It’s quite a lot bigger than Hardron Fortress. I can see the great gates, standing tall and forbiddingly shut, and the high, thick walls, guards patrolling atop them, all armed and armored. Assaulting the fortress by my lonesome would be little more than suicide, obviously.
So how am I supposed to get inside?
There is a squad of guards in front of the door itself, to regulate passage, and from what I’ve seen in the past few hours, visitors need to show some form of identification to be allowed through.
Same system as is used in Hardron Fortress, basically.
Only, since a common tailor would have no need to leave the fortress, I was issued no such identification after my arrival in the Planar Prison. Even if I had, an identification badge from Hardron Fortress would have no pull in this place. Showing it to anyone might even cost me my life.
If I want to enter, scaling the wall during the night would be a possibility, but doing such a thing without backup – spotters and such – is risky. I’ve already confirmed that the guards faithfully keep to their patrols no matter the hour, and even with my magic to hide me, the risk of detection would be too high.
No, I think my best bet is to find a ranger outside the city, ambush her, and take her identification badge for myself.
The only problem is that, even though rangers usually operate alone, they only do so because they feel confident in their own strength. I’m not weak, by any means, but I’m not sure I could handle combat specialists like them. A viper will never defeat a tiger, after all. The viper can hide and attack from ambush all it wants, and maybe its poison will deal the tiger a wound, but the moment its presence is detected, the tiger will crush it like it’s nothing with a single swipe of its claws.
Fortunately, most rangers are afflicted by a terrible curse that drastically decreases their life expectancy.
That is, the rangers’ honor – though I suppose the rangers themselves would call it the Rangers’ Honor, capital letters so thick you’d think they would choke on them as they say it.
Indeed, the dangerous circumstances in which the rangers live appear to have promoted an air of camaraderie and helpfulness among them. It’s all quite beautiful, really. Rangers – veteran rangers, at least – never leave another of their numbers to be devoured by demons, even when they belong to different fortresses and should, by all rights, see each other as enemies. I remember encountering the same kind of behavior during my time infiltrating Caldera’s Silver Cross demon hunter organization, back in the day.
Strangely enough, however, the same thing doesn’t seem to happen within more conventional mercenary groups that specialize in killing untainted creatures – and persons. Those are just as reassuringly vile and repulsive as you would expect them to be.
Maybe demons have something that draw hatred to them like a magnet, so that no one who fights them has any to spare to direct at each other.
I can’t say I hold any share of this ‘Honor’, however, seeing as how my first impulse when seeing a demon is to stab the nearest person so that the demon will eat them first and leave me enough time to escape.
Still, my own failings notwithstanding, if I make use of that particular weakness of theirs, I might just be able to take down a ranger.
If the tiger doesn’t see the viper as an enemy and approaches of its own volition, unwary, even the viper might have a chance at victory. The viper just needs to concentrate all its venom in the first bite, so that the tiger doesn’t have the opportunity to raise its defenses.
It takes me several days to find a suitable target.
Alone. Isolated. Female. Oni. Body shape and size not too far from my default ones, which means less effort when shapeshifting. And already injured, to boot.
Couldn’t ask for more, really.
I might need to change the scenario a little bit, though.
I had planned to play the helpless victim and draw in anyone feeling protective of me, to bury them the moment they get close enough to examine the seriousness of my ‘wounds’.
But maybe I should just exchange the roles.
The viper is going to paint stripes on its scales and try to pass itself off as a tiger.
All right, then.
Golly! This poor woman needs help!
But never fear, Ranger Sif is here!
I draw my sword and stride purposefully through the thick bushes, heading toward the woman, gazing carefully around me, my eyes never resting for more than a moment on any one thing, taking in everything around me.
The picture of the experienced ranger.
The woman, sitting on the ground, her back propped against the trunk of a tree, raises her head when she hears the sounds of my approach. Her eyes flit up and down over my figure, suspicion and relief warring inside them.
I continue glancing around me. The forest is quickly darkening as the sun nears the horizon, deep-red rays of light filtering through the leaves and casting long shadows behind every tree.
“Did you take care of whatever did that to you? Or is it still out there?” I ask.
The woman scoffs and replies, “Took care of it.” The pain of her injuries isn’t enough to smother the pride in her voice. She looks up at me as I stop in front of her, sword still in hand. “You are?”
“My name’s Qingwu. From Hardron Fortress. You?”
The woman groans and shifts her position to a more comfortable one. Her breath comes out in short gasps – are her lungs damaged? “Juliet. Rayyan Fortress. Never seen you before. You new?”
