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The fog crept in slowly, as it did every evening. As the sun descended behind the Asregarde Mountains to the East, so did the fog begin its gradual yet inexorable encroachment from the forests to the West.
A light fog, it did not obscure the vision of the night watchmen so much as to make their jobs difficult. In fact, many of the city's guard felt rather comforted by it. The fog's constant presence at these hours lent a feeling of order and continuity. Guards dislike surprises. Guards like familiarity and routine: a certain number of steps from tower to tower, and a certain number of seconds spent looking out each window. Any change in the nightly ritual typically caused grumbling, complaining, and a swig or two of whiskey from a hidden flask. Jorius Athexium, working a portion of the southeastern wall, held a similar attitude.
Middle-aged, a little lazy, and carrying a few extra pounds around the mid-section, Jorius enjoyed his station in life. Younger people tended to join the army or, having failed to gain admittance to that more prestigious company, work the earlier, livelier shift as members of the guard. He had worked this same shift for more than ten years, since the end of the last war, and he had no desire to see it changed. Guard duty at night could only be called dull and routine; a job that promised little more than an easy retirement, some cold nights, and a few hours of solitude. He had encountered a farmer once--a fairly incompetent young man--whom he caught vainly trying to break into the city in search of food. That minor disturbance had provided him with more than enough excitement. Four years had passed since that night,and he had neither any desire nor any intention of encountering a similar situation this evening.
Unfortunately, surprise decided to join him when the unpleasant sensation of steel sliding through his chest interrupted his patrol. He had seen nothing in the dark of the guard's tower, and had heard not even the sound of a blade slicing the night air. Surprise crept up on him once more when he found that he felt very little pain. A moment of shock flashed through him, both at the feeling of his chest being penetrated, and at the sight of a greenish length of metal protruding from it, and then began a strangely slow journey to the stones of the parapet. Time slowed to a crawl, and he watched helplessly as a large, black-clad figure walked slightly past him. He felt only a dim awareness of a curved blade being wiped clean on his uniform. Paralyzed, he stared ahead at the fog sweeping slowly over the city of Terne, turning the streetlamps into dim little globes of hazy light. The fog struck him as being somehow different that evening; it seemed heavier and colder than usual--more oppressive, and somehow a little malicious. Of course, his perception might have been tainted by the nagging knowledge that he would soon be dead, but he thought otherwise. No, change came with the fog that night, and a part of him felt somehow thankful that he would be dead before he could see its effects. The world grew a little more obscure, his breathing became shallow and ragged, and one last moment of surprise hit him when he found that his life really did flash before his eyes as he slipped away.
Durayl had not spared his victims a second thought in years, and he did not afford one to the man he had just stabbed through the chest. These days, murder went right along with eating and sleeping as parts of his daily routine. He sheathed his precious scimitar as he left the tower, and moved quickly down the stairs to the courtyard. All the while he kept one eye on the surrounding castle walls, searching for signs of any other guards. He knew that security had grown careless ever since patrolling the city became one of the tasks of the city guard rather than the regular army. Not one person entered his field of vision as he reached the courtyard and surveyed the buildings before him.
Terne's main palace stood at the center of the city, which branched off for miles upon miles to the east and the west. Yet, only a few miles separated the main palace from the city walls to the north and south. Durayl estimated that he needed to cover a good fifty or sixty yards through the open to reach the nearest cover, and while he knew he could make the run in just a few seconds, he also knew that if anyone spotted him it would make his task considerably more difficult. Fortunately, the fog had coalesced into a shield from prying eyes. He only hoped it would be enough as he broke into a blind run toward a large, prestigious inn.
