A House of Cards

by Ma'alkeen

Two above, three behind and one before him. Ma'alkeen shuts his eyes as he was crouches low and slowly circles his position, the right blade of his bracer tracing the ground, cutting over leaves and a recently broken branch. His left hand holds a dagger, a smaller version of Echo. Half of the weapon is used to make up the bracer. The thing distinguishing it from the shortsword was the elegant curve of the blade.

The first move was from the two above. Two shadows of humans descend from the trees with wicked twisting swords poised to impale him through the back. His ears hear the disturbance in the air caused by their descent. Instead of rolling like most would to get out of range of the attack he immediately shift into feral form and bound backwards, his weapons shifting with his body merge with his claws, before following through with a swift pounce shifting again to morph form with dagger and bracer armed once more. Both blades enter backs of his unsuspecting assailants, vanquishing them in a cloud of black smoke which quickly faded into the woods. His face a stolid scowl.

The three coming from his rear were nearly upon him, the hiss a long sword cutting through air was met with his dagger guiding the blade just off to the side using the knife's slightly curved hilt. Ma'alkeen's right hand shoots forwards with a strike like lightning sending the wrist blade through the skull of his enemy before he can think of using his sword to cover him. The second tried a sweeping attack aimed at his knees which forced him to jump through the fading dead enemy and roll.

The words the fox shouts come as sinister incomprehensible hiss that echoes through the woods. A black circle responds by forming a wall of shadow that held the density of the hardest thing the blade touched while drawing the circle, wood. Given the nature of his enemy it won't hold them for long but it gave him enough to focus on the two enemies who were rushing in to flank him.

He'll quickly raise his left arm with the dagger turning into the second bracer. His right arm parries the sword thrust and with a flick and he to steps forward to riposte. A right jab aimed for the throat but his foe steps back just out of range as he reorients himself during the second enemy's diagonal attack. With a claymore its intend is to cut Ma'alkeen's arm off and catch him in the chest. But it barely causes fur to sway as the fox drops the left arm and bends forward at the high point of the slash. With a posture assisted by the new bending of digitgrade legs he gets under the enemy's arm level and the Nahfalt's left arm rises sending the blade under the man's arms and into the heart. The man staggers back gripping its chest before vanishing.

Ma'alkeen quickly turns his attention to the shadow swinging the longsword towards his hip and the Nahfalt steps back and advanced through an instant transformation into a quadruped form. The shadow brings his blade back to slash but the swift tree fox evades by jumping over the sword in a lunge that kicks up loose snow and leaves. He shifts again while in the air to morphic form, the blades didn't change into bracers, the energy that makes his blades so deadly still flows through his claws. The shadow never has the chance to bring his blade back to defend himself, as Ma'alkeen's claws bite into both of his collarbone and his teeth find its throat. Black mist enshrouds the fox with the shadows death and where its sword once lay a piece of bone with a small rune carved into it took its place. He picks it up while standing back onto two legs.

The last enemy is half done escaping the shadow wall. The Nahfalt's impassive gaze can be felt through his closed lids, never changing. The malice towards his trapped enemy. The wall shifts in shape to a sphere before one can blink their eyes. His bracers fade from his arms and the energy flows into the shadow ball. All an outside observer would know of the dark deed done was the sound of cracking bone and slicing blades clashing from sporadic angles of the sphere. The shadow fades leaving nothing in it place aside from a single shard of bone with a rune engraved on it.

You're quickly adapting to that body.

Ma'alkeen slowly opens his eyes and his tail displaying the emotion he didn't display on his muzzle, joy. He'll pick up each shard left behind by the shadows before walking over to the scabbard. Echo waits for him, now materialized in the sheath. Ma'alkeen puts the leather strap over his shoulder securing the sword to his back, his ears on an active search for the movement of an observer in the woods. His nose conveys a variety of scents he wouldn't have comprehended before but none belonging to anything out of the ordinary.

I never imagined ever being in possession of such agility. I've barely scratched the surface of my full potential. These ears and this nose also allow me to perform even better in ‘blind' fighting. He looks to the contour now in the shape of a fox morph like him. Ma'alkeen had his suspicions when Nod used a canid form to draw the patrolling keepers to Exsal's seal. The assassin picks up his robes, they were easier to fit around him than the rest of his outfit. They weren't practical for how he would have to maneuver with his new body but he won't leave them or the rest of his outfit behind. All are still a part of who he is.

