She hissed under her breath as she lifted the dry leaves with the edge of her blade. In pursuit, even a noise as faint as this would have compromised her position. But no soul ever ventured this close to the edge of the woods. Or so she had believed…

But as the faded ring lay there under the leaf litter, its inner band stained dark with dried blood, she knew that these forests had received an unfortunate visitor. Instinct – a pure inherent drive – was screaming at her to turn around. To walk away and never look back. But there were only two such rings in the world, and the other belonged to her.

The seal bore the mark of two snakes coiling around the hilt of a dagger; the two serpents mirrored one another in their menacing postures, poised to strike. Gilded scales and fangs made the small figures near lifelike in their immaculate detail. It was as much alike to any seal she had ever seen, marking the trade of an assassin, as it was unique. Guilds were often identifiable by a symbol that exuded lethality. But in the choosing of a twin set of serpents, they had deliberately marked their exclusivity as a pairing instead of an organised covert association.

Years ago, as their paths had crossed – two rebel agents of stealth who had broken their oaths – the idea had begun as a mere joke. Their swift confrontation at an inn, which nearly ended in both of them drawing daggers to strike a fatal blow, had turned into a diffusion of instinctive assumptions long enough to realise that both of them had gone rogue. They had talked then, at length, and through the night. They amused one another with the trangressions they both held to their name. They even admitted to the skill of the other.

As silent as a sleeping viper… That is how he had described her. But what started as a running jest proved itself true on many occasions after that fateful night. Their respective guilds had sent many to try and silence them – many who had been silenced instead. And true to the appellation attached to her, she had long perfected the practice of striking with lighting and deadly force.

He on the other hand, though nearly as quick with a blade, had talents more suited to prolonged melee engagement. Using his blade as an extension of himself, he would manoeuvre his strikes to hook onto his target and draw them into a deadly chokehold often ending in strangulation. His superiors had dubbed him ‘The Python’, but she (as many of his equals) had come to know him as Deathlocke. Aptly named, as the targets of his ambush tactics hardly ever escaped that hold with their last breath.

Soon enough, they discovered that while fighting alone, no strike was swift enough, nor any amount of strength expendable on a single target alone. Their pursuers had advanced in succession – the most ruthless agents of their former guilds, armed to the teeth for the sole purpose to end him and her. But cutting off the head of two snakes was more difficult than one…

The ring was a seal of their covenant: a mutually beneficial partnership that melded their skillsets in a perfect lethal unity. More than that, it proved to be a clever form of communication. When seperated – perhaps because of the gain yielded from their respective operations – the seal would mark their missives sent over the course of weeks apart. It was a secure method of procuring intelligence, and it misdirected unwanted eyes from their split and secret skirmishes. But as the passage of a month grew silent, she became restless with the thoughts of their exposure. But it paled in comparison to the unrest that she felt by being burdened with the discovery of his very visible trail… a trail she had followed effortlessly to find him…

What alarmed her, was his clear pattern of movement during the weeks spent apart. It had been nothing of note at first; clues that only she could pick up, and hints that only she could follow. But as she had tracked him on a trail that would have grown cold for any unfamiliar to the telltale signs, the same trail bacame a searing beacon that would have led her, or anyone, to the suspicious waypoints of his strange wayward journey. Patterns were perilous for an assassin. He knew this. Perhaps that knowledge was responsible for the daunting unease that ceaselessly grew in the pit of her stomach.

His behaviours had become erratic, as attested by innkeeps, hermits and sleazy barkeeps. His movements had been slow, as evidenced by the sequence of nights he had spent in a single space. But perhape most disturbing, was witness accounts of a deranged, decrepit and haggard appearance, along with other descriptions. Descriptions so unlikely, yet so tangent to the truth, that she could hardltly deny that it was in fact truly him they were speaking of. The pattern was drawn: a clear and repetitive accumulation of trail lines that undeniably solidified the lunacy of his campaign – a campaign down open roads no assassin ventured.

He had made himself vulnerable – A snake that had slithered into the open…

And then the trail went cold… until, by chance, it didn’t. It now lead her to the edge of the woods looming over her. She stood there, desperately trying to beat down the belief that ‘The Python’s’ head had not been stepped on. Madness. It was madness. Why would she follow? Why would she trace the trail of damnation…? A sense of foreboding made her clench the dagger hilt at her side with white-knuckled caution. There was something wrong about this place. A small talent at magic had made her an excellent witch hunter, and she used that skill now to feel at the oppressive force rolling from dense clusters of trees in the distance. Standing where she did, amid the first shadowy boles that waited in herald to unwary travellers, it almost felt as if the very air was being siphoned from her lungs. The chest constricting powers rolled over her, dulled her senses, and instilled her with a sense of dread.

This was before she even stepped over the threshold of the wood itself…

But enter she must. Something yet deeper compelled her to step into the dark fray that stretched before her. Deeper than her own hesitation, instinct, or training. She looked down at the ring with the twin serpent insignia, and closed her hand tightly around it to feel the seal imprint itself on the inside of her palm. The viper, after all, was not the python. Perhaps her strike would be laced with enough venom to keep the unfriendly forces of this place at bay. She breathed deeply.

Cloaking herself with the night, she found momentary solace in her abilities to move unseen. But as she ventured deeper into the forested mausoleum, she wondered what happened when The Night pulled back that cloak in the domain where it already reigned…

Inktober #10

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