Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Maskara, A novel excerpt

The Three Seekers


I watched the sunrise with detached awe. Even after so many mornings like this, the beauty of the Nalbar sunrise has never lost its allure for me. There was something about the new day dawning that always calmed my mind, reminding me that something wonderful is still out there despite my misgivings and doubts.
I stretched myself out, my blanket falling away as I stretched, my bare skin meeting the new rays of the sun. My muscles tensed as they always do when they are bathed by the warmth, and then gradually they relaxed, fully waking up as they soaked up the sun’s energy.
I am renewed again.
For a long drawn out moment, I just stood there, soaking up the sun, wondering what the day had in store for me. It now seems that there had been many days like this and from behind my thoughts, I was afraid I was getting complacent about my existence. While I reveled in the freedom of dictating how I lived, a part of me yearned for the lifestyle I left behind in the guild.
My gaze settled on the brown bundle beside my makeshift bed.
Yes, today I was a messenger. Or a delivery boy...
 The latter seemed more apt. It was a bundle from the monastery of Salasa, and I am supposed to deliver it to one of the churches in the city of Nawal.
A delivery boy.
I sneered at the irony. A Shadow Assassin reduced to a mere errand boy. If Master Najazi saw me now, I would be at the mercy of his Hell hounds. But the pride I had was lost long ago. Now, I am just a wanderer. A sword for hire available to anyone for the right price. The Dark Guild no longer has a hold over me, although if they knew that I was still alive, I’d probably be dead by now.
No one ever leaves the guild without their blessing and I never had their blessing.
I donned my armor. It was a reinforced silken wrap, a poor substitute to the black raerat armor I had to abandon at the pit of Jier. But it fit my body nicely, hugging my muscles taut, it's body hugging design reinforcing my body sense, an important necessity for my martial skills.
A shadow assassin must be aware of his body always, for it is his most basic weapon. The tight wraps made sure that I was aware of every muscle.
Over it, I donned a majar robe, hiding the silk wraps from prying eyes. The robe served two purposes: first to hide the silk armor that would draw a lot of unwanted attention and second to serve as a disguise. Majar robes are the basic armor of nins, common sellswords scattered over the land.
A necessity if I was to remain inconspicuous.
For the past five years, I’ve lived as a freelancing nin, always in motion, never staying at one place longer than necessary.
For I was a failure. I had failed my mission as a shadow assassin and for a reason I can no longer recall, I did not have the willpower to take my own life. So I travel around, perhaps in a futile attempt to find the will to perform that final duty.
But every time I mustered enough will to draw my dagger to my chest, something always stays me and the only thing left are the scars of shallow dagger wounds in my chest: mute testaments of my inability to make that final thrust to bury it in my heart.
Why, I wonder. It was so unlike my previous self. The past me wouldn’t have any second thoughts about the price of failure. To fail is to die, by one’s own hands if need be. Yet I still remain. The desire for personal redemption was overshadowed by the desire to continue living.
And I could not bring myself to hate me.
Something had happened in Jier. In that land of mist and eternal dusk, where the sun is never truly seen, I had lost something. But despite my many attempts to recall whatever transpired, somehow everything is erased from my memory.
The only thing I can remember is that it was the location of my last mission.
An assassination.
The target: a mage.
Yet beyond that, there is nothing.
I’ve changed there but how and why… I do not know. The years have passed and finding no answers, I have slowly resigned myself to my fate. And for a strange reason, even when I planned to, I could not bring myself to go back into the pits. Somehow, everytime I attempted to go there, I ended up wandering around, the purpose forgotten.
Something or someone does not want me there. And it made sure I never went back.
And strangely, with the passing days, the desire to find the truth had diminished to the point that I no longer entertained the thought anymore. It only passed my mind in idle moments like now. I knew instinctively that a few hours from now, every thought on Jier would disappear. My mind would dwell on other things - 
My dagger had not tasted my chest for some time now. I reflexively touched my chest, flexing the muscles. Almost five months since the last one. My chest ached at the memory. Not like the first year, when almost daily I contemplated my death. Now, it only comes during moments of despair, when I questioned my continued reason for existence.
I found my right hand reflexively stroking the hilt of my zayed. It alone remained from my previous arsenal of weapons. The last jus was used a year ago, only the dagger remains. Even without touching it, I could sense the dagger, every contour of its smooth hilt, its razor sharp blade which will never need a whetstone, the sheen of its dark metal only the shadow smiths can create, its thirst for blood.
Yes, its thirst for blood. Legend says a zayed has a yearning, a yearning to kill and anyone who possesses one is bound to this yearning. It will never stop, changing hands if need be until it fulfills its desire.
I never believed it. When I first got it, it was just a blade. The black metal used was perhaps disconcerting to look at but it was just a blade. But now I was not too sure. Somehow, it seemed heavier evoking a palpable sense of hunger I know was not mine and I have realized in just the last two years that it indeed felt as if it was searching for something.
Another delusion perhaps.
