The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 14 – Going Off Script

Koblani didn’t like plan they were following. It would be fair to say she hated it. And her Overseer. And life in general. Not that the latter problem was likely to persist for long, since thanks to her superiors, she and all of her teammate were both going to be very dead, very soon.

“I keep losing the shadows,” Pergrez said. Pergrez was Koblani’s partner. Together they made a near perfect team. They knew how to watch each other’s approaches, how to cover and distract their target together, and, above all else, how to shape the shadows so that neither one ever had to worry about being seen.

“Step back and reweave them,” Koblani said, gripping the bridge of her nose in frustration. It wasn’t right to be angry with Pergrez. She knew that. It wasn’t his fault that the shadows were so slippery here. They were up against some kind of foreign spellcraft and none of their Shadowfolk elders had the sense to call off the strike on the princess until it was safe to move against her.

Koblani knew what proper procedure should have been. She and Pergrez should have taken up an observational position and waited for an arcanist, a specialized researcher of magics, to be dispatched. The arcanist would have looked at the spells around the target’s location and said either “here’s the openings you need to slip through” or, more likely, “this is too dangerous, hold the attack for a more opportune time”.

The Shadowfolk survived because they exercised caution. Because they knew not to tangle with things they didn’t understand when they didn’t have to do so. Trying to kill a princess in her lair, and it was growing impossible not to think of the mountain inn as anything except a lair, was not something they had to do.

The problem was the elders were panicked. They’d spent years working on their plans and due to a series of mistakes, the Shadowfolk had become much too exposed. Ordinarily that would be the signal to retreat, but a retreat would mean failure and failure would mean a loss of prestige and power.

When the people in power have to always be right and can’t admit to ever being wrong, when they bend the narrative to always blame others and never look at their own failings, that’s when everyone without power loses. Koblani hated knowing that, hated being sure that she was being used, but at the same time, she didn’t see there were any other choices left to her.

She was just one person. If the rest of the Shadowfolk were too blind to see what was happening then they would never forgive her is she turned renegade. That left her the choice of performing her duty and dying a beloved hero, or fleeing and dying a hated traitor.

“I think I’ve got the cloak woven again,” Pergrez said. “I don’t understand how this is happening though.”

“I don’t think we’re going to get to understand,” Koblani said.

“We shouldn’t be doing this should we?” Pergrez asked. “I mean, we should be coming at this from a different angle.”

“We’ve tried five different approaches already,” Koblani said. “We’ve got till dawn to make the kill. Think we can work out another path in?”

Each time they ventured close to the Sunblosson Inn, things started to go wrong for them. Each attempt started with their invisibility spells being picked away at. The close they got to the Inn, the harder the shadows were to hold on to. Koblani hadn’t pushed them forward far enough to risk being completely exposed, but time was not their friend.

Not after they’d made the mistake of reporting that the Inn’s defenses were growing stronger every day. That was what had ignited the order to move ahead immediately. If the defensive ring pushed them back too far they couldn’t maintain their observation of the princess’s hideaway.

“I wish I knew how the princess threw off the locating charm on the human assassin,” Pergrez said.

“Probably killed her,” Koblani said.

“I thought it was written to alert us to that? You said it would transfer to the princess herself in that case.” Pergrez said.

“They’re blinding us to what’s inside the Inn, we have to assume they could have silenced the charm too,” Koblani said.

“You think it’s more than the princess at work here?” Pergrez asked.

“It has to be,” Koblani said. “She’s just a child still.”

“Our operatives reported that the princess and the assassin left from the sky giant’s aerie without the Queen’s Guards?” Pergrez asked.

“They left without guards we could see,” Koblani said. “The operatives weren’t able to gain entrance to the aerie until after the two de[arted though, so we have to assume they had help.”

“Had? Or still have?” Pergrez asked. “We haven’t seen any sign of a Pact Warrior around but if one gets the drop on us we’re dead.”

“All the more reason to keep the shadows tight,” Koblani said. Her concentration was as solid as mush though and she felt her outer layer of invisibility slide away.

“Come on Ko, this is just another mission right?” Pergrez said. “We’ve run tougher courses than this.”

They hadn’t. They’d performed difficult missions, but this one had every hair on Koblani’s neck standing up and screaming that it was a trap. The layering of the defenses and the direction they were pointed suggested that any approach towards the inn would both weaken them and reduce their ability to flee from the dangers that awaited them.

“We have,” Koblani lied. “Like that time in the Mirror Halls. We had to scramble there but we got it done.”

A plan formed in her mind as she spoke. They were walking into their doom, but it didn’t have to be a doom for both of them. Between the two, she was too angry not to fight, but Pergrez was possibly just gullible enough that she could save his foolish, kindly life if she played things right. The thought of accomplishing something with her death didn’t raise her spirits much but it seemed a lot better than the alternative.

“Yeah, but the elders failed us for the Hall run,” Pergrez said.

“They failed us because we took too many risks, and broke from their script, but we got the job done,” Koblani said.

The failure had come with a stern warning and a three month period of retraining. Koblani had been apocalyptic with rage at the time but in retrospect ached with longing for those days of sanity and caution.

“We did, but Sleeping Gods was that a mess!” Pergrez said, remembering the incident as clearly as Koblani did apparently.

“I think we’re in the same situation here,” she said. “We’ve got to get this done but they know we’re coming.”

