Last prologue, I promise. *memo me: make a table of contents*.
Stalking Spider sat in the forest clearing, sharpening her knife. To any observer, she would have faded into the shadows; black hair cut short to keep it from her eyes, dark skin, her clothes wrapped in a deep gray cloak that left no metal to glint in the moonlight, and her bow slung carefully on her back. Even her eyes were dark, her irises such a dark blue as to, at first glance, seem black.
Alone, in the darkness, she considered her path. There was nothing left for her in the South. It was well past time that she moved on towards more a more forgiving climate; while it pained her to forsake her well-established network of contacts, she knew that staying any longer would only result in their destruction, and then they would be of no use to anyone. The next Hunt that rode through would not be so unprepared as the first, and they knew her sobriquet now. She couldnâ€™t afford to operate anywhere that they could reach. That meant fleeing for the Scavenger Lands like a whipped dog. Something in her bridled at the thought, but she shoved it down. Survival was the only thing that mattered now.
The sound of the twig snapping was quiet, almost swallowed in the night, but Stalking Spiderâ€™s nerves were stretched to their limit, and she reacted before she let herself think. One hand drew her bow, the second an arrow, and she was drawing and firing even as she turned. The arrow cut through the air between it and its target, slamming home with the dull â€˜thunkâ€™ of steel against wood.
For a moment, the man stood still, before looking down. The arrow, still quivering, jutted out from the centre of his walking stick, which had just touched the ground in front of him. He looked up at the shadowy figure still sitting in the clearing, now facing him. And, after a moment, he let a single chuckle escape.
â€œStalking Spider, I presume. Your skills appear every bit as impressive as I had heard. May I?â€ Spider nodded, curtly, and the man approached, passing her and sitting down carefully across from her before pulling the arrow out of his staff and inspecting the damage.
Spider frowned, studying him. At first glance, he didnâ€™t seem like anyone important. He was a young man, and looked like an indolent merchantâ€™s son or something similar. However, there was something about him that put her on edge, something that she couldnâ€™t put her finger on. Perhaps it was just that he was here, in the middle of the jungle, late at night, with no signs of having had difficulty reaching here. He hadnâ€™t even broken a sweat.
And then, of course, there was the fact that he had so effortlessly blocked her arrow.
â€œI have a commission for you, if you will take it.â€ Her eyebrows rose in surprise, and he chuckled again, just once. â€œLet me assure you, the target justifies the effort it took me to find you.â€
She considered, checked her bow over. Replaced it. Frowned. â€œI donâ€™t know that Iâ€™m taking any contracts right now. I have my own concerns.â€
â€œThis contract is currently on the move. Northeast, towards the Hundred Kingdoms.â€ Her frown deepened, and he sighed. â€œI know a great deal about you, Stalking Spider. Iâ€™ve been following you for days, deciding how to approach you. It wasnâ€™t hard to realize what concerns you might be speaking of.â€ He leaned back. â€œI can help the Hunt â€˜loseâ€™ your details. It wonâ€™t work twice, but itâ€™ll cover your tracks. As a first part of the price of the contract.â€
â€œThatâ€™s quite a contract.â€ Warning bells were ringing, but Spider didnâ€™t have much choice. She leaned forwards. â€œWhoâ€™s the target?â€
â€œA very dangerous young man by the name of Marcaeus Blake.â€ The manâ€™s expression became solemn, and he reached into his coat, carefully pulling out a sealed package and she watched. He handed to her, and she took it cautiously. â€œQuite powerful, and he has managed to embarrass my client on a number of occasions. We want him removed as swiftly and thoroughly as possible.â€
â€œAnd the catch?â€
â€œHeâ€™s a Solar.â€ She sucked in her breath, and he smiled again. â€œWill that be a problem?â€
â€œNo.â€ She considered the package. â€œPayment?â€
â€œAside from setting your Hunt problems back a year?â€ He reached into his coat again, and tossed her something, something that glinted gold in the starlight. She caught it, looked it over, and looked back at him.
â€œA hearthstone bracer.â€ It was dull bronze, with hints of orichalcum tracing, bearing the symbol of a tiger baring its fangs. The man nodded.
â€œThe second will be given to you when the job is done. They operate as a pair, of course. Neither of us can use one alone, which should serve as a guarantee that I will pay. Do I have a deal?â€
After a moment, she nodded. â€œConsider your problem removed.â€ She stood fluidly, and bowed. â€œHow will I find you afterwards?â€
â€œTrust me. Iâ€™ll find you.â€ He smiled, his teeth glinting. â€œBut if something goes wrong, just go to Larjyn, and ask for Master Cray.â€
â€œI wonâ€™t have to.â€ With that statement, she turned, slipping into the night. Cray watched her go, and his smile grew.