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The air was still and silence roared in Talanthias' ears. Crouching at the base of an ancient Ironwood, the adept warrior inspected the forest floor for a sign of his prey’s passing. Talanthias was a Hunter, an assassin of assassins, and he was known to have no equal in his art. In his many years, and countless assignments, the Hunter Prime had only failed to complete one. No one escaped Talanthias once they were assigned to him. Coming out of his crouch, Talanthias frowned thoughtfully. There is nothing to hint where my prey might have gone.
The Silent Forest, so named for the pall of impenetrable silence the boughs of its
many trees cast, was an ancient forest and its foliage thick. Not even the most skilled Hunters could navigate their way through without leaving some sign of where he had traveled. Talanthias stalked his target for weeks, not gaining any ground, which frustrated him, and suddenly the trail vanished. Glancing to the west, the Hunter saw the sun peeking from behind the branches of a massive Ironwood. It will be dark soon. Looks like I will lose whatever ground I have made up these past days.
Sighing with resignation, Talanthias looked for a place to set camp. It didn't take long to find one, though. A few feet off of the trail he was following, Talanthias found a rind of Shadow barks. These trees earned their name from the veil of darkness that they emanated. Cautiously feeling his way through the darkness inside the ring of trees, Talanthias found an area that was free of shadow large enough to start a fire and set a suitable camp. Pulling firestones from his pack, Talanthias cut out a circular piece of ground and began to line the resulting hole with the stones. Once this was done the Hunter set about gathering wood. Feeling his way out of the ring of Shadow barks,
Talanthias scanned the surrounding forest. Towering Ironwoods, with their almost metallic glow, dominated the view. The cluster of Shadow barks holding the Hunter’s camp was of but a few other groupings of the trees sparsely scattered throughout the forest. Cautiously moving through the dense foliage, Talanthias felt for fallen Ironwood branches, hidden under a thick carpet of quiet grass. This strange grass was what had earned the Silent Forest its reputation for being dangerous. If any attempted to hack fuel for their fires from the trees, the grass would pull them under and tear them apart.
After a short time, Talanthias returned to his camp with an armload of the long, hot, burning Ironwood branches. Criss-crossing two of the largest branches in the pit, Talanthias summoned Kandria's Energy within him. Weaving a tight stranded of flame, the Hunter draped it on the cross section of the wood. Almost instantly flames came to life, leaping into the air trying to escape their earthly bonds. Talanthias added more branches to the dancing fire, feeding its hunger. The flames continued to grow as more fuel was thrown to them to consume. Reaching higher into the dusk that began to settle upon the forest, fire battled darkness, pushing back the shadows of night. They could not defeat the opaque veil cast by the surrounding Shadow barks, though, but the flames would lick at that darkness occasionally, hoping for some sign of retreat.
Talanthias stared into the dancing flames, mesmerized. Eating a small meal of dried meat, fruit, and crusted bread, he wondered just how close he was to catching his quarry. For nearly a month, this game had gone on. Just as it seemed Talanthias was about to catch up to the one he chased, the trail simply vanished. After a half-day of wandering painfully slow and aimlessly, he would happen on the trail once again. This time will be different. In fifteen years of hunting, Talanthias had failed to complete an assignment only once. The embarrassing incident had occurred in the first year of active duty, when the Hunter Prime still had a weakness for beautiful women. Finishing his meal, Talanthias rolled out his blanket and settled down for the night. Bringing forth a tiny bit of Energy, Talanthias weaved it into a blanket of frost. Laying it over the fire pit, the icy blanket ate away the flames till just enough were left to keep away the slight chill of the night. Burying himself deeper beneath the blanket, Talanthias drifted to a restless sleep on a raft of forgotten dreams.
Opening his eyes, Talanthias found himself in a lavishly furnished room that seemed familiar. The carpets were plush, muffling the clack of his boots against the stone floor beneath as he walked the length of the room. Against the far right wall rested a large goose down bed and four oaken posts; on the opposite side was a wardrobe of the finest Singing pine. Tracing the intricate carvings that had been burned into the wardrobe door, memory struck Talanthias like a lightning bolt. This was the room he and his wife shared in the Hunters wing of the King's Barracks. That night, nearly four years ago, the last night Talanthias would ever enter this room, had shattered the foundation of his life. Returning to his room from the ceremony that bestowed Talanthias with the title of Hunter Prime, he found his wife, Salia, stuffed into the wardrobe, her throat slit from ear to ear.
As these memories rushed back, Talanthias felt his knees buckle. Grabbing the sides of the wardrobe for support, his eyes burned and he took ragged breaths, but Talanthias would not let the long unshed tears flow. Taking deep breaths, attempting to calm his still quaking knees, Talanthias jerked the wardrobe wide open. Even knowing what to expect could not brace him for the reality of what he saw. There, folded into the small space, was Talanthias' wife, her eyes filled with terror and her violet, silk, dress stained by blood that had flowed from the large cut along her slender throat. His legs gave out and Talanthias fell to the floor gasping for air that wouldn't come to him. To his horror and disbelief Salia came to life, pulling herself from the wardrobe.
