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Illusion of Gaia
Fated
By Matt Fairchild [ 01-12-04 ]


It is always important to question the unknown,
But more important still to question the certain.

-Olman

“There are those cursed children.”

The man wore a dark cape around his shoulders. The cape wove in and out of the shadows around him and flickered in darkness. A hood came up to cover his hair, which itself was an ironic brilliant blond hue. The hood dropped down either side of his rough face, framing two piercing eyes. The eyes were a pale gray-blue, never missing the minutiae of the man’s environment. The cape draped across his shoulders to encompass his thin frame. The man’s arms crossed beneath the cape, wiry but powerful. Bulk was not a necessity in his profession. The cape flowed down his sides along his black tunic and pants. It covered his multitude of pouches and tools. Finally, the cloak fell to his coarse black boots. A dagger with a black hilt was hidden inside each shoe to compliment the other weapons around his body.

The intense eyes glared out of the shadows into the bright street. Sand grained against his face as he carefully watched his prey. There were only two brats left: the frail boy and the snotty girl. The boy in green had stayed with the native in Watermia, the strange lad with glasses dressed in purple had been eaten by a fish, and the youngest child had gone back to South Cape.

And now, in the desert village of Dao, the Jackal had finally caught up to his prey.

He had already learned of the Pyramid. It was just a matter of time before the two kids left to find the statue there.

He would be following.

The Jackal slowly slinked backwards into the alley. The kids wouldn’t be leaving until the next day, leaving him time to gather more information.

“If only His Majesty would have let me kill them in Freejia,” muttered the assassin. He had first cornered the kids in the slave town of Freejia off the Pearl Coast. He had even managed to arrange the kidnapping of the smallest boy, but all fell apart when his disguise as a fireblower disintegrated faster than his burnt hair. The young boy had been freed, and the Jackal was about to launch his second plan when word came from King Edward. The King had ordered him to gather all the mystic statues as well. The Jackal knew he wouldn’t be able to find the statues alone, and had been forced to let them live.

One statue left.

“Excuse me, sir. Have any cash on ya?” The weak voice called from behind the Jackal. He turned around to find a ragged man leaning against the wall.

How did he get there without my seeing? Wondered the Jackal as his eyes evaluated the beggar. “No.” His voice was as chilling as his eyes.

“You sure about that, old man?” The beggar stepped up and withdrew a long knife from his shirt. He leapt at the Jackal. He clutched the assassin’s cloak with his left hand and pressed the knife just under his jaw. The Jackal remained still, his eyes laughing at the man’s inefficiency.

“Give me yer money or I’ll cut ya!” The beggar snarled, revealing a mouth filled with twisted yellow teeth.

“Very well.” His cold voice was hardly relenting. The Jackal reached inside his cloak.

“No funny stuff, old man! I’ll cut ya so fast ya won’t be able to get a knife outta yer pocket!”

The Jackal only smiled. We’ll see about that. He felt within his cloak until he felt the cold metal against his fingertips. Slowly, he dragged it out and began to take his arm out from underneath the cloak. He made sure not to cut his fingers on its sharp edges.

“What’s your name, kid?” the Jackal played with his attacker. After all, he still needed an alias for this backwater town.

The beggar grinned, exposing his decaying teeth. “Not many people make small talk with their mugger, old man. The name’s Shasir Katar. And don’t think you can catch me just ‘cause you know my name; not a soul in Dao would know me!”

Foolish man. “So are you saying no one would miss you?” The Jackal fumbled with the metal beneath his cloak.

The beggar seemed to take it as a compliment. “Not a soul! I could leave town and no one would know it!”

He was perfect. The Jackal began to remove the object from underneath his clothing.

The beggar’s eyes widened. He pressed the knife harder into the Jackal’s throat. “Hold it, old man! Drop it onto the ground!”

Smiling, the Jackal released his grip. A leather pouch with a metal clasp fell to the dusty ground. The beggar’s relief was obvious. He stepped back, making nervous motions with his knife.

“Okay, pick it up and give it to me.”

The Jackal bent down and grasped the pouch. Deftly, he tossed the pouch to the mugger. The mugger fumbled with the clasp for a full minute before finally removing the catch holding the pouch shut. Muffled, metallic jingles sang from within whenever the pouch was moved.

The beggar reached in and withdrew one of the many gold coins.

“What the ‘ell is this, old man?” His voice cracked in the midst of his scream. “I’ve never seen a more obviously fake Dao coin!”

That’s because it’s not Daoist, you stupid fool. I stole it from the slave traders in Euro. The Jackal held his voice serene and cold as ice. “It’s foreign. Each coin is worth at least a thousand rachmar.”

The beggar grinned. “A thousand rachmar each?” He began laughing. “Thanks, old man! See ya around when this runs out!”

The beggar spun around and sprinted down the alley. The Jackal watched the ragged man run while reaching inside his cloak. He withdrew a single knife with a six-inch blade. He gauged the beggar to be about fifteen meters away, and already slowing down.

The Jackal grasped the blade in his left hand and stretched his arm backwards. In one smooth motion he snapped his arm forward, twitching his hand slightly. The knife flew through the air so quickly that a dull hum filled the alley. The knife propelled forward for less than a second before coming in contact with its target: the back of the beggar’s skull.

The beggar tensed. His spine arched backwards as fast as his head snapped to the side. The knife blade stuck rudely out of his hair, his skull cut so cleanly that little blood trickled from the wound. He slumped forward and fell to the ground with little more noise than a pillow being tossed aside.

The Jackal strode over to his victim. The beggar had been the Jackal’s victim since he first uttered his challenge… he just hadn’t known it.

Nobody takes advantage of the Jackal.

He bent over and reclaimed his knife and Euro gold. He silently searched the man’s body, but found nothing.

Shasir Katar. I suppose it will have to do. I do need a new name for this town, after all. Hopefully this pitiful creature was as little known as he claimed.

After wiping the knife clean and replacing it and the gold in his cloak, Shasir “The Jackal” Katar faded back into the shadows.


Daring to question one’s destiny
Is the first step to achieving it.

-Moontribe Elder


“I want a room.”

“That’s what I’m here for, sir. That’ll be 50 rachmar a night.”

“Will this work?”

“What is it?”

“Euro gold. One coin should be more than enough.”

“I dunno, sir. What did you say your name was?”

“Katar. Shasir Katar.”

“Well, Mr. Katar, foreign money can be bad for business.”

“One coin is worth a thousand rachmar.”

“An’ I’m supposed to take your word for that?”

“All I have is this bag with tens of thousands of rachmar worth of coins, and you won’t accept one? Surely an establishment as… low class as this would take pure gold?”

“Tell you what. You don’t leave town for a few days, and I’ll get it checked out. And you give me two of those coins.”

“Very well. I should get forty days worth of housing for that much.”

“We’ll see, Mr. Katar. We’ll see. If you’re scamming me, then you’ll be sorry. Why would a man with so much money stay in this side of town?”

“I have my reasons. Where is my room?”

“Certainly ya could tell me your business here?”

“No.”

“Your room is the first on the left. There’s only three doors, so even you could figure it out.”

“Don’t insult me, or you might not have even this shabby inn come morning.”

“We’ll see, Mr. Katar. In the meantime, could I interest you in one of our fine Dao ladies? You haven’t lived until you feel one of our soft women in your bed.”

“No.”


The answer is rarely as interesting as the question.
-Olman


The room was as trashy as the inn.

Shasir “The Jackal” Katar could have easily paid for the more expensive inn on the other side of town, but the boy and his friends were there. He couldn’t risk being seen by the princess.

Shasir removed his cape and draped it over a chair in the far corner of the room. The chair was immediately across from a small dresser, which in turn had the bed to its right. At the far end flickering in the candlelight was a dark window. The window pretended to stare out to a picturesque view, but in fact only displayed cold sandstone buildings spread across the sand. The inn was one of the few wooden buildings in the area, but the sturdy material lent little protection from the harsh nights.

