A Rangers Tale
By: Jeff R. Young

The silver hue of moonlight that dominated the night sky was gradually diminishing behind a slow but steady wall of clouds migrating in from the east. Further still, hints of bluish-white bolts flashed through the night sky, followed by the soft crescendo of rumbling thunder. Below, shadows descended over the rock walls and crags that made up the Hogsback Highlands, which bordered the Endrea Rift, a vast open expanse of unfathomable depth. High within those hills, nestled between two cliffs, sat the fortress of Razorback Keep.

The dual round watchtowers of the Keep loomed above the bluffs to either side, connected by a high, broad, and windowless wall of chiseled gray stone capped with symmetrical crenelations for the patrolling archers. A large tunneled archway, gated from both ends, served as the lone entryway into the courtyard beyond. Only two torches, fastened on each side of the outer portcullis, provide illumination beyond what the distant lightning offers, leaving the rocky path to the gateway swallowed in darkness, the perfect place for the assassin to hide.

Outside the Keep, the being moved in silence through the night, only pausing to slip behind a boulder as a patrolling guard passed by on the wall above. The watchman paused for a moment, looking out around the outer yard, but the cut-throat was covered in fur as black as night, and unlike the guard on the wall, the assassin, with eyes of a cat, could see well in the dark. As the guard lost interest and moved on, the would-be perpetrator ran along the cliff's base until he reached the bottom of the wall, under the tower.

As the guard once again made his rounds, the creature reached out and began to claw its way up the wall, moving with the sureness of a cat-like grace. Upon reaching the top, it slipped over the edge to dart across the stone path behind the guard, sprung up and over the other side, dropping ten-meters to the cobblestone of the courtyard in a silent fall. For a brief moment, torchlight shimmered over its crouched form, highlighting the creature, showing it for what it was, part man, part panther, covered head to toe with black fur. With a flick of his long black tail, he jumped back out of the light to stand flat against the wall.

The storm had crept closer, casting brilliant flashes of light across the three-story stronghold while the growing roar of thunder rattled the various sturdy glass windows. A rush of wind swept past, sending the torches within the compound into chaos, causing flickering shadows to dance among its walls. The assassin used the darkness to slip like a specter across the yard to the base of the Keep. Sliding down the wall to his right, he moved towards the only known entrance. With careful movements, he reached to test the door, unsurprised to find it locked.

With a glance up the Keeps wall, he locked his gaze on a window of the second floor. His target set, he began a quick climb, metallic claws easily slipping into the cracks of the chiseled stone. A spiderweb of lightning sped across the sky, but the black of his fur all but blended in with the dark rock. He quickly reached the window and steadied himself as he stretched out to test it, but it too was locked.

Reaching down to the belt looped through his pants, which was the only piece of clothing he wore, he pulled out a set of picks from a small pouch. He chose one and went to work on the lock. With a soft click, he knew he found success but only opened the window a few centimeters so he could carefully study the frame. With the darkvision offered by slitted feline eyes, he spotted what he was looking for, a delicate string connected from the window frame to something just inside, out of sight. It was an obvious trap, set to spring if an intruder pushed the window in too far. To the assassin, it was a little too obvious.

Lightning once again crackled overhead, stealing the darkness for a moment only to be followed by a sharp crack of thunder that shook the building. As small drops of rain began to fall, the creature quickly slipped a claw under the windowpane to keep it from vibrating open any further and held it till the rumble faded.

He turned his attention back to the wire, which he knew to be a decoy to hide the real trap. From his belt, he pulled a tied leather purse and set it carefully on the sill. With one hand, he pulled the tie and took a small handful of the green powder out from within. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the dust up into the window and watched as a nearly transparent red glyph glowed, highlighted by the descending powder. The window was protected by a magical ward of some kind, one he did not recognize, but it mattered little to the assassin as the glowing glyph faded under the dust's magical properties. With the enchanted trap now dispelled, he quickly cut the wire using one of his sharpened claws.

With practiced caution, the assassin swung the window in slowly, peering into the small candlelit chamber beyond. The area was vacant, occupied with only various pieces of well-fashioned furniture, including a canopy bed, covered with a near-transparent piece of white cloth. Paintings of diverse designs decorated the walls with a single door at the far side of the room.

The misty drizzle of rain rapidly turned into a downpour as he slipped silently into the room, closing the window tight behind him. The light of the candles stole any shadows to hide in, so the creature quickly made his way to the door. Slow and cautious, he opened it a crack, using both his keen sense of hearing and sight to examine the hall beyond. The torch-lit hallway was empty as well, free of guards or other patrons of the Keep, though muted voices could be heard off to his right, further down the corridor.

Slipping into the hall, he crouched as he made his way noiselessly toward the sound of the conversation, which seemed to consist of a female speaking with a male. He snuck up to an intersection connecting a hallway to his left. He risked a glance around the corner to only see an empty flight of stairs leading up to the third level. The voices came from that direction, so with soundless steps, he made his way up and paused at yet another juncture, this one leading off in all four directions. He chose to slip across, moving straight down a short hall which ended with a wooden door. Crouching down, the assassin meant to eavesdrop on the conversation, but they had gone suspiciously quiet.

"I think you made it far enough." Came a sudden menacing voice from behind. The assassin spun, going instantly into his fighting stance, legs bent, arms slightly extended, metallic claws at the ready as if about to pounce. His long black tail went low and straight as the tip began to twitch.

The dark-haired man, wearing a patchwork of leather armor, held a dagger in each hand, ready to defend himself if needed, and gave off an air of confidence behind his dark brown eyes. Heartbeats passed as they locked eyes, silently provoking the other to attack. Some of that self-assurance appeared to leave the mans eyes as the panther looking assassin smiled enough to show his sharp fanged teeth.

