The stone fortress stood tall and bright in the darkening night, men in chain lining the parapets of the mighty stone walls, rising high into the black sky. The men stood attentive, pacing to and fro across the walls with blazing torches in hands, many with strung bows slung across their backs, while others still cradling crossbows to their chests. All carried a blade sheathed to their waist. Out here in the calm, cool night air, all was quiet, nothing but the jingling of chain and the crackling of the torches could be heard.
They were not alone.
Unbeknownst to these men was the fact that they were being watched. No, not watched, studied. Perched in a thicket of sturdy oak trees towering above even the mighty human construct just a stone’s throw away was a shadowed figure on a branch facing the fortress’s left wall. The man had arrived with the dawn, the sun having preceded him by mere moments, and had been watching, observing the fortress, it’s people, their pattern and mannerisms, their quirks and timings, all of their secrets.
Now, as the last creatures of the day scurried off into their lairs, seeking shelter from the predators of the night, as the crickets started up their simple tune, soon joined by the owls in the trees as they too joined the chorus of the night, the man rose from his crooked branch, from where the fortress below was nothing but a map and its guards nothing but ants, and he leaned forward, tipping ever so slowly into the darkness below, before being engulfed by the shadows.
This particular fortress, unlike many of its ilk, had not been constructed on a hill, whether perhaps because the architect had been afraid of heights, maybe allergic to common sense, or simply a fool, nobody truly knew, only that the fortress sat in a clearing surrounded by woods on all sides, and that the space from the trees to the walls was nothing but grassy open plains, with not even a pebble to hide behind and use as cover. All in all, it served its purpose, it was a rather difficult place to walk into if you weren’t welcome.
On this night, the open plains were in utter turmoil, as the guards atop the walls continued their rounds, sending their torchlight down and making it dance, small patches of light moving here and there as the guards shuffled and turned, with everything else cast in absolute darkness. Typically, the chaos would have been enough to deter any unwanted visitors in the night, the dancing lights moving much to erratically and much too fast for any normal being to have a hope of making it through.
The stranger from the trees made it halfway to the wall in mere heartbeats.
He danced and swayed to the rhythm of the lights, moving where they had been and away from where they would be, never once touching where they were. Every chaos had some order to it, and every pattern could be repeated, no matter how intricate it may seem. In only a few more moments, the man was at the walls, with no guard the wiser at their spectacular failure.
It was all too easy.
The man had arrived exactly where he had planned, at the base of the wall just 5 meters below a window barred with iron bars, leading directly into the fortress proper. A minor obstacle. Without breaking pace, the stranger took a single leap up towards the window, padded leather gloves making contact with the iron bars, an inaudible whisper coming from a hooded face as effortlessly the bars were torn free of their holds, and thrown into the room within. The intruder then proceeded to slip through into the room himself, again whispering to himself as he did so.
The room was unlit, yet the outlines of boxes and crates were unmistakable in the gloom, and as a gloved hand slid over one of the crates with effortless ease, the layer of dust covering them also became apparent. He had entered in a storage room that hadn’t been used in a very long time.
It was all too easy
He slowly walked towards the door at the other end of the room, listening closely for anything that would betray the presence of human life on the other side of the door. Hearing nothing, the stranger began by slowly creaking the door open, before confirming the lack of life in the hallway outside and swiftly slipping out of the room, softly closing the door behind himself.
Now it was only a simple matter of reaching the top floor, as after all, where better for a king to live than the very top. This truly was all too easy.
It took only minutes as the man stalked the deserted castle halls, a black specter silently creeping in the shadows. Patrolling night watchmen would pass through empty halls, swinging their fire-sticks about to beat the shadows away, only to find that nothing was there.
On one instance, a poor lad no older than 17 with wispy strands of black hair framing his face chose to enter a dark room for a quick reprieve, knowing he wouldn’t make it to the nearest latrines on the other side of the castle. The boy’s body would be found a few days later, pants down and with a slit throat.
Soon enough he arrived at the entrance to a spiral staircase located at the center of the fortress, placed at the end of an opulently decorated hall built of gleaming marble lined with gold molding as grand platinum chandeliers swung above the red velvet floor. The man smirked as he began ascending the steps.
It was all too easy.
Only a few steps up and he began hearing the voices, the distinct treble of a large man, likely one of the northerners royalty preferred as guards, a tradition installed by the previous Emperor. Six steps in and the chatters became clear enough to decipher words and phrases, two men arguing on whether an axe or a sword was the best weapon to use in a narrow hallway. Twenty-one steps in and the staircase was nearing its end, with no one to hear the soft rasp of blades sliding free from their sheaths. As the man finished his climb and turned the corner, the last thing the two northerners would ever see would be a pair of shimmering metallic objects flying towards them, and then darkness.
So easy, far, far too easy…
He was on the king’s floor now, the royal suite. It was now a simple matter of walking down the hall and opening the blood-splattered door at the end, guarded now only by a pair of slumped corpses. Then he felt it. That sharp, electric feeling as all his hairs stood on end, that unnerving sense that something was profoundly wrong with the universe, that something was here that shouldn't belong, something not of this world.
It was magic.
As he turned up to look, everything became clear. The rune was simple, a weak charm meant to disable a victim, not kill. Someone had informed the king of the Emperor's plans, and a mage had set a trap, and he had fallen for it. After all, people rarely looked up, a human flaw he himself exploited to no end. All this and more passed through his mind as he fell with a smirk on his lips, all in the few heartbeats it took for the magic to overpower the meager barriers surrounding the assassin and, as his body collapsed upon the cold stone floor, his open eyes saw no more.