A crimson river twisted lazily across the landscape of Eris, the Clock Tower clear amidst the fog. Across the bay, the only other structure visible was the Temple of Voltimand the Crafter.
But Eris had no river
the red coloration only the sunset catching the armor of the soldiers from Gandal who marched on the capital city of Lysand.
An explosion rocked the Clock Tower as Kiowa Silverwing sprinted down the winding staircase from the Greenhouse, sword drawn. Attack sirens rang their shrill warning through the tower. A Gandalian soldier struggled upward, but his heavy crimson armor was no match for Kiowa's Lysandium blade. With one swift swing, Kiowa cleaved the soldier's breastplate in two, sinking the point of his blade into his enemy's heart. The mercenary grimaced as he wiped his blade clean, never slowing his downward descent.
Determination burned in his crystalline gray eyes as he barreled into yet another Gandalian soldier. He would never let his city fall to these fiends. Kiowa knew that his fellow mercenaries were fighting just as hard far below him. He did not so much as stumble as another explosion ripped through the tower.
Kiowa burst through to the main floor, his determination and the smirk across his face dissipating immediately at the sight awaiting him. Smoke from the most recent explosion still shrouded most of the entry hall and common room at the base of the staircase, though it could not mask the bodies of Kiowa's fellow Zeveradico strewn like rag dolls across the floor. His sword fell from his hand as he ran to a young woman clawing her way up the staircase towards him.
"Maria," he whispered, gathering her into his arms. The young woman's dress was saturated in blood that seeped from a deep gash in her side, her emerald eyes locked with his in pain and horror.
kio," she gasped, raising a finger too late.
He felt the pressure of the battleaxe slam into the base of his neck before the pain hit, and as he toppled over onto his side on top of Maria, his eyes locked on the form of his Master, slumped against the main door. A Gandalian soldier stood over him, hand still clasped around the javelin through the Master's heart.
"No!" Kiowa woke screaming as he sat straight up in bed, drenched in cold sweat. He slammed his fist down onto his blaring alarm clock to silence the infernal ringing that had penetrated through to his dreams. Struggling to calm his heart, Kiowa staggered out of bed and to the bathroom, splashing cold water on his face.
"Just a dream," he murmured, staring at his gaunt expression in the looking glass. "Calm down, Kio. It was just a dream. Nothing more."
But was it?
The mercenary shook his head, water flying from his dark bangs. "Get a hold of yourself, damn it," he seethed to his reflection, turning angrily back into his main bed chamber and rummaging through his wardrobe. He flung a pair of black pants and his usual white button-down onto his bed and began to undress as a knock sounded at his door.
Kiowa took a deep breath, his face suddenly draining of all emotion as he said in a smooth, composed voice, "Come in."
Jenner Portsmith poked his sixteen-year-old head around the door, ginger brows knotted. "You alright, Silverwing?" he asked as he stepped in. "Thought I heard you shout a bit ago."
"I heard nothing," responded Kiowa, blinking at the boy. "Perhaps you imagined it."
Jenner did not look convinced as he rubbed the back of his head thoughtfully. "Eh
maybe." He looked curiously back up at the older mercenary who still simply stood before him. "A-anyway, the Master sent me to give you this."
Kiowa took the letter the boy held out, unfolding it carefully and glancing at the contents. "Very well," he nodded. "You are to give this to Maria Gearheart, as well. Though, wait until you see her at breakfast. You've been warned about staying off of the women's floor." He shot the young mercenary a quick half-smile, making him redden.
"Yes, sir." Jenner bowed, backing out of Kiowa's room.
As the door latched closed, Kiowa let out a low sigh, his shoulders slumping. The letter the Master had sent required him and Maria to meet with the Master that evening at 8:00 sharp. I thought this evening was my night off. But after eighteen years of working under the Master for the Zeveradico Mercenary Guild, Kiowa knew better than to question orders.
