Hunter stepped into the room full of generals, cabinet members, royalty, and one deep-blue-eyed woman who immediately extended a hand to him.
“Nyah Higimie,” the dark haired young lady said as she shook his hand firmly. “Royal Bur’Ian NSA.”
She was tall and thin, but her frame betrayed well-toned muscles and an agile body. The blue of her eyes was quite deep, the unique shade Hunter had seen nowhere but Bur’I. She was a native, but her eyes also told him she had seen a great deal more than her countrymen.
“Aren’t you a little young for an agent of the National Security Agency?” Hunter asked innocently as he shook the woman’s hand.
“Aren’t you a little young for a royal squire?” she replied casually and gave him an appraising look. “Hunter Jusenkyou, Gudersnipe graduate, Western Fleet.”
“Well, you’ve done your homework,” Hunter said. “Let me guess,
?” Sevel School
“How ever did you know?” Nyah grinned.
“Let’s get to work people,” Chief Hildabrand snapped. “If the two of you are done verbally copulating, we have a royal family to rescue.”
Hunter rolled his eyes and settled into one of the padded chairs around the wooden conference table.
The fact that Hildabrand had spoken so flippantly demonstrated his clear and present lack of comprehension of who—or more rather what—Hunter and Nyah were. Ultimately, while Sevel and Gudersnipe were not without their respective differences, Nyah was the only other person on the entire planet with one tenth of the qualifications Hunter possessed. Behind Nyah with her Sevel education, most likely no one came even as close as she did to Hunter.
Of anyone in the room, they were clearly the two most qualified to plot a rescue.
The king was there, along with the queen and several of their top advisors, as well as the head of the NSA and a few generals. It was quite a heady group; Hunter would have felt very out of place if not for the company of his new colleague Nyah.
“All right, Hunter,” began Chief Hildabrand, the head of security for the Royal Family. “Since you witnessed the whole encounter, why don’t you start this briefing off?”
Hunter nodded and took the floor.
“The tactics they used were very advanced,” he explained. “They didn’t just hit us in hyperspace, they laid mines.”
“Is that difficult?” Chief Hildabrand asked.
“Very,” Hunter replied. “See, hyper speed is the ultimate high ground. Few weapons even function at hyper velocities, and most that do would be ineffective against a ship’s energy mantle. FTL space-mines are created using a low-level energy mantle of their is precisely harmonized to the approaching ship.
“The mines then get caught in a ships own energy mantle and dragged back towards the engines where a simple explosive is enough to do massive damage.”
“Are these mines difficult to obtain?” the chief asked.
“Difficult to obtain, easy to build,” Hunter replied. “Considering these guys’ style, I’m betting they modified escape pods to do the trick. The hard part is laying them; it’s impossible to keep an object stationary at reletivistic speeds for obvious reasons, and mines have a limited lifespan. They would have had to lay them along our intended route within fifteen or twenty minutes of our passing by.
“Since they had cloaked ships, it still wouldn’t have been hard, but it does add an additional element of professionalism to the assault.
“What makes it even more interesting is the way they carried out the kidnapping. Instead of taking what they wanted and leaving, they simply slipped aboard in the confusion. Then, they crippled the ship and waited for a rescue party, at which point they ran during the transfer.
“The Valley Forge couldn’t give chase immediately because it had to finish offloading the crew of the Anatenkai, at which point two more ships, different from the ones carrying the prince and princess, arrived to cripple the Valley Forge.”
“This tells us many things about our enemy. Number one: they are acting under a highly organized and brilliant leader who probably has profound if misguided goals. And number two: they aren’t willing to kill if they can avoid it.”
“I’m thinking one of the various terrorist factions,” Nyah stated. “It’s too indirect for one of our national enemies.”
“Yeah,” Hunter agreed. “But something about this screams professional job.”
“Who do you like for it?” Nyah asked dryly. “GAS?”
“No,” Hunter shook his head. “Jason was a member of one of the school’s top student teams. Status like that buys you immunity at the least, usually protection as well. If the Foundation or the Guild even had a hint of this, they would have alerted Jason.”
“UMF then?” Nyah suggested.
Hunter shook his head again. “The UMF has their own ships. What attacked us were outmoded battle ships, second-hand from at least three nations all within five-score light years. That and the UMF are usually more brazen, they like to announce themselves.”
