Reality returned in a haze. It always did, since he could rarely sleep without a healthy dose of heatroot, and for some reason the void always ate the euphoria but never the hangover. His head swam as he levered himself upright, working his swollen tongue in his desert-dry mouth, and fumbled for one of the bottles of Kinul whiskey he kept by the bedside. The bottle clinked and didn’t slosh when he picked it up. It took him a couple tries to focus on the array of bottles spread across the small table, and see that they were all empty.
Girul groaned and slid out of bed, staggering over to the washroom. With his third-tier constitution he’d throw off the worst of it soon enough, but that didn’t stop it from hurting now. By the time he stumbled back out and started down the stairs he was feeling less ill and more wrung dry, the cravings creeping back in again.
Cerasul glanced at him as he arrived, taking a bite of sausage from the breakfast spread and giving Girul a disapproving shake of the head. Girul briefly considered just killing the man, as he often did, but knew that wouldn’t change anything and besides, he had no idea where Cerasul kept the heatroot. Instead he just shuffled over to the table and flopped down in a chair, downing the beer the servant brought and digging into his own breakfast the moment it came out.
“You’re going to have to stay sober today,” Cerasul remarked with a bit of a sneer. Anell handlers didn’t tend to think much of their charges, even if they were highly trained and highly dangerous. Or at least, none of Girul’s handlers had. Nobody was rude to Cousin Decia, but her addictions involved more painful perversions and nobody wanted to get near her. “We have some targets for you.”
“Finally!” Orn was boring, and despite being so far from Einteril it wasn’t like he had any more freedom. Even though they grew heatroot in Kinul it was still something that he’d have a hard time getting his hands on, so he couldn’t really go on walkabout. Not that he wanted to wander around Kinul anyway. Heatroot was rot Affinity, despite its name, and anywhere it grew was unpleasant at best.
He’d be glad to leave and go back to Port Anell, at least for a while. Even House Anell didn’t try to keep their agent-assassins around after doing something flashy. Well, not usually. Not if they wanted them back.
“Who is it?” Girul just wanted to kill the people he needed to and go back to civilization. At least they had running water in Nivir even if there was hardly anything else. Even if he hadn’t stood out for being fox-kin he’d still never fit in with the backwoods country folk that seemed to think Versil was a city.
“The Esox lineage, the whole inheriting family,” Cerasul said, and took a bit of toast. “I got a message from Risu herself this morning.” Girul whistled. That was definitely a difficult target.
“Well, where are they?”
“I’m having that checked now.” Cerasul shrugged. “Go clean yourself up and I’ll probably have something for you in a couple hours.”
“Fine,” Girul said, finding that his food was already gone. He was still craving more, craving something, but he knew from experience Cerasul would just withhold his heatroot if he skipped instructions to go find food or sex. He returned back upstairs, ignoring the servant cleaning up the empty bottles strewn about, and took a shower before equipping himself properly.
The oldest branch still used swords, but most Ells had something more disposable as their signature weapon. Throwing knives of various types were popular, but Girul favored small, razored discs, chakri being the right balance between heft and finesse. They were attached by breakaway thread to a sash that went over his armor, making him stylish and deadly. He almost felt like his hands were shaking as he put everything in place, since he didn’t have any heatroot or alcohol, but it was only imagined. House Anell didn’t allow drugs whose symptoms were that severe.
He frowned at himself in the mirror, ran fingers through his hair and combed back the tufts of his ears, then sauntered back downstairs. It wasn’t likely that Cerasul would have something for him for some time yet, and when the Anell handler didn’t even look up from his tea, Girul wandered out back to where targets were set up.
Girul amused himself for some time by flinging practice chakri at the targets, though his Skills made sure he hit them however he wanted every time, before becoming bored again and heading back inside. His fingers kept going to the empty heatroot pouch but of course there was nothing to chew. He really wished he knew where Cerasul kept the goods but even with his advanced senses he’d never been able to find it. Fortunately, he did know where the extra whiskey was kept, and so long as he didn’t actually get drunk it might be enough to keep the edge off.
