to go home.”
“That’s true,” she responded with a poised voice. “However, I need you to return to Aithnen.” Then she continued to tell Cail everything that Wallen had told her. She told him about the power of the Shadow Stone, the four demigods, even the danger of the Blue Assassins. However, she decided to keep the Air Rune hidden until she absolutely needed it. “You and Emey are paramount the uniting Neptil once again.”
“I don’t know, Serafine,” Cail responded with a raspy whisper. “Being home over the last few months brought peace and contentment back into my heart. My body has replenished, my bones have healed, my thirst has been quenched. I came here to try to be the hero once more, but I was overpowered by the Blue Assassins. They throttled and beat me, brought within an inch of my life on several occasions. The last couple weeks have shown me that maybe I’m not destined to do this anymore.”
“That’s nonsense!” Serafine answered as quietly as she could. “You’re a descendant of the gods, the protector of Kordon, the Master of the Wind. You’re simply going to throw all that away because you’re afraid of a formidable foe?”
“This isn’t just about the Blue Assassins, it’s about everyone who will turn against me and try to hurt the ones I love. My father was nearly killed by the zuraks, they imprisoned the entire village, and Laney is still unconscious thanks to Tarvaris’ curse.”
“No, she isn’t. She awoke just before Kadir and I left Elona. She’s alive and well now,” Serafine revealed, hoping to calm Cail’s emotions, but it only made them worse.
“What? When were you planning on telling me this?” Cail asked, angered by the fact that he had been kept in the dark.
“When it became necessary to do so, as it just had. I don’t intend to sound insensitive, but she’s a simple girl, someone whose life carries no weight in the fight between good and evil. You, on the other hand, are much more important to your people. You’re a beacon of hope. The good people of Kordon look to you as a symbol of hope. You’re a sign that justice is divinely destined to prevail in this country.”
Cail didn’t know how to respond to Serafine’s beautiful articulation of what he embodied. He didn’t even know that he embodied anything. Ever since he returned to Elona, Cail had become so enveloped in his worries for Laney that he had lost track of all he had accomplished, all he had become. Cail had evolved from the scrawny young Lord of Elona into an unmatched power in Kordon. Almost unmatched, in truth. The Sages of Pazia remained a menace to him. Doing whatever they could to manipulate fate, to stop Cail from rising to power. Only in their death would Cail find safety. Until Cail brought the Sages to their demise, they would only continue to harass him, to barrage him with endless villains until Kordon was theirs. Kalil and the Blue Assassins both rose to power by the work of the Sages. How much more would the nation of Kordon suffer before the Sages paid for what they’ve done? How many more innocent lives would be endangered by this atrocity? How much pain would Laney have to endure before she could rest with a peaceful mind? Destroying the Sages was the only way to protect her from danger.
“Serafine, I’m ready to—” Cail’s words were cut off when she put a hand in his face. Serafine hung over the edge of cliff they were perched upon and watched the Blue Assassins below them. They clamored amongst themselves, hooting and hollering like mindless baboons. The sea of soldiers parted in the middle and two guards strode through, dragging a prisoner, a slender girl, through the crowd. The inmate’s screams and pleas for help were muffled by a thick cloth wrapped around her mouth. Cail looked more closely and noticed that it was Laney! He nearly let out a yelp when he saw her, but somehow managed to hold back the noise.
“Poor soul,” Serafine said with a gentle whisper, not looking away from the scene.
Anger took over Cail’s mind. He snatched Serafine’s shirt by the collar and said, “You let her come with you?”
“Of course not!” Serafine insisted, almost insulted by Cail’s accusation. “We’re not stupid. She must have snuck away after we left.”
Dread sunk into Cail’s heart and his stomach felt as heavy as iron. He desperately wanted to jump down from the cliff and kill every last one of the guards, but he knew that any attempt to do so would be folly. The guards threw Laney into her cell, slamming the iron doors shut in her face. From the distance, it didn’t appear Laney had been beaten too badly, but time was of the essence. All they could was wait and hope that the Red Pumas would come in the nick of time.
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