“Well it couldn’t have been SS,” Nyah growled. “They don’t do spatial operations.”
“I’ll defer to your expertise in that department,” Hunter nodded. “So who does that leave?”
“Hold on a moment,” King Caleb interrupted. “GAS, SS, UMF? You people are speaking in acronyms!”
“It happens,” Hunter shrugged. “GAS is
Gudersnipe Assassin School obviously; SS is industry slang for , whose graduates mostly go on to work for private mercenary organizations or the Assassin’s Guild, or in rare cases the National Security Agencies of their home planets. And of course the lovely UMF is the United Mercenary Force. They’re a rough coalition of private mercenaries, not licensed assassins or recognized by the Guild. They’re pretty frequently at odds with the major organizations, but since they can hold their ground on our terms Gudersnipe usually leaves them alone.” Sevel School
“You know what I think,” Nyah began carefully. “I think, I don’t know… but the people who did this, could they be from
Hunter stared at her for a long while, calmly leaning on the table and considering her words with a blank expression. For now Nyah found him a bit disturbing; she had undergone extensive training at Sevel in the science of reading people, but she couldn’t get anything out of Hunter.
“Is one of you going to explain what that means?” Chief Hildabrand finally asked. “
“It’s one of the schools that doesn’t have an acronym,” Hunter explained. “Primarily because they don’t exist. Well, not technically anyway.
“The Assassin’s Guild has existed in some form or another since the Mage Wars. And from about the Second Age forward, they’ve been recognized as a legitimate organization by the Alliance and most independent governments.
“The Guild has a lot of power, and one way to ensure that power was not abused was by creating a system of internal checks and balances. Namely, a strictly controlled licensing system. If you wanted to be a licensed and bonded assassin, you had to go to school.
“At the beginning of the Sixth Age there were three major schools of assassination: Gudersnipe, Sevel, and Russia. Then the Society of Assassins split from the Assassin’s Guild, and a kind of cold war began.
“One way the Guild tried to stop the Society was by stifling its supply of new recruits. Any school that did not meet the Guild’s requirements would lose its licensing, and be forced to shut down.
“No license meant its graduates could not join the Guild, no Guild affiliation pretty much means you are a glorified hit man, not a legal assassin.
“Now Gudersnipe and Sevel took a very scientific, clean approach to assassination. Snipers, private killings, espionage, things like that. The Assassins Guild liked that, it was good for public image. If Assassins came across neat and tidy as surgeons, it made the public slightly less agitated.”
“You keep talking about the ‘Assassins Guild’,” the queen interrupted. “Surely you can’t be seriously implying there is some kind of order to this—”
“There is a very complex order, actually,” Hunter cut her off. “Licensed Assassins are considered legal by the Unity Earth Sphere Alliance as well as most governments. The Guild has its own requirements, its own laws, its own code. Any member who does not conform is subject to strict disciplinary action.”
“But how can they legalize murder?” Queen Nitta demanded.
“Because it’s not ‘murder’ in the sense you’re thinking,” Hunter replied. “Look, when a bank robber holds up a bank, do they prosecute the gun?”
The queen glowered at him disdainfully.
“In the eyes of the law,” Hunter explained. “An assassin is not a murder, but a tool of murder. The one guilty of the crime is the one who hired the assassin himself. It’s the same as shooting a gun instead of beating someone to death with your bare hands. Make sense?”
Queen Nitta gave him a cross look but nodded her comprehension.
“Of course that’s only true for licensed assassins,” Hunter shrugged. “An unlicensed assassin is a hit man and a murderer.
“Anyway, as I was explaining. Sevel and Gudersnipe, as well as a handful of smaller, private schools, made the cut. Other schools that failed to meet the Guild’s requirements either shut down or changed their curriculum to produce mercenaries for the UMF or DMC, but
was different. Russia
“They made assassination quite a bit more personal. Knives, public murders, bombs, poison, manslayers, they taught them all. Of course Gudersnipe also taught those things, but the emphasis was different. Gudersnipe put a heavy price on killing innocents, they taught the assassins code from day one.
