Short Story – A Spectre in the Shadows
His azure eyes never leaving his opponent, Matthias dodged the blow of the sword and sidestepped. Raising his clawed gauntlets, he met the blade.
Hearing the gritting sound of steel on steel and certain he had made his point, he pushed it away. His vision refocusing, he now saw his surroundings, the training grounds within the base known as Q-16. Before him was Annetta Severio, drenched in sweat, her reddish-brown bangs matted against her forehead and sporting only her t-shirt and jean combination. Her furious blue eyes seemed to blaze as they focused in on him, a look he had not so long ago loathed when he had been Mislantus’s right hand. Knowing what was missing from the scene, Matthias raised his arm back just in time to feel the head of Jason Kinsman’s mace come down and become locked on his other gauntlet.
“Good,” Matthias said as he concluded the lesson and withdrew into a neutral stance. “But you both have a lot to learn when it comes to fighting as a team.”
“Man, say what you want, but we had you,” Jason groaned, twirling the mace in his hand like a baseball bat, his shaggy brown hair unkempt due to all the moving around.
Matthias flashed him a threatening grin. “Oh really? And what about that lovely nick on your arm?”
Confused, Jason looked over to where Matthias was indicating. They were all using blunted weapons for the purposes of training. This did not mean the occasional scratch did not occur. Taking a closer look at his forearm, Jason noticed a raised pink welt where the skin had been scraped, as though an animal had got at it. Frowning, the boy did not say anything back, causing the assassin to smile broader.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Annetta huffed. “A scratch is a scratch. We had you in a corner, and you know it.”
Before more arguing could continue, the sound of wood against the stone floor of the arena could be heard, accompanied by feet.
“I think that’s quite enough,” Puc concluded. “You are both free to go for the evening. And Jason, do disinfect that before leaving. You know where the supplies are.”
The boy muttered something under his breath as he stashed the mace on the weapon rack and left, followed by the girl after she had done the same with her sword.
Matthias watched them and then turned to the dark-haired elf. “That was my call to make when they were done. If they want to get cocky with me-”
“They are youth,” Puc reminded him as he came closer. “Haughtiness and a fiery disposition are at the core of their nature, or have you not picked up on this yet?”
“And here I just thought it was warrior pride.” The assassin smirked, causing the mage to shake his head. “Look, you asked me to teach them more about fighting and their abilities, how to use them as one. How exactly do you want me to do that if you keep interrupting our lessons? They wanna act like teenage punks, they’re gonna get pummelled a few times and then they’ll stay quiet and do as they’re asked. That’s how we all learned on the ship.”
“This is not Valdhar,” Puc warned, “And I will not condone the senseless beating of my pupils because you think it will break their spirit and make them more obedient.”
“Whoa, they started it.” Matthias waved his hands from side to side. “I merely meant to oblige and finish the job, and honestly, you came to me for help. I didn’t volunteer for this.”
“You asked how you could be of use,” the elf reminded him. “You’re an atrocity with potion mixing and you’ve no head for spells. This is how.”
Matthias silently cursed himself, remembering the conversation he’d had with Puc during the feast after the downfall of Mislantus. Those had been his words, hadn’t they? Running a hand through his ruffled brown hair, his face twisted up into a grimace, as if trying to pull what he had said from the mage’s memory. Seeing this not working, he turned to hide his expression.
“Yeah, I guess I did,” he concluded. “Still doesn’t change my mind about their training.”
Having nothing else to say, the assassin strode past Puc, anger still festering inside of him as he mulled over the previous conversation. Matthias had been trained to be the best of the best, a killer. If he would not prepare Jason and Annetta, who would? He certainly had the credentials for it, and he knew exactly what those on the other ends of their weapons would be thinking. The mage was blinded by compassion, and he had no time to waste on the likes of him if this was so. Psychic warriors fought dirty, and that was that.
