Read Chapter One of DRAGON'S HUNT Now! ;)
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Below is the complete first chapter from DRAGON'S HUNT (Assassin's of the Underworld, Book One).
Did you check the blast cannons? Indira asked, slipping her favorite blaster into the holster on her hip. Brushing her fingers along the line of spare blasters, she paused at the third weapon and straightened the grip, aligning it with the rest.
“Yes. We cleared the cannons, calibrated the response timing, and recharged the power levels. We are at full capacity,” Vik advised.
Vik’s heavy footsteps vibrated the deck as he followed her to the last wall of weapons in her personal armory. He stood to the side, careful not to let his large combat suit clad body block her view, and waited while she debated which of her swords to take with her. She perused the selection of swords and knives, mounted in orderly lines along the wall, from largest and heaviest to the most delicate and concealable. Indira selected the twin banshee blades; they were slim, lightweight, and custom made for her grip. She always took the banshee blades to Asuhra Peak; they were the weapons she trusted most in close quarters.
Don’t forget to shut down the cleaning drones, Indira said. And make sure Roo doesn’t use any of her sewing or printing machines, their vibrations are too easy to detect.
“We know the routine, Indira,” Vik said, following her out of the armory and down the stairs to the lower level in the starboard wing. “It’s the same routine every time we come to Asuhra: replenish our power supplies, do a full diagnostic and inspection of the engines, check the weapons, secure the cargo hold, seal all entries, recalibrate the sensors array, shut down the drones—“
Okay. You’ve proven that you’re familiar with the process, Indira said.
“After eighty-seven times, even the most rudimentary android should have learned the process by now,” Vik said, squeezing his large frame through the small hatch to the converted private shuttle bay.
Indira tossed her coat and swords into the secondary seat of the small short-range dart and paused, running through her mental check list.
As soon as the dart is clear shut down comms and run dark, she said. Do not initiate atmosphere and temperatures until I’m on my way back, and contact me at the very first sign of trouble. You’re cleared to take whatever measures necessary to preserve your lives and the ship, but do try not to kill me in the process.
“Yes, Indira.” Vik’s bulky helmet covered head nodded.
If you’re boarded, hide in the smuggler’s compartment and shut down, she added.
“I truly hope that isn’t necessary,” Vik said, shuffling nervously in his bulky armor. “We were just in there for five days while you had your mission on the pirate ship. I’ve finally put my lab back in order after those brutes destroyed my latest batch of experiments. I will not tolerate another invasion of ignorant, inbred, inebriated—“
I’m sure everything will be fine, Vik, but don’t sacrifice yourself for your experiments. Settling into the pilot’s seat, Indira buckled herself in and closed the viewing canopy. Roo is in charge. Do not start shooting at stray debris just because it looks suspiciously dirty.
Once that happened. Just once, Vik replied through the communications link. And that asteroid could have been carrying a plague or interstellar germ that would completely destroy all of my specimens. If it’s not pirates, it’s space debris. I need a proper lab, Indira. Space is far too dangerous for my liking.
Which is why I feel the need to repeat that Roo is in charge, Indira ordered dryly.
Understood, Vik groused. May the stars guide you home, Indira.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. Indira couldn’t understand why he insisted upon issuing the standard Common parting message, especially since he always insisted upon having the last word.
May the land welcome you, Vik, she said, waiting with a smile for his inevitable come back complaint.
I certainly hope not, the only thing worse than space debris is dirt! Vik replied. My combat suit hasn’t been right since Vedino.
Indira shook her head and prepared her dart for launch, while the small shuttle bay sealed and depressurized. It had been only three months since she had last returned to the obsidian mountain she once called “home,” but it had been more than a century since Indira looked forward to her quarterly visits, and this visit was no exception.
The shuttle bay doors opened. You are clear to launch, Roo communicated.
Thank you, Roo. Take care of our home, please, Indira said.
I will, Roo replied. Take care of yourself, please.
Indira wiped her damp palms on a thigh, plugged her exposure suit into the oxygen supply, and pulled on her flight helmet, locking it to her suit. She slowly guided the ship out of the small bay, set her course for the Asuhra Assassin’s League headquarters, and settled in for the quiet two-hour flight.
Located in the third quadrant of the Underworld, the section of space below the Common disc where most species resided, the league headquarters was positioned off the travelled path and only three days from the edge of the void, the dark stretch of space between the galaxy’s spiraling arms. The curious, the arrogant, and the foolish had all gone searching for the mythical Asuhra Peak, but none ever returned.