He had lived within the Guild walls of the Clock Tower since he was seven years old. The Master had taken Kiowa off the streets and out of harm's way. Kiowa would never have made it on his own. The trade city of Eris was rough, to say the least. An orphan like Kiowa, who had belonged to well-to-do merchants, and who preferred books and quiet nights beside fireplaces over swords and a chance at gain, never would have stood a chance. Now twenty-seven, Kiowa had become the second in command of the top Mercenary guild in the entire country of Lysand. Kiowa owed the Master his life, and he served him faithfully.
But not on my night off, the mercenary groaned. He shook his head, angry with himself for the feeling of indignation he harbored toward the Master at the moment. It must be important, he tried convincing himself. It's going to be a long day.
As the sun set, Kiowa stood atop the huge Clock Tower, looking out over Eris. It sprawled before him in all its glory, the golden light of the late summer sun illuminating the copper and gunmetal roofs of the Neighborhood and Guild districts below him. A shadow stretched across the east from the mountains that sat in a crescent around the trade city. A few of the elegant Temple Airships drifted lazily over the bay while the steady stream of the more hulking Trade Airships into and out of the port near the Merchant District to the North was beginning to dwindle in the dying light.
Kiowa had spent the day pondering the Master's summons, though now he frowned for a different reason. There was tension in the air, palpable nowalmost volatile. Kiowa had felt it growing over the city for some time. It was only a matter of time before Lord Bercimak would step too far. Eris could stand onslaught from the outside, but Bercimak was leading the capital city of Lysand in a completely new direction. Kiowa feared civil war was soon to erupt.
He turned as the sun finally began to fade along the Eastern reaches of the city and entered the large garden greenhouse that crowned the Clock Tower like an emerald.
"Ah, Maria," he said, his worried expression going slack immediately as he caught sight of the woman lounging in the small sitting area to his left. "You received the Master's summons?"
Maria Gearheart had been invited to join the prestigious Zeveradico at the age of twelve, the youngest recruit the Guild had seen since Kiowa. Now, eight years later, she had worked her way up the Guild ranks, gaining the admiration and respect of the predominantly male Zeveradico, along with the favor of the Master.
She stood up fluidly, golden brows furrowed and arms crossed in agitation. "What does he want us to do this time, do you suppose?" she scoffed at Kiowa.
He flashed her a brief, crooked grin as she reached for a six-foot-tall metal staff that stood propped against the glass dome of the greenhouse.
"Come now," Kiowa forced a laugh, "you know the Master never reveals his plans outright. Two and a half minutes with him is all we will get. Let's go. It's almost time." He offered the young woman his arm, and the two entered the elevator that would take them down the twelve stories to the ground floor of the Clock Tower.
The two mercenaries then made their way by foot through the sub-levels of the Clock Tower to the Master's personal chambers. The room was nearly pitch black but for a plain wooden desk illuminated by two dozen candles that sat upon piles of books and directly on the desk itself. The Master sat behind the desk, his fingers tented before him and his face shrouded completely by the hood of his white leather duster. No one had ever seen his face.
"Sit, my children," he said with a deep, clear voice--firm, but with an undertone of great compassion.
Kiowa silently pulled out one of the simple oak chairs and sat Maria down before following suit himself. Neither of the mercenaries spoke. While in the Master's presence, Kiowa knew that one must let the Master do the talking. The Master flicked a switch on a small brass clock. The timer had begun.
"The tension over the city weighs heavily upon you, Kiowa, does it not?" the Master said at last. Kiowa only nodded. The Master shuffled some papers in front of him before continuing.
"The Crimson Dagger is hosting a Mercenary Guild Masquerade this evening, as you are both well aware. You shall represent the Zeveradico in my stead. Kiowa, you are to find a young man named Varin Westforge." The Master paused to slide a plain file across the desk to his second-in-command. "Maria, you are to find a young man by the name of Phrixus Halfstone who shall also be present."
He handed the grimacing young woman her own small file. "These two gentlemen are of great interest to me. You are to hand-deliver the invitations within those files to each. It is of the upmost importance that they join the Zeveradico. In the end, as you both know, the choice can only be theirs. However, I am confident that you are quite capable of giving them a bit more incentive to join."