I could not trust my mind anymore.
I rolled the blanket and stuck it to the single backpack I carried. Aside from a pair of clothing and some cooking utensils, I always travelled light. I didn’t stock on worldly belongings, earning just enough to support my vagabond lifestyle. I hunted and only occasionally allowed myself a few luxuries from my wages as a freelancing nin.
My cover as a nin served two purposes. Disguise and a license to roam around the world. It had taken me to the coastlands of Redenia in the West and to the dwarven city of Nileay in the North, something no other profession can do.
I had picked up the monks mission as an excuse to get into Nawal. I needed a resupply of jus and a smith in Nawal had a fairly decent skill in making them.
I slung the package across my back. It was light, but a little bulky for my taste. I deduced it to be paper, or something like paper. Not that I was curious. I don’t care about my packages. They are merely the means to a continued existence, a semblance of a lifestyle. 
After making sure that my campsite was cleared of any evidence I was there before, I scrambled up the nearest tree. Reaching the top, I scanned my immediate surrounding for any sign of life. As a shadow assassin, I was trained to sense heartbeat. By clearing my mind of the clutter, I can isolate the beating of a heart, any heart within a kilometer. For the beating of a heart is a language on its own. One who listens well can interpret it.
Only animals.
No human heart within a kilometers radius. Attuning my ear to the skill so that even in movement I could still sense the beatings of a heart, I started to jump, leaping into the nearest tree.
While it was a fairly common nin skill, jumping tree to tree, my skill was more advanced and would not escape the scrutiny of a well learned observer. But with my ear attuned to the beating heart, I’ll be able to know when a human would be near enough to see it.
I covered about twenty kilometers before I sensed humans. A lot of them, thirty three to be exact. A caravan by the sound of them, meaning I have reached the Dury road, the highway that connects Nawal to its neighboring counties.
I had no choice then. I have to continue on foot.
From the sound of their hearts, the caravan was that of a small merchant. The guards’ heartbeats were not those of high class sellswords. Only one had the beat of someone who would be considered skilled. The rest were ordinary guards. Fifteen guards. Fairly decent.
I climbed down and sprinted towards the road, making sure that I broke through in a section free from witnesses. Reaching the road, I started running, carefully pacing it to keep my speed to that attributed to a normal delivery nin. If they were headed for Nawal, it would be best if I had their company.
They had to see me coming. I slowed down as I saw them, giving their spotter enough time to announce my coming and their chief guard to consult with his boss. As expected, they slowed down. My robe had the markings of a legit nin, and their spotter if he was decent enough would judge me as just an ordinary nin, no match if ever to the fifteen guards who were in their employ.
I slowed down as I reached them, raising my hands to indicate that I had no bad intentions, making sure that my robe markings were clear. As I drew near, I saw that it was a textile merchant, and from the wagons, it was clear that they were delivering the loads. There were five wagons in all: three cargo wagons, the merchant wagon and a supply wagon. Sensing that I was no threat, the guards had resumed their usual gaits as I reached them. Only a few looked at me, more out of boredom than anything. Only their leader and spotter were serious. And they were at the back of the caravan, waiting. I stopped a few meters before them.
“Jenai of the Borakas Nin, in service of the Monastery of Salasa bound for the city of Nawal.” I smiled as a lone nin would trying to hitch a ride on a caravan. “Might I travel aways, sir”
The chief guard was a veteran, but a little old now, which explains why he was with a caravan this small. He looked at me with trained eyes and seemed to find what he saw to his liking.
“Very well.” He had a gruff voice, perhaps due to some damage to his throat in his life. “but mind ye road manners.”
“Aye,” To hitch company with a caravan means that the hitcher must also help the caravan, as a nin, to help in its security. And as long as he does nothing wrong, would remain with the caravan until they part ways.
He motioned me to the central wagons where I saw the other hitchers. A family on a small mule drawn wagon perhaps on their way to visit family, three dust covered travelers, a delivery nin like myself and to my surprise, a haughty duqal squire astride a brown horse.
The squire looked me up as he would a nin as I approached. Squires, follow a lord or a banner and sneer down on sellswords whose loyalties are often buyable. I wouldn’t fault him. As a shadow assassin, nins are also considered somewhat dishonorable. The squire, however, was obviously still in training. His heartbeat still had the carefree beat of a warrior who hasn’t yet seen the horror of battle and his body language betrayed his lack of experience. But in terms of martial skills, he alone, together with the chief guardsman would pose a challenge to my skills, even for a bit, not that I would face them. Just that training as an assassin always made me size up the first ones to be dealt with when the situation comes. Its one of the things a shadow must do when part of a group.
I fell into step beside my fellow nin. He was carrying a message tube, just one of the numerous nins of the realm. He regarded me with a friendly nod then went back to his musings. Nins rarely converse with each other particularly when on a mission. For all they know, they might be serving opposing masters. It was one of the few things I liked in the profession, people minded their own businesses.

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