Making her approach to the headquarters’ coordinates, Indira began broadcasting her clearance code. Virtually invisible to all but those who knew its location and cloaked against all known sensors, the Peak was constructed of camouflaging materials harvested from a strange asteroid that had flown out of the void and entered the Underworld centuries ago. It wasn’t until a visitor was right on top of the station that the outline and details of the structure could be seen by the naked eye, but trespassers rarely made it that far.
A communications alert lit her dashboard and she played the incoming message. “You’re clear to land, Assassin Indira. Welcome home.”
Slowing her approach, she peered through the forward viewing window to watch the station come into sight. Though technically a space station, the void asteroid had been carved into the shape of a giant black mountain and adorned with new construction that was surfaced with the camouflaging asteroid materials. Shuttle bays and weapons platforms punctured the mountain, spiraling around the exterior of the structure for maximum defensive coverage. Hundreds of engine rooms supported the station, making it easily mobile, should their location ever be compromised; an event that had not happened once in her three hundred and seventy-two years.
Indira guided her dart into the twenty-fourth level aft shuttle bay. Landing in her designated place, the last spot in the small twelve-ship bay. She carefully set her ship down on the deck and scanned the bay, pleased to find every ship in its expected spot. Located adjacent to the children’s dormitories, the small shuttle bay was one of the most heavily protected bays on the station, which was one of the reasons why she had fought for the spot. Her request had taken years for approval, but the peace of mind that her shuttle would be protected had been well worth the wait.
As soon as she opened her dart’s canopy, Indira’s communications chip automatically connected to the Peak’s internal sat system. She scanned the single message waiting for her and checked the time on her dashboard, confirming that she still had a half hour until she was scheduled to appear before the conclave. After shedding her exposure suit, Indira strapped her blades to her back, slipped on her long coat, and quickly exited the shuttle bay.
Black stone, polished to a high sheen, lined the long halls from floor to ceiling and everything between. Small white lights, embedded in the stone overhead, cast a glare on the slick floor, causing her to squint, but it was still a far cry better than the nearly pitch black upper levels. Nevertheless, Indira wondered if the league would ever replace the annoying lights with something easier on the eyes; not that the league ever designed anything that would make life easier for their assassins. The league believed in excellence earned through hardship, and the challenging lights were only one minuscule example of how they trained their assassins.
Turning left, Indira followed the hall until one side of the passage opened onto a viewing platform overlooking a large training field two levels below. Pleased that she had timed her arrival well, Indira took a seat and scanned the field for a pairing that drew her interest. The Juvenile class was at practice, and children of every species between the ages of ten to thirteen, and occasionally an older child who had not been acquired until later in life instead of at birth, were paired off in hand-to-hand combat.
A young girl with dark-red hair caught her eye. The girl was tall for her age, but she had yet to master her size, as well as her temper. The child’s punches were quick and aggressive, but poorly timed. Her kicks were strong, but the girl’s stance left her vulnerable to attack. She fought with her heart and not her head, a trait that she already should have outgrown.
“I thought I would find you here,” Alric said, dropping into the seat next to her. “She fights like you did when you first arrived.”
She’s better than I was.
“True,” he said with a chuckle. “But she has the same passion that you did.”
“Passion” would not have been the word to describe what Indira had felt when she first arrived at the Peak. Terror, anger, and shock all would have been apt descriptors, but passion was an emotion she had never experienced. Passion would get you killed.
The redheaded girl on the field buckled beneath a devastating blow to her jaw, followed by a kick to her back. Her opponent, a petite young boy with dark-brown hair, fought with precision and strategy. He wore a mask of calm and moved with efficiency. The boy would go far in the league, presuming his mind could withstand the lifestyle.
Alric leaned back in his chair, his broad shoulders spilling over the edges and crowding into Indira’s personal space. Had he been anyone else, she would have moved seats, or broken his arm. But Alric was the only being in the whole of the galaxy that she considered a friend, aside from her two androids, and though his nearness was uncomfortable, it was bearable.
Will you have time after the meeting to catch-up? Alric asked, switching to communicate through their implants for privacy.
No. I have a physical with the medics, then I have several potential contracts to review, Indira replied, grateful for the excuse.
You’ve acquired a fine stable of reliable clientele. The conclave is pleased with your success and retention rates. He shifted in his seat to lean closer, as most who were accustomed to speaking aloud often did. But be careful. They are also suspicious.