’s students were bad, nasty, and evil. They trained them to be that way. You see, schools like Gudersnipe and Sevel teach students to kill with detachment, like soldiers on the battlefield. That’s part of why both schools also train the students as mercenaries; it helps in all aspects of their jobs. But Russia reduced its students to cold, heartless killing machines who feel no remorse for their actions. Russia
“That was why the Guild banned
, took away its license. They were voted invisible, on paper anyway. The school was not allowed to own property or purchase anything, let alone train students. So they went underground. Gudersnipe has been chasing them off and on for centuries, but the long and short of it is that now Russia supplies most of the new blood for the Society of Assassins.” Russia
“Would you mind explaining this ‘Society of Assassins’ to us?” the king asked timidly “I’m a little confused.”
Hunter groaned inwardly. Caleb Bur’I was not a strong king; he was in fact a very weak and timid man. Jason had told the story, once or twice, of how poor Caleb tried to escape becoming king, and how even now he didn’t seem happy in his station. He did the best he could, but at the end of the day he was a political failure.
Not admirable traits in royalty.
“Basically, they’re murderers,” Nyah shrugged. “A highly secretive group of the most deadly assassins in the Multi-Verse. They don’t follow any rules, they just kill.”
“There is a little more to it than that,” Hunter corrected. “The Society has existed in one form or another since the earliest days of the Mage Wars—close to ten millennia. There are a lot of legends and hearsay, but the best iteration of the truth that Gudersnipe has been able to cobble together goes something like this:
“They started out as a coalition of fighters and lesser-path magicians who teamed up against powerful wizards, the idea being that by combining their small amounts of power, they could achieve greater things.
“And it worked too, the Wizard-Breakers as they were called excelled at taking down rogue sorcerers, but were basically useless against mage towers. As the organization grew and finding work became harder, they started taking on all sorts of jobs from mercenary work to outright assassinations.
“The group really didn’t start out bad, in fact if the legends of their early exploits are true, they were actually pretty noble. But they say the Wizard-Breakers made a wrong turn, and started studying dark magic in order to achieve greater power.
“As their reputations grew, the Wizard-Breakers began to call themselves the Order of Wizard-Breakers, and started coming off with some down-right crazy ideologies. It stopped being so much about business, and more of a pseudo-religion—border-lining on a full blown cult!
“By the end of the Mage Wars they were a pretty dangerous bunch, Dark Wizards mostly, and a handful of battling sorcerers. Laytami Gudersnipe was the first one to openly oppose them, and he crushed the organization outright. The Order of Wizard-Breakers did great when the odds were in their favor, but not so well against Laytami’s army.
“After that the order was considered extinct, nobody had known much about them in the first place, so they were all but forgotten.
“But in the Second Age the Wizard-Breakers re-emerged as the Society of Assassins. The connections were circumstantial at best; a handful of signature moves and tactics. It’s possible the Society was just emulating the original Order, but Gudersnipe historians have found even deeper similarities concerning the ideologies and ceremonial activities of both groups.
“Unfortunately, both the Society and the original Order were incredibly secretive, so it’s just impossible to say what really happened. I think, based on my own experiences, that a few surviving members of the Order used black magic to prolong their own lives until the Order had been forgotten and they could start over.”
“That’s right,” Nyah nodded. “You were abducted by the Society once, weren’t you? It’s in your file.”
“I won’t even ask how Sevel knows about that,” Hunter winced. “But that is correct; I was kidnapped, tortured, and psychologically manipulated, they tried to brainwash me. Unfortunately they broke me just enough to openly resist the torture attempts. If I’d had my wits about me I could have infiltrated the Society.
“I still can’t say with complete certainty that everything I saw in there wasn’t a pain-induced hallucination, but some of what I witnessed led me to agree that the Society is the continuation of the Order of Wizard-Breakers.
“But you don’t think this was done by this ‘society’?” Chief Hildabrand growled.
“Not likely,” Hunter shook his head. “The Society of Assassins is about killing, they don’t take prisoners. I doubt
is behind this either, but it’s likely they are involved. See, not all of Russia ’s students go into the Society, a lot of them surface in the less scrupulous mercenary organizations like the UMF. Still others work as high-priced hitmen in the dimensions where government’s are too corrupt to stop them, taking on the jobs the Guild won’t touch. And it’s not like Russia limits its curriculum, most of the best-known thieves and saboteurs in the Multi-Verse are from Russia. Russia
“The only reason this feels like
is because of the complexity, the indirectness. Any one aspect might be a coincidence, but all the evidence points to an extremely cunning plan, the kind that comes from one of two places: Gudersnipe School, and Russia School. Russia
“And even then, with the evidence we have to go on, there is no real proof that the Russians are involved. It’s their style certainly, but you can get the same level of training from at least half a dozen legal mercenary schools. Not to mention illegal ones, terrorist training camps, paramilitary organizations, actual military organizations, the list goes on.