Two seconds passed with no sign that anyone had seen or heard him. Three seconds passed, then four, and still no cries of alarm from the walls. Five seconds, six seconds, and he found himself in the shadow of the building's overhanging roof. He glanced about at the empty streets. Curfew had fallen, and a hefty fine would be imposed on anyone found out of doors. Guards patrolled here and there, but they merely looked for children out of doors after hours, or drunks passed out in the shadows. He waited for a few moments, his breathing only slightly heavier after the dash. A guard walked by, oblivious to his presence, and Durayl did not waste his time by killing the man. Additional bodies meant potential problems, and he had neither the time nor the inclination to dispose of his victims' remains properly. Another dash brought him to a row of beautiful old homes, and another to the base of a large fountain. He timed the quick bursts of speed just a few seconds apart--between the rounds of each guard on patrol. Soon he found himself beneath the dark, looming shape of Terne's central palace.
A marvel of engineering, the palace had stood for centuries, through countless battles and disasters it remained an imposing, scarred, inimitably defendable fortress. Housing more than five thousand troops, hundreds of politicians, and a score of diplomats, the structure served as more than simply the home from which King Aretlan ruled his people. Terne's palace acted as the nerve center of the entire continent. In these days of peace, only a skeleton crew patrolled the dozens of guard stations and towers, and even these few troops merely went through the motions rather than really watch for intruders. Once an elite corps, more than a decade of peace had taken its toll on the soldiers of Terne.
Yet, Durayl gave these things very little consideration as he arrived at the palace. How ready or ill prepared the troops within the palace might be did not concern him greatly; nor did he give much thought to picking his way through the labyrinthine structure that awaited him. Instead, he focused all of his attention on one wall of the eastern barracks. He moved swiftly, eyes darting across the black stones at the base of the building--searching, searching, and finally finding. A small, red stone lay against the wall. He allowed himself a slight grunt of satisfaction as he ran his hands over the wall above the stone. One shove, and the wall gave way just a bit. He nodded, pulled a small crossbow from his belt, and launched a blue-feathered bolt into the night.
Minutes passed in silence before a small, black shape emerged from the shadows of the city and joined Durayl at his side.
"Neredl," Durayl said to the other man. His newly arrived companion said nothing. "Ready?"
The smaller man drew a long, black-bladed rapier from his side in answer. Durayl nodded, drew his gleaming, green-tinted scimitar once more, and pushed the secret entrance open.
Calton hummed softly to himself as he made his way down the main corridor of the eastern barracks. The crackling of torches on the walls, the clattering of Calton's short sword against his hip, and the faint melody coming from the young man's mouth echoed up and down the otherwise empty hall. The sun had only recently set, but strict rules regarding when to be indoors governed the palace. When night fell, Terne shut down entirely. Citizens went to their homes, soldiers to their barracks, and only the sounds of guard boots, tromping through the streets, filled the night air.
After what seemed an interminable trip, he finally reached his room, pushed the door open, and entered. Ratel, Calton's longtime friend and roommate, did not so much as glance up from the top bunk where he lay.
"You're late," Ratel murmured.
Calton said nothing; merely sat himself down in the room's lone chair: a sturdy, though highly uncomfortable thing set near the door. In fact, sturdy though highly uncomfortable pretty much summed up the room in its entirety. It contained nothing save the two beds set against the far wall, a dresser l to the left, and a single desk, to which Calton's chair belonged, to the right. A thick, ugly rug dominated the center of the floor, while a lone candle provided the dim illumination.
"You're late," Ratel repeated, his eyes still closed and his position on the bunk unaltered.
"Thanks," Calton muttered. He had long since stopped humming, and the oppressive silence made him feel even more tired; an impressive feat, to his mind.
"Bad shift?" Ratel queried, sounding less curious than bored.
Calton began working at the buckle on his sword belt. "Not bad, just ... I don't know ... not what I expected."
"I will never understand why you volunteered for that shift. It's even worse than working nights; your day is gone and all you're allowed to do after dark is sleep or think about how all you can do anymore is work and sleep."
Calton refused to dignify the statement with any form of response. His fingers fumbled numbly with his belt buckle for a few moments before his arms finally fell limply to his sides.