Of what? Indira asked, scanning the training field with disinterest. I do my job well and I follow the tenets to the letter.
They’re concerned that you’re gaining a reputation for your own purposes, he said, casually brushing his fingers against her wrist.
Indira abruptly stood from her seat. If I’m to make a good impression, we should head to the chambers.
Alric frowned, and Indira wondered if the expression was genuine or manufactured. There was a time when she never questioned his motives or mannerisms, but that time ended when he became a master assassin and joined the conclave.
“If you insist,” he said.
Standing from his seat, he gestured for her to lead the way and they stepped into the quiet passageway, heading for the central elevators.
“Will I ever get a chance to meet your androids?” Alric asked.
Unless we work a contract together, that’s unlikely.
“You hold a grudge longer than a Matri witch.” He chuckled. “It’s been over a century, when will you let it go?”
The conclave killed my entire crew, Alric. I’m not holding a grudge. I’m making certain it doesn’t happen again.
It was a mistake to make an example out of you, he conceded. Caring for your crew guaranteed successful outcomes for your contracts. Some behaviors can be attributed merely to logic, and nothing more.
Indira said nothing; she couldn’t. Logic had not been the reason for abandoning her mission all those years ago. The target had been tipped off to her presence and fired at her ship and crew to lure her away, and it had worked. It was the perfect example of why assassins were forbidden attachments and relationships of any kind, because it compromised their judgment and divided their priorities. Indira had been the perfect example, prime for the conclave’s discipline, and she had vowed to never repeat the mistake again.
Master Minturd, Creators care for his soul, can no longer harass you, Alric said, stepping into the central lift alongside Indira. After entering his code for the conclave’s chambers, he pressed his back against the rear wall, letting his shoulder rest against hers. I only ask that you consider resuming regular visits to the Peak. It would go a long way to confirming your loyalty.
If they are still questioning my loyalty after all of these years, then there is nothing I can do to reassure them, Indira said.
They’re paranoid. Alric said. In the past few months we’ve lost two master assassins. Now they’re seeing shadows everywhere.
Assassins die all the time—
They didn’t die, he said, glancing her way. Tren disappeared in quadrant two over a month ago. Sevrick disappeared shortly after that. No one has seen or heard from them.
Indira shrugged. They’re probably dead. It’s a waste of my time to combat their paranoia, Alric.
He turned to face her, leaning his shoulder against the wall. Then do it for me. I could use an ally around here, and it would be nice to see you everyday. I would enjoy…spending more time with you.
Indira kept cautiously still, invoking her training to exude the picture of indifference. Her pulse was a steady beat, and her breaths even, but her gut churned. She would rather face an impossible target surrounded by an army of Naraki demons, than confront Alric’s expectations.
Sexual recreation was a way of life, and was even permitted between colleagues. But the league rules strictly prohibited ongoing physical relationships, as they inevitably led to ongoing emotional relationships. Alric rarely broke the rules for any reason, but Indira worried that he was wandering dangerously close to bending them beyond repair.
She trusted Alric more than the rest, but he was also a conclave master, and she couldn’t rule out the possibility of entrapment. Indira knew that Alric cared for her, but he was also a good soldier and would always put the league first.
The door to the elevator slid open and Indira stepped out, directly into the middle of the conclave’s meeting chambers. The black stone room was unadorned, except for the flaming torches circling the room. The thirteen master assassins of the ruling conclave, minus Alric, sat in modest old world wood chairs arranged in a half circle, spanning the breadth of the chambers. The three elder assassins sat in the center of the assembled conclave, looking just as regal as Indira remembered.
They’re going to offer you a position on the conclave, Alric said, stepping off the lift to join her.
Indira caught herself a second before she would have flinched. Taking a deep breath, she smothered her anger at his poorly timed revelation and refrained from mentally cursing him in every language she knew.
The masters comprising the conclave were all from different species and backgrounds. Every assassin was required to have his or her primary magic removed upon acceptance into the league. But many species still retained secondary talents that were useful, specifically for interrogation. Even the slightest variance in her pulse, scent, or temperature could be interpreted as deceit; or in the case of an assassin—weakness.
Alric escorted Indira to stand between the two torches in the middle of the room, and they both bowed to the conclave.
“I present Assassin Indira,” Alric announced. “As a reminder for our newest conclave masters, Indira is a siren and her larynx was removed as mandated by the second law of Asuhra. She will respond to your questions by way of a communications implant, and the messages can be read on your data pads or on the display at the front of these chambers.”