“Mestin always accompanies Hardron’s new recruits when they venture outside in their first few months. He with you? Or did he send someone else?”
Oh? I never heard anything about that kind of custom, though. And I doubt the Chief Ranger of Hardron Fortress would have the free time to entertain every new recruit in this way.
In any case…
I smile at Juliet. “Mestin would have trouble arranging anything like that these days, considering he died three months ago. But I’m thinking you already knew that.”
Juliet scowls at me. “And that makes you smile? You find that funny that one of your comrades passed away?”
“No,” I say, the grin still on my lips. “What makes me smile is that little probe of yours. Trying to test me, are you? You think I’m a spy or something?”
“Maybe you are.”
I shrug. “Maybe I am.”
“You have your badge with you?”
“Of course,” I say off-handedly, as I kneel down and drop my sword to the ground next to me. “You have yours?”
I reach my hands out to Juliet’s chest, carefully untying the laces holding the front of her vest closed, and slowly open her garments. She flinches a little when I unintentionally nudge her injuries as I move her clothes out of the way, but she doesn’t prevent my actions. She doesn’t even pursue her interrogation any further. It probably helps that, since I’ve returned to my default appearance, she might find it a little distracting to be so close to me.
But even so, she keeps her guard up.
I can feel her gaze on my face, and I very much doubt that she’s just admiring my beauty. Rather, I’d say she’s checking for any signs of deceit or malice in my expression.
Her efforts are pointless, of course. If I wasn’t confident I could act the part appropriately, I never would have approached her in the first place. She won’t find any flaw in my performance.
I continue my work, slowing peeling away the layers of fabric until I finally reveal the wounds hidden beneath. Several deep gashes, blood still trickling out of them, are carved into her skin, slicing across her ribs all the way to her sternum.
I suck in a breath through my teeth and wince in sympathetic pain. “That’s going to leave a mark.”
While Juliet snorts in contempt at my remark, I glance around her. “Where’s your bag? You don’t have any supplies?”
“Lost it in the chase,” she replies, tilting her head in what I assume is the direction of the attack. “Didn’t have time to go and pick it up afterward.”
“Hmm. Then I guess you’ll owe me one.”
I slide my own bag off my shoulders and open it, rifling through it. I quickly find what I’m looking for and throw her a small glass bottle.
Juliet catches it out of the air, the abrupt movement making her wince, and brings it in front of her eyes to examine the yellow-green pills inside.
“For the pain and the bleeding.”
Juliet shakes her head. “Just cauterize the wounds and be done with it.”
I smirk and take up the sword I dropped earlier, hefting it in the air meaningfully. “Does this look like a fire sword to you?”
Juliet’s eyes go to the sword, looking up and down its length, then she turns back to me, dumbfounded. “You only have a regular weapon? And you still went out to hunt? Do you have a death wish?”
It’s true that fighting demons without a fire sword is reckless. Against those monsters, it’s important to, one way or another, seal the wounds as you deal them to avoid coming into contact with the Taint in their blood. Blades imbued with some kind of fire magic are one of the most popular methods to achieve that. In fact, fire swords are such a ubiquitous part of a demon hunter’s – or ranger’s – equipment that they’re as much a mark of their identity as their badge.
“Do you have any idea how expensive a fire sword is?” I ask Juliet, a bitter smile on my lips.
She looks at me like I’m some kind of moron. “Yes. As a matter of fact, I do know precisely how expensive they are. That is, much less than your life.”
“Really? I was under the impression that a ranger’s life was pretty cheap. In any case, I haven’t earned enough yet to afford even the most basic enchanted weapon. And actually, I notice you don’t have one, either, so I don’t think you should be the one to throw stones on that point.”
“Lost it along with my bag.” Juliet quirks an eyebrow. “When did you become a ranger, that you haven’t even earned that much, yet?”
“I started two weeks ago.”
“Oh. That is really new,” Juliet says with a quiet chuckle, glancing down at the small glass bottle in her hand. “I guess I’ll take one of those, then.”
With a flick of her thumb, Juliet removes the stopper, a rich medicinal fragrance wafting through the air, and tilts the bottle, letting one of the pills fall into her palm. After a small hesitation, she throws the pill into her mouth and swallows it. Just a few seconds later, her expression relaxes a little, a measure of pain leaving her face. Her eyebrows rise in surprise.
“Really effective!” she says, tossing the bottle back to me.
“I know. It’s a custom compound, actually,” I say, a hint of pride in my voice.