You did well against those shadows.

Getting sloppy though, might be wise to go on reprieve before testing a new technique.

I take it something's bothering you? Nod's voice didn't hold the same humor it usually does. Likely because he sensed something wrong too.

Yes. He closes his eyes still contemplating the events back at the seal. I feel like we may have missed something. Illkira could've been leading us again.

You think Exsal's seal was just another diversion?

Possibly. We should investigate the ruins again. He'll pick through a traveling pack, something he found from the bandits he slain two days before. I will resupply on rations before we return for a prolonged visit. The Nahfalt walks towards the shadow of a great oak, his form darkens like the blackest reaches of a cavern and he'll vanish into the tree.

It was slightly warmer today. A cool day in an often bitter winter. This didn't make the ice slick roads to Euper easier. A very decorated merchant and a few of his guards split their attention between the road and the woods for any sign of attackers. A canvass tarp covers the goods, however Ma'alkeen's nose can easily detects scent of food in the wind, even under the tarp and within crates. Though not necessarily how he intended to get food it will provide a bit of amusement to see what kind of chaos he can unleash while taking some of their goods.

The fox sat in the branches, crimson engulfs his green eyes and he began channeling energy through the shadows and condense it in several positions; one under a bush and another fallen log on the opposite side of the road. Inflicting physical harm amongst the caravan will be detrimental to him and temporary blindness is all he felt he'll need for stealing from it.

The mule driven carriage maintained its course, oblivious to Ma'alkeen's trap until it was sprung. A veil of darkness circles the caravan in the form of a snaking black cloud enveloping all light in it.

"An ambush?!" A relatively young man yelped in surprise. The Nahfalt knew enough to make out a green recruit. The mischievous smile grew on his muzzle, his ears were perked and tail was twitchy. Maybe he could play some other tricks on the mind of the inexperienced recruit, have some entertainment in a non-fatal fashion after this long week of chasing and training.

"Stay put and listen!" A child's voice barked out, their field officer.

They'll find this task hard to follow with the mule panicking at losing its eyesight and slowly another effect of the veil seeped into their minds, taking hold as the driver struggles to keep the animal from running off dragging the driver and his patron with it. Their sense of time and place were distorted, like the cloud was beginning to fog their mind. One of the guards is met with a hoof to his back and is sent sprawling into the snow as the mule thrashes and bucks in his direction in another desperate attempt to escape.

With all of the noise the pack animal's generating and the clouding veil creeping into their minds, Ma'alkeen hardly needs to try sneaking over to the cart while in morphic form. His Shadowed Sight allows him to see where his normal eyes would fail. His ears would pick up any movement that he would miss even with Shadowed Sight. Even blinded the guards are still within close proximity of the cart which brings him very close to one while slipping by. Time slows more with every whiff of air passing his nostrils. Panic settles down, the amount each suffers varies purely on their will. Most of them were frantic, especially the quaking private. He wonders if they will even hear the blood gushing from his jugular if he pierced it. With these claws and teeth, he wouldn't even need to use Echo to kill him. The need to kill again was growing as his power was waning and a human sized victim… He stopped himself. The fox would need to make a kill after this raid before he loses control again.

He'll quickly shift into his quadruped form and jump into the cart, moving under the canvas tarp with ease. Every few steps he braces himself as the pack animal keeps jerking it around every time it muscles a little more freedom from the driver to take flight. Ma'alkeen didn't need long to maneuver his way over to the crate of meats and swiftly shift into morphic form despite the cart's shifting. A small triumphant smile crosses his muzzle. Taking at least four days worth of food he began to make his departure when he'll spy something that he never expected. Placed seals up were scrolls bundled together in another crate. The focus of his eyes was one specific scroll, for its seal was a Mark of a Nahfalt Haven. However he was unfamiliar with this one, perhaps it was forgotten lore, perhaps it was classified information. No matter what it was it looks like he's finding all kinds of secrets in this valley.

The darkness breaks completely around the caravan leaving the four guards, the merchant and very perturbed mule looking around frantically for whoever attacked them. It didn't take long before another order was issued.