The assassin showed his incredible reflexes as the door opened behind him. In an instant, he had dropped down several stairs, turning his body sideways to face a new threat. In the doorway stood an impressively large man, his expression passive under his sandy brown hair and blue eyes.

"He's here," The huge man remarked to someone in the room behind him.

"Bring him in," A woman's voice commanded. "I've been waiting long enough."

The man in the doorway motioned to his counterpart at the bottom of the steps, who nodded once before slipping his daggers away. The dark-haired man traded a wicked glare with the fanged assassin before turning to walk off. The large man motioned, opening the door all the way. The cat-like intruder calmed at the invitation and climbed the few steps.

The interior of the room was luxuriously decorated, with exquisitely crafted chests, bookshelves, and cabinets. Tapestries depicting contemporary scenes of wizards and mages in the motions of casting some unknown spells hung on the walls. On the far side of the chamber sat an ornate wooden desk, from which a woman stepped around.

"An Ellisar," The woman remarked in astonishment, "How fascinating. You must be Iron Claw then?"

"I am," He returned with a nod, his tone a bit cold.

"I've never seen one of your kind before," The woman commented, looking him over intently.

A being of part man and part panther, his appearance resembled the build of both species combined. Though he looked fundamentally human, the most predominant features were that of his cat-like heritage. Despite its human-shaped features, his face was covered in black fur with thin whiskers protruding out of his cheeks and his eyes were yellow surrounding black vertical pupils. His hand, which had five fingers, and bare feet, which had five toes, were tipped with razor-sharp metal claws.

Iron Claw was Ellisar, a race of half-bloods whose human qualities mixed with the attributes of the various animals found in the realm. They were a reclusive race, mostly keeping to themselves in the territories they claimed in the northwestern region of Cadirath. Only a select few ever ventured out of their lands, and hunters and disreputable rangers often targeted those who did as a sport. As untrusting as the Ellisar were, they upheld a delicate form of peace between them and the other races of the land.

As the woman sized him up, Iron Claw took a moment to return the favor. She was a tall and slender woman with long wavy red hair framing a slightly angular face, raised cheekbones, and a subtle, pointed nose. Her vibrant green eyes bore through whoever she looked at with an air of superiority few could obtain. Her dress, covering only a small portion of her shoulders, flowed down into a modest neckline in a relaxed-looking fit that covered her breasts some but did so without making it look awkward or messy. The dress fit snug around her waist and had a straight style that came to an end just slightly above the floor. It was hard for him to imagine an average man not finding her attractive, but she presented herself with a sense of superiority, an arrogant vibe that stole some of that beauty.

"You really are a stunning creature," She purred, lifting his chin with the tender touch of a delicate looking hand. He did all he could not pull away. He'd heard rumors of her incredible magical abilities, some claiming her one of the more powerful mages in the realm, with a wicked temper to match. He felt it wise not to provoke her.

"And you must be Temira Greyfell," Iron Claw said as she let him go.

"I am," She mused, stepping back to her desk, "and I must congratulate you on your abilities. Sneaking into my fortress wasn't supposed to be that easy."

"Why am I here?" The Ellisar asked bluntly. He hated the games his clients played when they intended to hire him.

"Why, to kill someone, of course," She answered openly. "You are an assassin, are you not?"

He nodded in affirmation though he bristled and the title. "Who is the target?"

Temira glanced to her silent bodyguard, then looked back. "A woman. A rather troublesome woman who has claimed an item I dearly want."

"So am I after the woman or the item?" Iron Claw asked, letting his tone hint at the irritation he was feeling.

"Both," She answered with ice, "I want the key she possesses, and I want her dead."

"And her crime?"

"Does it matter?"

The Ellisar hissed quietly through his fanged teeth. "I don't kill the innocent."

Temira laughed wickedly as she shot her guard a look who smiled ironically, "An assassin with morals!"

She fell quiet for a moment as she sat behind her desk and rested her chin on folded hands and an uncomfortable silence fell through the room. Iron Claw's eyes narrowed with frustration as he looked to her guard, studying his posture. If this meeting went sour, he knew that man would be the first to act. Yet nothing about him suggested any malice. As he swung his eyes back to the wizard, he could see a hardness growing in her features.

"The deal is this, you kill this woman and any other around her, obtain the key I seek, and you will be well paid." She demanded.

The Ellisar didn't like where this was going. Now, she said anyone with her, which meant multiple targets. "How are these others around her involved?"

"There will most likely be two of them, so consider them targets of opportunity. I'll add on a significant bonus if you take care of them as well."

"You still have not answered my question," Iron Claw stated. "Why do you want them dead?"

"Because I command it," She yelled as she slapped a hand on the desktop. "You will do as I bid," She hesitated enough to calm, though the assassin knew it was a ruse. "And you will be well paid."

Shaking his head, Iron Claw turned towards the door. "No, I will not, if you won't tell me what I want to know, the deal is…" He paused as her bodyguard took a casual step toward the doorway, not entirely blocking his path, but close enough to strike should he move to attack.

"I hoped it wouldn't come to this," Temira sighed heavily, "But you leave me no choice."

With a furrowed brow, Iron Claw looked back at her and hissed, "What do you mean?"

The wizard stood to walk around her desk and motioned to him as she walked to the door. "Come, I have something to show you."

Curiosity drove his legs as he followed her down the stairs and left when they reached the halls intersection. Though he was silently interested in what she had to show him, he remained ready to pounce should this be a trap. But it was when she opened a door at the end of the hall that any interest he had in what was coming turned to horror.

"You see," She smiled softly, "I'll never take no for an answer."

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