Darkness settled in like the tides of the ocean and along with it came the cold. A woman sat alone in a small log cabin that lie a short distance from a larger stead. She sat silently, fiddling with a shining blade as the darkness flowed in. Night was her time after all.
There was a man once that had once lived there, a wretched creature with thin papery bones and terrified desperate eyes. He had begged for life, his voice hoarse with the years of hard labor he had given his masters. In the end it was a mercy, cutting his throat and lying him to rest in the nest of soiled blankets that had once been his bed. It was the best she could do for such a creature, her pity dissolving into disdain as he cooled with the rising moons.
Bitter hatred seethed in the woman's soul, a hatred for the kinds of humans that would enslave another living creature such as they had. He was a man once, perhaps a proud one, and yet she never met him when he had the light of life within him. Instead she found only the remains of him, a creature too entangled in his suffering to recover. He would have surely squealed to his masters for a scrap of bread. He was no more than a mongrel to the other humans he had spent his life serving. She continued fiddling with the blade, marveling at the crimson that danced across the subtle magical glow it emanated.
"Weak blood, unworthy of my blade... And yet." She stood as the chill creeped into her bones. The time had come. All souls were lying asleep, perfect lambs for her slaughter. As she creept out the door she peered at the twin moons, ever watchful over the world of darkness. Ever watchful over her.
"May Hephatus smile upon me this night as I claim these souls in her name." She started the prayer under her breath, carefully stepping across the grass as she meandered towards the fences of the home.
"May the eyes of the night see my deeds and honor me." She spun the blade in her hand, brushing the mask on her face which was concealing her true identity.
"May the marks die swiftly and silently, their last breath belongs to the goddess." She climbed the fence, leaping nimbly to the other side. Distantly she could sense dogs, although they too slumbered under the heavy blanket of darkness. She raised a hand, calling upon ancient magic to cover her scent and muffle her sound. They would not bark, nor would they wake.
She had studied her mark closely for several days, studying his movements and his security. For such a high priority target he was poorly guarded, although she would not complain. She eyed the back door. A lantern hung at the edge of the porch glowing dimly, the only light the house had to offer the night. He had come to the remote stead to stay with his mistress and bastards, feeding them money for another month of quiet and hidden living. Did he love them? She couldn't say, they were not his only hidden family after all, just the most removed one.
She didn't love them, that much she was well aware of. She wouldn't weep as she cut their throats. She wouldn't look away as they bled to death and clawed at their own throats. Their deaths would be silent, hidden in shadows. Marcell would never return to his life, he would never scam and lie again. He would never fuck a wench and impregnate her again, only to have his bastard children killed if they weren't worthy enough of him. No, if she had an emotion to describe herself as she murdered, it would be hatred. She hated her targets vehemently. Hated their sins, their lies, their secrets. There was a reason she was called, a reason she was contracted to kill them. Very few of Hephatus's victims were ever innocent.
As she reached for the door she could hear the distant crows of a bird. She frowned, the echoes cracked through the woods that surrounded the stead eerily. If he wasn't careful he would wake the dogs, and that would jeopardize her mission. He cawed again, causing her to look up and scan the stars. As an agent of the goddess she was never alone, especially due to her rank. As the Hound she was one of the best, they would not allow her to go in blind. Perhaps he was urging her along, she had waited till the deepest part of night, a time when even the dead slept a little harder. No one enjoyed having to stay awake this deep into the night, especially her partner in the skies.
As she continued the door slid open silently revealing a dark and dingy home. Already she could smell the molds and the moisture of the old wood. Soon the home would be uninhabitable, rotted away to nothing. Did Marcell even care? Would he build them a new home? A new house for his bastard daughter? She touched the hall as she slid by, dragging her gloved fingertips across the fibrous and flaky wood. She continued through the small home, sniffing every door and hall to find him.
Silence was her predecessor, she slipped through the last open doorway into a larger cluttered room. The bed was big, holding two. A woman slept on the left, her rugged face pressed into a filthy pillow. Her face was marked deeply with the scars of time, work, and disease. A wretched whore, and yet somehow blessed enough for Marcell to spare her. She dug the tip of her blade into the palm of her hand, a frown pulling at her lips. Wretched life, rotting home, filthy adulterous man holding her afloat. More honor could be found if the woman would have stayed in her bordello. Had she tossed her inferior spawn into the streets to die.