Be respectful, he cautioned her privately. After a bored nod to Indira, Alric took his seat among the conclave.
“Welcome, Assassin Indira. Thank you for arranging your busy schedule to accommodate these proceedings,” Master Turjin said.
Turjin was an Agneya, the species mythically known as “angels.” He was one of the three elders on the conclave, but many considered him to be the ruling leader among the Asuhra, a misconception he encouraged at every chance. He smoothed his long bright-red hair over his black tunic and nodded to her in greeting.
As always, it is an honor to return home to the great city of Asuhra, Indira said, bowing to him respectfully.
“I’m sure it is,” Master Quin said, forcing a stiff smile. Quin had never liked her much, and it looked as though that hadn’t changed.
Her quarterly visits to the conclave were never an amiable affair, but the greeting she was receiving was more overtly hostile than she had expected. Indira was tempted to glare at Alric for not warning her appropriately, but she schooled her thoughts and reminded herself that he was not a friend to be trusted, not any more.
“Your contracts have all been dispatched with efficiency, and more than seventy percent have earned bonuses for eliminating your target with expediency.” Master Serenelle, a lithe dark-haired Fae of unseelie descent, set aside her data pad and folded her hands. “Well done, Assassin Indira.”
Thank you, Master Serenelle. My skills are a gift from the league, and I am grateful for them.
Indira’s hope for the meeting to swiftly end on that positive note was dashed when Master Quin, a Naraki “demon” with black eyes and deep red skin, cleared his throat and leaned forward.
“Your skills are exceptional,” he agreed. “Because it is unheard of for an assassin of your age and expertise to still be in the field.”
“I agree,” piped up a short Kubari goblin. He was a master with whom Indira was unfamiliar, but from the limited quantity of golden rings adorning his soft hands, she estimated him to be one of the youngest masters on the conclave. “It’s entirely inappropriate,” he continued. “What aspirations will the youths of today have if they believe there are no opportunities for advancement in their later years?”
Later years? Indira wasn’t yet four hundred. In most societies throughout the Common, she would still be considered a youth. But Indira didn’t live among the respectable societies of the Common.
In the Common, the plane of space where all known solar systems and their native species originated, life was orderly, long, and dull. Even in the Overworld, the section of space located more than two days above the Common disc, residents knew what to expect from the ruling pirates and mafia families. But Indira lived in the Underworld, the wild and unruly wasteland located two days below the Common disc. In the Underworld, assassins were royalty and three hundred and seventy-two was practically ancient.
“It is only inappropriate, Master Jessip, because you deem it so,” Master Serenelle said. “Assassin Indira is an example of excellence to our assassins in training. They should aspire to live a life as long as hers, and to become an assassin as accomplished as she.”
“Agreed,” Alric added. “She is already a legend among the youth and her peers alike.”
“She’s a legend all right,” Master Jessip muttered. He slouched in his chair and grumbled under his breath, spinning the narrow band around his thumb. The nervous habit confirmed his lack of age, and caused Indira to question his qualifications as a Master Assassin.
“I’m afraid that I have to agree with Master Jessip as well as Master Alric,” said a petite nymph with pink hair. She was also new to the conclave. “Assassin Indira is a legend. She has gained notoriety within the league, and she is highly coveted by our customers. But she has also earned a reputation within the Common. And that is unacceptable.”
“We’re supposed to be the faceless and the shadows,” Master Jessip said. “Not the rumored ‘silent assassin.’”
We are all silent assassins, Indira said. It might have been advised to remain quiet, but at the question of her skills she refused. Assassins have always had their identities compromised, it is why we train so vigilantly and keep to the shadows—
“You weren’t keeping to the shadows on space station Indrani-21,” Master Quin spat. “Your blurry profile has travelled the sat network to all four corners of the sector, and we’ll be lucky if you’re still offered contracts in a month’s time.”
The lifespan of a rumor on the sat network is shorter than an asteroid on the event horizon of a singularity, Indira retorted. Most of my clients do not know what I look like, and the rest will not be dissuaded by unsubstantiated rumors and a blurry image that reveals nothing more than the length of my hair and color of my skin. I would suggest you have as much faith in our clients as they do in Asuhra.
Quiet whispers and several gasps echoed throughout the chamber, and Indira instantly regretted her last sentence. Cowering from her mistake would only make matters worse. Instead, she lifted her chin and waited for the rebuke to come.