“Custom? You a pharmacist?”
“That’s right. Well, I was.”
“And why would a pharmacist suddenly decide to become a ranger?”
“That call of adventure?”
Juliet lets out a snort. “Right.”
“Trust me, when you’ve stayed cooped up in a laboratory for the last 50 years, you really start craving for a little more action. Anyway, where did you drop your bag? And your sword? I’ll go pick them up while you catch your breath.”
“This way,” Juliet replies, nodding in the same direction as before. “Maybe 900 meters, near the mouth of a shallow canyon. Well, you’ll see the traces of the fight as you go, so you won’t lose your way.”
Nodding to her words, I put the bottle of medicinal pills back into my bag, then sling it over my shoulders again, before leaving Juliet behind me and heading off deeper into the forest in search of her lost equipment.
When I come back, about ten minutes later, bag and sword in hand, Juliet is dead.
She’s lying on the ground, face down. Her arms are outstretched in front of her body, and I can see the furrows her fingers have dug into the earth, as if she tried to drag herself out of death’s grasp.
It would have been futile, of course.
It was one of my custom compounds, after all.
I’m quite proud of this one. It’s very good for temporarily suppressing injuries, stemming bleeding, dampening pain. It doesn’t actually heal you, but it can allow you to fight or run unhindered for a while. It’s very useful. I always try to have a few of those on me at all times, just in case.
However, if you don’t enjoy the same kind of immunity to poison I do, soon afterwards, the medicine leads to liver, lung and heart failure, one after another in quick succession.
That usually means death, in most species who have those organs.
I drop the bags and the sword on the ground and bend down over Juliet’s corpse, rolling her onto her back.
As I approach Rayyan Fortress’s gates, one of the guards hails me, his armor and weapon faintly shining under the moonlight.
“Juliet! You’re back. Did you get any of those…” The guard finally seems to notice all the blood dyeing my clothes. A fierce frown creases his brow. “Did something happen?”
I can hear the worry in his voice. I hope it’s only natural concern for an acquaintance, rather than something deeper. If Juliet had a particularly close relationship with this man, it’s going to be difficult to assume her identity successfully.
This is why I hate working so impulsively. Usually, I would at least have a few months of investigation before impersonating anyone, to know how to imitate all their habits and get a sense of their relationships with the people around them, but now…
This is quite reckless, quite uncomfortable.
I wish I didn’t have to do it.
Hopefully, the guard will chalk up any strange behavior to the strain of my injuries.
I shake my head at the question and try to imitate Juliet’s speech patterns and inflections. “Just a demon that was a little tougher than I expected. I’ll live. Just need a bit of rest.”
I throw him Juliet’s badge, its corners wrinkled and wet with her blood. The guard catches it, but only glances at it for an instant before giving it back to me with a nod.
It almost makes me want to kill him. All my efforts, just for this little glance…
“Go on in,” he says, opening the smaller door embedded into the great gates. “Oh, I almost forgot. Dame Helen left a message for you. She said she wants to see you. She should be in the ranger barracks. Or the Lord’s castle, maybe.”
I frown. “What is this about?”
The guard shrugs. “She didn’t say. I’m just passing the message along.”
I wrinkle my nose at his words. “Right. Well. She might have to wait. I need a bath. And some sleep. I can barely even remember my own name as it is. An actual conversation is out of the question.”
The guard shrugs again. “None of my business. The message has been passed. My job is done.”
I nod and vaguely wave my hand in farewell as I turn away from him, passing through the doorway and into Rayyan Fortress.
I suppress a sigh of relief when I hear the sound of the door behind me slamming shut, then of the latch scraping into its metal groove. That was pretty close. This man was definitely close to Juliet. Otherwise, no guard would dare to be so casual with a ranger. That might have helped me, in a way, since it simply didn’t occur to him to be suspicious of his friend, but it confirms the fact that I can’t keep this appearance for too long. The next time I meet someone who knows ‘me’, I will no doubt betray myself.
And this Helen is looking for me, is she?
Helen. I’ve heard of her. Mestin’s counterpart here. The Chief Ranger of Rayyan Fortress. ‘My’ boss.
Definitely not someone I want to meet.
Fortunately, I acquired a map of Rayyan Fortress, a few months ago, so I know which way are the ranger barracks. As for the Lord’s castle, it’s big enough to be seen from anywhere in the city, so no problem there.
Let’s not head in either direction, shall we?
I step into a small alley cutting between tall buildings off the main street, and disappear into the darkness of Rayyan Fortress’s night.