Kai leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his drink. The cheap alcohol left a bitter taste in his mouth and made him miss the fine wine he had been drinking for the last three months. Just like any other night, The BlackBlood Tavern was packed with townspeople, travelers, and of course, Death Legion mercenaries. Most of the townspeople knew to sit as far away from the them as possible, but weary travelers weren’t as smart. Kai absently watched a game of cards unfold between a group of passing merchants and Hunter, the only female on his team. Kai winced as Hunter beat them once, twice, and then three times.
She laughed as she scooped up her winnings, making sure not to leave a single coin. “Thank you gentlemen for an exciting game. Make sure to hold on tight to the remainder of your money. Ramar is filled with nasty mercenaries, and you gents look like very easy targets.”
She winked and tucked her leather coin pouch into the inside of her jacket.
One of the men angrily stood and grabbed her wrist as he snarled, “You bitch, I know you cheated.”
Hunter merely looked down at her wrist and then back into the man’s eyes.
“If you don’t remove your hand, I will remove it for you and then make sure that the last thing you ever see, is me beating you with it,” Hunter growled as her hazel eyes narrowed in the dim light of the tavern.
The man smirked as he said, “I’d like to see…”
Hunter’s fist cut him off and slammed into the side of his face.
He shook off the blow and panted, “You crazy …”
Hunter dove at him. Despite being half of the man’s size, she easily knocked him off his feet and the two violently rolled across the tavern floor. The other merchants just stared, completely glued to their chairs, and no one in the whole tavern was willing to step in to break up the fight.
Hunter quickly had the man pinned to the ground. “I suggest getting the hell out of this bar,” Hunter said evenly. To emphasize her point, she grew her canine teeth into fangs and gnashed them in the man’s face.
“You’re a skin walker,” the man whispered as his eyes went wide with fear.
Hunter shrugged and then turned to the table of merchants that she had just cleaned out and demanded, “Beat it.” No one argued with her as the group dashed out the door. Hunter yanked the man off of the ground and shoved him out towards the street. For a moment the entire bar was silent as Hunter brushed the dirt off her jacket.
She looked up and spoke to no one in particular, “You guys got a problem?” The fiddler quickly resumed playing and conversations around the bar continued as if nothing happened at all.
Hunter’s eyes met Kai’s as she made her way to their usual table. “That was fun,” she said as she collapsed into the chair next to him.
Kai grinned. “I thought I was going to have to go over there and pry you off of him.”
She snorted and grabbed his drink, draining the remainder of the glass in one go. “Damn, this tastes awful” —she wrinkled her nose— “Gods, I missed this place.”
Kai knew what she meant. Their last job had taken them miles away from the backwater city of Ramar and all the way to the Solton Empire. It had taken them a month to even reach the the capital city of Solastra — and even longer to complete their job.
“I need more,” Hunter said as she stood and stalked towards the bar - her long sword swinging at her side.
Kai watched her for a moment. Hunter was one of the toughest people he knew and she made sure to always look the part. She dressed in almost all leather and had at least four different weapons visibly strapped to her at any given moment. The fact that she could change her form into a massive wolf tended to intimidate most normal people. In human form, her shoulder length blond hair was normally tied back into a braid, and her hazel eyes always had a wicked gleam to them. Kai glanced around the tavern as she ordered. It was the same as he remembered it — same scratched table tops, same rickety floorboards, and same musician playing in the corner — giving the whole bar a warm atmosphere.
Most of the mercenaries came down from the keep and into Ramar regularly to drink, shop, and hustle travelers out of their money.
Kai noticed out of the corner of his eye as Indura rose from her group and sauntered up to him. “Hello Kai,” she purred.
Kai nodded, half paying attention to her.
“I heard about your success in Solastra,” she continued.
Kai raised an eyebrow at her. He had no clue what she could have heard, considering he had just gotten back. Indura wasn’t much of a fighter, but she was easily one of the best spies in the guild. If anyone knew what had happened in Solastra, it was probably her.