“You’re thinking something though,” Pergrez said. “You’ve got a plan. I can see it in your eyes.”

“You can’t see me at all,” Koblani said, tugging close the shadows that concealed her.

“We’ve worked together since we were five,” Pergrez said. “I can see you even when I can’t see you. Like right now, the edges of your lips are dipping about a half inch down while your nose tightens up and your neck gets all stiff with the argument you want to make.”

“None of that’s true,” Koblani said, pulling the corners of her mouth up as she forced her nose and neck to relax.

“Anyway, you have an idea, what is it?” Pergrez asked.

“We need to do a two pronged attacked,” Koblani said.

“Sounds great,” Pergrez said. “Where do we get the other team?”

“Right here,” Koblani said. “I’m team one and you’re team two.”

“And our backup will be?” Pergrez said.

“That’s the plan. We execute without backup,” Koblani said.

Shadowfolk kill teams never operated alone. The myth of the solo assassin was something they encouraged only because it was supremely poor planning. A solo assassin seemed glorious and daring. In reality though it was a desperate move and one which was much less likely to succeed than sending in a team where more angles and contingencies could be covered.

The primary role of the supporting member of the team wasn’t aggression at all, but rather concealment and situational awareness. As the lead assassin focused on setting up the kill, the support watched for anyone who was in a position to interfere or who could react in a timely fashion. They were also responsible for weaving a secondary cloak of invisibility over the lead assassin to make sure that once the deed was done, the team could escape safely and without pursuit.

Even for simple observation missions, the presence of a lead and a support was required, again to ensure that while the primary objective was being surveilled the team was not being observed themselves.

Tactical doctrine said any time any member of the team was compromised, the entire team dealt with the issue and aborted the mission if stealth was no longer an option. Dividing up and trying to execute an objective solo was not only forbidden, it was punishable by a temporary forfeiture of rank and mission priority privileges.

“Why? Why risk that?” Pergrez asked.

“Stealth was compromised before we started this mission,” Koblani said. “The elders knew that. They were aware that our target was baiting us out and they chose send in a team anyways.”

“We don’t know that,” Pergrez said, but his voice was unsteady.

“We do,” Koblani said. “We got read the initial reports and they know how we operate. They know we’ll cheat to get things accomplished. That has to be why they sent us. This is a mission that requires success and we’re the only ones who’ll do what it takes to achieve that.”

“We cheat to keep each other alive,” Pergrez said. “Not to put ourselves at this kind of risk. I mean solo work? How is that even us working together?”

“We’ll be working together because I’ll know you’ll be there to sink the blade into the opening that I make,” Koblani said. “Or rescue me if I get captured.”

“Wait, you think you’re going in first?”

“Yes. I’m better at cloaking, so I’m taking the direct route in,” Koblani said.

“I’m better at blade magic,” Pergrez said. “Whoever goes in first is going to have to fight. It should be me.”

“No. If you go in first, you’ll be discovered sooner and have to fight through more of the defenses they have in place,” Koblani said. “If I go in, I can sneak inside the Inn. I might have to fight some people in there, but you’ll be much close to being in position. You’ll be able to act in time, where I wouldn’t be able to get to you.”

“I’m not that fast,” Pergrez said. “If you don’t make it to the Inn, I won’t be able to help at all, and if you do, it’ll still take me time to get there.”

This was the truth that Koblani was relying on, she wanted Pergrez to be too late so that he would be able to bail out instead and not suffer her fate. That was why she felt no compunction about obscuring it with a lie.

“You’re faster than I am, and I won’t be moving quickly as I penetrate their defenses. You’ll have plenty of time to reach me.”

“And if I don’t?” Pergrez said. “If they have some defense we don’t know of yet and you wind up gutted while I’m on the far side of the Inn?”

It was a valid concern. Koblani was nigh unto certain that the princess had several defenses they weren’t aware of yet, and that she would definitely be detected before she reached the insides of the Inn. The key was to be detected before Pergrez was close enough to commit to her rescue.

“If we’re going to assume the worst, then we have to assume that they’ll take us both out as we move in, and that having someone working as support along isn’t going to matter,” Koblani said. “That’s a losing bet though so we have to go for the winning play. It’s our only option. If worst comes to worst and they do have defenses we can’t break past, we’ll abort.”

“And if they catch you?” Pergrez asked.

“Then you’ll abort,” Koblani said.

“I am not leaving this mission without you,” Pergrez said.

“If I’m alive I’ll appreciate that, if I’m dead I promise I will haunt you and drag you to the worst dark world I can find.”

“Can’t haunt me if I’m dead too,” Pergrez said.

“If you’re dead too then there won’t be anywhere you can escape me,” Koblani said. “Seriously, though, we have to succeed, but revealing the princess’s defenses could be enough of a success. If one of us falls, then that takes priority of everything else. No one will blame us if we return alone but bring back information on a protective measure that we’ve never seen before.”

“I hate this plan,” Pergrez said.

“Do you have a better one?” Koblani asked.

“Yeah, let me go in first,” Pergrez said.

“Do think that’s really going to increase our chance of success?” Koblani asked.

There was a long silence before Pergrez spoke again.

“No. It won’t.”

“Then we’re committed,” Koblani said.

“Till death do us part,” Pergrez said.

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