Irmina Nagel was one of Eldanhill’s other prized students and Ancel’s former lover. After graduating from Eldanhill’s Mystera, she moved on to the Iluminus, the premier institution ran by High Ashishin of the Tribunal, and the only place where one can become an Ashishin or more.
Once Irmina discovered that Ancel’s parents were involved in her family’s murder, she cut all ties and swore vengeance. She used that need to fuel her ascent through the Iluminus. Eventually, she was recruited by High Shin Jerem and became a favorite among the Tribunal for covert operations involving everything from infiltration to her specialty of assasination.
On the cusp of her graduation to a rank higher than Ashishin, the rank of Raijin, (the premier assassin corps of the Tribunal) Irmina is given one final task.
Find Ryne and bring him back to High Shin Jerem.
Without knowing his name or who or what he is, Irmina sets out on her task. The one thing she does know is this: If this man she seeks senses her use of her power or witnesses her power, he WILL kill her. Her task become almost impossible, but without its completion, not only will she not graduate, but any chance for revenge will slip from her grasp.
Flickers of lightning illuminated the leaden clouds shrouding the twin moons. Moments later, thunder offered its response in continuous growls. Irmina didn’t bother to wipe the rainwater running from her hair. Instead, she allowed it to caress her forehead and cheeks as she held her face to the sky and smiled at the clouds that leaked the light drizzle. Next to her rode Jaecar, his wife Melina, and their two children. Jaecar’s odd looks and cold eyes made her regret releasing the rockhound before they left the forest.
Thinking about the hound made her consider the men who set it on her. Why did her master send her after this stranger? And on the other side of the world no less, where a Granadian uniform representing the Tribunal proved to be one of the few things these Ostanians respected or feared. Well, at least now she could make some progress in securing the giant, or so she hoped. If not, she would return to Carnas after helping this family reach a town where she could be sure of their safety and where she might find someone who could translate. Jaecar and Melina could take care of themselves, but the children would be at the mercy of the wilds if either faltered. What could’ve driven them to risk travel not only in the Mondros, but at night? Irmina wished she’d taken her language lessons more seriously.
Ahead of Irmina, Melina rode in the front-most saddle position, the long, chain reins in her good hand, and her children strapped in behind her. The boy, Kass and his sister Blas, had gone from wide-eyed expressions and whimpers when placed upon the dartans, to comfortable sleep within an hour. Melina often glanced over her shoulder at her children. Without the vile-looking paint covering her or her husband’s face, the worry creasing her features was plain to see.
They rode on a much-traveled road lined by low foothills, small pastures and the occasional copse, having left the Mondros behind to their southeast and the Nevermore Heights in the opposite direction. Jaecar urged them on until the drizzle, as it increased, whipped by them. Combined with the cooling wind, it was a refreshing respite after the hot forests.
“We stop soon. Town come,” Jaecar shouted.
At the man’s insistence, they’d skipped every village and farmstead along the way. From the man’s frantic gestures and mispronounced words, he wanted his family as far away from the Mondros as possible. Irmina nodded, glad she could understand that much. Almost as if he could read Irmina’s thoughts, Jaecar grinned at his wife and said something in his language. Melina smiled at him—the first time Irmina had seen a pleased expression from the woman. They rode the rest of the way in silence.
The rain ended a short time later, and they rounded a corner out of the foothills. Lights sparkled in a wide, square shape below. A twenty-foot stone wall, with towers spaced at matching intervals, encircled the town.
Jaecar pointed. “Ranoda.” Flapping his reins, he raced down the hill.
Ilumni works in mysterious ways, Irmina thought, her lips twitching into a brief smile. She’d secured a place in Ranoda on her way to Carnas. At first she hadn’t recognized the town as it appeared a lot different at night. Here, she would be able to get all she needed.
They reined in before a closed, wide gate. Large oil lamps inlaid into the walls and several torches hanging from braces threw yellow light across the area and glinted off the helms of soldiers who manned the bulwark. A guard called a challenge from a window slit in one of the two towers on either side of the gate. Movement on both towers and between the crenels of the wall resolved into more guards armed with crossbows.
Jaecar raised his hands to show he was unarmed. He then pointed to his wife and said a few words. Irmina remained silent, allowing her uniform to speak for itself.
The wait seemed to last forever. The dartans mewled to each other, and their necks swung from side to side. Restless murmurs came from the walls above them.
“Devout Irmina,” called a familiar voice with a hint of surprise.
Instructions bellowed from the same voice in Ostanian. A sally gate swung open, and they entered in single file with Irmina in the lead. A bleary-eyed, scarlet uniformed Dagodin, Knight Caden, stood with his hands on his hips a few steps inside the wall.