"Check the cart!" The age regressed officer orders.Immediately a bobcat morph jumps onto the cart and looks inside. He would find the meat crate with the top hanging slightly ajar. If he wasn't joined by the bighorn client he would have missed it.

"Someone broke into containers holding food and scrolls." The sheep said with a combination of contempt and regret. "All those scrolls were prepaid for by a client in the Keep. Six garnet in total."

"See if you can find a scent or tracks." The child watches the trees as the others look search for any trace of the raider. It wasn't long before he got the report.

"There is a set of tracks coming to the cart and a scent. But there's none leaving." A deer morph would tell his commander.

"The cart's clear sir." The bobcat would gave his report making the age regressed clench his teeth and curse.

The whole ordeal was within hearing range of Ma'alkeen. He didn't need to be anywhere near them to pick out the conversation. His attention is mostly on his scroll and the dried meat he placed in the bag at his fallback position. His food was mostly packed except for a strip of dried beef laying on the bag next to him while he looks over the scroll. It bore the three slashes of the Nahfalt with a mountain under the top slash and between the two flanking slashes. This Mark was for a Haven he didn't know about. He could tell because all Havens had a Mark bearing something that symbolized a celestial body. His was the moon, but the other three he knew of had a star, the sun, and a comet. The mountain may seem out of place if one didn't think about a possible spiritual meaning.

Ma'alkeen opens the scroll with his attention cautiously divided to the various facets of the area. The words were all in Nahhaerak, black script. However he could also detect several spells placed on the scroll.

April 12, 402

If you can read this, that means either you are Nahfalt or you will be a vital ally.

Though in the midst of the third lunar cycle never has my resolve been tested so. The fighting between the followers of Alanes and the followers of the Lightseekers (Nahfalt who follow the Pantheon) has taken a predictable turn. It was inevitable that some students had desires to learn and practice the other faiths. Perhaps under another Master it would've been handled better. Perhaps we could've prepared ourselves for the inevitable that others became seduced by the power of our mortal enemies. Tis no secret that some daedra constantly test the balance, and have contested this valley being deemed a threat to us all. What has been shocking is how sense of kinship this Haven once provided is has withered to treachery and a brittle alliance. Trust between the followers of Alanes and the Pantheon is only as strong as the desire of our sub-commanders to eradicate dissident Nahfalt. No, they are now Sirutu, the Tainted. We prepare for the next attack. Kyia has been informed of the treachery of our brethren and I ask her to hide our most vital and possibly damning documents for a time where they are needed again.

May Alanes teachings preserve us all.

-Galrid, Annalist of the Metamor Haven.

Under the signature was a seal. It wouldn't seem any different from what a scribe or noble will use to adorn their work symbolizing it as their own. Beneath the surface though was something not even a mage would be able to crack without carefully looking up each ingredient used in the creation of this seal. Ma'alkeen however had the key. The crimson dots fill grew and overtaking his eyes and turning his pupils black and silver. Dark tendrils reach for them, however they held a weakness not unlike one struggling to climb out quicksand. Then like a dead man conveying his last words they latch onto his eyes.

"Damn them all." Kinata was nearing the tipping point. It's hard to calm her down whenever that happens but I can't blame her. Each hand was clenched around Cut, the vipers engraved on her kama looked as enraged as her. "They're too deaf from bickering with each other to hear the banshee wailing in their ears." A black aura grew more pronounced around her body, her guardian was apparating. She was quite deceitful, appearing as woman at first, but soon her arms were replaced with black feathered wings, her face became longer and talons pierced the shadows cast on the pitch black earth. Shrill was there to help make sure that Kinata was kept in check should her anger radiate into a frenzy. After all that's happened, she should let her.

"We cannot wait for… Master… to put aside his difference with the Lightseekers." I finally spoke up. Kinata wasn't the only one angry with this turn of events. These people, they aren't the same people I knew. Teachers, my role models, people who I thought incorruptible. "Because of his foolish pride they killed… they killed…" Couldn't finish it I hate going back to that memory. And I won't sit here while our Master argues who's lead to follow! I want the blood of those traitors! For each drop she lost I will drain one of their corpses! I will see the river run red with their blood. Damn the secrecy, if we fail the world will find out anyway about our powers. I'll show it ever drop of what I have by scattering their souls to the wind, trapped in the fragments of bone I grind to dust to suffer for eternity. I'll… I'll…

You will dishonor her memory if you forget everything you learned together.