"Mercy to you, to your lost humble little soul." She whispered quietly, reaching forward to quickly and effortlessly slash her blade across the sleeping woman's throat. The woman convulsed once, her dirty brown eyes opening in a panic only to roll into the back of her skull. It was over in an instant. Marcell never even moved, his snores continued uninterrupted. Even if he had awoken, all he would have seen were her glowing red eyes and the visage of a dog.
Carefully she made her way around the bed, watching him as he slept. He was a younger man, not entirely worn down with age. He had a thicker black beard and plump healthy rosy cheeks that set him apart. He ate well, was free from disease, and held a lofty position within the governing forces of his distant city. A lucky man who used his power and wealth for abuse. She reached forward, touching the tip of her dagger to his throat. Only then did he awaken, his blue eyes flashing wildly in the dark. She smiled as he panicked, jerking up only to slit his own throat. It was always so easy to get them to do the hard work for her, but the enchanted blade dispatched their souls quickly.
Once that was finished she moved again through the house. There was the child, she had been told to do with it as she wished. She always hated that, having the option. As if it were her choice. She was given her job by the goddess, anything beyond that she didn't care for. But the leader Nazir hated loose ends, and children were the loosest ends one could have. If she let it live, perhaps it would find revenge against the goddess Hephatus's agents like her. If she killed it, it's potential was cut short. Perhaps then she would have cut the life of another god's agent short, and that was unacceptable. So she let them choose, always.
In the room where the child slept she waited, cautious. Children were difficult for her, tricky. Their shifty little eyes, so full of desperate hunger. Most of them didn't even know what life was, let alone the ending of it. But they knew danger, they could sense it even before their parents. They may not understand life, she thought, but they instinctively sensed death. This one was no different, she shifted under her pathetically thin blankets to rise up and peer at her with an already intrinsic fear. No words needed to be spoken, the Hound was known all across the lands.
"M...M...Mommy?" The girl stuttered, her throat already closing with tears. She shook her head at the girl. The girl blinked, her blue eyes stood out in the dark. She couldn't tell if she had her father's black hair, or her mother's dirty mouse color. Her thin face spoke of starvation, struggle, weakness. Her mother wasn't fat, but she wasn't skinny either. This little human was an excuse, that much was clear. She was the reason her mother could eat, but a mother could always have more. Something stirred in her chest; someone had told her once it was akin to pity. She snuffed it, holding out her blade as the girl began to shake.
"Do you want to live, or do you want to die?" She asked. It was a simple question, an easy one. The girl remained silent, the time falling thickly. She knew the night would not last forever, nor would her window of opportunity or her mana. Magic wasn't easy to control forever after all.
"Who do you pray to?" She asked after several minutes of silence. The girl drew a deep breath, choking and shivering on her own mounting fear. But this time she answered,
"N'Kalla. The... The god of... Of...."
"I know who he is child. The god of Light, of birth, of power. Ask him, do you want to live or die? Can you live? Your parents are dead. Now your life is your own. You can leave this place, or you can stay with them." She motioned towards the door, towards the dead that lie beyond it.
"W... Why?" She knew the girl was asking why her parents were dead. Who would ask for them to die, who would pay for the murder? But those answers were not for her to give, nor for the girl to know. The gods were playing the strings; they had written the rules.
"Choose now, or I will." The time had come. She could linger no longer. The girl sobbed desperately, her eyes closing. There was no running away, no escaping, the child knew it.
"What is it like, in the afterlife?" She asked quietly. The woman had no answers. She had never seen the afterlife, nor had she cared to read about it. She didn't want to offer lies, she was not a liar after all.
"I do not know. We go where we are needed, I suppose." She lowered the knife, already weary of their conversation. The girl was curious, she always hated to end those ones. The ones who wanted more, who knew they wanted more. The clueless ones were easy, more like lambs than humans.
"Where would you go?" The chatter from the girl's teeth had quieted, her fear abating as she realized her life wasn't in imminent danger.