"I think I'm too tired to sleep," he muttered. He had not bothered to remove his belt, and instead drew his sword from its scabbard and leaned it against the wall next to him. His eyes half closed, he stared at the weapon: a simple short sword, with no markings, no scars and no decorations. He had joined the guard well after the war, so he had never used this or any blade in real combat. As a result, it remained polished to a high shine, sharpened to a fine edge, and would quite possibly prove useless in the hands of its owner. Calton slowly slumped forward in the chair and stared ahead, too tired to move or speak and yet unable to close his eyes. His thoughts wandered over what he had done before retiring for the evening, and he faintly heard Ratel saying something about a statue. His eyes finally slid shut, and welcome sleep nearly overcame him when the ear-piercing sound of Terne's long-dormant alarm sounded throughout the halls.
The alarm sounded just as Durayl pushed the hidden door fully open.
"It's too early," he growled to his companion. Neredl made no sound or movement to indicate he had heard.
Only the sight of two passageways, one going to the north, the other to the west, greeted Durayl's gaze as he looked through the open doorway. He flashed a quick signal to Neredl and set off down the north corridor at a brisk pace. He knew it would take at least a few moments for soldiers to come streaming out of their rooms, looking for the cause of the alarm, and he had to be out of the barracks and into the central palace before that happened.
He sped down the hallway, his long black cloak flowing behind him. Despite the sound of the loud, wailing siren echoing down the corridors for the first time in nearly a decade, he could still hear muffled voices behind doorways. Most of them sounded confused and panicked, and in some cases he heard the metallic clatter of weapons and armor being prepared. He allowed himself a slight smile beneath his mask. The troops had obviously grown more then a little lax during the years of peace since the wars had ended and Terne united all the lands under one crown. Ten years ago, the hallways would have been full of armed men within moments of that alarm sounding, yet tonight no one so much as poked his head out of a door to see what might be causing the disturbance.
Reaching the end of the hallway, Durayl made a sharp right and dashed up a flight of stairs. He heard movement nearby, and ducked into a small alcove to his left, vanishing into the shadows. Two soldiers, still hurriedly donning their armor, rushed passed him.
"...In the middle of the city?" the first soldier, a tall, broad shouldered, charcoal skinned man with a pair of axes clattering at his belt and the emblem of High Commander on his uniform, said.
"I don't know, I just woke up," said the second soldier--an even taller, lanky, pale man with a massive great sword on his back and a captain's insignia decorating his tunic. The man's sunken, hawkish face betrayed more than a little irritation at being awakened by a noisy alarm.
"It has to be something big for them to raise the alarm."
Durayl waited an additional few seconds after the two officers had run by, and then continued toward the upper levels. He had yet to encounter any resistance, but it came as no surprise. When the alarm sounded, the rooms of all politicians, dignitaries, and diplomats locked down with heavy bolts, and only the palace soldiers and guards could leave their quarters. Those men, save the few high ranking officers, resided entirely in the barracks.
Durayl reached the third floor and rounded a corner to come face to face with a heavy set, middle-aged man still struggling to get his breastplate on over his plaid pajamas. The insignia on the breastplate identified him as another captain, and a fine broadsword hung at his side. Durayl pulled his scimitar and swung it at the man's head in one fluid movement. The captain, in a move of surprising agility, ducked the attack and leapt out of range. He dropped his breastplate to the floor with a loud clang, and drew his sword.
"Not bad," Durayl growled. The captain made no reply, but moved into a low combat stance, the sword held loosely in front of him. "I don't have time for this," Durayl sighed, and came at the captain with a fierce series of blows. The captain easily blocked them for a few moments with a speed that belied his rather slovenly appearance, but Durayl proved too fast, and in a short time the big man had backed the soldier down the hallway.
"Fekt, but you're fast," the captain, said, perspiration beading on his brow. Durayl gave no response, but smiled slightly under his mask. Unfortunately, the moment of pride caused him to overextended himself ever so slightly on a swing at the captain's chest. Seizing the moment, the other man dashed past him and raced down the hall in the direction Durayl had come from in the first place.
