To Be Challenged (2.1) The Hunter

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PART 1

She had escaped the submarine, a challenge she had assumed to be the final test she had to pass in order to officially make it into the Shadow Conclave, the greatest of challenges in the world. She had passed it, easily making it out unnoticed and exiting the vessel when it was near surface-level. The swim had been long but well within her abilities.

Once she got in contact with the real guide, she discovered it had been no test but an kidnapping attempt. It was what she was told, at least, she wasn’t sure she believed it. Regardless, she was led to a mansion belonging to the Magni family, which was known to be right in the center of the lands of Wahls, to the north and high. Not that one could ever find it through natural means, but it was there.

The House of Magni was a non-political entity which still controlled most of the country by being sought after for counsel and judgement on all important issues, those of government included.

House of Magni had several locations only reachable through the use of magic spells, and thus usually only known to them. The mansion was one of them.

Right out of the teleportation, she could only see clouds, whatever face of the horizon she set her eyes upon. They were on top of a mountain, for sure, but the weather, in a small radius around the mansion was nice and warm, while outside that radius, it was snowy and windy. Weather manipulation in a large area, it was the kind of thing that made intimidated her about magic.

The mansion itself was a rich traditional concoction of gothic-styled architecture, with equally stylized rooms and furniture. It was packed with servants and what looked like noble dignitaries. Or rulers.

She was asked to wait in the hall and she complied, ignoring the chairs, preferring to stand. As used as she was to being under-dressed, it was all the more notorious in that environment. Everyone was wearing fashionable suits and dresses, pompous and exuberant in all the kinds of cloth or fur that they were made of. The mages, who dressed humbly, offered a stark contrast by wearing long robes with cloaks and hoods to cover all their features. To make matters worse, most of them moved around floating inches from the ground. They mostly seemed observant, not really engaged in any task, at the exception of one who she noticed was attending a dispute between two nobles that had gotten loud.

She however? She was the Hunter. She had a small top to cover her chest and some cloth hanging down her belt to work as a small skirt, to cover her underwear. Her shoes were simply cloth tied around her soles and ankles by a string. The string on her left feet was longer, tying around her left leg so she could have a small pouch in which to hold darts and a dagger. And that was about it. For the benefit of this formal encounter however, she had put on a cape, with the neck large enough to cover her up to her chin, and down to the upper chest so her cleavage wouldn’t show. No hood to hide her short grey hair that already did a good job of hooding her face, since it reached down to her cheeks on all sides but the front.

She didn’t like having her senses hindered, she never had. Hindered senses meant death to her, as taught by her upbringing, and if it wasn’t for the small contact with civilization she had endured recently, she wouldn’t even have thought to wear as much as she was.

Everyone ignored her, though she sensed it was a decision, as in they were acknowledging her, even going as far as glancing at her, and then deciding to dismiss her.

She could not care less.

She waited, patiently, until the one mage came around, following a child. The kid was clearly very out of place, like her, but in a different way. She sported clothes she would expect out of a resident of Neyrk, but they were dirty and spent, leading her on to assume the kid was homeless. She smiled at her so innocently that the Hunter felt compassion for the girl. She was thinking about what she could possibly be doing there when the mage called to her attention.

“Follow me, Hunter.”

She nodded in silence and followed him, and only when gone from the kid’s presence did she consider that the child might be one of the participants.

That child…logic would suggest he is a participant like me. But my observation tells me otherwise…as do my senses.

She saw the door she was to cross.

“Go ahead, Hunter, the Lady of Magni awaits you.”

The lady of Magni, the matriarch of the entire house and veritable leader of the whole guild. She was guessing she was about to meet the final liaison for the Shadow Conclave.

I will defeat them, she thought to herself in assurance, whoever my opponents are, I will rise to this great challenge and I will defeat them.

On that thought, she went in.

The matriarch was behind a desk with a stack of books in front of her, one singled out for her to read. Her large and bulgy dark blue robes hid the heavily aged figure that was otherwise of a healthy grandmother. She did not divert her eyes from her book.

“Welcome, Zaniyah. Please, have a seat.”

I should not be surprised that they know my real name.

She silently assented and had a seat on the large chair in front of her desk. At that point, the Matriarch pulled a paper mark and neatly closed the book over it.

“Such an odd timing… for two contestants to visit me so very close to each other.”