Easy enough for an escape, should the need arise. The thought was always first on Shasir’s mind, ever since the only time he was caught with his guard down.

The candle illuminated the room in a golden hue, while casting dark shadows in all directions. The stars, visible through the dirty window, flickered just as willfully. The bedcovers were hastily strewn across the bed in a failed attempt to clean the room.

A woman. Soft, trim, sensual. It had been a long time since he had felt a girl’s smooth skin beneath his fingers.

It’s just too dangerous. Emotional involvement… always lead to death.

It led to hers.

Shasir clenched his fists. His business didn’t used to require pain and suffering. Now, it was a prerequisite. A job isn’t done until someone dies, be they friend or target.

It didn’t matter. Shasir was the Jackal. His name was feared by many, questioned by few, and trusted by none. He was the Dark Avenger, Night’s Assassin, and the Executioner. It mattered not whom he had to kill, only that he got paid for it.

I am the Jackal. Death surrounds me. Death does not disturb me.

Shasir Katar removed his shoes and stretched onto the bed.

Why, then, does it sadden me?


There are two kinds of dreams:
The kind you dream every night,
And the kind you dream every day.
-Neil


“Who are you?”

The voice echoed through the dreary streets. Dead leaves from the trees fell to the ground, carpeting the cracked concrete.

Drake “The Jackal” Mildrek gazed upon the dilapidated alleys of the slums of Freejia. Becoming a slave-trader was one of the more lucrative disguises he had thought of.

Drake’s cold blue eyes surveyed the depressing scene. Freejia was a vibrant city on the surface. Amber leaves and golden buildings always gave the impression of a beautiful sunset. It was eternally autumn in Freejia; not quite freezing winter but well past burning summer.

The back alleys were entirely different. Shadows from the same golden buildings encased the slums in dusk. The fallen leaves, instead of being cleared off, were left to wilt and decay. Amidst the festering leaves walked stale shells of human beings. Slave traders were the only animated bodies, exuberantly dragging young men and women to lifelong servitude.

Who am I? I am Shasir Katar.

“Drake! Give us a hand here!” A purple-robed slave trader called from near the cave leading to the black market. He and two others in green robes were struggling with a frantic youth.

I am Drake Mildrek. Drake fingered his knife beneath his own purple cloak. He smoothly walked over to the four men. The young boy screamed wildly.

He stood over the struggling foursome for a few seconds. The man in purple robes slapped the boy across the face, only to have louder screaming ensue. The two men in green struggled to grab his flailing limbs, but never held more than one. They too tried beating, but received only retaliation.

Drake smiled as he watched the scene. “Where is he from?”

“A local native. We found him collecting flowers.” The man in purple yelled.

Drake’s smile held in defiance of the evil glint in his eye. He withdrew the knife from his robes while slowly lowering himself to one knee. His eyes tracked the movement of the boy’s thrashing left arm. In one movement, Drake snatched the arm from the air and held it in a cast iron grip. The boy screamed and lunged at his newest assailant. Drake’s right hand flashed out and cracked the youth in the jaw with the butt of his knife. The three slave traders stepped back as the boy fell whimpering to the ground.

“Don’t kill him, Mildrek. He will fetch a fine sum.” The purple robed man’s worry was genuine, but hardly for the youth’s well being.

Drake only smiled. “Boy, if you so much as move before I say you can, I’ll slice you faster than you can gasp your last breath.”

The boy stared at Drake, his eyes filled with terror. He spoke in a quiet voice, thick with the native accent. “I’ll never work for you.”

The boy lunged at Drake with the ferocity of a tiger. Drake stepped to one side and twisted the boy’s arm sharply to the right. The youth flew past Drake and fell backwards, screaming in pain as Drake twisted his arm further. Drake brought his knife to rest across the bridge of the boy’s balled fist.

I am the Jackal.

“You need a lesson in humility, boy.” Drake pressed the knife firmly down just above the first knuckle of the boy’s middle finger. The youth shrieked in agony as the cold blade slid between his hand and his finger. Drake released the arm, allowing the boy to fall sobbing to the ground. The slave clutched his fist, trying to staunch the blood. His eyes moved between Drake and his own finger lying on the ground.

Drake glared at the boy. “You’ll live. But if you ever want to have children, you won’t give me reason to slice off something far harder to replace.”

The boy remained on the ground sobbing. The three slave traders grabbed his arms and began dragging him into the nearby cave. The boy allowed one last glance at Drake, and mouthed a final sentence to his attacker. Drake’s training easily interpreted the question:

“Why didn’t you help me?”


Dreams of glory come only
To those who dare to dream.

-Olman


It wasn’t possible. There was no way to save that kid.

Shasir “The Jackal” Katar continued to console himself amidst his sweat-drenched bed. Why have such a dream? Why dream that particular instance? It must have been ten years earlier, at least.

That boy had no significance. What did it matter if he was a slave? It had cemented Shasir’s standings with the other slave traders, so it was justified.

Rays of light began to stab through the window. I must just be worried about the mission. Shasir checked his knife cashes on his body before getting out of bed. He shrugged off the dream and proceeded to encase himself in his dark clothing. Today, he would determine the children’s path to the pyramid, and prepare himself for the journey. The children would not be leaving until at least the next day, so Shasir had another night to spend in the dilapidated inn.

What is your name?

The voice echoed loudly inside Shasir’s head. It was the same question that had been asked of him in the dream, although Shasir’s dream-self had paid it no heed. It did not matter; the Jackal had no name. He was Shasir Katar, Drake Mildrek, and any number of other names. He had many names; he had no name.

Shasir double-checked his knife stashes while fastening his robe around him. Knives were carefully laid in his boots, along his arms, within his cloak, and fastened to his belt. Each one carried a black hilt and a strait blade, slightly curved at the end to provide a slashing point. The knives were specially designed to tear the flesh off his opponent with a single swing, but still maintained enough of a point to be able to impale the enemy with little effort. Both sides were razor-sharp, making the weapons technically daggers, but Shasir would always consider them his “knives.” A dagger was a soldier’s weapon; a knife was an assassin’s.

The room’s door creaked open with Shasir’s touch, loudly announcing his exit to anyone awake. First order of business would be to find the children and tail them. After that, he knew not what awaited him.
Dust. Dust spinning through the air, twisting and turning along in a million independent paths. Dust penetrated all cracks and corners in Dao, and outside it easily became more irritating than the burning sun itself. Wind, normally a bringer of moisture, coolness and relief, only brought dust in Dao. The dust drowned out all coolness and added a grainy texture to the overpowering heat.

Shasir tightened his black robe around himself. The clothes only magnified the heat, but the benefits of its innumerable pockets and folds far outweighed the discomfort.

Despite the fairly early hour, Dao was already bustling with traders. Even in the poorer part of the city there was ample opportunity to be scammed and conned. Shasir walked along the market, careful not to make eye contact with the vendors.

If the kids were awake, they would be at their inn. Shasir stepped into an alleyway he had earlier marked as a shortcut to their residence. It provided darkness for cover, while allowing him an escape route should things go awry. I will not be caught off guard. It had been his maxim since the one time he had been, with her.

After about ten minutes walk, the alleyway reopened into another marketplace. If the slums had been bustling, uptown Dao was frantic. Wives were carrying precious water from the well in troves, while daughters and the unmarried women were shopping for food and supplies. Nearly every stand was occupied by a male vendor eagerly pitching his wares to the onlookers.

Farther down the road Shasir found the men. They were gathering supplies not pertaining to food or fabrics.