“I don’t need to change your mind.” Puc broke the silence. “But the day will come when you realize how wrong your outlook truly is, and only then will you come to terms with what I have to say.”
Ignoring him, Matthias left the room.
Tossing and turning beneath the sheets later that night, Matthias heaved heavily in his sleep. It was not uncommon for the assassin to be in such a state. In fact, if it wasn’t for his physical need to sleep, he probably never would, due to the night terrors which fuelled those moments.
They were never of his own choosing, either, nor did he dream of things which truly scared him when he was awake. They were fabrications of his subconscious, memories from his past he’d scarce remembered until the day he’d had his Visium when visiting the Ogaien. The vision quest had brought forth things he’d long since forgotten, battles and faces he’d suppressed, events and missions he had since removed from his mind. The scenario of each dream was the same, a mixture of the commotion of battle, the feel of heat rising through his body, flames, blood and ash enveloping his being, causing him to drown in it. These were not the things that bothered him, however. It was always the final instant of the dream. There, at the end of it all, they waited for him with terrified eyes, their whites a sharp contrast against the grime of death around them. Hands would always be outstretched and begging for mercy, a mercy that would never come. Then came the final response of the assassin, all falling to silence, and he would awaken again.
His eyes snapping open, Matthias peeled back the drenched sheets as he breathed deep to catch his breath. Standing to feel grounded, he was resolute not to go back to sleep. Changing into a new set of clothing, he set out to calm his mind in the only way he knew how.
Without so much as thinking about it, he teleported into the training arena. Unlike his previous encounter with the rink, it was now void of any noise, except the humming of the halogen lights above.
Walking to its centre, Matthias flexed his hands, stretching all of his fingers outward in order to awaken every fibre in them. Pressing his fists together before him, he then closed his eyes. Behind his lids, the images of the faceless foes he’d just encountered in his sleep formed. If he could not face them when asleep, he would do so when aware and awake. Focusing intently on them, he replaced all previous drives of fear he’d felt with the one he knew suited him most: His drive to fight.
His body filled with adrenaline, he leaped at his first opponent, colliding his fist with his enemy’s head and knocking him to the ground. Hearing the enraged battle cry of another fiend, he spun on his heel, extended the hidden claws in his gauntlets and stabbed the being through the chest, watching him fall off the blades for a split second before the taking on the next one. Soon, there seemed to be an endless mass of the beings all around him, and he could not tell what any of them were. Every adversary seemed to be a dark shadow with gleaming red eyes that changed forms whenever he was close enough. One moment it appeared to be a Verden, then an Imap, then a Gaian, then a Minotaur and so on. There also seemed no end to the shadow beings, and by the time he had slain at least fifty, he was not sure who it was that he was fighting anymore. More importantly, he was not sure what he was fighting for to begin with. None of it made any sense, except the feeling of his heightened pulse against his throat and the machine like need to continue. The more he tried to think, the more the bloodlust seemed to take him.
Finally, standing in the midst of their fallen forms, his enemies having been completely vanquished, the assassin fell to his knees in exhaustion. A chill filled his body from head to toe as he inhaled and exhaled roughly, a drowning man amidst a sea of his conquered enemies.
Baritone laughter soon could be heard coming from all around, rousing Matthias from his kneeling position. Glancing from side to side, he curled his fists anew, searching for the source. His eyes picking out an unclear apparition on the horizon, he focused, trying to put meaning into what he was seeing, for the shape of the being was not clear. Everything in his body told him he needed to know what it was. Regaining some of his failing strength, he used his psychic abilities to give his legs a renewed energy as he ran.
“Matthias,” a whispering voice called from all around.
Gritting his teeth, he pressed forward, stumbling over the bodies on the floor.
His legs failing him, Matthias tumbled forward, using his arms to brace himself from the floor. Anger seething through his clenched teeth, he continued to crawl on his forearms. He would know what the form on the horizon was.
“Matt-” the voice seemed to cut off part way, and something clamped the assassin’s shoulder.