"To the darkness. To Hephatus. Perhaps I would become a hound, shrouded in the flames of my soul's mana." It was her favorite scenario, one where she would serve further purpose. Someone new would summon her forth from the darkness and utilize her in their goddess's name.
"I... I don't know what I want. There's no food here, the dogs would... Da always said they'd eat me if I were left alone. Where would I go?" The woman paused; still she had no answers. She was not a caretaker.
"The towns may feed you. You'll find work there, as a food runner, a message runner, they're always looking for meager young kids to do the dirty work. Ain't going to pay good, but it'll put food in yer belly and you'll likely find a barn to sleep in. Maybe one day you'll find more, a better life for yourself. I only have a little advice for you child, and that's to claim your father's last name. Claim his wealth, claim his title, take it all. He died, but you may yet live." What happened to the man's estate mattered little, but anyone foolish enough to have bastards had to know the risks. If the girl could escape, grow, and learn she could take it. At least then her wretched life would have some meaning.
"I... I'll try." It was all she needed to hear. She slid out the door, leaving the house quickly before the stench of death could set in. Her work was done, the child had chosen and she would walk the path. No loose ends, contract dead, a good night indeed.
Once outside she peered up at the stars again. The raven still circled lazily, its dark eyes watching for any little movement. He wasn't as aware as an eagle may have been, or a hawk. But she wouldn't turn away his vigil. He called again, once. She nodded and he started to float higher, leaving her to her rituals.
She slunk across the stead's yard, pushing through the grass and tracing her fingers across the seed pods. She peeled each glove off slowly, reveling in the dew as it gathered in the foliage. It had only just settled, wet, fresh, new. She whistled as she picked her way along an old trail to the gates. It was a low sound, carrying gently across the land and into the dark forest. The dogs made little noise, her magic still holding their senses at bay. In a split second a large beast burst from the forest, charging forward towards her with glinting eyes. She stood her ground, waiting as it met her.
The moment before it would have impacted her it stood on its heels stopping hard directly in front of her. She smiled, reaching a hand forward and resting it on the beast's nose. It breathed hard, mist engulfing her with its harsh breath. It pawed, snorting and shaking its head with another displeased noise.
"Jax, did I catch you sleeping? Such a petulant stallion you are." She chided as he continued to dance. He was angry, but not overly so. Once he was finished expressing his displeasure he settled down and awaited her next move. She climbed up into the saddle with ease, already eager to leave the hovel behind her.
Sleep was beyond her grasp for now, she needed to distance herself from the job and the girl. Her blue eyes were striking in the darkness, if only she could have seen more within their depths. Such ambition and ability lie within them, though subdued and hidden away through years of abuse and neglect. Adults like her bastard father had time to sin, had time to make their way in the world. Their stories were written, even if only partially. Something was always better than nothing. Yet the girl, she had nothing. Her story was blank so far. What would she become? Would she chase the elusive shadows of the Hound desperate for revenge or would she tear apart her fathers legacy?
"Come along, Jax. Let's get out of here." She spoke quietly, allowing the silence of nightfall to slide back in and engulf her. She pointed the stallion into the forest towards the old road which would lead them out into the mountain valley. In the valley she would find a small mining town known as Kvark, a dingy little place but it had a good stable and Inn. She would rest there for a few days, recover and recoup before the long journey home.
The ride would take a few hours, she had no intentions of galloping Jax to the destination. Sleep was inevitable, but not necessary at the time. Instead she watched the trees, listened carefully for any signs of danger. The night hid many monsters, she was only one among thousands and she knew it. But her partner was silent, undoubtedly keeping an eye out for anything unusual. He couldn't sleep until she arrived safely. She continued to ride in silence, smiling wickedly as she imagined him practically falling asleep aloft in the skies.
"Hurry along Talia, I can't keep this up all night... And definitely not into the day." His voice penetrated her mind softly, almost too quiet for her to hear. She sighed, rolling her eyes slightly at his drama.
"I'll get there when I get there Nico. Just keep an eye out." She retorted. It wasn't easy to use telepathy to speak with him, nor was it easy for him to do it with her. The skill was one they had developed over years of working together, one that drained mana swiftly if used too much. Already her reply left her head spinning in weariness. She continued to ride, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. She was all too hopeful that the ride back to town would be a relatively short one.