“I apologize, holy one. We didn’t expect you back so soon from your inspections, and coming from this direction, no less. Why—”
“Is that your excuse for having me sit outside and wait?” Irmina pursed her lips as she studied the short, square man.
“No, Devout Irmina.” Caden’s eyes flashed for the briefest moment before he dropped his gaze from hers. “Discipline must be maintained as by Tribunal law. No one is allowed into a Granadian occupied town without the officer in charge confirming their identity. It—”
“Thank you, Knight Caden. You do not need to quote the law any further. It’s good for you to maintain discipline even this far from Granadia’s borders. My superiors will be pleased to see this in my report.” That should keep up appearances nicely. Let the fool man mull over my perceived intentions.
Knight Caden blinked and smiled.
“Send Knight Ormand to me at my office. I’m in need of his services.” Her stomach growled. “And send up some food.” Without waiting for Caden’s response, she inclined her head for Jaecar and Melina to follow and rode toward the barracks.
They trotted down a wide cobbled main road intersected by winding, narrow streets and alleys at haphazard intervals. Occasionally, the murmur of conversations between passing townsfolk interrupted the sound of the dartan’s padded feet thudding softly on the cobbles. Music tinkled through the air in muted tones, often interrupted by distant laughter or cheers. Irmina flicked her thumb across her nose at the noxious fumes of piss and refuse spilling from the overflowing drains that the earlier rain had did little to help unclog. Ever since she’d come to Ostania, she found herself longing for the nightly sanitation practiced by large Granadian towns and cities.
Breaking glass sounded over the music drifting from the many taverns along a nearby side street. Irmina turned her head to the noise.
Three tall Ostanian men stumbled out onto the main road, throwing bottles, singing raucous songs and cursing. Within moments, men garbed in tawny town watch uniforms confronted them and a brief scuffle ensued. When it was over, the watch dragged the now unconscious men down the street toward the holding cells. They would release them after they slept off their drink. Irmina shook her head and continued to the barracks.
The small, drab building stood only two stories tall. Some superstition to do with the Ostanians who resided here preferring to stay closer to the earth and its Forms. Like Jaecar, many gave their praises to Humelen or one of the other gods of Forms instead of Ilumni. Grimacing with the thought of the backward Formist religion, Irmina led them toward the open gate in the wooden fence surrounding the structure.
Two guards in burnished armor stood at attention before the gate, each with a lance twice their height. They kept their eyes forward under bowl-shaped helmets as Irmina and her charges rode through.
An old man with a bent back, accompanied by two other handlers, hurried out from the adjoining stables and pens and bowed to Irmina several times. She dismounted and passed Misty’s reins to the old fellow. The other men waited on the Ostanians.
When they finished, Irmina led the way through the wide training yard and into the building. Inside the barracks, Irmina ignored the hallways to the left and right, leading them straight ahead to a set of stairs that creaked as they ascended.
Upstairs was just as bare as the floor below. Irmina guided them to the large corner room she used as both bedroom and office. A simple oak table and four chairs, one of them cushioned, sat on the large center rug, and a bed hugged one wall. Several lamps hung on the walls at even intervals between the room’s windows, already lit for her arrival.
A painting of Ilumni and his Battleguard standing before a rift to the Nether hung on the wall above her table. Depicted as a gigantic, faceless man swathed in white light, the god and his Battleguard, a darker man holding a massive sword, stood back to back in defensive stances. The light from both men held an encroaching darkness surrounding them at bay.
Bowing to the painting, Irmina issued a prayer. When she finished, she turned to Jaecar. “You can rest the children on the bed.”
Jaecar nodded and spoke to his wife. Her shoulders relaxed, and she eased over to the wide bed with its thick mattress and lay Blas upon the covers. Jaecar rested Kass next to her. Both children were sound asleep.
Irmina flopped down onto her cushioned chair and closed her eyes, the effects of the long, trying day settling on her. When she opened them, both Jaecar and Melina stood next to the bed studying her. Irmina gestured to the chairs. “Take a seat.” The couple complied.
A few moments later, a knock sounded on the door.
“Come in,” Irmina said.
Knight Ormand, a heavyset man with a thick mustache and beard entered. His forehead furrowed until his bushy eyebrows almost touched as he took in Jaecar and Melina. Behind him came a Cadet pushing a cart laden with food. The door swung shut behind him, ushering a spicy whiff from the dishes into the room.
Ormand bowed to her with a fist placed over the crossed, double bronze swords pinned to the lapel of his scarlet jacket. “Devout Irmina, praise Ilumni for your safe return.”
“Only the light can save us from the shade,” Irmina responded.
“I see you have company, holy one.” His eyes drifted to the children on the bed, and then back to the two Ostanians.
“They’re the reason I asked for you. I need you to translate. Sit, Ormand.”