Matthias’s eyes snapped open just in time to see him almost impale Link upon his claws. The grey-eyed youth with a crescent moon scar across his eye was taken aback by the display of fury coming from him. Certain the assassin was awake, he released his shoulder and took a step back.
Seeing what he had almost done, Matthias took a step back, retracting his claws into a dormant state. His stunned face turned to neutral and then back to rage as the feeling of being vulnerable in the presence of another overtook him.
“What are you gaping at?” he snapped.
Still confused by what had transpired, Link furrowed his brows as he tried to piece it all together. “Uhm… are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Matthias grunted in response. “Why would you think otherwise?”
“You were crawling on the floor with your eyes closed,” Link informed him, “Right after you looked to be fighting something or someone.”
“A sparring exercise,” the assassin assured him.
“In the middle of the night?” The young Gaian indicated to the C.T.S. watch on his arm. “Call me cautious, but it looked like you were sleepwalking. I’ve seen someone do it firsthand, and I know how dangerous it can be if it’s not kept in check.”
“Then you’d also know not to wake someone when they’re doing it,” Matthias retorted. “Or didn’t you think of that?”
Link furrowed his brows as he lowered his head slightly. “Sorry.”
Growling a response through his teeth, Matthias turned his back on the young Gaian and strut out of the arena back to his chambers. Though anger seared on the surface, a curiosity about what had transpired moments ago had been born as well.
The next day in the early afternoon, according to the timepieces within the Lab, Matthias waited yet again within the arena for Annetta and Jason to arrive. His eyes were heavy with lack of sleep, but he did his best to not show it. The only betraying features on him were the dark rings under his eyes and slightly bloodshot whites. Closing them, he provided temporary relief until the voices of his charges carried into the arena.
Opening them, he saw Annetta and Jason staring at him from the opposite end of the room with perplexed expressions.
“Whoa,” Jason managed to say, “You look like…”
“Like what?” the assassin mused.
“Like Annetta when she pulled an all-nighter studying for that final exam we had before summer started.” The youth managed to finish his sentence and then turned to the girl. “How did you do on that, by the way?”
“I didn’t fail. That’s all I know,” she answered plainly.
“Unimportant,” Matthias snapped. “Grab your weapons, we’ve got a lot planned for today.”
The duo obeyed, walking over to the weapons rack, still uncertain about what the assassin’s next course of action would be.
“Should we stretch before we start?” Annetta asked.
“If you didn’t stretch beforehand, it’s not my problem,” Matthias scoffed. “Starting today, you want to stretch, you do it prior to coming here. I’m not wasting any of my time on it anymore. There’s too much to cover and not enough time to do it, especially with you both sleeping in till midday.”
“Hey, we have to have a social life somehow,” Jason retorted.
“Again, not my problem,” he stated and readied himself in a battle stance. “Now, we’re going to start with some sparring, but I want to try something different this time. No teleporting. You can use your abilities to make yourself jump further away, do flips, whatever else you desire, but no teleportation.”
“That’s one of our most used abilities, though,” Annetta protested.
“And you rely on it too much,” Matthias informed them. “In turn, using up energy which could become crucial for something else in the fight. Never assume a fight is going to be easy and that you’ll have energy left over. Conserve wherever possible.”
Neither of them could argue with the logic of what the assassin had said and they quickly went into battle stances.
Certain they were both ready, Matthias teleported from sight.
“Hey! What gives!” Jason shouted.
“I said what you would do, not what I would be doing,” Matthias’s voice rang through both of their heads as they tried to pick out where he would appear from.
Their anticipation was answered when the assassin’s claws came crashing down from behind. The duo was only saved by their reflexes and bringing their weapons up, blocked the attack that would otherwise have cost both of them their heads. Blades locked, they pressed additional force into their arsenals using their psychic abilities.