Dust flurries dance across the street in front of Shasir as he continued towards the inn. The clamor of the crowd was growing. Shasir smiled amongst the seeming mayhem; the mark of a good assassin was his comfort in large crowds. Like a vine of poison ivy, the Jackal could much easier hide among ten thousand similar yet harmless individuals than he could by sneaking where the ivy wouldn’t belong.

Shasir turned a corner into a street encased by taller sandstone buildings. The cries of bartering from the marketplace became replaced by the shouts of conflict. Shasir tuned his sharp ears to the source, spotting a large knot of men gathered down the road.

Upon reaching the group, Shasir could make out two men in the center of the crowd fighting. Each was armed with a single blade, similar to a short sword. The two men were using Dao’s native weapon, the stiljao. Stiljaos were noted for their strangely shaped blades, thinner than an actual short sword but thicker than a saber or rapier. Only one side was sharpened, with the other rounded to deal crushing blows and to better parry attacks. The tip was four inches of serrations, coming to a straight point. The entire blade was about two feet in length, with a hilt constructed with a guard for the weapon hand. Stiljaos were feared because of their ability to parry and counterattack at blinding speed.

One of the men, clad in worker’s garb and covered in the omnipresent dust, had two tears in his clothing from the stiljao. The other man had no tears and was leaping around the circle as though he had lost no energy at all. Shasir shoved his way towards the inside of the circle, interested for a better look.

Once he had arrived at the edge, however, the battle was over. The man in worker’s garb had obtained one more slice in his clothing, and evidently had lost.

The victor straightened himself, cleaned off his own clothing, and grinned at the crowd. “As I said before, fifteen rachmar for a fight. If you beat me, you will get five hundred in return! But, well, I’m beginning to think not one among you can beat me!”

So that’s it. A game. A silly game. Shasir scowled at the prospect. Fighting was hardly a game. People died. There was nothing festive about death.

The man noticed Shasir’s glare and only grinned wider in response. “You, sir, do you wish to take on the Great Swordsman Vilan?”

“No.” Shasir spun around and began elbowing his way through the crowd.

“Stop!” Shasir looked back at Vilan to find the stiljao pointed in his direction. Vilan still wore his foolish smile. “Come, young man. You can fight for free. I’d feel guilty stealing money from a man foolish enough to wear black in Dao!” Laughter resounded from around the circle.

Shasir turned back towards the cocky swordfighter. Keeping his lips in an expressionless line, the Jackal stepped into the circle and picked up the dropped stiljao. Vilan continued smiling.

“Excellent! I’m in need of a warm up before a true swordsman in the crowd challenges me! The goal of the game is to get three tears in you’re opponent’s clothes. Three tears, and you’re out. Cutting into the flesh will be grounds for disqualification, and any wounds caused you alone will be charged for. Hitting with the blunt end is fine, but not the blade except to rip the clothing!”

Shasir continued glowering at the swordsman. “So you would have me fight but not hurt, and attack but not kill?

Vilan’s grin became impossibly broader. “Exactly.” He lowered himself into an exotic stance.

Shasir hefted his stiljao and noted its weight. As per his habit in dueling, he pointed the blade at his new opponent and intoned his challenge. “Prepare yourself.”

Vilan lunged with the stiljao in his right hand. Shasir easily stepped to his right, and deftly brought his blade into the air and down towards his opponent’s left shoulder. Vilan shifted his feet closer together and brought his sword to parry Shasir’s blow just as quickly.

Vilan continued with the initiative, attacking with a flurry of slices and thrusts more maddening than a Daoist dust storm. Shasir was forced to step back several paces, carefully parrying each blow. He did not counterattack, lest it lead him into an unthinkable mistake.

The stiljao flashed through the air, catching the yellow sun at such an angle that it flashed in Shasir’s eyes. Blinded for a split second, the Jackal brought his blade up for defense far too late to stop Vilan’s equally blinding swing. Shasir heard the sound of his cloak tearing across the right shoulder.

Shasir recovered from his daze fast enough to block Vilan’s ensuing storm. Vilan’s face was contorted with glee. He sneered at Shasir’s blocks. “Got you once! Two more to go! You can never beat me at this game!”

It’s not a game you fool! You’re blade is as sharp as mine! Shasir parried a lower-left to upper-right slice and retaliated. Used to Shasir fighting a defensive battle, the shift in tactics caught Vilan off guard. Still, however, the Jackal was unable to score a hit.

“Give up now, and I’ll let you keep your dignity!”

I have enough dignity not to respond to that statement. Insults are the lowest form of combat. Shasir thrust directly towards his enemy’s left thigh, but fell wide. Vilan leapt to the right, and managed to slash Shasir’s right hip before dancing away.

“That’s two! One more and I win!”

Shasir straightened himself upright, and readjusted the weight of the siljao. He carefully plotted Vilan’s erratic movements. His opponent was sizing up is defense, looking for an undefended hole. The Jackal allowed himself a single smile, and loosened his grip on the hilt.

Vilan was just as skilled as Shasir had given him credit for. His opponent had noticed Shasir’s shift and grip, and took it to signal fatigue. On most warriors, a grip loosened as such meant the weapon would easily be knocked from his hands on the next few parries. Vilan made to maximize the strength of his attack, and proceeded to swing his stiljao with his right hand while lunging towards Shasir.

Shasir “The Jackal” Katar immediately clamped his hand tighter than a lion’s jaw around the hilt. With the speed of an eagle diving towards its prey, he brought his siljao wide to the right and spun around to the left. His blade shrieked through the air as it contacted Vilan’s, easily blocking the attack and repelling Vilan’s weapon arm backwards.

With still no loss in speed, Shasir continued pivoting, resting his weight on his right foot as he brought his left around. In the fraction of a second showing Shasir’s back exposed to his enemy, Shasir’s left hand snaked inside his cloak. Shasir shifted his weight to his left foot, completing the pivot and bringing his left arm to bear on Vilan. In the space of a single breath, Shasir had armed himself with a knife while Vilan had yet to recover from his devastating parry.

Time benevolently slowed for Shasir as his left hand slashed his knife across Vilan’s chest. Using the momentum of his pivot and swing, the Jackal then twisted his left arm up and to the right in a tight circle, bringing it to bear directly over his enemy’s right shoulder. Mercilessly the black knife slit a second rend in Vilan’s shirt. Vilan, his smile vanished and eyes wide in surprise, had readied his stiljao and was swinging it towards Shasir’s left shoulder. Shasir’s left arm and knife flashed into the blade, the shock of metal upon metal resonating throughout Shasir’s own arm. Finally, the Jackal brought his right arm, still wielding the stiljao, to rest on Vilan’s collar, just against the skin.

Shasir’s left knife had Vilan’s siljao locked in place, part from his opponent’s shock and part from his use of the hilt. Shasir erased his smile and re-ignited the fire in his eyes. “You lose.” He flicked his right wrist, and listened to the collar tear apart.

Shasir Katar dropped the stiljao and proceeded to exit the ring. The crowd, stunned into silence, readily gave way.

“Wait.” Vilan was gasping from the ring. Shasir stopped, but did not turn.

“You are not from here. You are a dishonorable cur who cannot win without cheating. We do not use knives here in Dao, cur. They are crude tools designed for treachery. You’d best hope we do not meet again, or I may have reason to inform the Vizier of your treacherous ways.”

Shasir allowed one more smile to cross his face. He walked back over to Vilan, swishing his cloak to emanate an air of confidence. He bent down to the now-kneeling figure, and whispered in his ear. He finally walked out of the ring, knowing without looking the horrified visage on Vilan’s face.
“What did those kids ask you?”

“What?”

“I asked you what those kids wanted.”

“Which kids?”

“Those children that just left your store. What did they want?”

Shasir snarled at the overweight storeowner. The merchant pressed his fat fingertips against his temples, as though in deep thought. His eyes finally betrayed his realization of Shasir’s question.

