The Chronicles of Estiah

Chapter 16: Hunter

The two men formed an unspoken truce as they knew that, against well trained Assassins, the slightest opening would inevitably lead to their demise. Unlike petty thieves and clumsy rogues, the men from the Shelter of Silence came in shadows, killed in silence and left with the wind. Ordinary men ended up dying before they could even see the flash of the Assassins' charms. Nikkum and Saar could barely notice their steps, let alone see their faces.

The roads connecting Zeal and Inachis were overly trampled by tireless merchants and their chariots. Every few miles, some random shop popped up to offer travelers drinks and snacks. Sometimes plain food more than satisfied those who were in need. The sun was bearing a charming smile, illuminating the roads with its gentle light. Had there not been lousy peddlers harassing every passer-by with their bargains, this countryside could almost be a peaceful place. It should have been a relatively enjoyable journey compared to remote deserts or icy tundras, and yet the two runaways were unable to rest at all. They went on and off the main road, only to find their unfriendly followers still trailing behind.

"Something is weird. I've heard the training for becoming Assassin is qualified as hellish and only the best members can pass the trials, but these men behind us are far from being stealthy." Nikkum turned his head to look back.

"We're dealing with vicious ones here." The young man seemed to have a better idea about the situation.

"What do you mean?" Nikkum was confused.

"Let me ask you; were you able to rest during the last days since we parted from Zeal?"

"I'm on my guard all the time; I believed they were going to strike soon."

"Same here." The fragile body of the young magus looked tired, "But our opponents are fully rested and prepared."

"How?"

"I noticed they were working in two groups, swapping their roles every six hours. Our initial guess was wrong, they are more than four."

"Darn, paying that many Assassins at a time, someone wants us dead badly. And Assassins usually don't cooperate together, they prefer to work alone."

"Well, that just shows how tough and resourceful the Soul Harvesters are. Since it's quite a pain to replace a high Hierarch, and perhaps have to silence some men, they won't let us off easily. And if I'm not wrong, the Assassins are deliberately letting us notice them. Instead of attempting shadow kills, they are trying their nasty stalking tactic."

"Now it all makes senses. They are just going to wear us down and collect their loot." Nikkum patted his gold bag.

"That bag of gold isn't even going to hire a Scout trainee." Saar let out a little giggle of mockery, and then changed his expression, "To be more serious, their tactic is quite obvious and I'm glad that I'm not alone. Just like them, we have to take shift for resting: starting from tonight, you are going to guard me for six hours then I'll do four."

"That's impressive math." Nikkum showed unhappiness about his longer shift.

"You don't look tired at all after three days without closing your eyes."

"But you nodded off last night."

"See, I'm still suffering from Lily's tea."

"Tell me when you are able to protect yourself again, because I hate people testing my patience. I'm just going to drag them out, no matter how many they are."

"It's obvious that they aren't going to fight you. Hide-and-seek is their best trick."

"Take care of yourself before you lecture people."

Over the following days, the two men and their pursuers worked like an indefatigable clock. Both sides took their shifts in the most disciplined way, the only thing that changed was their closing distance to Inachis. Near dusk of the eighth day, the fugitives went off the main road again to hide themselves in a forest. The Assassins unquestionably followed. As night fell, Saar sat down near a campfire with his sole ally.

"I am amazed that they still didn't act." Saar's recovery was slow due to the constant stress; his eyes had lost much of the vivid color they had had when Nikkum met him for the first time. Even his skin seemed paler.

"Do you think they receive a daily pay?" Nikkum threw some dry wood sticks into the campfire.

"Don't be stupid. Assassins are paid upon delivery of the bountied head." The young magus pointed at his neck.

"I wonder which of us has more bounty on our head."

"You, of course. You sent Abedgar to meet his God after all."

"But it's easy to tell that you are the mastermind, some brute like me isn't able to come up with such a plan."

"Playing dumb now..."

"I'm brainless."

"It's about time for me to get some rest, we'll enter Inachis soon. Use your empty head to think of a plan to shake those pests off in that crowded city."

"The mass of people in Inachis will definitely help us." Nikkum strengthened the campfire by adding some more branches.

Saar calmly let the darkness invade his vision. A strange bond of trust was formed between him and the man who was gritting his teeth next to him. He felt the persisting anxiety in the air but he genuinely believed the man was not going to be reckless. He could quickly fall asleep without reluctance only by knowing the simple fact that Nikkum was guarding him, as if he was embraced by an indestructible mountain in this dense wood, no amount of arrows would pierce such a hard wall of axes. The confidence emerged on his sleeping face, with Nikkum watching, confused.

"Does this guy have to grin even in his sleep?" Nikkum might excel in physical combat but when it came to guessing people's minds, he was often clueless.

