The Shadow

Buildings rushed past the carriage window in a blur; a mixture of grey, sun-burnt brick houses and broken hovels constructed from sturdy wood and straw. The sound of horses' hooves clopping against rough stone echoed throughout the streets, followed by the quieter, hollow sound of carriage wheels splashing through puddles of mud. Larger buildings appeared outside the window, soundly constructed and boasting two or even three stories. The streets became smooth, pockets of rainwater and human excrements fading away.

Kai thumped the ceiling of the chamber lightly, and within seconds the carriage rolled to a stop. The door opened a moment later, revealing a gruff coachman who couldn't have been younger than 50.

Throwing the man a silver, Kai stepped off the carriage, taking in his surroundings. A rich area, as he knew. He had been here just the day before, but night and rain twisted reality in every which way. It was strange, he thought, that it always seemed to rain on these sorts of days. Perhaps the gods—if they existed—frowned upon him. Or did they smile, in their own strange way? He couldn't say.

Kai waited as the carriage rolled away before turning a corner, pushing through alleys, past streets. Even here, in the wealthiest part of town, scum of all kinds dwelled. He was scum too, he supposed. Dodging, past a frail, drunken-eyed woman, Kai turned another corner, entering an alley so dark that it seemed to suck away what little light the cloud-covered moon and stars offered.

Tightening his black leather gloves, Kai grabbed ahold of a drainpipe, swiftly pulling himself up the slick copper. He reached the top of the pipe in mere seconds. Grabbing the edge of the building's roof, Kai heaved himself onto the ceramic tiles, allowing himself a deep breath. He was not ready for what he was about to do, though he had done it many times before.

The adrenaline rush before a kill always caught Kai by surprise. This was by no means the first time he had experienced this feeling; a mix of guilt, fear and excitement. After so long, it was a wonder that he still felt regret and remorse and guilt.

Kai pushed away his thoughts, standing as he walked steadily across the slick tiles. The house he stood atop was two stories high and large enough that it must have belonged to a noble or merchant. Whoever lived there was no matter to Kai; he had been given his instructions—he knew who he must murder.

Halfway across, Kai began to run, thrusting himself over the edge of the roof. He felt the air beneath his boots for a long moment before reaching the next ledge. All of the buildings in Northshore were close together, and the distance Kai had leapt was hardly more than two meters.

Steadying his breath, he leaned down against the cold, slippery roof tiles overlooking his victim's balcony. In one swift movement, he twisted onto his feet and jumped upon the balcony below, wincing at the sound of his boots against the patterned cobblestone platform. Scolding himself for being so careless, Kai quickly glanced over the balcony, preparing himself for the worst. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding at the sight of the empty and lifeless street below.

Turning back toward the house, Kai pulled a needle-thin piece of steel from his leather belt, hidden beneath a black wool cloak. If anyone saw him now, wearing darkness atop a balcony in the middle of the night, they would surely call for guards. He would not be seen, however. He was little more than a shadow now, melding with the rain-kissed stone.

The balcony door was picked and opened moments later, swung carefully inward. It was closed a moment later as the pattering of rain on stone gave way to utter and complete silence. The room was large, as could be expected from the exterior of the home. A four-poster bed took up one corner of the room, expensive silks hanging from its sides. A small fireplace that housed warm coals sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by soft chairs and a coffee table. Kai's business was with the man who lay beneath the four-poster's covers.

Stalking across a polished wood-plank floor, Kai pulled a dagger from his belt. He had sharpened it just hours before; the blade would cut through his victim's throat as if it were warm butter. He stopped at the foot of the bed, gently pushing aside silks to grant a better view of his target.

The man was young—little more than a boy. A sheet of unkempt, pale hair crowned his equally fair face. He couldn't have been older than 20—just three years Kai's senior. And that was when it happened, as it always did. Kai forced himself to let go of the emotion that threatened to bring him to his knees, the guilt and hate. Why was he here, killing this boy? Why had he agreed to such a job, knowing what he would find? Did he enjoy it, the killing? No, he was confident that he was not that lost, at least. But he had taken the job.

"P-please." The boy had woken; perhaps from the slight sounds of an opening door or the movement of silks. His blue eyes stared at Kai now, filled with fear. He pulled himself off his bed, rolling to the floor in an awkward attempt at escape. "Help," he gasped, pulling himself to his feet. He did not scream, and resignation already clouded his eyes. No one would help him, no matter how much noise he made. He lived alone, without even servants to aid him.

Kai flew around the bed, slitting his throat before the boy could utter another word.

Slipping through a window on the second floor of a large building, the assassin dropped the sack he had been holding, splattering the previously spotless white marble floor with red. A middle-aged man stood before Kai, black hair gleaming. He leaned down and peered into the bag, a cruel smile written across his face as he studied the decapitated head inside.

"Well done." His face showed no hint of what he had seen in the bag. "There was no trouble, I assume?" Kai shook his head no, his face emotionless as ever; he wasn't in the mood to speak.

"I'll fetch your pay then." The man, who Kai distantly assigned the name Morris, left the room. Kai stared at the richly decorated oak walls of his employer's office. A simple tapestry depicting a forest of towering trees hung against one of them. They were so full of life and joy, in sharp contrast to the sack laying on the ground a few feet away and the feelings that had haunted the assassin ever since his first kill so many years ago. Morris returned a few moments later to drop Kai a small bag. As he slipped back through the window, Kai opened the pouch. 20 golden pieces lay inside; their shiny appearance made him sick. A small fortune, but… he had killed a man for this. Of course, the boy would have died whether Kai wished it or not—Morris would have hired another assassin, one who may not have granted their target so painless a death. If he wished someone dead, they would die.
Kai sometimes wondered why people stayed in Northshore. It was a terrible city, consisting of murdering lowlifes who would do anything for a coin. He liked to think that he was above those lowlifes, in status at least.