This voice… Landal. I… he is right. I can't forget what she died for. Why so many are dying now.

"But first, we should gather the Lightseekers who will fight alongside us. The Sirutu threaten everything. Perhaps we'll even get the help of their gods alongside our predecessors to end the traitors." I have to keep focus. So what, I'm only 14 with three spirits quelled and five assassinations. I know one thing the others don't have.

"How exactly do we do this? In case you didn't notice Master is constantly bickering with their priest." Adian, roughly two years older than me but I think less talented.

"At this point, the Master's permission doesn't matter. Stopping them does." Better head over to my quarters, I need something from that skull I kept after that ambush on a those mages. What they get for trying to siphoning energy out of the Keep into a new host. Now the greatest threat to everything is a damned feud and Sirutu.

I better arm Pin and Needle, Landal takes possession of the kunai immediately so we can… that chill. This was a soul wrenching chill synonymous only with the death realm. They're here. "TO ARMS!" Have to get behind the others, they quickly formed the line. Already their blades crossed and dark energy is pooling. I have to reach that compartment under my bed. I need Kyra to take the scrolls away from here. Need to reach the tomes fast, make sure they don't fall into the wrong hands. Then pray I didn't waste an eye only to have Sirutu find this.

Ma'alkeen's mind began racing back, time accelerated until suddenly he was returned to the present time. The black tendrils coming from the seal pop away from his crimson eye. The fox pants, going into the very mind of the scribe like that didn't just leave him disoriented, it exhausted some of his energy. His thoughts began to come together and one question grew more urgent than the others, where the annals still intact. Can't assume that the Sirutu were all defeated in this underground war, even if the valley isn't under the rule of daedra. There are many forces patiently lurking in the shadows, as his master warned him. He happens to be another one that's lurking right now. The information on this scroll may not be of pertain to the Roulj but provides the location of something valuable none the less.

We move to the Keep. He mentally conveys to his guardian. The fox dons his robes that were placed in the alcove of an oak. He secures a small belt of knives to his left arm by two black straps; one under the shoulder and the other above the elbow. The billowing sleeves of his robes made it easy to throw a concealed knife. A pouch on the insides of his robe held approximately seven copper and one silver piece, something to last a very short time until he needs to take more.

Passage into the keep wasn't too difficult. He would take to the road ahead of the caravan he raided and use his new facade. Euper was as he expected of a town close proximity to the keep. Loud, busy and in their shadow lived the crime ridden slums. He smiled within himself, he was quite certain he can eliminate some of the more dangerous criminals and the guards won't be as inclined to investigate. His bloodlust can be kept under control and his power maintained, at least until they'll have to look into the disappearances. But he shouldn't resort to such measures unless he really needed to, which could be soon depending on how much that urge grows.

As was expected some of the citizens of this town were varying degrees of pleasant. Since he clearly wore the look of a stranger some tried to help give him directions, which he politely declined. Occasionally he heard snide remarks ranging from low level scum to being some snobby aristocrat, often it was scum. The remarks abated as he got closer to the gate leading to the keep itself. The fox was nonchalant when he approached.

"What's your business?" The guard stood erect though it looked a bit sluggish from boredom and his eyes shown exhaustion telling him that someone's due for a shift change. Ma'alkeen's bow to the guard was humble. His lie flowed with far greater ease than truth.

"I go by Galrid. I'm here to further my studies of ancient wards used by the Suleiman. I heard my library pales in comparison to Metamor's." The guard would look him over, he seemed to come slightly more alive as he gestured to the robes.

"What's that symbol?"

"I'm the first in my family to become a scholar. This mark they made means ‘hidden away'." He'll laugh, such a simple thing to do on cue. "You can tell they aren't too proud of that career choice."

"You clearly have no problems with that title."

"If I cared about everything they said about my life I wouldn't be as satisfied to live it as I have now."

The guard surveys him again before signaling for him to pass through into the lower ward. "Very well, you may go on. Library's in the keep itself."

Ma'alkeen bows again. "How will I find the library?"