The wood was silent at night, as if it quarreled too much during the day with the gales from the east. However, its eyes were staring at the hunted men without blinking. Slowly, it stretched its shadowy claws towards the lonely soul. Closer... closer... so close that it sent little gusts of breath over his tanned skin every once a while, making it ache and tingle. As it understood its bewitching caresses would not move the iron-willed man, it resorted to sending its fresh aromatic leaves to lure him to a world of drowsiness, only to watch them being burnt away upon contact with that incinerating spirit of his. Running out of tactics, the prowling wood decided to imitate the stillness of the stone warrior and left him a moment of peace for now.

And yet Nikkum's heart was waving much harder than his face showed, fatigue and tension twisting every part of this pounding piece of muscle. A thin fog was forming in his eyes and in his mind, but he could not afford to fall asleep. With predators watching his every move, he and his companion would never see the noisy streets of Inachis again if he did not strive to live. The flames of the campfire started their tribal dances, sparking into the most beautiful fire butterflies of this world. However, they could not chase away the man's overbearing drowsiness; the only thing they brought was an illusion leading the mind to wander in the infinity.

As Nikkum dwelled between the real and the unreal, the known and the unknown, the true and the untrue, a shadowy silhouette sneaked over the dreaming magus, upon the back of his vigil. Although discontented at someone who was going to steal its prey, the wood took in a deep breath and watched the masterful act of stealth in perfect silence. The silhouette cautiously tended out its right hand, where a very faint purple glow took a physical form. As this darkness unwaveringly approached, Nikkum seemed still lost under the effect of the butterflies.

The dark silhouette struck with an imperceptible speed.

And at this same exact moment, the beast's paw grabbed a reckless hand.

"You are not going to snatch my gold away." The beast glanced at the face of the startled kitten, "Just give it up already, Lily."

"That's just impossible! The sleeping spores should've been carried by the wind!" Lily's purple eyes were hungering for a proper explanation, "I know I failed back there, but this time I used four times, no wait, maybe five times of the normal dose, you just can't be standing!"

Nikkum promptly stood up, "Well, I'm standing."

"This is plain stupid, look at this pig's heavenly sleeping face!" Out of rage, Lily kicked at the lying magus's head, "he won't wake up for three days!"

"That's quite bothersome. You will cure him as soon as possible since we're kind of being stalked by a bunch of bad guys." Nikkum wanted his companion on his feet again to deal with the unfriendly hunters.

"What bad guys?" Lily looked confused.

"What!? You followed us for more than one week and you didn't notice those Assassins trailing us like mad dogs?" Nikkum sounded outraged.

"Assassins? Did the fire back there turned you paranoid or what?"

"You've been watching us all the time?"

"No. Well, I admit I didn't run far. But I just wanted this." Lily pointed to the stuffed gold bag.

"You thieves and Assassins are all alike, a bunch of money-driven freaks." While Nikkum clung onto shiny pieces as much as others, he sometimes felt disgusted about people caring too much for the cursed metal.

"Hey! Don't put me into the same category; my pieces of gold aren't tainted in blood like theirs!" She needed to prove her point.

"But you do realize that people may starve to death if their means of living are stolen?"

"You ain't going to starve without that bag of gold. Look at your gorilla face; I'm sure you can survive by chewing that tree over there!"

Nikkum's eyes unconsciously followed the direction Lily was pointing, but instead of the potential dinner promised by Lily, a dark shape was standing a few feet away. The unexpected discovery made him discard his arguments, and he quickly readied one of his axe Charms and yelled in a resonating voice.

"It's about time to show yourselves! I'm sick of this little game of hide-and-seek, why don't you step closer and save me the trouble? It will be you or us standing at the end, why not settle it sooner rather than later?"

The dark shape lowered his body, unaffected by the beast's taunt.

"Great! Making yourself smaller isn't going to save you now." Nikkum appeared anxious since his opponents showed signs of retreat.

Then the dark shape suddenly stood up and threw forward a huge mass that Nikkum quickly identified as an unconscious man. Indeed, a body dressed in black and with a covered face was lying motionless on the ground between Nikkum and the mysterious guest. It was one of the Assassins who had been trailing them dutifully for the past week.

The dark shape spoke calmly, "It looks to me that the hunter has become the hunted."

Nikkum ignored the unknown voice, and released a bursting crimson light from his right hand. An immense double-edged axe landed on the lying man's skull and split it in two; the filthy liquid pouring out was greedily absorbed by the hungry soil. Maybe such a swift death was a blessing for one who had such dark secrets within him.

"So, where are the others?" After confirming his first opponent's death, the mindless killer sought the next target.

"What in the Light's name did you just do?!" The dark shape jumped out from the shadows, "He was unconscious!"

"Celius!" Lily cried out, more surprised for meeting her knight than witnessing an unfortunate man's death.