Maria muttered something under her breath that Kiowa did not catch, but the Master's hooded head turned abruptly in her direction. "This is your first test, Miss Gearheart," he said curtly. "You would do well not to fail me." His attention refocused onto Kiowa. "My son," his voice was gentle, "you will find that this evening will be very important, not just for the Zeveradico, but for all of Eris. Keep a close eye on Maria. Also, our blacksmith will be expecting you after the Masquerade. He has some new equipment you are to examine. Now go."
The two mercenaries obeyed orders, standing up to leave. "Oh, Maria. Your staff, please. You shall not be needing it this evening."
Grudgingly, the girl handed the staff to the Master, her lips turned down at the corners in a manner that strongly suggested she was biting her tongue to keep from arguing back.
"Good night, my children. Good luck, and may the Gods be with you." The Master stood, bowed his hooded head, and disappeared into the darkness beyond his desk. Kiowa and Maria exchanged a glance before returning to the main floor of the Clock Tower.
"What was that all about?" Maria asked as the two waited for the elevator. "Why is this so important?"
"Hush, Maria," responded Kiowa coolly, his emotionless mask still plastered to his face. "It will be explained in time."
Maria's emerald eyes were seething, the anger rising up to a boiling point. She was very short tempered, and Kiowa knew that not receiving the information she wanted maddened her. Kiowa was saved from the explosion soon to come as the elevator dinged its arrival. "The carriage will pick us up in one hour," he announced, stepping in as she opened her mouth to stop him leaving without answering her. "Please be ready."
The doors shut, leaving Maria to take the stairs to the women's chambers on the second floor while Kiowa continued on to the first set of men's chambers on the third. He eased himself back against the far wall of the elevator, eyes closed. What is the Master up to? he wondered, frustrated. It was unlike the Master to summon two mercenaries for such an event without first briefing his second-in-command on its true importance. Kiowa hated going into situations blind.
As he entered his chamber, Kiowa saw that the Master had not skimped on the night's attire. The mercenary smiled to himself as he held up the rich black velvet vest to be worn over a pristine white button-down. A pair of black and grey pinstriped dress pants lay neatly folded beside a black leather mask in the molded shape of a fox's face complete with pointed ears, eyeholes staring emptily up at Kiowa. It would cut off just below his nose. A gold fabric armband also sat on the bed with the symbol of the Zeveradico embroidered in bold black, red, blue, and green.
Kiowa quickly changed, leaving behind the sword generally clasped to his belt, and headed back down to the common room on the first floor. Several of the other Zeveradico cat-called playfully at him but suddenly fell silent as Maria descended the grand staircase. Kiowa caught himself with mouth half-agape as his eyes fell upon her, but he quickly regained his usual guarded composure.
Maria wore a floor-length crimson lace petticoat that peeked out slightly beneath the hem of an elaborate black gown. The bodice of the dress was a back-laced satin and leather corset accentuated by red ribbon that ran around her slender waist. The front of the bodice slipped down her chest elegantly, and her golden tresses were bound in a loose, cascading bundle at the nape of the left side of her neck. Her lips were a lush crimson, her green eyes hooded beneath delicately painted lids. She looked like a porcelain doll.
Kiowa cleared his throat and offered her his arm. "Miss Gearheart, you look stunning," he said, his eyes carefully avoiding the dip of her bodice front.
"Why, thank you," she smiled, taking his outstretched arm. "Luna and Desdemona helped me. You look handsome yourself, Silverwing. You clean up well."
"So I've been told. Are you ready?"
"Are you?" She grinned sensually as they exited the Clock Tower.
Kiowa opened the awaiting carriage door and helped Maria to climb in before doing so himself.
"Phrixus Halfstone," Maria mused as the horseless carriage lurched into motion. She flipped through the pages in his file. "If he's half as handsome in real life as he is in this sketch, the evening will definitely keep my interest."
Kiowa ignored her as he carefully examined his own file. He quickly memorized the information within and the sketch of Varin Westforge, and then slid the Zeveradico invitation into his inside breast pocket before placing the file into a concealed drawer built into the base of the carriage seat. He had a feeling that the night would be much more than interesting.