Matthias jumped back, allowing the impact to carry him further, doing a backflip in the process and landing on his feet. He raised his hand briefly to interrupt the encounter, “You may find yourself at a disadvantage, but this does not mean it will always be the same for your opponent. Now, let’s see what you can do.”
Withdrawing his hand, he went back into his stance and braced for impact. He remembered well where those words had come from. They were the words his old mentor, Amarok Mezorian, had told him when he had been forced into a similar training exercise by the elder assassin.
His mind partially drifted to his master. Their last encounter had been on Valdhar, where a blast of psychic fire that had been meant to kill Matthias had in turn killed Annetta. Or at least that’s what they had thought. While the thoughts of all those gathered at the scene had been focused on the girl, Amarok had escaped and had not been heard of since. Though everyone seemed optimistic about the disappearance, Matthias knew it was too early to celebrate. Hadn’t Orbeyus’s death been caused by the very same man that had escaped after all?
It was a story he’d been told multiple times by the old assassin, his triumph over the Lord of the Axe. The vengeance that he’d had to carefully orchestrate for years before carrying it out, then fleeing to seek out the son of Mordred to continue on his father’s work. Matthias knew better than anyone that the absence of Amarok was not a good omen without a corpse to back up his demise.
His daydreaming catching up to him, Matthias felt the sting of a blade scratch against the fabric on his chest. Snapping back to reality, the assassin looked down to see a small gash where part of the material on his shirt had stretched from the impact of the edge going across it. Looking up, he glared at the two youth in question.
“Sorry, I thought you were going to block.” Annetta bit her lip.
He was not certain what set it off, the lack of sleep from the previous night, the stupefied look on the girl’s face despite knowing they were training and such nicks would happen, or something far more primitive from within. What Matthias was only certain of in the seconds that transpired after was that he held nothing back. His blunted claws fully extended, the assassin launched a full-hearted attack at both youth. His opponent’s confused questioning of his methods was drowned out in the sound of laboured breaths and metal gritting against metal as they fought. It occurred then to Matthias, somewhere through the haze, that he had always held back while fighting the two of them. He had never had a chance to test his skill against the Heir of Orbeyus or the Son of Arcanthur. There was a relief in his blinded deliriousness he was encountering in that moment as he attacked. The assassin, the psychic warrior within, was free. He was not a teacher, but a combatant, going at his enemy with all the fervour his body could muster.
The further he continued in his trance, the more the terrified faces of the duo he faced seemed to fade, to morph into something they were not, a silver broken mass with a single eye glaring back, laughing at the assassin.
“Matthias,” it called to him once more.
Unable to comprehend whether what he saw was real or not, Matthias withdrew his attack, staring into the apparition, the figure he realized he had previously chased in his dreams. It was not until he felt a dull thud across the back of his head that he realized what it had truly been.
The innate buzzing of halogen lights drowned out all other sound as Matthias’s eyes crept open. He seemed to be lying on the ground, staring face up straight into the ceiling. Moving his arms to push himself up, he realized he was strapped down to a bed. Turning his head to side, he saw he was in the infirmary, and when he looked over his shoulder, he was confronted with the steel gaze of the elven mage.
“What happened out there?” Puc demanded.
“Let me out of this,” Matthias hissed furiously.
“Not until you explain yourself,” he stated coldly.
“Nothing happened,” the assassin replied. “I just got a bit carried away in the moment is all.”
“Unknown’s bane, you really must take me for a simpleton if you think such an answer will suffice,” the mage spat as he moved around the bed, making sure all the straps that held Matthias down were secure.
“Even if I told you the truth, you wouldn’t believe me,” he grunted, “Same as before. I know you’ve never trusted me .”
Half expecting the mage to walk away in that instant, Matthias was surprised to see him pull up a chair beside his bed and settle himself in it.
“I am many things, Teron,” he remarked, “But I learn from my mistakes and while not proud of it, I fully acknowledge that what I did to you upon discovery of your origins when you first came to stay with us was wrong. I’m giving you this chance to explain yourself without my questioning its validity until after you have spoken.”