She batted her dark lashes, “You and I should do a job together, I’m sure we’d make a great team.”
Kai smiled. Indura, to her credit, was attractive. Her long brown hair, tan skin, and glowing green eyes made his pulse quicken. But he was going to give her the same answer he gave everybody else, “Thanks, but I already have a team.”
Indura blinked, but regained her composure. Her throat bobbed, “Fine, if you change your mind, you know where to find me.” She lightly touched his shoulder before sitting back at her table.
Hunter appeared with a glass in each hand. “What did she want?” she asked nonchalantly. “The usual,” he answered as he grabbed his glass.
She rolled her eyes, “Oh my god, this is only going to fuel your ego.”
Kai almost choked on his drink, “I have an ego? Have you even talked with yourself recently?”
Hunter punched him in the arm, “Shut up. I’m a fucking delight and you know it.”
“Where’s Grayson?” Kai asked after a moment. It wasn’t like Grayson to miss going out for a drink.
“The last time I saw him he was telling Sebastian one of his ribald jokes.” That sounded an awful lot like Grayson. “I’m sure he will be here soon,” Hunter said lightly.
As if he heard them, the doors of The BlackBlood Tavern swung open and Grayson strolled in, the third mercenary on his team. Most travelers turned to gawk at him strode past. Grayson tended to have that effect on people. He a towering six feet and five inches tall, made of solid muscle. His normally bright smile often distracted people from the giant axe that he had strapped across his back. But tonight Grayson wasn’t smiling, in fact, he looked uncharacteristically nervous.
“Look who showed up,” Hunter snorted as she kicked out a chair for him to sit in.
“What is it?” Kai asked flatly. He knew Grayson well enough to tell that something was wrong.
“Reynard summoned you back at the keep, but you weren’t there. He’s waiting to see you in his office…and he’s impatient.” Both Kai and Hunter went pale — nobody kept Reynard waiting. “We need to go, right now,” said Grayson. Before Hunter could move out of her seat, Grayson held up his hand and said, “No, he only wants to see Kai.”
Kai didn’t say anything. He was already moving towards the door.
Kai was nothing but a shadow racing through the forest. Even on a hidden trail in pitch darkness, Kai could easily navigate his way back to the keep. He kicked his horse and they vaulted over a fallen log. Faster, we need to go faster, Kai urged. He threw his hand out and began manipulating the wind around them. Soon he had the strength of a storm pushing at his back. There it is. Kai’s eyes could barely make out the large opening to the cave, but the opening looked even darker than the night sky. Kai leaned forward and willed the wind to push them faster.
Kai turned the worn brass handle and entered cautiously into Reynard’s study. The familiar scent of pine filled the room. In the center of the study, Reynard stood over a large mahogany table that was covered with maps and letters. Kai waited, silently willing Reynard to acknowledge his presence. He didn’t.
“You summoned me, sir?” Kai finally asked firmly.
Without even looking up from his work, Reynard motioned for Kai to come in. For what seemed like an eternity, Kai stood there as Reynard flipped through various documents. Finally, Reynard looked up and his cold, grey eyes bore into Kai with such intensity that it took all of Kai’s concentration to hold Reynard’s crushing stare.
“I summoned you an hour ago. What were you doing while I wasted my precious time?” Reynard’s voice was a low growl.
“I was in town having a drink at The BlackBlood Tavern,” Kai said as he tried to keep his voice from wavering.
“Do you know why I summoned you?”
Kai thought his heart was pounding so hard that Reynard might hear it, “No sir, I have no idea.” He actually had a lot of ideas. Most of them involved him being punished for keeping his boss waiting.
“I have a new job for you.”
Kai almost sighed with relief. He watched as Reynard walked to his desk on the far side of the room. Kai followed awkwardly. Reynard began writing something on a piece of paper, completely ignoring Kai. If it were anyone else, this lack of respect would have made Kai furious, but Reynard was not anyone else. He was the leader of The Death Legion, the most powerful guild in the realm. Though he wasn’t a king, he was definitely as powerful as one. Reynard had an empire of assassins, spies, and soldiers who could each wield magic, known as Mages. He did what he wanted and no one dared to stand against him.