Kneeling before her husband, Salia took Talanthias' shaking head in her hands, forcing his deep emerald eyes to meet her azure orbs. "Why have you not avenged me, dear husband?" she asked, her voice seeming to come from afar. Working his mouth fervently, Talanthias could not get a sound out. "No matter, my love. Soon you will correct a mistake long past and avenge me,"
Salia continued. A deep sadness filled her as she held Talanthias' gaze. "We will be together in time, this much I promise you. Wake now Talanthias, my husband. It is time to set things right." Leaning in to kiss him...
Talanthias jolted from his dream, crying out. No sound left his throat, though, and Talanthias knew that he was back in the Silent Forest. He shuddered as he remembered the dream. Salia, despite her garish wound, had been as beautiful as she was that night of her death. Her raven black hair was cut short just above her shoulders, curled to perfectly frame her almost too pale face. Most importantly, her eyes, those azure blue crystals, were just as intense and full of passion as when Talanthias first met her. He wove a thin sheet of water above his head, lacing it with chilling frost. Talanthias released his hold on the water, draping the sheet over his head, drenching himself. The shock of the cold water dragged Talanthias from his reminiscing; placing him back to the present, back to the task at hand.
Gathering his firestones from the makeshift fire pit, Talanthias refilled the hole with the plug of earth he had cut out last night. Re-rolling his blanket and tying it to his pack, Talanthias left the small cove of Shadow barks and looked around. The sky had a pale blue hue to it, anticipating the soon to rise sun. Talanthias navigated his way through the thick quiet grass, leaving almost no sign of his passing. Coming to where he lost the trail, the skilled Hunter inspected the area. Minutes passed and Talanthias grew frustrated. Crouching low, he began to search the high grass, hoping that the forest floor held the answers he needed. Not even a minute went by before Talanthias found what he was looking for. There, lying on the ground was an Ironleaf.
Looking up at the lowest Ironwood branches, the Hunter noticed that several twigs were broken. Leaping into the air, Talanthias caught hold of the nearest branch and swung to the next branch, wrapping his knees about it. Pulling himself up, hardly rustling a leaf, Talanthias immediately found the trail again in the form of disturbed leaves and bent branches. I will catch him today.
The excitement Talanthias always felt as a chase was coming to an end seeped into his limbs. Leaping and swinging through the trees, Talanthias moved as swiftly as possible, following the trail with renewed vigor. Hours passed with Talanthias still in quick pursuit. Finally, as the sun began to creep past its midday point, exhaustion caught up to the anxious Hunter. Landing softly on the branch of a massive oak, which was as wide as Talanthias was tall; he ate a lunch of dried fruit, crusty bread, and a skin of refreshing water to wash it down.
As soon as he was finished, the Hunter was off again. Hours more passed, finding the sun resting on the high snow capped peaks of the Icecap Mountains. As the sky began to darken, Talanthias came to the end of his long chase. The trail of broken branches vanished, and, as Talanthias peered ahead, he noticed an orange glow coming from below.
Dropping from branch to branch, Talanthias landed softly on the forest floor. The Hunter crept forward slowly. Is my target arrogant enough to reveal her location to me, or does she think that she lost me? A cruel smile split Talanthias’ face nearly in two. No matter. She will soon be dead. When he had first been presented this assignment, Talanthias had nearly declined. He never killed women if he could avoid it. But something about this one had captured his attention. The way in which her victim, the wife of Lord Kordran, who was Master Assigner to the Hunter’s, had been murdered reminded Talanthias of the two other times he had witnessed such brutality to women. The first had been during his first year as a Hunter, when the King’s wife, Queen Camry was found stuffed into her wardrobe with her throat cut. The second time was the night he found his own wife.
Hoping against hope, Talanthias parted the thick grass slightly, giving him an unhindered view of the camp. In the center, a large fire danced brightly, shooting glowing embers into the air. Still crouching, Talanthias cautiously made his way out of hiding, tense and waiting for the trap, the easily found camp could only be a trap, to spring. The Hunter was able to take a few steps before he found himself unable to move. Talanthias quickly glanced to his right, sensing movement.
From behind an Ironwood, she swaggered into view. Stopping mid-step, seeing whom she had caught in her woven net of solid air, the assassin’s confidence faltered and the smug smile displayed on her pretty face vanished instantly, replaced by cold fear. Spinning about frantically, the assassin disappeared into the forest, sprinting as fast as she could.
There was no denying it. This woman was the one Talanthias had let get away those many years ago. She won’t survive this time. Calling forth Kandria’s Energy, the Hunter knit together a fiery orb, setting it upon the net holding him in place, consuming the threads of air hungrily. Free, Talanthias sprang from his crouch, sprinting after the assassin. His powerful legs propelled him through the forest, and soon Talanthias could see the woman who had escaped his justice once before. Reaching out to the Ironwoods around him, sending thin strands of Energy through them, the Hunter snapped their branches down.