It took Matthias a brief moment to gather his thoughts until they finally manifested. “It’s Amarok.”
“He’s still alive.” Matthias continued his train of thought. “He escaped Valdhar, I’m sure of it. I see him in my dreams almost each night, laughing, taunting me, like some spectre.”
“Perhaps that is all he is, then?” Puc spoke after giving it some thought. “A vision only conjured in your mind and nothing more.”
“He’s alive,” the assassin spoke again. “You never knew him like I did. Knew the lengths of what he was capable of. Need I remind you what he did to your precious Orbeyus again? A mystery you never solved until I told you who did it. You know as well as I that he is a spectre in the shadows, biding his time and given enough of it he will strike.”
A wave of silence passed through the both of them as Matthias finished his sentence, only to be faced with a stone-faced Puc in return.
“What do you propose be done if you are so certain he lives?” Puc inquired.
“Let me go prove myself,” Matthias replied. “Let me go do what I was trained to do. Be an assassin, a psychic warrior. It’s clear I have no talent for anything around here and I’m useless when it comes to training Annetta and Jason, so let me do the one thing that you, Link and Sarina can’t do, and hunt down Amarok and put an end to him.”
“And how will you find him? Even if you go, we have no functioning ships.”
Matthias shot Puc a crooked grin in response. “You leave that to me.”
Dressed in a green canvas trench coat that hid his gauntlets, Matthias strode through the halls of the Lab confidently with a duffle bag over his shoulder, followed by its other occupants in tow. Arriving at the entrance to the corridor he meant to go into, he walked up to one of the tarp covered objects and waited for the others to catch up. Once they arrived, Matthias pulled away the tarp to reveal a rectangular vessel that was about the size of a large trailer, with a long, sleek, pointed nose at one end and short wings to either side.
“I salvaged it from the battlefield against Mislantus,” he informed them. “Found one mostly intact, and then it was a matter of scanning my hand on the panel beside the entrance to my room to get the pieces required.”
“You’ve been planning this for some time, then?” Puc confirmed.
“Not exactly, but we had no functioning ships, so I decided to fix the problem,” he stated.
“Because you never know when a space rescue will be in order, I guess,” Jason chimed in, rolling his eyes.
“You’re really planning on leaving then, Matt?” Sarina asked, her tone somewhat forlorn.
A tinge of guilt seemed to remove Matthias from his sureness for a split second as he turned to face the young girl. He quickly recomposed himself. “I have to do this. If Amarok is alive, we’re all in danger.”
“But Valdhar was destroyed. It self-destructed,” Annetta reminded him.
Link nodded his head in agreement. “Yeah, we saw it happen.”
“Amarok is far more problematic than we were lead to believe,” Puc finally said. “If there is a chance that he did somehow survive, then Matthias will be the one to find him.”
“I still don’t get what evidence we have of this.” Annetta frowned. “But if you say so, who am I to go against it?”
“Only the Heir of Orbeyus. Need I remind you of that?” Matthias smirked.
“It’s just an empty title among friends as far as I’m concerned,” she replied. “You’ll let us know if you find anything, right?”
“The moment I know.” He nodded. Turning around, he unlocked the doors of the machine with a hand gesture. “In the meantime, work on fighting with disadvantages, will ya?”
He said neither speeches nor heartfelt goodbyes as he entered the craft. He felt no need for such things. Settling himself into the synthetic brown material seat, he turned the machine on with another hand gesture, checking the statistics of the vessel. From his view through the spaceshield, he noticed Puc begin to create the spell that would allow him to pass through the base and into the atmosphere above. He had already formulated a plan for which of his old associates he would meet with in order to obtain information, so he entered the coordinates he would need. With everything set, Matthias closed his eyes one final time before takeoff. The hunt was on, and the assassin was back where he needed to be. Eyes wide open, he then pulled the lever and awaited the sight of a thousand stars on blackened horizon.