So the child is a competitor… She said nothing though, instead allowing the lady to continue.

“You are The Hunter, yes? The Eighteenth?” Her hair was heavily greyed but still strong and straight around her head. Her eyes gleamed a still captivating purple.

“Yes,” she simply said, her voice sounding as unfamiliar as it always did. Even after all these years, she still had not grown accustomed to it. She also hated that it betrayed her young age.

“Prestigious title, the Hunter. Up there with the Shadow and our own Sorcerer.”

Is it? She questioned in her mind.

“Don’t be mistaken by the numbers,” she added, accidentally or knowingly letting Zaniya know she could read her emotion. Or mind. “Magni and Kagekawa actively substitute their agents as soon as possible, while all the other titles are followed up in a much more…uncontrolled manner.” She smiled. “Street Trash, for example, is in its fourth iteration…but despite that, it was the very first title made world-famous by a thief. Do you know how these titles are assigned, Zaniya? Or maybe it’s more accurate to use the word awarded.

She shook her head because she did not know; she had one day arrived back from a treasure hunt to find out she was now being referred to as “The Hunter” by world media, and the underworld itself. She did not know much about society so she only knew what she was told about it by her guild-mates. Then the letter from the Shadow Conclave had come and she was informed about that. And what it was.

“The people. The media. The underworld. One of these recognizes a thief as a holder of the title… if it spreads, the other two quickly follow suit.”

“And how is…” her voice felt weird on her throat but she struggled through it, “how is a thief recognized?”

The matriarch smiled, slightly amused and probably mistaking Hunter’s hesitance to speak for shyness. “Modus operandi, of course… your methods and appearances. The Hunter, for example, is usually someone associated to a wild land, deprived of civilization and employing gear and skills associated with that of a jungle tribe.”

She felt she fit the profile. While she had dispensed with the face painting, she was still dressed as formally as she considered necessary, and the tattoo of her guild was still clearly visible emerging from her left hip to encroach on her belly.

She nodded in understanding.

“My name is Eliza,” she greeted with a slight bow, “I am here to answer all your questions, and then direct you to the place of competition. Do any come to mind?”

A couple did but the Hunter did not feel it necessary to ask. She knew enough, so she shook her head to say no and Eliza smiled.

“The deaths will toll, and screams will run…” she began saying, taking out a scroll from a drawer in her desk, “misery will mold a shadow around the sun. And when the time comes, look to darkness for the save.” She pushed the scroll so Hunter could see it, finishing her rhyming riddle. “For hope will be pitched from the very best of the Shadow Conclave.”

The scroll had that poem written on it in shining red letters. It was long dried out but Zaniya knew the red was blood.

“About fifty years ago, I was the Sorcerer,” she revealed, “me and the first Dark Runner were the only survivors of an attempted invasion by a race of underground creatures. The Shadow was with us, but he stayed behind.”

She leaned back, remembering in nostalgia a past Zaniya expected to be relevant to the poem.

“We cooperated. It was the first time world-renowned thieves, especially in this codename culture, cooperated. It was suggested and brought upon by the Shadow, and it prompted Dark Runner to name the venture…He meant it as a joke, of course, but he called it Shadow Conclave.

“A year after my return, The Oracle cried for a future that was coming.” She tapped the scroll, “this is what she wrote, using her tears of blood.”

Zaniya opened her eyes in surprise.

This is not just a simple competition…

“This is why we again banded together to create what you’re about to participate in. It is called a Shadow Conclave because world renowned thieves come together to work on the same place, once again. Our objective is to help the prophecy become real by gradually and frequently selecting the best thief in the world, and then making sure he or she lives to enact the prophecy. In other words, we mean to protect the best of the Shadow Conclave…while constantly testing who it really is.

“It is for this reason that the following is to be respected at all times:

“Never make any kind of attempt to physically harm a competitor. If the prophecy refers the enemy we met back then, we are confident the ability to cause physical harm is negligible. We are here to see who the best thief is, not the best warrior.”

Zaniya nodded in understanding.

“Now, you are here because you believe you are the greatest thief. I would ask you why, Zaniya.”

She thought for a few seconds, looking at Eliza, meeting her expectant stare.

“I…” she started to say, “am the greatest thief, because no other is as attuned to the world surrounding…as I am.”

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