Reynard pushed one of the maps over to Kai, “This is where the Ira-nian war camp is currently staged.” Kai looked at the map wondering what kind of job he was going to be assigned. “Since you were in Solton, you have no idea what has happened,” Reynard said intently. “As retribution for murdering their king and queen and usurping neighboring lands, Ira has gone on a war path and conquered most of Valden’s southern cities. As you can see, Ira’s armies are currently inhabiting Fort Moureen. They took most of the south easily, but the battle at Fort Moureen was costly for them. They lost more than a third of their soldiers and half of their own Mages. Fort Moureen is the closest that Ira has ever been to Valden’s capitol and they are in striking distance of Queen Seraphine. But after the battle, they are now almost out of supplies and are dangerously low on personnel.” Reynard paused.
“Which means that if Seraphine chooses to reclaim the Fort, she could do so easily and at any time,” Kai finished.
Reynard nodded, “Ira is completely vulnerable at the moment.”
Kai was still unsure what any of this had to do with him. “Who has been leading the attacks?” he asked.
“The new king of Ira himself,” Reynard said evenly.
Kai rubbed his forehead, “Why the hell is he still there?” he thought out loud.
“Because apparently a king needs to fight with his people,” Reynard replied stoically. For a minute the two stood in silence just looking at the map.
“Where is my job in all of this?” Kai finally asked.
Reynard looked at Kai. “Ira’s Princess Alessandra traveled to meet with the Queen of Astradia - a nearby kingdom which is still unoccupied - to try to form a badly needed alliance. After that meeting, the princess rode to Fort Moureen to tell the king personally about the outcome.”
Kai stood there speechless for a moment, then said, “So right now both the king and the princess of Ira are sitting ducks at that fort?” Reynard nodded. Kai said, “And you know an attack on the fort is coming?” Another nod. If that was the case then there was absolutely nothing that Kai could do.
“My spies tell me that the Ira-nians still haven’t figured out that there is going to be a massive attack, and by the time they do, it will be too late. Seraphine’s soldiers will outnumber them five to one. No one will survive.” Kai sat there silently. “Your job,” Reynard continued, “Is to return Princess Alessandra back to Ira safely.”
Kai looked up bewildered, “That’s it? I’m going to be a bodyguard?” Kai was slightly insulted. As one of the highest ranked mercenaries in the guild he had surpassed being a bodyguard, even for a spoiled princess.
Reynard gave him a warning look that immediately shut him up. “Yes, you’re going to be a bodyguard for the princess. If you saw how much the king paid me to ensure the princess’s safety you’d see why I’m putting your team on this.”
“Wait. If the king doesn’t know about the attack then how come he wants to get the princess out now?” asked Kai.
Reynard answered as he began shuffling through a stack of papers, “The king is smart enough to know that anything could happen at any time. He doesn’t expect Valden to let its southern cities fall without retaliation. And he won’t take any chances with his sister, Alessandra.”
Kai nodded, accepting the answer. “How will I know when I’m needed?”
“You are going to set up camp a few miles away from the fort. When the king feels that the princess’s safety is threatened, he will send for you. You should ride at first light. The journey should take you a few days, and I expect that you deliver the princess safely.”
Kai nodded. He was ready to go and assemble his team.
“Kane,” Reynard said roughly.
Kai was surprised to be called by his real name, “Yes, sir?”
“Remember the princess is a potential client, so I expect she be treated well.”
“Yes sir,” Kai responded firmly.
“You are dismissed.”
Kai turned on his heels and walked through the double doors of the office. Over his shoulder he could hear Reynard preparing for his next meeting. Kai moved swiftly down the long corridor and at the end he saw two familiar faces. Both Hunter and Grayson didn’t say anything as they both fell in step behind him.
“So what happens now?” Hunter asked as Kai led them down the spiral staircase.
“We have a job to do,” Kai muttered as they walked through the doors and into the night.