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The Assassin King (Symphony of Ages)by Elizabeth Haydon
Western seacoast, Avonderre
On a morning of unsurpassed fineness, the sun rose over an incandescent sea, rippling with light so bright as to be painful in its radiance. The winter wind dancing over the gleaming waves, fresh with the sweet hint of a spring coming far away in the southlands, carried with it the scent of blood.
Rath cursed and lowered his head to his chest, pulling his brown hood farther down over his stinging eyes. He waited for the water beneath his translucent eyelids to clear, then blinked several times and looked up again at the shoreline. The sea was so calm that the edge of the land barely wavered in the distance. Rath clutched the oar in his sinewy hands and put his back into rowing for the beach.
With each stroke, each pull, each screech of wood against the oarlock of his small boat, he canted his list of targets, every one of their names engraved permanently on his memory. Hrarfa, Fraax, Sistha, Hnaf, Ficken, he whispered in the odd, buzzlike language of his ancient race, the one form of speech that was inaudible to the wind. Rath was always careful not to put information on the wind, especially the sea wind, where it would blow recklessly about the wide world, to be heard by any ear that knew how to listen. Rath was well aware of the loose tongue of the wind; he had been born of that ephemeral element.
He gritted his teeth as he rowed, mentally cursing the waves over which he traveled. Water had long blocked his Seeking vibration and kept him from his quarry. Each stroke moved him closer to being free of it, but that did little to calm his growing ire. Until he was away from the sea and the cacophony of thick vibrations that it generated, he would be unable to hunt. So he concentrated, as always, on his list.
Hrarfa, Fraax, Sistha, Hnaf, Ficken.
Once through the roster of would-be victims that had been his agenda for as long as he could recall, he silently intoned one last name that had been recently added.
It was not a name in the language of the others, but rather one that had been conferred on its owner by an ignorant species, a demi-human race that barely formed words at all. Ysk was the Firbolg word for spittle, for the regurgitation of something foul. That monsters had given someone such a title could only convey the deepest disgust, contempt that had no limit.
It was perhaps the worst name that Rath had ever heard.
It was also a dead name, a name whose power had been broken more than a millennium before, whose history lay at the bottom of the sea on the other side of the world. A name all but forgotten, indeed, completely erased from the wind and from memory, except for the recollection of Rath and his kind.
It was the last name on his list, but the first one he would actively seek upon landing.
When the beach was finally close enough that rowing was disproportionate effort, Rath climbed out of the boat and left it drifting in the tide. He had sighted his landing carefully so as to be able to come ashore unnoticed in a small, rocky alcove between two fishing villages. His luck was holding; there was no one in sight for as far up and down the beach as he could see.
He turned away from the sea wind with one last glance over his shoulder; the little boat was slowly backing away in a graceless dance, spinning aimlessly in the current. Rath waded to shore, ignoring the pebbles and seaweed that coated the sand beneath his feet. His soles had no nerves in them anyway, the calluses from millennia of walking through fire were almost as thick as a boot would have been.
Once on the beach, he hurried forward until the scrambling froth of the waves was no longer able to reach him, then stopped in the cold, dry sand, pulled back his hood, and tilted his head to the southwest, listening to the wind. He waited for the span of a hundred heartbeats, but no voices akin to his own could be heard; none of his fellow hunters had anything to report, as was the case most of the time.
As it had been for centuries into millennia.
Rath lingered a moment longer, then turned his back to the west, away from the crashing of the waves and the rustling of the foam. He took a breath of the salt wind, inhaling over the four openings of his windpipe, clenched his teeth, and loosed his kirai, the Seeking vibration by which his race sought their prey. The buzzing sound came forth from the deepest opening in his throat, a vibration heard only by him.
Then he opened his mouth, allowing the air that was rising from within his lungs to pass over the top opening in his throat, forming words again.
Hrarfa, Fraax, Sistha, Hnaf, Ficken.
One by one he canted the names of the demon spirits he was hunting, feeling the slight variation in tone as he changed from one name to another. If the kirai matched any of those names to a vibration it detected in the air, his throat would burn as if with caustic fire; he would taste the beasts blood in his mouth, feel its heartbeat in his own chest. He could lock on to that rhythm and follow it.
But, as always, there was no taste of any of the names on the wind.
Finally, he intoned the last name.
This name, of course, was different. Unlike the others, it was the dead name of a living being, a name once given, in another lifetime, to a man with a soul. However tainted that soul might be by the ravages of time and personal failure, it could never be as acidly evil as the essence of the demonic beings Rath and his fellow demon hunters regularly pursued. And however dead the name might be, Rath had reason to believe its original owner was, in fact, still alive, though his vibrational signature had changed along with his name.
And not long before, he had heard the dead name, spoken aloud, on the nattering wind. He hoped to get a taste of it once more, now that he had crossed the sea and finally come ashore in the place to which he had tracked the name, the place it seemed to have been last spoken.
He inhaled, letting the wind pass over his tongue, then canted the name.
There was a remnant of it still on the wind coming from the southeast, though faint and hollow; perhaps it had been years since it had been voiced. Still, this continent, this place known in old lore as the Wyrmlands, was the place where the name had last been sounded. Rath could taste that much.
Satisfied, he stripped his pack from beneath his cloak, opening it carefully on the sandy ground as the wind whipped off the sea, buffeting the skin of his naked head. He quickly checked his provisions and the minimal tools of his trade, as well as the dagger he wore in a calf sheath. The weapon was little more than a childs knife, meant only for the meanest of self-defense against any beast or man that he might not be able to otherwise avoid. No one who observed him would consider him armed.
Rath carried his deadliest weapons in his head.
Determining his water supply to be sufficient, he quickly repacked his provisions and slung the pack beneath his flowing brown cloak. Then he glanced at the sea one last time; the little boat was no longer in sight, lost in the blazing glare of the rising sun.
A moment later, to any eye other than his own, so was Rath.
Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Haydon. All rights reserved.
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