"You'll find it." Was all he got in response. It took a moment for him to figure out what the guard meant. Though he knew he was partially being blown off, Ma'alkeen answered his own question. He recalled what Nod told him of the Keep's guardian and her power to alter the passages. It's likely she'll guide him to where he needs to go.

His paws were deathly silent on the walk towards the library, seems some skills will never leave him. Immediately he felt another presence turn its attention to him. It wasn't eyes from any of the keepers though some occasionally turn their gaze at the stranger with the peculiar symbol on the back of his robes. These eyes were of the one he sought in regards to the fallen Haven. His trek through the halls of the keep wasn't going to be very long. He will turn down another corridor and instead of a hall he'll find a door. He knew he'll find some answers once a familiar energy began pulling at him, seeping through every crack around doorway. He doubted that this was coming from a library, at least not one the residents of the Keep know about.

Kyia has something you may want. Nod's voice whispers through the assassin's mind. Ma'alkeen's hand grasps the cool handle and slowly opens the door to a spiral staircase, giving light to the dark passage for the first time in centuries. The light can't breach the darkest depths of the keep though as he began his descent into one of the hidden places of this ancient structure. Darkness wouldn't hold much sway over him though, his Shadowed Sight granted him the ability to see down the cold black passage. The stairs end with a corridor bearing no stands for torches and no witch light will pierce this magical darkness cast upon the corridor. The aura flowing through this hall was different than that he's saw in the keep itself. Not only was this passage lined with various spells there was something else here, but incomplete. Like a presence trying to crawl into you driving a soul clutching chill into the heart. This corridor was specifically designed for people gifted with certain seeing powers. The triggers for the corridors various obstacles were not set in any elaborate pattern because it wasn't needed; they were hidden by darkness and obscured to most magic detection spells. He can them with nothing more than a careful step here and there.

A black wooden door bore the mark of the Metamor Haven. Beyond lies a room much like those he was familiar with back at his own Ranfeld Haven in the south eastern Midlands. The walls and ceiling are formed of obsidian. The pillars holding the ceiling were in otherworldly shapes and silver light illuminated the moving visage of several shadow spirits. Shadows who can manipulate dark powers others dread, powers that take root in the darkest reaches of ones mind. Ones who use the shadows like a mirror and grant them access to all muscle and mental memory of the person that's subjected to it. Ones, like Nod, who manipulate the very nature of an object the same way one can use light to shape nightmares in the shadows.

The ceiling held a feature very unlike that of the Ranfeld Haven. Alight with many small white, yellow, blue and red dots was the night sky. Joining them was the moon, half open to its fullest for the first time in the new year. As he moves under the half moon he'll notice a soft dark blue rug under paw and a circle of white cushions. Next to the pillars and placed inward to face the carpet and the center of the room were a series a benches. Behind a set of pillars on the opposite side of the entrance is a pair of black flags bearing the mark of the Metamor Haven in pearl white. A black wooden door bearing his own mark told him who this room was made for. Ma'alkeen slowly opens the door and was pleasantly surprised to find maps on a desk with a basket of scrolls next to it. In the center of the room was a circle of soft earth lined with white stones with a large carefully carved ceramic bowl turned upside down into the soil. Next to his simple bed with black covers was a weapon rack and a small nightstand with another bowl on top, this one was lined with white runes that he can vaguely recognize as Nahhaerak mixed with some form of elven. From what he can interpret it sounded like what his master possessed in his own office to seal away memories that can be a few hours long. His attention broke from the splendor when he felt the distinct presence of another in the room with him.

The urocyon knew who his guest, or rather who his host was. He slowly turns to the source of that presence. Years of exposure to spirits and the divine taught him that beings like Kyia will blind someone like him if you respond swiftly. The light was still bright but it began to settle allowing him to gaze towards the ravishing woman standing before him. In her eyes he saw a being who witnessed all the compassion and cruelty of mortals, her share of friends born and perish. Her presence carried with it a weight that he typically feels from some of the more powerful divine beings. In her hands was a bundle of scrolls with the mark of the Metamor Haven in relatively good condition despite their age.

"Nahfalt returning to the valley was anticipated long ago." Her voice was unreadable. "What calamity brings you here?"