“Oh. Dem kids. I can’t tell you, sah. Can I interest you in this map?”

“No. What did they want?”

“I told you, I can’t tell you.” The man’s jowls bounced across his cheeks as he moved his mouth around the words.

“Tell me, or I’ll—”Shasir caught himself. No. There has been enough violence today. Too much may draw attention to me. There is no need for intimidation here… I’ll have to use tact. “Tell me, good sir, and I may make it worth your while.”

Shasir placed the leather pouch of gold on the counter. Just as all the other merchants had, the fat store keep excitedly eyed the gold coins spilling from the purse.

“Dem kids, you say? Why, they wanted to know ‘bout the pyramid.”

I know that! Shasir forced his temper to subside. His fingers rattled upon the counter in sporadic bursts. Shasir’s eyes narrowed around his pale gray irises. “And what, good sir, did you tell them?”

The storekeeper’s eyes blanked beneath a furrowed brow. His mind appeared wracked with both indecision and ignorance. “I told them to watch their backs, for the road to the peer-mid has many dangers. It appears I should have been more specific, and said kidnappers.”

The tapping stopped. Gray eyes, filled with cunning, encompassed the storekeeper’s. For several minutes the gaze was held, before Shasir finally stepped back and released the merchant. Shasir spread his arms wide and bowed his head, bending slightly in the knees in mock reverence. “You have my sincerest apologies, dal Storekeep.” He had picked up the respectful title from some gossiping wenches. “I am the children’s guardian, though they cannot know it. I am under strict business from King Edward.”

The storekeeper blinked multiple times, and proceeded to pretend he recognized the name. Babbling absently, he placed the gold coins back in their pouch and handed it to Shasir. “May the winds bring you water, dal traveler.”

Shasir nodded. “May the winds bring you water.”

The Jackal stroked the rough wall as he left. Such simple customs to learn. So much like their structures… rough and course on the surface, but actually quite simple in application. No flying buttresses like in Edward Castle; only simple, vertical walls. Shasir allowed himself a small smile. He pressed himself against the outside wall, now nearing an alley. A couple strolled by without seeing so much as a flicker of his cloak. And so easily manipulated. A flock of women stood bantering near a well. The women appeared to be participating in useless socializing, but the water well was never still. The bucket was eternally moving up and down. When one woman finished dumping the load into her own pot, another took her place. They carried a sense of quiet urgency, as though the water might disappear at any second.

Water is quite important here. Obviously it’s a desert, but even so a single bath in Watermia would satisfy these natives for a week. Shasir rounded another corner. Still no children. And in Watermia, they complain about too much water!

Golden hair flashed in the orange sunlight. Shasir immediately ducked beneath the crowd’s heads. The boy was walking down the street with the spoiled princess at his side. Her dark hair cascaded down her pink dress, contrasting sharply to the boy’s gold and blue. The dust-laden wind tussled both their tresses. The children stopped, laughing, and finally stepped inside the nearest building. A swift glance above the doorway proved the shelter to be their own inn.

The wind’s whistle grew louder. Shasir spun around in one motion, and began back towards his own inn. The day was coming to a close, and he needed his rest for the next day’s journey. He had gathered from the various merchants that the trip to the Great Pyramid would take one day and a night at a good pace. With rations stored in his multiple pouches, only fatigue would be Shasir’s enemy. The Jackal gazed over a passing child, running at full tilt to a beads merchant. Such an easy people. So easy to lie to. They have no idea who I am, and yet do not care. Do they deserve such treatment?

Shasir shook his head in a stiff, snapping motion. It is of no consequence. They are tools, just as those kids are tools. A hammer does not deserve to be treated as a jewel.


It is my choice and mine alone
How I pursue my destiny.

-Gem


“Who are you?”

The moon had never glowed so brilliantly as the blue spheres within her eyes. The stars were outshined by the innumerable sparkles in her irises. Wald “The Jackal” Calthin lost himself within their depths, drowned more deeply than any ocean on the planet could manage.

Alyriel Elseil pulled the pale white covers over their bodies. She still wondered why Wald insisted on keeping his cloak nearby, and never removed his other clothes while sleeping. The warm red light from the lamp gave the curious shine in her eyes a playful air.

I am Wald Calthin.

“Wald, what is wrong?” Honey flowed from Alyriel’s lips, laced with her whisper like string in a quilt.

“Nothing’s wrong, Aly. I’m just tired.” That doesn’t sound like me. Why does my voice sound strange?

“It’s just…” She frowned, but her face did not appear sad. “When you came to our village, you said you were here on pressing business. You said you would be gone within two days…”

“I didn’t expect to be taken in by a beautiful farm-girl’s family.” By Gaia, I sound the same, but my intonations… the song is the same, but the dynamics are changed. “No job could give me such a sweet reward.”

Alyriel stroked Wald’s gleaming gold hair. “I know. But… I don’t know you. I mean, I know you, but… whenever I ask about your past, you refuse to tell. I know who Wald Calthin is, but I don’t know who he was.”

“What you did with your past is not as important as what you do with your future.”

Alyriel laughed, giving the impression that a flock of butterflies had taken flight from her throat and fluttered into the air. “You always say some pretty metaphor, Wald. Sometimes I wish your speech was more like a farmer’s!”

Wald returned the laugh. Laugh? “I would sooner remove my tongue than sound like a farmer!”

Happiness. I sound… happy. Why isn’t Shasir Katar happy? Why wasn’t Drake Mildrek happy? She was not so important. I laughed before her, and not only while acting.

A loud crash emanated from the floor below. Alyriel cocked an eyebrow and began to remove the covers. “What was that? I hope Father’s okay.”

Expletives and curses resounded up the stairs followed by the sound of heavy metal boots. A second crash resonated throughout the hallway. Wald leapt out of the bed, grabbing for his cloak and daggers. The door exploded into wooden shards to reveal a tall, white-armored man. The man was holding a parchment scroll and a longsword. Behind him stood a cluster of similarly armed soldiers.

“Stop!” The armored man bounded beside Wald in an easy leap and threw the cloak to the side. He pressed the cold steel against Wald’s neck as the others stepped within the room. Wald was vaguely aware of Alyriel screaming.

“You are under arrest for fraud and for trying to cheat the governor of Euro, and for the selling of secrets to this family! You are to be taken into custody and executed for treason, along with all that you have given the knowledge you were entrusted!”

Wald’s eyes grew as wide as Alyriel’s. “Alyriel, my only love, I am sorry.” Wald’s voice had become that of Shasir: cold and calculating, and with a hint of eternal remorse. As the guard gave orders for him to be shackled, Wald’s hand slipped quietly within his cloak.
“Quiet! You’ll wake him!”

The voice snapped the dream from Shasir Katar’s sleep. Only years of instinct and training allowed him to keep his eyes shut, and to keep him from screaming in agony. Cold sweat again drenched his bed. His hand was already around a knife, but whether it was because of the dream or the intruder he could not be sure.

Quiet whispers echoed through the room. Shasir quenched his panic and forced himself to concentrate on the voices. Five men. Two in the doorway one beside his bed between him and the door, one at the foot of his bed by the wall, the last on the left side of the bed between Shasir and the window. The man at the foot of his bed was giving the orders.

“You two, keep the door guarded. By the vizier, why did he have to keep his lamp lighted?”

That’s right. I was too tired to blow out the lantern. Shasir thanked Gaia that he had forgotten. Maybe escape was possible. The lantern was on the small table just to the left of the bed.

“On my signal, subdue and bind him.”

On your signal? You lost command of the situation when you clumsy oafs woke me!

Shasir released a deafening bellow and threw himself to his left, away from the door. His feet flailed through the air to catch the soldier across the sternum. The soldier buckled over, easily relinquishing his grip in his broadsword. Shasir clamped his feet to the ground and grabbed the sword. Light flashed through the room as the blade danced through the air, leaving the guard on the floor amidst a pool of blood.