The fleeing assassin stumbled as she felt something strike her in the back of her head. More blows rained down on her, sending her first to her knees, then to her back as a thick branch whipped across her face, crushing the assassin’s nose into a bloody mass. Dazed, her vision fading to darkness, the now panicked assassin desperately lashed out. She weaved, knitted, and threaded together anything she could think of containing fire. Sunbursts erupted all around her, balls of immolating flames incinerating the offending trees as fiery scythes slashed through the grass that had begun to wrap tightly about her throat, clearing a circle of smoldering earth.
Pushing herself to her feet, the assassin forced herself to keep going, knowing that to linger was to perish. Quilting a thick blanket of water about her, the assassin staggered through the inferno she had created. Suddenly, she was flying forward and the flames eating at the trees were blown away as a torrent of air exploded through the forest.
Grinning ruefully, shaking his head in disbelief at the display of power he had just witnessed from his prey, Talanthias brought his hands together sharply, sending forth another fierce explosion of air. This time the assassin was prepared, though, and was sprinting through the forest again as the Hunter’s gust of air buffeted the barrier she had woven. Expecting as much from this obviously skilled women, Talanthias was not far behind. Charging through the foliage, Talanthias weaved razor thin whips of Energy and sent them to seeking for any traps his prey may have set.
As the chase continued, the Hunter barely gaining any ground, Talanthias noticed that the foliage was thinning and the trees were growing father apart. Up ahead the forest line ended abruptly, opening to plains of rolling hills, dotted sparsely with thickets of Singing-woods. Slowing as he came to the edge of the Silent Forest, Talanthias couldn't believe his eyes. There stood the assassin, hands resting calmly on the shafts of her maces. A cacophony of noise roared in Talanthias' ears as he left the silence of the forest. Soft gusts of wind whistled across the plains, rustling grasses, and a myriad of birds twittered and sang to each other, creating a musical harmony few animals could match.
"Tired of running?" Talanthias asked, wondering how the woman could be so serene in the face of her death.
"What good would running do me? For nearly a month I have attempted to lose you, to no avail. I would be running for the rest of my years, and that is no life to be living."
The assassin tightened her grip on her maces, ready to pull them from her belt loops, as Talanthias tossed his blanket roll and pouch containing the firestones to the side.
"We will end it here, then,” Talanthias chuckled, removing his shirt to reveal muscles honed from years of training.
"Have you no weapons?" the assassin asked warily.
"My hands are all that I've ever needed," came the confident reply.
"Did you know that your wife begged for her life, weeping like a cowardly child before I slit her throat?"
"So you did kill her." Talanthias felt his hands clench into fists and his jaws tighten. Stay calm. Don't let her anger you. Talanthias took a deep breath, expelling the fury that was building within him. "Tell me who hired you and I will promise you a swift death. If not then..."
Before he had finished talking, a sinister grin, not reaching her cold eyes, slowly split the assassin's gorgeous face. "Your king," was all she said, tossing a leather pouch filled with coin at his feet. Not taking his eyes off of the assassin, Talanthias crouched and began to examine the contents of the pouch.
The coins were marked with the King's crest, though any traveling through the King's land could come across these. At the bottom of the pouch was a folded parchment, closed with the King's personal seal. Talanthias' throat clenched in fury as he read the contents of the note.
The bearer of this seal is pardoned from any crime committed in service to me.
High King of Salar
Lacing minute strands of fire into the fibers of the parchment, Talanthias rose, infuriating shock contorting his face. The remaining ashes of the note floated to the ground and Talanthias rushed forward, covering the distance to the assassin in two long strides. The Hunter lashed out at his prey, shattering fingers against mace hafts.
Gasping, the assassin let her maces drop from her useless hands. Leaping backwards, attempting to get as far from Talanthias as possible, she wove a powerful gust of wind similar to what the Hunter had used. The gale bent trees, nearly ripping them out of the ground by their roots, but Talanthias remained unmoved, for his strand severing whips were back, cutting a hole into the wall of air sent at him.
Talanthias punched out, connecting solidly with the assassin's chest, causing her to spit blood as the blow cracked her sternum. Swinging his other fist around, the Hunter unhinged the jaw of his wife's killer. Talanthias stood over the assassin where she was writhing on the ground in agony.
"Why?" the Hunter screamed at her, tears beginning to flow from his eyes. I've killed and agent of the King! This is treason. There could be no turning back. If only he had killed this women when first he had had her trapped, helplessly begging at his feet. Salia would still be alive if not for my folly.
Not able to watch the assassin, kicking and flailing in obvious pain, any longer, Talanthias stranded together a thin blanket of arctic air. As the blanket fell over her, the assassin froze instantly. Picking up one of her maces Talanthias shattered the body into thousands of tiny shards.
Standing there, staring towards the forest, towards the King's Palace, Talanthias shed tears held back for the years since Salia's death. I can't go back now, but... I have to. Talanthias gathered his blanket and pouch, pulling his shirt back over his head. Running into the forest, darkness descending, Talanthias made for his home with all haste. There would be no rest tonight. Not while the Hunter Prime's thirst for revenge remained unquenched.