He poured a quarter-bottle into his hip flask before taking a mouthful for himself and putting it back. It was okay, but he really needed to get some heatroot before he went out for the job. Just enough so he wasn’t thinking about it all the time. Girul prowled around the Anell safehouse, looking for Cerasul, but the man seemed to have vanished. Probably off meeting whoever was supposed to supply them with information.
Girul scowled and shoved his way into Cerasul’s office. He’d never yet found any drugs there but there was always the chance he’d left something out. It wasn’t like he’d even know so long as Girul didn’t tear the place apart. There were stacks of papers, missives, but not even a private bottle of brandy. It was as if Cerasul was being annoyingly ascetic on purpose.
He was still looking when he sensed people arriving outside the safehouse. Not just one or two but at least a dozen, all of them in the late second tier and a few in the third. It didn’t take much of an intellect to realize that was a bad thing, though exactly how bad was something he usually left to Cerasul. Since the Anell handler wasn’t there, he left the office to see what was happening.
“Girul Ell! You are commanded by the authority of King Esox to come outside!” A voice shouted.
“Gods,” he muttered. He could really use some heatroot right about now, at least to take the edge off. This was not something he knew how to deal with, other than maybe killing them all. He could do that. He peered out the window to see a number of Classers in the Esox colors spread out around the house, ignoring the servants who were all running into their rooms or wherever they thought was safe.
Suddenly Cerasul popped into his perceptions behind him, coming up from under the floor somehow. Girul spun to find the Anell man striding forward with a thunderous scowl. That didn’t bode well.
“We have to leave,” he snapped.
“Yeah, I guessed that.” There was more shouting outside that he ignored. “Why don’t we go the way you came in?”
“I could but you can’t,” Cerasul said. “Kill these guards and head along the river. I’ll find you.”
“Give me some heatroot first,” he demanded. “It might take you days to find me.”
“It won’t,” Cerasul said. “There isn’t time— ”
“Then just give me some now! I know you have some.” Cerasul glared, his eyes flicking to the window, then pulled a small pouch from inside his tunic and threw it at Girul.
“Here. Don’t pass out in a ditch somewhere.” Cerasul turned on his heel and stalked into the next room, his presence fading as he went. Girul shrugged and popped some heatroot in his mouth, ignoring the instant sweat that covered his face as the drug tingled, the rush of it flowing through him and making him feel almost alive, burying the hollowness of the void underneath sweet ennui.
Now that he wasn’t so distracted, he tugged a chakri off his sash and spun it about his finger, stepping out the door. Even for him, killing all of them might be a chore but really he only needed to kill a couple to get away. Cerasul probably didn’t mean for him to stand and fight. Void Classes didn’t have that much defense. He didn’t, at least.
“Lower your— ” He void-energized the chakri and sent it spinning at the person making demands. Surprisingly, the man leapt out of the way of the projectile rather than trying to block it, despite how fast it traveled and how silent it was. Most people just tried to bat it aside, which rarely ended well. Irked, he pulled out two more and sent them zipping out at the nearest pair before he was forced to jump back.
Someone had a ranged Skill, one fragment of stone pinging off his armor hard enough to make him grunt and the other one vanishing into a void chakri before he flung it. One of the first two had hit its target, but not square on, the man merely crippled rather than dead with an arm flopping uselessly and spewing blood above the elbow.
Girul didn’t really see the faces of the men attacking him, just the Skills and how they moved. It had been a long time since he’d had to deal with so many at once, though they couldn’t all attack at the same time. They couldn’t get close without him shoving a void chakri straight into them, and there were only so many firing lines, so it was more of a fun challenge than anything really threatening. The main problem would be running out of chakri.
He dodged another set of stone projectiles and ran at the earth user, pulling out another projectile to throw point-blank. Just before he released it someone else used a wind Skill that sent Girul tumbling long enough for a pair of shield-bearing Classers to protect the mage. Not that shields really did much against the void.