The lead soldier, clad in full armor and bearing the insignia of the Dao Elite Guard, cursed loudly and dropped to a defensive stance. “Enemy of the Vizier! I command that you drop your weapon and come with us! You are under arrest for murder!”

Murder! Impossible! I have killed nobody in this despicable town! Shasir scowled. “Before this man, I killed no one. I always take harshly to intruders. Arrest me and the King of South Cape will be up here with a thousand men!”

The guard laughed loudly. “Killed nobody? We found that beggar you butchered! Nobody in Dao uses a knife!” The guard spit rudely on the floor. “Cowards’ weapons. If it hadn’t been for that swordplay con man we would never have realized the foreigner was still in town, and indeed still wielding a knife.”

Shasir’s mind reeled as if struck by the sword. He had been excruciatingly careful, and that very culture he had deemed so simple had destroyed it all. The soldier captain’s voice echoed within his mind. “You cannot escape. There are four master swordsmen here, and there are six more downstairs just waiting for a call for help.”

Alyriel’s face flashed in Shasir’s eyes. He glanced back at the bed, half-expecting her cowering form to appear beneath the covers. “I will never go with you.”

Shasir lunged with the sword towards the captain’s gut. The captain expertly parried and retaliated, only to find Shasir had spun two steps backwards. Shasir feinted to bring the sword across the captain’s chest, and released the hilt midswing. The sword flew through the air, spinning to the right. It hurtled into the lit lantern, knocking them both onto the haphazard bed.

The crisp, dry covers erupted into flame almost instantaneously. The fires raced across the bed, shooting up several feet in less than the twitch of an eye. Shasir’s arm sped out to grab his cloak, still strewn across the corner chair, and removed a single knife while draping the folds around his shoulders.

The captain was rushing towards him. Shasir’s knife streaked from his hand almost of its own accord, striking the captain through his forehead. Shasir turned from the grizzly sight and dashed to the window.

The two soldiers on the other side of the blaze hesitated to give chase. By the time the first had passed the flames Shasir had already ducked out the window.


Choice is a dangerous thing
. But without it, life would be far more dangerous.

-Neil


“He was a fool! I had no choice!”

Shasir forced his feet to continue walking. The sun had long since risen and begun to scorch the earth anew. The sand on the ground was hard and stiffly packed, but in the air it flowed like water. Shasir only had enough rations to make it to the pyramid; he had been unable to purchase enough for the trip back during his flight from Dao.

After slaying the captain and leaping from the window, Shasir had been forced to confront four more guards. After much blood and sweat, Shasir had managed to escape the slums of Dao and make his way to a gate. His cloak was ragged with dirt and gashes, and he had only three of his precious knives remaining. The physical wounds, however, paled against those on his mind.

I escaped again, at the expense of life. Always I escape when others die! Shasir fell to his knee clutching his temples. Alyriel had been burned alive during his escape. It had been more than two years, and he still heard her screams. Shasir had been able to block them for a long while, but still during every dire situation her image returned.

I couldn’t protect her. I am more important. She was just a tool. The real enemy is those who would try to stop me!

The dream had been different. Flashbacks to Alyriel’s burning house were not infrequent, but he always awoke when the first soldier stormed in. Even more frustrating to Shasir was the fact he had been forced to use the exact same maneuver to escape. He thanked Gaia that this time, no one was in the bed when it was set ablaze.

“Who am I?” Shasir returned to his feet. The voice had been back. It was the same voice from his dream about the native slave. The same question. “I am Shasir Katar. I am Drake Mildrek. I am Wald Calthin. I am the Jackal!”

Shasir struggled forward. The sun assaulted his heavy body with more force than any of the soldiers had. “I am the Jackal!”

Sweat beaded on his forehead. The pyramid was still a night and a half-day away. Perhaps he could steal food from the cursed children’s cold bodies. Even if they have none, I have gone on longer without food. Never in a desert, though.

The dust-wind stirred the sands alive. Small swirls flickered around Shasir’s feet. “May the wind bring you water.” Shasir mumbled the traditional Dao farewell. “The wind here carries only dust. What I wouldn’t give for the kids to go back to Watermia.” Fool! You are the Jackal! Forsake the orders and leave! Shasir berated himself for the weak thought. “Yes, I am the Jackal, and I always get the job done.”

The dreams flooded back into memory. Why such strange dreams? Memories entwined in fear and sadness. The boy had been useless. The girl had been holding him back. Tools.

A hammer should not be treated as a jewel.

The red sun was closing on the horizon. Even as he silently cursed the flaming orb, Shasir knew without it he was lost. Without a compass, only the sun could guide his way.

Only a few more hours of walking, and he would camp. With only his cloak as a tent and pillow, it proved to be an interesting night indeed.

You have to finish the job! The boy must die!

Why?

A parched throat and sunburned ears only added to his pain. The slave’s death had been essential. Alyriel’s death had been necessary. He did not want a life of comfort and security. He was the Jackal, and such things would only soften him. Once softened, there was only death.

There must be another way.

Finally, exhaustion combined with the sun to hammer Shasir on the head. With only a slight groan he fell to the ground, allowing vulnerability and sleep to overtake him.
“Who are you!”

This time it was different. He knew it was a dream from the start.

Another memory. But why did it have to be this? Not this, anything but this…

A single year ago. Jerrol “The Jackal” Taelmond stood before the gates of a massive tower. Around him gathered over half a dozen men, and a single boy.

The boy!

There was no mistaking the boy’s golden mane. Yes… I knew it was him. I have always known it.

A tall man with dusty blond hair, just beginning to go gray, walked up to Jerrol. His eyes were a deep brown and carried a spark second only to Jerrol’s own. His deeply tanned skin was stretched tight over his thin frame. “Master Taelmond, we have finally made it. The Tower of Babel.”

Olman!

Jerrol’s mouth moved on it’s own. Shasir had no control over it. “Yes, Olman. We are here. I trust you remember our agreement?”

Olman made a rich, boisterous laugh. “Of course! Twenty-five percent of the treasure found in exchange for your protection!”

“Treasure, for protection. You had him well tricked, indeed, Keeper.”

The voice. Shasir tried to turn his head, but Jerrol refused to move. The voice had not yet spoken after his first question. And still, he made little sense. Every portion of Shasir’s being wanted to tear himself from this dream.

Please, anywhere but here.

Jerrol tossed back the hood of his black cloak. His own hair shined as brilliant as the boy’s. He carefully surveyed the group, noting strengths and weaknesses. A man dressed in dirty green flipped him a grin. The father of that other child, Lance.

Olman’s voice traveled through the group like a flock of eagles. “Men! We will now see what treasures are held within the walls of the Tower of Babel! By the light and by Gaia herself, we will traverse the halls of the greatest of the Ruins!” Don’t open the door, Olman. Leave it closed, please! Olman stepped up to the massive door. With a groan he threw his shoulder against the tarnished bronze. The door ground inwards, revealing a dark hallway within. Olman flicked his hand forward. The group, completely silent, fell in behind.

Images flashed through Jerrol’s inner mind. Screaming. Blood. Death. Chaos. From the moment that Olman opened those doors the adventurers had been doomed.

A cacophony of mayhem. A roar of terror.

Jerrol began to shriek at the barrage of pictures. Memories, bleak and horrifying. The boy was lucky that he couldn’t remember. The massive blue demon’s roar, the twin vampires, the terrible feathered statue.

No, there was nothing I could do! We all would have died!

Flash. Lance’s father quivering on the ground.

Flash. Three men being torn asunder by the demon’s gaping maw.

I tried, by Gaia I tried. My job was to get them there safely! I always get the job done!