By blood he was nothing, born of commoner parents who had been killed soon before his seventh birthday. He had earned himself a reputation, however, regarding which he had mixed feelings. It came in handy, being feared. Commoners and nobles alike whispered rumors of The Shadow, the deadliest assassin in Northshore, and perhaps all the world.

Kai knew personally a man who was far deadlier than himself, but Saif was no assassin, so perhaps the rumors were true. Whether true or not, the claims attracted attention. He was rarely out of a job; the noblemen of Northshore always seemed to be quarelling with one another. The commoners quarreled too, no doubt, but Kai would not accept any less than five gold pieces for his jobs, which only the wealthier classes of Northshore could afford. Even that was not enough—the life of a man was equal to no amount of gold.

The carriage ride home was quiet. Kai had seen the coachmen's face when he had stepped into his chamber. The old man had seen splatters of blood on Kai's cloak, a color barely perceptible on such a dark, wet night. He had sharp eyes, then. The coachmen would not attempt to kill Kai tonight. Or perhaps he would. Kai couldn't bring himself to care, after what he had just done.
He'd not made a kill in months, but the feeling was the same as it had always been. Overwhelming guilt.

The carriage came to a stop, the coachmen opening Kai's chamber door a moment later. His face was noticeably pale. "P-please, sir," he gasped, perspiration forming on his temple. "I will tell no one, but please—"

"I won't kill you," Kai said with a sad sigh. "You have served me well tonight; I won't harm you or your family."

The coachmen let out a breath of relief, nodding as Kai walked onward. In truth, he would not have killed the man whether he served well or not. Even if the coachmen attacked Kai, he avoided killing whenever possible. Besides, a well-aimed blow to the head could drop any man unconscious—death was unnecessary. It was a wonder that the coachmen had found the courage to beg for mercy in the first place, a wonder that he had linked Kai to murder. Perhaps he had lied, and would send a force to Kai's home in the coming days. The assassin did not entirely care. It had been done in the past, unsuccessfully. Although he was called The Shadow, he had never tried to hide his identity. If someone wished to kill him, they could very well try. The lord of Northshore himself, Raolin Hewe, did not dare attack the skilled assassins of his city. He was a smart man, if a bad ruler, and knew that if his attack was unsuccessful, his life would be at forfeit.

Kai's small home stood on a quiet street. A wall of stone framed the home, rising two meters into the air. At the front of the wall was an iron gate, manned by two men who looked to be of the city watch, wearing their silver armor and pale cloaks. They were not of the city watch. Kai had employed them so that he could sleep at night without dreaming of being stabbed to death. They had been bought from Morris, who was popular in the darker parts of Northshore and had given him a discount after a job well done. Kai never let his guards inside his home for lack of trust, but they did their jobs just as well from outside. If there were to be an attack, the guards would not be of much help. They would, however, ensure that Kai was not caught unawares and stabbed to death in his sleep, and worked only during the night.

The men opened the gate with a screech as metal grated against stone. A short cobblestone pathway led to the building itself, lined with overgrown bushes and long grass. The stone ended at the foot of a small flight of marble steps. More pale, white marble stretched to the home's entrance; two large double doors made from heavy wood. The walls of the building were simple enough, constructed from common limestone.
The inside of his home was filled with weapons and training equipment, ranging from common swords to maces that Kai had hardly found the time to use. A small kitchen, dining table and bed sat in one corner of the large room; the only furniture in the home.

Kai had been killing for nearly a decade, since the death of his parents, but had only begun making true profit from it in the past year, when his fame had grown. If he had taken all the jobs that he was offered, Kai would easily be as rich as one of Northshore's noblemen or merchants. He took very few of them, however, killing only when he had to. He had been saving for his home for years; the marble on which he stood sat atop the lives of a dozen men. Of course, back then he had been lucky to make even a silver off a kill.

The most recent job Morris had offered was too good to decline. With 20 gold pieces Kai could buy himself just about anything; a larger house, books, weapons… anything. But he could not waste the money. Not when it might be the chance he had been waiting for.

Kai lay in bed, eyes wide open. He had fixed himself a meal of meat stew, bathing while it simmered. Kai knew that he would not sleep well tonight. He never did after a kill, when his emotions were strongest and his thoughts seemed to roam anywhere and everywhere.

He had killed a man, and for what? He would spend his 20 gold pieces, whether it took a month or ten years. The money would be gone, and he would be forced to kill again. Kai had tried finding other work over the years. Tried to find anything to pull him from the pit in which he had been born. Northshore was not a city that forgave the poor. The rich spat on the unfortunate, driving them further down. His title as an assassin was the only one Kai had, and no one hired a killer unless they wanted someone hurt or dead.

He would leave, somehow. Kai would leave Northshore, go somewhere far away where no one knew his name, a place where he could start anew, using what blood money he had.

There was no other choice, he realized, eyes gazing into the darkness. He could not bring himself to continue as an assassin—could not bring himself to kill another defenseless man in his sleep. If he did continue… Was a life filled with nothing but death worth living?