“Ah. Thank you.” Ormand tipped his head to Jaecar and his wife when he sat, and they responded in kind.
After much bowing and scraping to her, the Cadet laid out dishes and trays on the table. Scents from roasted pheasant, stewed mutton, several types of spiced rice, and sweet potatoes mingled in the air creating a mouthwatering brew. After dried rabbit and fish, Irmina’s stomach growled, and she licked her lips. The Cadet topped off the dishes with several flagons of wine and yellow gooseberry juice.
Irmina smiled wryly at the two Ostanians as their eyes lit up with each dish. They gave her an inquiring look and she indicated they could eat. She didn’t need to make the gesture twice. Soon, the two were tearing at mutton while swallowing down wine in deep gulps. So much for the Formist belief that eating meat was to give one’s self into the impurities of the flesh, which weakened the body and was thus forbidden. Irmina shook her head and nodded her thanks to the Cadet.
As she studied the two strangers, Irmina took her time eating her fill. She even gave in to the temptation of licking her fingers. When she finished she poured herself a glass of wine. The liquor was not as good as the Dorns’, but she still found it refreshing. “By the way, Ormand,” she said between sips, “did you find out anything concerning the man I inquired after?”
“Very little,” Ormand replied, his voice muffled by his chewing before he swallowed. “He’s revered as a great warrior among the Ostanians. His name is Ryne Waldron. Most became silent whenever I mentioned a giant man with tattoos or his name. It was…strange.” Ormand paused, his face reddening. “Wish I could have gotten more, holy one, a-apologies.” The man’s hands drifted to his neck, and he loosened the collar of his high-buttoned jacket. An unusual amount of sweat cast a bright sheen on his forehead.
Irmina’s brow creased at the sight of the man’s concern. Failing High Shin Jerem’s requests often came with unpleasant consequences, but their master had nothing but praise for the Knight Ormand. “No need to apologize. At least I have a full name to add to the face now. You’ve done better than I have and found out more than I could. It’s not like our master gave me much to go on when he sent me here. Well, the good news is this man here seems to know Ryne personally.” She indicated Jaecar with a dip of her head.
Ormand gave her a weak smile at her compliment and dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief he produced from inside his jacket. “Where did you meet them?”
Jaecar eye’s followed their mouths whenever they spoke. His face wore a frown.
“In the Mondros Forest. They had a fight of some kind with this man, Ryne, and his bodyguard. During the fight Ryne saved their children from several forest lapras. After they spoke Ryne ran off with his bodyguard.”
“The Mondros Forest? Most stay away from the place. Too wild. And they were there with children? You said they fought, your holiness. Where are their weapons?” Ormand leaned forward, his eyes intent on the Ostanians.
“I had them leave their knives and daggers on the dartans.” Why was Ormand curious about their weapons?
“Knives and daggers?” Ormand’s eyes narrowed. “Did they have their faces painted, holy one?”
Ormand’s body stiffened, and his pudgy hand drifted toward his sword. Jaecar made a great show of placing his hands with his fingers spread wide onto the table. His eyes became slits as he watched the Dagodin.
“Cease, Ormand,” Irmina commanded. “I invited them here.” She looked at Jaecar. “You, stop.”
“B-But, Devout, they’re Alzari,” Ormand blurted out.
Irmina shrugged. “And that means what to me?”
“They’re wanted mercenaries who fight in the territorial battles among the cities here, and—”
“Are they considered enemies to the Tribunal?” Irmina asked in a soft voice as she slid her hand closer to her sword’s hilt below the tabletop.
“No, your holiness.”
“Ostania’s internal squabbles are not a concern of ours, Ormand. Please, remember we have a task. Or would you rather disappoint High Shin Jerem in pursuit of some bounty?” Irmina’s eyebrow rose.
Face paling, Ormand said, “No, Devout Irmina.”
“Good. Now, ask them who Ryne is, and why were they in the forest.” Irmina focused on the Alzari.
Ormand turned his attention to Jaecar and began to question him. With each answer, Jaecar gestured several times with his hands. Neither his golden eyes and or his facial expression changed.
“He says Ryne is a hunter. A hired killer to be exact. He’s surprised we don’t know him. Claims Ryne fought for the Tribunal in the War of the Remnants.”
Memory followed by pain flared at the war’s mention. Irmina took a breath and forced the feeling down. Why would High Shin Jerem need an assassin? That was her job. Unless he wanted to use someone who couldn’t be traced to him. But why send me to fetch him? Did Jerem also send the strange golden-haired woman? No, she doubted it. Jerem knew she worked alone. He was obsessive about maintaining comfort for those who served him.
Jaecar continued talking. With each word, Ormand leaned closer.