Flash. Blood splattered onto a nearby alter, seeming to disappear over a shining red jewel.

You promised them protection!

Flash. The winged statue fired wicked bullets at fleeing men.

The demons were everywhere, the guardians, the devils… how can I protect them from such horrors?

You promised them safety!

Flash. A corporal shadow flew across the corridor and encased the screaming treasure hunter.

All I had to do was get them there alive.

You were unable to keep them safe!

Flash. Olman was on his knees. His hands stretched up to the roof. An eldritch light poured from a window around his frame. Tears streaked down his face. He knew Jerrol was there. “Master Taelmond…” he gasped, shivering as the light began to peel away his skin, “Please… keep… my son… safe…”

Damn you, Olman! Damn you for charging me with his safety!

You alone are responsible for their deaths!

Flash. Screaming.

Flash. Death.

Flash. Blood.

And, after all had ended, you still could not save the boy!

Flash. Will lay huddled in a corner. His head was clutched in his hands, swaying from side to side. Jerrol shook his head, and continued running. I’m sorry, Will.

You had a duty, and you failed!

Flash.
Sunlight.

Sunlight, and a strange moisture. It wasn’t sweat, or saliva.

It was tears.

Shasir “The Jackal” Katar forced himself to regain control. The debacle in the Tower of Babel was over and done. But… could it have been different?

I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t. I’d have died too. We both would have.

The tears had already evaporated away in the searing heat, but the scars were still present. Shasir dragged himself upright.

I must complete my mission. I must. The sands beneath Shasir’s feet gave way. Why? The thought pounded inside his brain as he crashed back to the earth. What is my mission? Get the statues. Kill the children. Why does Edward want the statues? But, lying on the desert sands, The Jackal already knew the answer. Human greed.

Edward wanted the statues for his collection, and to avenge the insult that Kara and Will had dealt him. The girl… Kara… he had already saved her life once. And perhaps the boy Will’s, as well. Memories drifted back into his mind. Memories of Edward’s Castle, Kara trapped in her room under guard, the boy in a jail cell beneath, doomed to execution for insulting “His Majesty.” Shasir still did not know why, but he had found himself manipulating the king to place the castle’s most incompetent guard in charge of Kara.

‘Old Snorehead,’ they called him. The Jackal nearly laughed. With resourcefulness that had almost surprised him, the girl had taken the key and freed the boy.

Why did I help them? If I had allowed that cur Edward kill the boy, I wouldn’t be here in this Mother-forsaken desert! One knee, then a hand, then finally a foot. Shasir was standing once more. Off in the distance he could just make out the pinnacle of the Pyramid.

I was… protecting them. No! I cannot any longer. Damp moisture filled his eyes. I never could.

Shasir “The Jackal” Katar began to trudge towards the Pyramid. There was no room in his business for compassion. No room for empathy, and especially none for love. His past and his feelings mattered as little as his name.

I am the Jackal, and I always get the job done.


Imagine a world where strife is nonexistent.
I hope we never see that world. I want a world
Where Mankind always receives strife,
And in the end always overcomes it.

-Freedan


The Great Pyramid loomed above the desert like a perfectly shaped mountain. Dust wafted and swirled along the edges as the wind danced and played. It looked as though the caked-dirt bricks had never seen a drop of water. The only color from horizon to horizon was a burnt-out, offensive yellow… never had the Jackal seen anything more remote and majestic.

Carved out of the center was a gaping door. The dust-laden wind swept into the black opening. Noonday sun beat down on sand and man alike, cruelly sapping moisture from the air.

Shasir Katar could feel the dice of destiny spinning. The geometric mountain towered above, calling, waiting, watching. Inside lay the future. Inside lay the end. Inside… everything. The boy, the girl, the statues. Power. Shasir’s eyes failed to penetrate the darkness within the door, but he already knew what he would find.

Fate.

It is time to end this. The boy must die. The job must be completed. It must!

Shasir “The Jackal” Katar stepped through the door before his inner mind could ask the only question that could stop him. Why?

His black cape floated through just after him. Black boots and legs were drawn tight, with his jet-black shirt loosely hanging over his hips. The precious cloak was still torn and sliced in many places, but all his clothing was now devoid of dirt. Before arriving, The Jackal found himself wiping the clothes free of filth. His daggers had been repositioned from his boots to two up either sleeve and one at his belt. His matted blond hair was covered by the dark hood drawn close around his face.

The heat nearly vanished a mere foot inside the monument. Shade withdrew as torches down the long, narrow stone hallway illuminated the lone path. At the end of the hall was a short stone door.

“I am ready,” the statement came out as a deep sigh and sounded akin to a question. His course hands drew the cloak tighter around his shoulders. “I am ready.” This time, there was no question in his voice.

Muffled footsteps still seemed deafening to Shasir’s ear. Every crunched stone, every small crack was a warning siren to his mind. Rational thought railed against opening the door. Something must be in there… something far worse than the boy… far worse than any nightmare.

Echoes.

Echoes.

Echoes.

Dust-laden wind drifted past Shasir, settling just in front. Perhaps the inside was not as devoid of the ever-present dust as he had thought.

The Jackal finally reached the door. His hand reached out to the stone handle. He released his breath, not realizing he had been holding it. The door pulled open slowly.

Light streamed through the doorframe. Even more surprising was the sound. Footsteps and voices rang to Shasir’s ears, footsteps and voices of the children. Alive! Shasir frowned. Was I… worried? No matter. It would be impossible to finish the job if I couldn’t find their corpses. Much cleaner to kill them myself.

Confidence surged through the Jackal. Fear fled from his mind and determination coursed in his blood. Step by deliberate step, he moved steadily down the passageway. The voices were growing softer, as though descending a staircase.

The wind whistled through the open door. The Jackal froze, with an ear cocked towards the opening. Dirt came to rest on his cloak and boots and continued down the hall. The whistling, however, was what held his attention. The tune was one he had heard the boy play in Freejia. It had remedied his friend’s amnesia, and made memories resurface amongst all of them. The wind grew sharper, and the whistling louder. It was not a flute, but distinctly a human’s voice.

The notes pounded inside his head. Thoughts drifted through Shasir’s mind as lazily as the wind. Each, however, felt like a hammer to his brain. The slave. Olman. Alyriel.

Will.

“I have been waiting for you, Shasir.”

The strange voice set off alarm bells in the Jackal’s head, but he forced himself to turn slowly. Not three yards away stood an imposing man, clad fully in blue-black armor. A cape, black on the outside and red underneath, lay flat against his back despite the slight wind. Shining blond hair fell beneath his shoulders in neatly kept trusses. In his hand was a sword easily over half as long as Shasir was tall.

Sweat beaded on Shasir’s face, but he kept his face passive. He had seen this man before, always appearing in the same place the boy would disappear. The logical conclusion was that he was the boy, in some strange form. “Will.” Shasir’s throat felt dry, and the words came out raspy.

The knight closed his eyes and shook his head. “No, Jerrol. My name is Freedan, first born son to the noble family Galandir, defender of humanity, and the protector of Gaia.”

Shasir drew his back ramrod straight. “Let me pass, Sir Knight, for I have a job that I must attend to.”

The Jackal glided forward but was stopped by an outstretched hand. “I am sorry, Drake, but I cannot allow you to finish.” Freedan hefted his sword in one hand. “You are correct, usually it is the boy Will who inhabits my body, but the Mother Gaia has allowed me this instant of free will for one purpose only.”

His voice. Realization rushed into Shasir’s mind. The voice was the same from his dreams.

Kill him. He poses too much of a threat. Shasir spun on one heel and walked back down the corridor. He would need some distance between him and the knight if it came to blows. “How do you know my names, Sir Knight?” Yes, keep him talking, then dispatch of him when it is easiest.