Master Turjin silenced his congregation with a wave. “Nevertheless, the conclave feels that this unfortunate situation may be salvaged as an opportunity.”
Indira’s stomach turned and bile rose to her throat. Her fingers itched to pull the swords from her back. This could all be over in a bath of blood; unfortunately, that blood would likely to be hers.
“The conclave has decided that it’s time for you to return home permanently, and assume a position among the conclave,” Turjin said. Smiling politely, he rested a hand on the shoulder of the elder sitting to his right. “Master Bjorl has expressed an interest in returning to his position as head of operations for Asuhra Peak. We will miss his leadership on the conclave, but all great things must eventually come to an end.”
The masters quietly nodded and whispered gratitude to Master Bjorl. When the well wishing died down, the conclave turned their gazes to Indira. Mixed expressions stared at her expectantly. At a glance, she estimated half of the conclave expected her to gush with gratitude, and the other half were poised to pounce on her anticipated rejection. Indira was pleased she could at least make half of them happy.
Masters of the conclave, you honor me with your confidence, she began, meeting each of their gazes decisively. It is with deep appreciation and respect that I must humbly decline such a position. My skills would do a great injustice to this noble conclave, and they are best suited to service the league in the field.
Her refusal was met with stunned silence, and then the gates of dissent burst open.
“I have never seen such disrespect,” Quin hissed.
“She thinks herself too proud to serve the conclave,” accused a Rhaka master.
“Rejecting this conclave is tantamount to treason,” Master Jessip barked.
“Quiet!” shouted Turjin.
The shouts subsided, but soft grumbles and grunts continued to swirl around the chambers.
“Would you consider a position as an instructor?” Master Serenelle asked.
Indira purposefully curled her lips into a semblance of a smile. With all due respect, Master Serenelle, how exactly would that work? We don’t secure enough sirens in the league to warrant an instructor with a communications chip. My condition makes field training impossible, and I am woefully unsuited to teach inside of a classroom.
With a conceding nod, Serenelle leaned back in her seat and folded her hands in her lap.
Master Bjorl cleared his throat and stroked his long platinum beard thoughtfully. “I believe the conclave would consider allowing you the opportunity to grow into a position among our ranks, by first exercising your skills as an instructor. However, I can attest that you would be unfit as a classroom instructor. If my recollection serves me right, it was not an environment in which you thrived when you were a student.”
Indira dipped her head in acknowledgement. Your recollection is as sharp as ever, Master Bjorl.
Bjorl chuckled softly and hunched forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “The most obvious solution is that you shall take an apprentice. The training of your young assassin would require you to spend more time at the Peak, and thus give you the opportunity to become more familiar with conclave procedure.”
He was offering her a compromise; one with an eventual expiration, but a compromise nonetheless. The offer was beyond generous, and though having a potential conclave spy and interloper on her ship was the last thing in the universe that she wanted, Indira had no choice but to accept it.
Thank you, Master Bjorl, she said, ignoring the dread filling her gut. I have several contracts to review and will need to settle my affairs, but I can return to the conclave in three to four weeks to select my new apprentice.
Master Jessip snorted. “This is absurd, she’s an assassin and not a child to be coddled.“
“Silence!” Master Bjorl shouted, and the single word echoed off the stone walls.
The chambers quieted and all eyes bounced between Bjorl and Turjin, waiting to see how the two elders would settle the disagreement.
A tick in Turjin’s jaw was the only telling sign that he was annoyed by the turn of events.
“Shall we vote?” Bjorl said, fingering the dagger attached to his thigh while eyeing his fellow masters around the room.
“I vote aye,” Turjin said, casually crossing an ankle over a bent knee.
With Turjin’s approval voiced, the remaining twelve masters unanimously accepted the decision, and the conclave adjourned for the day.
Indira clenched her fists, but forced herself to remain calm and indifferent. She would deal with her anger once she was safely back home on her own ship.
On the way to the lift, Bjorl paused at her side and gently rested a hand on her shoulder. “I hope you use this time wisely, Indira.”
Thank you, Master Bjorl. She wanted to say more, but offering false gratitude would only offend the elder.
Indira’s freedom had been tied to a leash. In a few short weeks, she would have a young apprentice nosing through her ship, questioning her every move, and reporting her behavior back to the conclave. And in a handful of years, she would be forced to return to Asuhra Peak permanently, where the rest of her life would be lived in the one place she detested above all others, the hell she once called home.