“He says he hid his family in the Mondros because their clanhold was destroyed.”
Irmina almost waved Ormand off. No. The best way to find information sometimes was to feign concern for the plight of those she questioned. She put on her most sympathetic face. “How? What happened?”
The conversation between Ormand and Jaecar resumed. A change came over Jaecar’s face. His eyes flickered in fear, and his pitch increased and sometimes grew soft. Tears ran down Melina’s cheeks. Ormand’s mouth hung open.
“What is it, Knight Ormand?”
“All their clanholds were destroyed, not just one,” Ormand whispered.
So some force had defeated these warriors. Irmina shrugged. Their plight was not her concern.
Ormand continued, “You’ve seen them fight, your holiness. They had six clanholds. Each occupied by eight to ten thousand warriors, each fighter as capable as these two, if not better. He says everyone in his clanhold died or was captured within an hour. He says the invaders used shadelings. He claims the army was led by Amuni’s Children.”
“Impossible,” Irmina whispered.
Her haunted memories flashed again. Word of her parents’ death to shadelings in the War of the Remnants felt as if she just heard it. That night her life had shattered, and remained in shambles even after the Dorns took her in. Somehow, she’d managed to patch herself together with the love they showed her. Through it all, she’d fallen in love with Ancel. Then came her last Ashishin trial when she’d discovered who the Dorns were, the part they played in the War of Remnants and the Shadowbearer War before it. The part they played in her parents’ deaths, in the demise of much of her family.
Irmina looked down. She was standing with her unsheathed sword in her trembling hands. “I-I’m fine.” She took a deep breath.
She hadn’t noticed the heat flowing through her. The same heat Jerem taught her to control when she touched Mater. The same heat that brought a craving to kill. She forced the feeling into the coldest part of her mind until it dwindled to nothing.
Neither Jaecar nor Melina had moved, but a still air hung in the room. Irmina met their gaze and slid her sword into its scabbard. Jaecar’s lips parted before he gave a simple nod. Ormand sweated profusely, and he wrung his hands several times.
“Continue your questioning.” Irmina paced across the room.
With a nervous nod, Ormand turned to Jaecar, and their conversation resumed. If Jaecar was telling the truth, an army possibly several hundred thousand strong was sweeping across Ostania. Those numbers must be an exaggeration. Yet, she needed to consider the worst. She would get word to High Shin Jerem and the Tribunal regardless.
“Ormand, did he say which way they were headed?”
“Yes. Southwest, toward the larger cities beyond the Orchid Plains. It’s why he came this way. He’s trying to reach the Vallum of Light to warn our armies there, and to get his family to safety.”
Irmina pondered the news. If indeed the invading army headed across the Orchid, it would only be a matter of time before it reached the Vallum itself anyway. She needed to get a warning across as soon as possible. She stopped pacing. “Where are the closest Envoys or Heralds?”
Ormand shook his head, reading her thoughts. “There are none before the Vallum of Light.”
Striding to a window, Irmina stared out at the twin moons and another set of thunderclouds. She would have to do it herself then. Misty would have to run like she never ran before. Granadia’s fate may well depend on it.
“Ormand, gather the men,” Irmina commanded. “Let them know what was said. Also dispatch several eagles with messages of these tidings. Tell Jaecar he can leave with me if he chooses, but I won’t be staying with them. I’ll push to the Vallum to warn the army and pass word to the Heralds for the Tribunal.”
“Devout Irmina,” Ormand said, his tone a plea. “I mean no offense but, it’s one thing to speak to us with your authority as a Devout, your holiness, but the laws prevent you from commanding any military into action. Knight Caden is most…particular about the laws.”
Irmina’s mouth curled into a devilish smile. She strode to her desk, reached down, and clicked a hidden lever. An extra draw slid open. She removed a rather skimpy crimson uniform and two pins, one in the shape of crossed lightning bolts and the other of the Lightstorm.
Ormand gaped, his eyes shifting from the clothes to Irmina. Her gaze met the man’s as his recognition of a Raijin’s uniform changed his eyes from those of reverence into fear. As the elite assassins among the Ashishin, Raijin could command anyone at anytime and their rank fell just below a High Ashishin. Irmina had not noticed a reaction to her real name from Jaecar earlier, but the Raijin garb brought a gasp from him and a hiss from his wife. Both dropped to the floor with their heads down.
Snapping to attention, Ormand rose to his feet. This time when he bowed, it was from the waist, and his eyes never left the floor. “I shall inform them, Shin Irmina.”
Outside, lightning flickered and thunder rumbled. A scream sounded. Then another. A trumpet wailed.
Irmina swung her head around toward the window. Instead of Ranoda’s lights or the dark curtain of clouds crossing the moon, blackness greeted her in a raspy whisper.