Durayl considered pursuit for a moment, but the fight had already placed him behind schedule--an irritating situation, as he wanted no one to know of his presence. Sheathing his blade and letting out a grunt of disappointment, he ignored the retreating man. He dashed toward the nearest staircase, climbing to the fourth floor.
Commander Faren stared at the monstrosity before him, considering what might be the best way to handle it.
"I'm not sure 'big' does it justice," Captain Toren said from a step behind him. The captain pulled the great sword from his back and looked to his commanding officer.
"No, I don't think 'big' was the right word," Faren agreed.
Huge might have worked better: a monstrous, towering creature, carrying a hammer that measured a full six feet in length. With great swings of its weapon, it turned a pair of large, stone houses into flying pieces of rubble as easily as a landslide destroying a hovel. It stood more than nine feet tall, clothed in a medley of thick, smelly animal skins. Its black mane of hair reached down to his knees, and the deafening roar it let out shattered nearby windows. Not only did its green skin identify it as something decidedly inhuman, but its face did as well. Faren looked the creature up and down. Its small, yellow, close-set eyes filled with joy over the carnage; its piggish nose, pierced by a crusted bronze ring; Its small skull, housing a miniscule brain; and its massive jaw, containing a nightmarish collection of huge, yellowed teeth, which hung out at all possible angles. A few brave soldiers ventured close enough to get into position for an attack, but after the creature turned one of them into a bag of pulp with one swing of its enormous hammer, the others quickly backed off to a safe position.
"We need some archers here!" one of the soldiers shouted out.
The creature turned its attentions to the ring of soldiers, after giving the pile of rubble at its feet one last, good pounding. It gave a little snarl of anticipation and spread its mouth in a wide grin. Tapping the haft of it's hammer against one palm, it moved toward the two nearest troops. It then made a few grunting noises and its smile widened at the looks of sheer terror on the faces of the soldiers.
"Get back!" Faren barked from behind the line of men. No one checked to see who had given the order; they simply backed off several paces. The creature froze, and its look of glee changed to one of slight confusion. The commander strode through the center of the line and stopped just outside the range of the creature's hammer. The thing looked genuinely surprised by the big man's apparent lack of fear.
"Situation?" Faren asked of whomever might be nearest him.
The closest soldier, a veteran of the first order named Selen, answered. "Strangest thing, sir. It didn't get over the wall, and it didn't get through the gate. It just appeared here and started destroying everything."
"Magic," Captain Toren muttered. Sweat matted down the skinny man's hair, but he looked alert and awake, even after being awakened by a screeching alarm and having to run the long distance from the palace.
Faren frowned and ran a hand over his shaved scalp, sending perspiration trickling down his neck. In all his life he had only seen magic used once, years ago during the war when its misuse had caused an entire town to be obliterated. Magic was rare, dangerous, and outlawed. Few saw it in the modern world. "All right," he said after a short pause. "I want a perimeter formed by spearmen; archers behind them and on the towers and walls. That thing looks like a troll, so get me a fire crew in case it starts putting itself together again. We haven't got all night, so let's move it peo--"
The sound of something whistling through the night air interrupted him, followed by the roar of a nearby house exploding in a ball of flame.
The siren wailed and Calton nearly tripped over his chair as he tried leaping to his feet. He looked over his shoulder at Ratel, who sat up, eyes wide. Calton rushed to the door, not bothering to grab his sword, and yanked it open. He saw only one man: a short, thin fellow, garbed in black and carrying a rapier with a studded hilt. The two stared at each other for a moment before the intruder swung his weapon in a wide arc. The young soldier stumbled backwards out of the way, and the tip of the blade tore open the front of his shirt.
Ratel had since leapt off the bunk, and he caught the full force of Calton's ungraceful escape. The intruder wasted no more time with the two men, and instead sped down the hallway toward the central palace.
"You're hurt?" Ratel asked, getting out from underneath his friend and grabbing his sword from the corner, where it sat, unsheathed.
"No, he didn't get me. Go after him."
Ratel wore no armor, only civilian clothes, but he sped out the door in the direction of the intruder. Calton grabbed his sword and followed.