Freedan only smiled. “All minds are visible to Gaia. In my time in the Dark Space, I have learned many things. But in all of my one thousand year hibernation, never have I seen anyone as important as you.”

Shasir stopped. “Me? Impossible. I am only a hired hand, a hunter, a tracker.” An assassin, a rogue, a desperate criminal.

“Will does not have much time, so I am afraid I must get to the point.” Freedan leaned slightly on his sword. “Your mere existence, Shasir, is a threat. Allowing you to live will doom the planet for all eternity.”

“Ha!” laughed Shasir, “And why is that? Because I have slain a few nobles? Killed a few children? Certainly that cannot destroy the world!” The barest hint of a frown crossed the knight’s face. Undaunted, Shasir continued. “If you can see my dreams, demon, then surely you can see that I have business to attend to.”

This time the knight’s face tightened into a scowl. “Your ‘business,’ Jackal, is precisely what I have come to question. No, to stop!”

“And what would my job have to do with such a glorious Knight of ‘Galandir’?” The last few words came out as a spat from Shasir’s mouth. “I will live my life as I choose.” The faintest trickle of doubt resurfaced on Shasir’s mind. No matter whom I hurt…

Composed serenity had returned to the knight’s face. “No, it is not how you lived your life that threatens us, but your life itself.” His voice was belittling, as though he was lecturing a student, or chastising a small boy. “My child, two forces govern our life: dark and light. In order to meet the coming threat, dark and light must be united as one. Will is the dark power, and Kara the light. This simple symbiosis will destroy the Dark Comet and save Gaia.” The knight’s tone held a bored dryness, as though such an obviously clumsy generalization was painful for him to say.

“I fail to see how that pertains to me, Sir Knight.” Comet? Dark power? The man is mad.

“You are not a normal man, Shasir. Certainly even you can see that?”

Of course I’m not normal. I am the Jackal.

Freedan continued. The wind continued to flow around the two figures, carrying dust into all corners of Shasir’s body. Their voices echoed down the long hallway, especially the knight’s sonorous speech. “All your life, you have felt the call to protect people. And yet, you never succeed.” The knight paused for emphasis. Oddly, the pause seemed far louder than his words. “Some seed from within has corrupted you. You are callous and cruel… but you are not evil.”

“Thank you for your thoughts, Knight, but I really must be going!”

“You cannot kill the boy, for the same blood runs through your veins.”

Shasir’s heart felt as though it had turned to ash. What did the madman mean?

“There is only one Dark Power in any generation. The first in Gaia’s memory was a man named Blazer, but we know little of his exploits now. During his travels, he had one son. Then, that son had a daughter, then she a son. Each descendent of the Dark Power bears one—and only one—child.

“I say I was the first born of House Galandir, but I was in fact the illegitimate child of the lord of that house. My father held too much pride to cast his infant son away, but such kindness did not spread to my mother. The Dark Power swelled within me, causing me to become the greatest knight House Galandir had ever seen. During my life, however, the time had not yet come. I proved myself strong enough that Gaia took notice of my life, and immortalized me after my death.

“Sadly, I am where the line divides. My mother, the previous Dark Power, was driven from House Galandir by the nobles. In the dark alleys of the city she was raped, and eventually forced to bear a second child. This young boy was an abomination, a second Dark Power where there should only be one. The warrior of the Light side continued to bear only one child—we know nothing of this line, save that Kara is the last.

“Two Dark Powers. For one thousand years, each of the two bore only one child. Each was noticeable by blonde hair and extraordinary abilities. Sometimes, the two Powers aided each other, unbeknownst to either. In other ages, they fought bitterly. And now, the time has come that the Power must be unleashed. The Dark Comet approaches, and threatens to destroy all life. The Dark and Light must be united, or all is lost.”

Deathly silence. Shasir turned to face the knight. Do not listen to him! If I stall any longer I may miss any chance of the children! “Remove yourself from my path, knight. I have a job to do!”

“No, Jackal! You have something far more important! You are the bastard Dark Power. You are the son that should never have been born. You are as much a threat as the Comet!” Freedan pointed at Shasir with his left gauntlet. “As long as you live, the Power is divided. Will can never achieve his true potential with you clutching onto your half of the Dark Power like a greedy child. You are distant cousins, as distant in blood as any two strangers, yet you have the same destiny. Embrace it.”

No! My destiny is my own! “I will not be deterred by your flowery language and dark prophecies. Be gone, demon!” Shasir’s right hand lashed to his belt and grabbed the dagger. Taking only a split second to gauge his shot, the Jackal’s hand flashed forwards and released the blade straight towards the knight’s eyes. The whistling song had ceased, only to be replaced by the hum of the knife spinning through the air. The blade was in the air for only an instant, and already it was about to pierce the knight’s forehead.

The breath caught in Shasir’s lungs. With just a wave of his hand, the knight had stopped the knife in midair. The blade floated just a fraction from his smooth face. Freedan snapped his fingers and the knife fell to the floor with a loud clang.

“How… how did you…?” Shasir simply stared. The mysterious knight had drawn himself up straighter, if that was at all possible. He raised his sword, pointed directly at the Jackal.

Kill him! Kill him now!

“You have made your choice, Jackal. I cannot allow you to hurt the boy.” Freedan swung his sword up over his shoulder and charged with stunning speed. “I cannot allow you to destroy Gaia!” The knight struck with such fierceness and velocity that Shasir barely had time to draw his remaining daggers from his sleeves. Even so, the force of the blow against his parry caused him to step back several paces. Remarkably, he maintained his footing.

I have a job to do; I cannot let him get in my way! Shasir sprung forward and to the right, barely ducking under a mighty swing. One more step and he was within a foot of the knight’s body. Still kneeling so that he came just up to Freedan’s belt, Shasir thrust one of his daggers deep towards the knight’s midsection.

Freedan dodged to the left with dexterity more fitting to a cat than a warrior in full plate armor. He swung his sword crossways from left to right with just one hand. Shasir arched his spine over backwards and brought his left hand down for balance. The sword hummed over his head a mere inch from Shasir’s nose.

The knight compensated for the miss by sharply arching the swing upwards. He brought his left hand back to the hilt and gracefully used the swords momentum to bring it back over his head. A mere second after swinging at Shasir’s head, the sword was already chopping downward. Shasir threw all his strength into his left hand and foot. The push forced him up onto his other foot, where he then spun clockwise to get some distance from the knight. Freedan’s sword clanged to the floor with such power that Shasir was surprised sparks didn’t fly. Allowing himself only a half second pause, the Jackal gripped his daggers tightly and slashed at the knight’s face.

Dust swirled around the two fighters like a maelstrom. Freedan danced backwards well beyond the knives’ reach. The knight then launched a flurry of attacks, striking left, then right, left, top, down.

Slash. Shasir managed to parry each by only a hair. Even then, the blows carried so much force that Shasir could not block them directly. Instead, each slid along his angled blades, each time narrowly missing and knocking him backwards. The knight was maneuvering his massive onslaught to press Shasir into the wall, where he would have less room to dodge the attacks.

Slice left, pulled at the last instant and changed to an overhead assault. Daggers met sword once more, and yet the sword still never slowed. If anything, it grew faster.

Such strength… this knight is unstoppable! No, I must win. I must!

The knight slowed slightly, as if reading his thoughts. For all Shasir knew, he was. “You are a bloody fool, Bastard of the Dark.” The knight thrust forward, meeting only air when Shasir dodged to the side. “Will you destroy everyone’s hopes like you did that young slave boy’s?”

No, he is trying to distract me, trying to make me make a mistake. Shasir had sudden flashbacks not to the slave boy, but to his fight with the swordsman in Dao. He had kept his silence then, and he would keep it now.

Knives deflected a renewed assault, still only by inches. A sad smile spread across the knight’s face. “And the boy, you will betray him again as well?”