Another two chakri cut right through the shields, but the bearers didn’t die. They seemed oddly willing to sacrifice limbs rather than use their armor, which was irritating. Normally it just took one or two throws and he’d have a hole right through someone. He hopped to his feet and spun sideways to dodge a sword thrust, his backhand slicing through both weapon and fingers and shaving off a bit of cheek on the way. That was four of them incapacitated in that many seconds, but he couldn’t actually finish any of them off because other people were grabbing them and hauling them off while the remaining soldiers pressed him.
Girul was finding it quite tiresome, having to backpedal and deflect thrusts with his bracer. Or even getting pushed around by the wind mage, who was around the corner. He hurled a chakri through the building at the guy but only managed to wing him, which was boring. In fact, he had to wonder if the heatroot that Cerasul gave him was weak somehow because it was not fun. It should have been, but he was just tired of having to block attacks and of throwing his ever-diminishing number of chakri.
He spun one at the head of one of the fanciest-dressed Classers, hoping to take out a leader, but the Classer in question dived for cover in exaggerated panic. That was the last of the ones on his sash so he had to use the even smaller ones at his belt, his fingers fairly bloody from void magic stripping the skin off them. The smaller ones didn’t go as far but were harder to see, blurring out to punch holes in people and armor and the buildings behind them.
There was a deep groan and one of outbuildings, a servant’s quarters he thought, cracked and crumpled forward. Some of his chakri had sliced right through its supports, and the entire front collapsed, throwing debris and dust into the air. He took the opportunity to hurl a few more tiny void-projectiles at his attackers, running in the opposite direction as he decided to simply leave.
Other guards tried to block him, but it was hard for them to approach with him hurling tiny chunks of void at them. He was running low on stamina after using his Skills so much, movement and attack both, but all he needed to do was get by and they’d never catch him. Over half of the guards were down, injured, but they seemed oddly calm about it.
He caught a glimpse of a short Nivirese woman in white with a blaze of green and gold about her staff and realized there was a healer around, which made sense but it still wouldn’t help them stop him. To keep them occupied he flung one of his tiny disks at the healer but someone shot it before it got very far, a more substantial projectile than the stones from before.
Suddenly the world went away. There was nothing around him, nothing at all. No light, no dark, no up, no down. Just the faint hint of magic, cut by his void but filling in so quickly it was like it had no effect at all. For the first time in a very long while he felt a little bit of fear, somewhere deep down.
He lashed out with [Spellflayer], and while he could feel his void Skill grappling with the structure of the thing around him, it seemed to have infinite mana, soaking in the destructive power without a flicker. There was no indication that it had even noticed. Somehow he’d missed a fourth tier or something even more powerful, because there was no way anyone he’d sensed could stand up to void Skills.
“Girul Ell.” A voice from behind him made him whirl around. A fox-kin girl was standing there in the nothingness with him, looking severe. She was quite pretty, the sort he wouldn’t mind spending time with if it weren’t for the fact that she was probably the one anchoring the weird nothingness around him. “You need to stand down and surrender.”
She only seemed to be third tier, so he just tossed a tiny void-ring at her. She didn’t dodge, nor did it go through her like it ought to have. Instead, it slowed to a halt, the blackness hanging in midair until it dissolved into nothingness. He just gaped at her, not even sure how that was possible.
“I am Shayma Ell, daughter of Sienne Ell, and I am free of the Anells. I can free you, too, both of their yoke and the addictions they’ve given you.” She didn’t even change expression. For all he could tell she believed what she was saying, no matter how absurd it was. One thing really caught his attention, though.
“You aren’t taking my heatroot!” He said, reaching down to assure himself that the pouch was still there. “And Anell is going to destroy you. Trying to poach void agents from them!”
“Well, I tried doing it the nice way,” the fox-girl sighed, then vanished. Girul tapped into his defensive Skills, but he wasn’t prepared for a thundering voice sounding inside his head.
「SLEEP.」 The voice commanded, and he found himself dwindling as an enormous force pressed down on his mind. For a moment he thought he could resist it, but then it seemed to find the same place in his head that heatroot did and shoved him down into darkness.