The force of the explosion knocked Faren and those nearest to him off their feet entirely. The troll roared with laughter and stomped toward the now helpless soldiers.
"That came from the south!" Faren shouted as he heaved himself to his feet. "Get some troops to that wall right now!" The commander leapt out of the way as the troll's hammer slammed into the ground where he had stood just a moment ago. Soldiers streamed into the devastated courtyard, some of them fully armed and armored; others still in civilian clothes, carrying nothing but their weapons. Amidst the sounds of burning buildings, screaming soldiers, and the troll's laughter, Faren heard the distant whistle of another fireball sailing through the air. "Take cover!" he shouted, diving behind some fallen stones.
Soldiers scurried this way and that, trying to avoid the unseen threat from the sky, and the troll took advantage of their confusion by turning a few of them into red stains on the ground. Meanwhile, the fireball smashed into another house, sending burning wood and shattered rocks flying through the air in all directions.
Faren began shouting orders to his men, trying to get them organized, but the cries of panicked civilians in the area drowned out his orders. The troll kept those men who attempted to engage it at bay by sweeping its weapon toward them in wide arcs. The troops coming from the palace had trouble reaching the battle due to the throng of citizens now fleeing from their homes in a panicked mass. For several minutes a standoff ensued, with Faren's troops vying for position and the troll merrily destroying anything and anyone foolish enough to get in its way.
"Catapult to the south," Captain Toren informed Faren as a messenger ran off to collect more information. The captain leaned heavily on his sword, holding his side and bleeding from a nasty gash on his forehead. "I've ordered a contingent of riders to take it out, but it has quite a range; it's going to take them a few minutes to get there."
Faren nodded. He surveyed the devastated city block and saw his troops beginning to pull together and grow more organized as the veterans began effectively giving orders and organizing their ranks. The troll's laughter had stopped. The creature appeared to realize that its moment of surprise had vanished, and it could not possibly fight so many men. The monster stepped back a few paces, held its hammer in both hands, and let out an ear-splitting roar that reverberated through the city.
"Loose!" Faren shouted to the line of archers that had formed in front of the retreating monstrosity. The archers responded instantly, launching a volley of arrows, dead on target. The arrows flew true, directly at the creature's chest, only to clatter off the house that stood behind the troll. In the blink of an eye, the towering creature had vanished from sight.
The sounds of burning wood and collapsing structures filled the air as the troops standing in the devastated city sector stared blankly ahead. A messenger ran to Captain Toren, whispered to him, and dashed away.
"South wall reports no further incoming fire from the catapult, sir," Toren said to his commanding officer in a slightly befuddled tone of voice.
Faren and a company of confused, angry and disjointed soldiers continued to stare at empty air.
Calton raced down the same hall he had wearily strolled along just fifteen minutes ago, chasing the distant shape of Ratel. His breath came in painful bursts, blood pounded in his ears, fire roared in his lungs. Up ahead, Ratel had stopped moving. He arrived to find his friend panting and peering down the two corridors before them.
"I lost him," Ratel said. "He's too fast."
"What's ... down ... the left passage?" Calton managed between gasps for air.
"Armory to the left; right passage leads to the main palace."
"The armory seems more likely," Calton wheezed as he began stumbling toward the left passage. "Let's go."
"No," Ratel said, pointing weakly to the right. "What would he do in the armory? Steal a bunch of swords? He must have gone to the right. Not that it matters. He's fast enough he's probably already finished what he came for and climbed into bed," he muttered as the two ran down the dark hallway to the right.
They soon found themselves standing in the middle of a large, open room within the main palace. As they saw only one other door, they sped through it and the chase began in earnest. A seemingly endless race through room after room ensued; hallway after hallway; guesses left and right on which door the man in black might have taken. They finally drew to a halt, panting like bloodhounds and unable to continue.
Calton shouted out in exasperation. "He should be dead on the floor by now!"