Light danced through the room faster than the two duelists. A torch was thrown from the far wall by the knight’s side swing. Another one clattered when Shasir leaped into the air to dodge a cut aimed at his ankles. Shasir tried to knife the knight’s exposed topside, but his attacks also met with nothingness as Freedan rolled to the right.

Dirt and grime covered the two fighters. Dust flew excitedly through the air, refracting the light in every direction as much as the clashing blades did.

“You try to protect, and you bring only destruction!”

No, it isn’t true!

Dust parted behind the swinging sword. More drifted back to fill the void. All around the dust was growing into a tumultuous mass.

“You say you have a job! I ask you, assassin of Gaia, what is it?” The knight was shouting above the cacophony of steel meeting steel.

My job is to serve Edward, and deliver him the statues!

Freedan was now screaming. “Why!”

The two figures exploded into activity. A gauntleted hand swatted away an approaching dagger like an annoying fly. Shasir’s other dagger charged towards the knight’s torso, but struck only dust when Freedan twisted to the side. The sword sliced cleanly through another torch before it struck the wall right where the Jackal’s neck had been before ducking.

I am the Jackal!

“Who are you!”

Finally, a blow came through that Shasir could not stop. He narrowly dodged the sword swing, but for one fateful moment both his hands and daggers were protecting the side furthest from Freedan. The knight brought his fist straight across the Jackal’s temple. Shasir felt blood escape from his lips as his world spun out of control.

Waist-high dust surrounded the knight as he stepped backwards, gauntlet still raised high and sword pointing downward. His cloak remained as still as trees in a windless night. His eyes narrowed and mouth drew tight across his face. It was a mere second later and Shasir was recovered from the blow, but it was already for naught. Unseen hands lifted Shasir from the ground, spun him around, and slammed him against the wall. Shasir’s hands were drawn tightly spread-eagled, while his legs were crossed pointing straight downward.

Straight blond hair flapped furiously in an unseen wind. The few torches that still burned illuminated the knight’s fearsome face, one bent on extreme concentration. His mouth seemed to be moving to some unheard chant.

Shasir struggled to move, but was tied to the wall by the knight’s strange powers, the same powers that had plucked his dagger from the air like a feather. The two knives were still gripped tightly, but in fists made useless by the telekinesis.

The knight stepped forwards towards Shasir, arm still outstretched and face still tight in concentration. “You are a fool, Jackal.” His voice was cold and calm, as though far away. “You destroy everything you touch. You kill everyone you help. Just as you killed him… just as you killed her.” He was now directly in front of Shasir. His hand lowered to his side, but the forces holding Shasir never lessened.

“It is… my job.” Shasir felt the words catch in his mouth. He had been beaten… nobody had beaten him before. Even as a child. Bandits, molesters, kidnappers, all had met with a young boy and been left lying on the dirt soon after. “I am…”

The previous condescension was gone from the knight’s voice. “Your job is not to kill, but to save. Why can’t you realize that?”

“It is my own business what I choose to do with my life!”

“Then make the right choice!” Freedan took a small step backwards. “I am sorry, Lord Jackal, Keeper of the Dark Power, but I have my own ‘job’ to attend to.”

The knight lifted his sword with both hands. It can’t end this way. It can’t! I must… Shasir closed his eyes and tensed. Suddenly, he felt the forces around his legs unravel. His arms were still tied tightly, but apparently the Knight’s powers required such concentration that he could not wield his weapon and channel them at the same time.

Shasir closed his eyes. I must…go. I am Shasir Katar. I am Jerrol, Drake, and Wald. Even if I am the bastard son of the Dark Power… I am the Jackal.

The hallway was utterly silent. The knight’s breath caught slightly, preparing to plunge his blade deep into Shasir’s chest. Fool. With a scream of rage, Shasir stretched his right foot out and brought it hard across the knight’s smooth face. Pain seared through his leg as it met with the side of the blade before slamming into hard skull. The forces that held Shasir’s arms ceased, causing him to fall to his knees on the floor. The knight reeled backwards, arms rushing up to his head. The wall stopped him, and he simply lay against it nursing his temple. Without glancing at his wound, Shasir gripped his daggers and charged towards his opponent. With no resistance to be met, one dagger sliced across his face, while the other found the crevice where gauntlet met bracer. The second dagger slid cleanly through the chain mesh beneath the armor, and cleaner still through the deeper flesh.

Sword and knight crumpled to the ground in unison. One hand tried to nurse at once wounds across his face and ruined wrist. Shasir merely stood over his fallen enemy, staring at the noble knight at his feet.

“You… you are indeed a child of the Dark Power…” The words came as gasps from the knight’s pale mouth. Blood was streaming down his smooth, pure cheeks. “I… I am sorry.”

Resolve and fury pulsated through Shasir. “Get out of my dreams.”

Freedan nodded.

“Get out of my head.”

Freedan nodded.

“And get out of my destiny.” The last sentence came out as a snarl.

Dust floated calmly on a slight breeze. Freedan lifted his head. Two pairs of pale, blue eyes as hard as sapphires met, each with enough intensity to knock a grown man to his knees. “Your destiny is your own, Jackal, and you have earned it. And now, it is time for you to make a choice.”

A small part of Shasir wanted to forsake the knight, to move on with his job. But somehow, he suppressed it.

“We are in peril, Jackal,” continued the fallen knight, “A peril no one may live beyond. Therefore, I offer you one last chance at salvation.”

Be done with him, or you are as much a fool as he. Shasir shook his head. No…I at least must listen.

“This salvation, champion, is at once simple and impossible.”

I have always done the impossible.

“I ask… that you give your life for the world.”

The figure of the knight vanished. Shasir merely closed his eyes… he could still feel the warrior’s strong presence. What you ask is impossible.

“No.” The voice floated with the dust, sometimes appearing close, others far away. The whistling wind had returned, along with the tune. Images of fallen friends and enemies flickered inside Shasir’s mind. “When you walk down those steps, you will be met with the boy and the girl. Stand in front of the closest statue. I will whisper to the boy to play his flute, and when he does, a liquid fire will come forth from the statue’s mouth, activated by an ancient trap. If you are standing there, you will be sacrificed, for the boy, for the world… and for you.”

With that, the presence vanished. Shasir’s mind reeled in a hurricane of thoughts. He had a job to do. What job? He had himself to protect. From what? And he had a king to serve. Why him?

Shasir “The Jackal” Katar turned towards the door leading deeper into the Pyramid. Already he could hear the children’s voices. He began to walk forward.

Images flashed through his mind. Olman. The slave.

Alyriel.

A strange warmth spread through the Jackal as his mind held onto Alyriel. He was still unsure whether he would take the knight’s offer. He was unkillable, unbeatable, as immortal as a mortal could be. He was the Jackal, and he always got the job done. He did know one thing: it was time to finally finish it. It was time to finally protect all those he loved, in the past, the present, and, most importantly, in the future.

The Jackal gathered his composure and started down the steps. The children would see only a smooth face bent on determination. Each step came to meet his feet, each step towards his own earned future.

Uncertainty filled his body. Every portion of his training screamed to kill the child and be done with it. His mind, however, was filled with just one thought, one maxim. No matter the time, no matter the destiny, he would finish the job. His master would be served. His charges met. He was not Shasir Katar, Drake Mildrek, Jerrol Taelmond, or Wald Calthin. Darkness enveloped the black figure as he stepped through the doorway. As he vanished down the stairs, his majestic cloak flapped through the door once more, causing the dust to dance in its wake. Finally, the nameless assassin vanished. His destiny, his choices, and his life were all his own. The job would be finished. The burning torches flickered slightly as a final sentence pervaded the hall, a whisper carried on the dust-laden wind.

I am the Jackal.



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