“The only thing that is an absolutely certainty is this: we are dealing with some big leaguers here.”
“Well,” the King said somewhat nervously. “I guess I am all the more glad I’ve got two professionals of my own, from the schools that ‘made the cut’ no less.”
“Don’t let the fancy diplomas fool you,” Nyah grinned. “
and the Society are still plenty dangerous.” Russia
There was a long silence in the room as everyone considered the words. The Crowned Princess and the Prince of Bur’I had been kidnapped by some decidedly ruthless individuals, and there would be no rest until a plan was devised.
* * *
“All right, level with me,” Nyah ordered.
Hunter couldn’t take his eyes off her lips. Almost immediately after the meeting let out, she pulled Hunter aside and demanded to speak with him alone. There was something strangely commanding about this young lady, something that actually made Hunter want to follow her orders.
Hunter bent his knees slightly so he was roughly her height.
“Is this close enough?” he asked innocently.
Nyah punched him in the stomach.
Hunter had been expecting it, but not quite so hard.
“Ouch,” he said obligingly, and returned to his full height. “All right I’ll bite, level with you how?”
“Are you gonna pull a load of GS superiority crap, or are you going to give me the respect I deserve?” Nyah snarled.
“Well, this looks like the start of a beautiful friendship,” Hunter sighed sarcastically. “All right, you want me to level with you, ok. Let me lay it down for you, and I’ll use small words.
“Sevel’s entire campus is maybe the size of this palace compound, their graduating classes number ten to twenty thousand a year. They field sports teams to compete with other, more traditional universities. They use projectile weapons not because they feel they offer tactical advantage, but because the school does not posses non-projectile weapons technology.
“Blow-for-blow, pound-for-pound, the school is not on Gudersnipe’s level.
“But we only beat you at everything because that’s what we do. We are Gudersnipe, we beat everyone at everything! I’ve been to Sevel’s campus a few times, and I understand it feels like there is some great animosity—and I know every GS student who’s ever set foot on that campus acts like they are better than you in every way—but when the chips are down and the cards are on the table, I’d take a Sevel graduate over a Crimson Blade Regular any day.
“And right here, right now, in this crisis; if there is one person on this planet I think I can count on, it’s you.”
Nyah raised her hand to protest angrily, then shut her mouth and pondered Hunter’s words for a moment.
“Wait a second… what?”
“Call it regression to the mean,” Hunter waved. “I mean let’s face it doll-babe, you may not be on my tier, but nobody else on this god-forsaken spinning rock is anywhere near your tier either.
“You’re smart, you get things no one else does. I don’t give a rat’s ass where you went to school; you’re good enough for me to call you an equal.”
“That’s actually… very high praise,” Nyah admitted.
“Hey, you had the sense to have this discussion in private,” Hunter shrugged. “That tells me right off you were interested in compromise. I’m actually really glad to have someone with your training on hand, and I don’t mean that in a ‘it’s better than nothing’ kind of way. Sevel’s curriculum actually covers a few things Gudersnipe lumps under ‘optional additional learning’. I know it comes across like GS considers you inferior, but almost any Freelancer ship worth its salts would trade twenty Lancers for a single Sevel graduate.”
“Good to know,” Nyah nodded. “All I ever heard from the GS punks who visited our campus was how useless my Sevel education was. When you and that prince first showed up, I admit I was burning mad. But… everything I read in your file made you sound pretty reasonable. In fact, I’d heard you actually worked along-side Sevel graduates before.”
“They were UMF,” Hunter said sourly. “But that experience did go a long ways towards reversing my opinion of the United Mercenary Force. Look, let’s just throw school rivalries out the window, ok? You’re a highly trained NSA agent, I’m a bum who lucked his way into a cushy job, now let’s go fight the evil red hordes together.”
“I think I can live with that,” Nyah nodded with a smile.