"Calm down," Ratel said, leaning against the wall and trying desperately to catch his breath. "Let's just think about this for a minute. It's obvious we're not going to catch him this way, so let's think about what he'd be after."
"Well, he has to be here to steal something, right? Or to kill someone..."
"Right, but a thief wouldn't be following this route. He would have gone north toward the treasury. This guy's going west."
"Unless we're not following the right path," Calton sighed.
"Well, it's no use second guessing ourselves like that, so let's assume for the moment that we are. He's heading west and he must be on the lower floor because there haven't been any staircases. Officers and politicians are above us; royal family above them ... what's on this floor?"
"No, the only people on this floor are soldiers as far as I know. What could he want down here?" Ratel had regained most of his breath, while Calton still gasped desperately for air. Ratel strummed his fingers on the wall he leaned against, apparently searching for possibilities.
"Wait a second ... how did he get in here in the first place?"
Calton stared at his friend for a moment, focusing more on how much his legs and lungs hurt than on the question. "What do you mean?"
"Well, he was coming from the wrong direction," Ratel mused. "He entered the palace from the barracks. How did he get into the barracks to begin with? The only way in is through the side exit, but it's hidden and barred from the inside."
"Maybe he found another way in."
"Possibly, but I don't know of another way in. I think he knew about that entrance somehow. Makes me wonder ... what else does he know about this place?"
Neredl had long since eluded the two guardsmen, not that their presence concerned him. He still breathed lightly, despite dashing through nearly a mile's worth of castle passageways and rooms. The run had probably appeared to his pursuers to be an attempt at escape, when he actually searched. He had no map of the palace, and no route to take. He had only a landmark and a specified wing of the building. Most of the rooms had appeared much the same to him: tacky things designed for the comfort of dignitaries and politicians. Neredl felt uncomfortable in such places. He did not like lifeless rooms of stone and shaped wood.
The search continued, down long hallways and through countless doors. he began to wonder both if his information might have been faulty, and if the designer of the place had had any sort of plan. If his information proved correct, the room should be impossible to miss, and he felt as though he had raced in circles for the past few minutes. Then, one turn through yet another non-descript door, and he had found it. For the most part, this room looked like all the others. Comfortable couches and chairs, a few tables, paintings, and a large, colorful tapestry hung from one wall. The difference lay on the floor, in the form of a giant cave bear's skin.
He dashed over the rug to a blank spot on the wall, where he ran his fingers along the edge. The hidden door located there seamlessly blended with the rest of the wall. Had its location not been given to him, even his unnaturally sharp eyes would not have been able to detect its position. He wasted no time checking to see if it would open or not. Instead, he measured a distance up from the floor along the left seam of the door, pulled a pouch of gray powder from his belt, and set to work.
"There's something wrong about this," Faren said, half to himself, half to anyone who might be nearby. Toren stood a few paces away, tending to a broken rib, and did not appear to hear the commander. The hundreds of soldiers in the area made sure no other attackers lurked about, and calmed the throng of citizens who caused quite the uproar in the devastated city block. Faren did not much care about the cries of citizens. He wanted to know why a troll had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, killed several armed men and destroyed a few buildings as easily as taking a stroll, before promptly vanishing. No other attack had followed the troll's disappearance. His men had found the lone catapult to the southwest, and they wheeled it toward the city at that moment, but Faren doubted it would offer any answers.
"It must be a diversion," he murmured to himself. "But a diversion for what? There are no other troops in the area." He surveyed the destruction about him, where his men put out fires and searched the rubble for survivors. He turned, suddenly, on Toren. "Do we have any soldiers still in the main palace?"
Toren shrugged his shoulders slightly and then grimaced at the movement. "A few members of the city guard, but they report nothing out of the ordinary. All the rooms have been locked down, and the treasury has a full complement of troops defending it." Faren only half heard the captain. His attention had shifted over the officer's shoulder to another man in the distance, shouting at the top of his lungs and racing toward them.
"Commander!" the approaching man yelled.