"The destruction of many in our numbers has forced us to disperse." Ma'alkeen would give a small polite bow to the spirit of Metamor. "My purpose here is to assist in defending the balance." He would look over the carvings on the walls within the Nahkri's, the Shadowmaster's, chambers as his hand glances across the obsidian interior. "Many good Nahkri perished before a contemptuous one failed the entire Haven. No… the entire valley."

She held out the scrolls as if passing down an heirloom. "Now a new one stands before me. Your Order was once invaluable in the defense of this valley. Will you honor the sacrifice of those who stood against foes unseen?"

He bowed his head before looking back into her eyes. "If the Haven here is rebuilt once more then I shall ensure its loyalty to the defense of the valley from hostile forces. Should the Haven not return to its former state, or one that can support prolonged activity, the duty will be my own." His hand would go to Echo, the flat of the bone sword lies against his chest as he made the vow. "Tis my duty and the duty of all Nahfalt trained here."

"And should the Nahfalt stray from this teaching?" Kyia's voice wasn't accusing and sadly Ma'alkeen knew the reason behind it. The past is something that repeats. The fox looked away, his tail hanging barely off the ground and his gaze became hollowed as his thoughts went through the events of the Fall.

"They are then Sirutu and I will free them by bring them into deaths embrace myself."

Ma'alkeen approached Kyia and his hands extended for the scrolls. She would pass them into his hands and his grip tightened.

Ma'alkeen's mind returned to when they worked in conjunction with someone outside of their order. He was working with Lauren to infiltrate a noble's manor in the town of Juniper. They were told their information came from a concerned guard in the house about the recent behavior of the manor's owner. It wasn't often they actively work with another though it does happen. He understood why soon enough. They found a hidden chamber in the dungeons, inside were three Moranasi and their leader was the manor's owner. He and Lauren dispatched them by using shadow magic to confuse two of them into killing one of their own, Lauren killed the leader and Ma'alkeen finished the two assistants. Inside were three prisoners, two were saying Lothanasi prayers for protection while the last made the symbol for the tree of Eli. The Nahfalt noticed their shackles were enchanted by dark magic. Ma'alkeen tried to undo the spell on them. He didn't notice when one of the Moranasi knives made it across to them but when one called him demon and lunged at him things were a blur. He didn't know when he pulled out Echo but when he finally regained his senses the man was impaled on the end of his blade. He didn't even notice until later that the guard they were with had his blade drawn in a pool of his own blood; Lauren killed him. He made a mistake trying to save these people. None of the others attacked him when he passed towards the exit. Lauren was waiting for him at the top of the dungeon stairs. "You needed to learn for yourself." She told him. The lesson was clear, to those outside the Nahfalt they are considered the same monsters they kill. Afterwards he saved prisoners from rituals only because it would hinder them in achieving that final kill. Otherwise he leaves them to free themselves or rot away, whichever happens he didn't know or care and since the Fall…

"Not all will see you as the enemy. In time you will find strength in the friendship of others." Ma'alkeen looks up with furrowed brows a small growl was starting to rise but he'll realize she vanished like she appeared; without a trace.

Lighten up killer. Nod would say. His eyes would look up to the ceiling and the outline of the spirit on it. Besides you intended do a little light reading while here. Nod would point to the scrolls in the fox's arms. Ma'alkeen looked down at the black seals, his gaze bore into the parchment as if he could divine their secrets without opening it. He couldn't maintain this gaze for long, soon he felt the nagging in the recesses of his mind and the visceral lust for blood in his heart growing stronger. Killing someone or something will sate that growing bloodlust. He knew just where to go too. First he'll take a knife from that sheath on his left arm and cut into it. Sheathing the knife again he'll take a finger and dab it onto the dripping blood. The fox would start to draw a seal onto the table.

"Two cuts first, bleeds the body and the second bleeds the spirit. The cycle binds plains of Life and Death. They are linked through the paths of order, chaos, benevolence and malevolence. In the center we stand, ever watchful. Never seen, never heard, blood our blood is swallowed by shadow. With this tribute let shadows hide you." The seal began to glow with white energy like that of the spirits on the wall. The energy covered the entire table and once the scrolls were placed on top of it, so too were they. Ma'alkeen took a bandage out of a pouch inside his robes and wrapped the cut, in silent observation of his seal. If there are Sirutu still in hiding in this Haven they won't know of his seals so the scrolls should be safe.

Now, it's time we taste blood.