Toren turned around, and the two officers watched as the breathless, pajama-clad Captain Eragon arrived before them in less than dignified fashion. The captain had always looked a little silly to Faren, but now he looked downright ridiculous.
"Co-mman-der," Eragon gasped, his face bright red from exertion. The man tried to say something else, but he could manage nothing between ragged breaths.
"Slow down, Captain, give it a second." Faren handed the officer his water skin, and Eragon took a few sloppy gulps from it, spilling water down the front of his pajamas in the process. A few more seconds passed before the captain tried again.
"Commander, we've got a problem," he rasped. "We've got to get back to the palace right now."
Faren nodded briskly. "Toren, you've got command here. You two," he snapped his fingers at two soldiers standing nearby. "Come with me."
Ratel and Calton sped back the way they had come in the first place, down the main corridor of the eastern barracks, past their room, and toward the end of the hall.
"He's going to have to leave the way he came," Ratel said. "Unless he can fly out one of the windows on an upper floor, but we're going to assume he can't do that."
"You assume an awful lot," Calton muttered.
Coming to the end of the hall, they found the exit, closed and barred as always.
"Doesn't mean anything," Ratel pointed out. "The spring makes it shut automatically, and the bar will come down once the door shuts." He raised the bar, opened the door, and walked out into the courtyard behind it. Calton examined the door while his friend looked around outside the barracks.
"It could have been held open with something before they got here," Calton observed of the bar that latched the door firmly in place. "There's no way to open it from the outside unless it's already unlocked. You can't just push on the wall and find it on accident."
"Could have," Ratel said, busily examining the spotty, tromped grass of the courtyard.
"Look at this," Calton exclaimed, pulling a small wire from a crack in the stones. "This is long enough; it could have held the bar up so that anyone who knew where the door was located would just have had to push on the wall."
"Yes, that could have worked," came a voice from the dark of the passage.
Calton spun around at the sound of the voice, but the speaker smashed him in the face with the hilt of a rapier, sending him reeling back into the courtyard. Stars danced in front of his eyes, but he did see the black-clad man they had chased walk past him into the courtyard. He rolled over onto his stomach and saw the man charge at Ratel, who began fending off blows with his short sword.
He stumbled to his feet, wiping blood from the side of his face and trying to keep his eyes on the two men amidst the flashing lights dancing before his eyes. He began moving toward what he thought looked like the fighters, but staggered to his knees after only a few steps. Helplessly, he watched as the man in black forced Ratel to retreat further and further, back toward the wall of the barracks.
"I don't have time for this," he heard the man in black hiss in a raspy, unnatural voice. Ratel bled from multiple cuts, but somehow he had managed to fend off every attack thrown at him. "Stand down, boy, and I may let you live."
Calton was shocked when Ratel responded to the dubious offer by risking a swing at his assailant's head, catching the man off guard enough for him to reverse his position so that the man in black now faced the wall. Obviously angered by the bold move, the man came at the soldier with a string of furious blows. A jab at the middle, a thrust from the left side, and then a sudden kick from the right, and Ratel's sword went flying through the air. The man jabbed at the guard again, but Ratel barely ducked the blow and risked a dive for his discarded weapon. He came up short, grasping nothing but dirt and grass. The attacker stepped down on Ratel's outstretched hand.
"Not bad, boy," he rasped. The man raised his sword, ready to strike, only to be blind-sided by Calton as he dove into the man at full speed. The pair rolled a few yards away in a tangle of armor and limbs before the man in black sprang nimbly to his feet. His breathing came heavily, and the tumble had torn and dirtied his cloak. Calton and Ratel stood side-by-side, swords at the ready. The intruder raised his sword as though preparing to charge; then spat something in a foreign tongue at the exhausted guards and vanished into the night.
The two friends stared after him, too battered and tired to offer any kind of pursuit. The siren had long since stopped emanating from the palace, and only the sounds of the two soldiers' heavy breathing filled the fog-covered night. Catching his breath and collecting his thoughts, Calton looked at his friend, and then stared after the man in black, uncertain of what to do next.