Deep in the desert, far from the great cities of Izmatra and Tej, far even from the great road between those metropolises, and miles from the nearest oasis -- Thana Moh sat on a dune top and watched Master Felim Inaros climb steadily towards her.
She would kill him when he reached the top.
Thana turned her face up to the sun, enjoying the heat, the way it seeped into her skin, warming her to the bone. Living in the moment was part of her training, being able to wait without thought of the past or what was coming. That part she would keep.
Her training also told her to kill Felim before he spoke -- to destroy him when he was still just a little down the dune, tired, fighting his own weight as he moved up the shifting sands. To kill him without explanation or conversation, without mercy or hesitance.
That part of her training she would set aside. This time.
Felim reached the top of the dune. With his hands raised to show he meant no harm -- yet -- he approached. He was out of breath, his retirement catching up to him.
“That’s close enough,” said Thana.
Felim stopped and spread his hands, smiling at her like she was being silly, and death wasn’t sleeping in the sands all around them. “Ah, my mirage,” he said. “You have caused me such trouble, these last months. Yet, you would be welcome home.”
“Sit down,” said Thana.
Master Felim chuckled and did so, wrapping his white robe around him and groaning for effect as he settled down on the hot sand. Thana had been taught to smile sweetly and seem weak when she needed to. She knew that Felim was just playing a part, emphasizing his age so she would let her guard down.
“Are you coming home, child?” he asked, still pleasant.
“No,” said Thana. “I like the outside world. Turns out I was right.”
“About most things.”
Felim let his head go back as he laughed. “Oh, to be young and certain,” he said, again trying to trick her into being unready. It wouldn’t work. She held her knives in her hands, folded in her lap so that he couldn’t see them -- not that he didn’t know they were there. He’d trained her afterall.
“Tell me more,” he continued indulgently. “What were you right about?”
“Selling our services to the highest bidder means that evil men may buy them. I will not be bought by evil.”
“Ahhh…” said Felim. “Who is to judge, little mirage, what is good and what is evil? The world is full of shades of grey. One man is kind to his horse, but uncaring towards his neighbor. A woman is sweet to her children, and pitiless to the begging orphan. Who has the the right to judge such beings as complex as humanity as either good or evil?”
“Who are we to abdicate such judgment to the coins of a stranger?” asked Thana.
“A person does not come to us, to assassins, without great difficulty -- without risk. It is the desert that judges them, their determination which judges their victim.”
“Evil, I believe, can be as determined as good,” said Thana Moh. “Determination is not the province of one or of the other.”
Felim’s lips twisted, annoyed for the first time. “Perhaps, this is the moment to ask whether Callah caught up with you?”
“She did,” said Thana.
“She’s dead?” asked Felim.
“And Barazar?” asked Felim.
“Him too,” lied Thana. She’d fought him three times, and on the third time they’d come to an agreement. He would stop trying to kill her and go make a new life in the world. She would tell the Masters that he was dead, so they would not search for him.
“And then, why are you back here?” asked Felim.
“I want you to leave me alone.”
“You cannot take our secrets into the world without consequences,” said her old master. “You will not rest, unless you come home.”
“I won’t share our secrets,” said Thana. “I give you my word.”
“Your word is not enough.”
“Not enough to save my life. But the word of a stranger with coin is enough for you to take a life. I wonder, if I had the coin -- could I buy my life back from you?”
Felim snorted. “You are incredibly naive, Thana Moh. My mirage. It makes me sad. I thought I’d trained you better.”
“You trained me to be the best.”
“Yes. To be the greatest assassin. Heir to the school. Heir to our secrets. Heir to everything.”
“I shall be the first, but not the others.”
“Oh really?” asked Felim. “You’ll still be an assassin? What about your precious good and evil?”
“I said I would not be bought by evil or abdicate my judgment. Not that I make no such judgments.”
“You are such a disappointment.”
“So are you.”
Felim’s smile was cold this time, his head tilted just slightly. “Have you decided I am evil, mirage? Have you decided I must go?”
“You have made me chose, between myself and you. I think I am not so evil as you are. But if you wish to remove the choice, I would not be sad to leave you and the others alive.”
He looked thoughtful and melancholy, “I’m afraid not,” said Felim Inaros, before dissolving into sand. Despite herself, Thana was still surprised by how fast he was able to transform. She closed her eyes as dust flew over her. He would blind her and then reform behind her and attack.
Thana forced a breath out and felt herself become sand and dust, swirling into a pillar of force. She threw herself backwards -- her essence and the sand of herself mixing with that of Felim Inaros. She felt the outrage from him as he could not reform, trapped in whirlwind form with her. He tried to pull apart, to separate and reform.
Thana let him retreat from her -- coming back to her solid body a breath before he did so that she could charge as he returned to his human shape. With frightening speed, he reformed and parried her, knives sparking as they came together. Thana thrust with her second dagger -- and Felim caught her wrist, bending it back, trying to get her to drop her weapon.
Thana dissolved, so that his hand clutched at only sand. She spun into her whirlwind and tried the same gambit he had -- blasting his eyes with dust as she tried to get behind him.
He fell into a roll, spry despite his age, and as Thana began to reform a dagger whipped through her whirlwind. It felt strange for the sharp metal to pass through her without harm. She spun towards him, but he skipped lightly backwards, holding another dagger.
Thana followed him, wondering what he was up to -- he couldn’t outrun her whirlwind in his solid form.
He threw another dagger and Thana felt the unnerving sensation of metal passing through her again. She sped up, not wishing to give Felim the chance to try whatever he was thinking would work against her. But it was too late.
He threw something else. It wasn’t a dagger -- but instead a glowing sandstone, shaped like a small statue. Thana dodged sideways, but the totem passed through her whirlwind form -- and she felt herself solidifying, coalescing into her own solid body. Panicked, Thana tried to dissolve again, but it didn’t work.
Falling out of a spin, Thana collapsed -- dizzy and disoriented, the sun bright on the sands. Move, she told herself -- but she wasn’t sure which direction Felim was coming from. She rolled anyway, gaining speed -- tumbling down the dune and landing in a heap at the bottom.
Felim followed more sedately. He threw a dagger into Thana’s arm and another into her calf. They were little barbs, meant to hurt, meant to make her slow.
“I wonder if I was ever as arrogant as you, Thana Moh. You think because you earned your red eyes you know everything about us? All our secrets? You’re a child still, and yet you judge us.”
Thana tried to become a whirlwind, but her body felt heavy. She couldn’t dance apart into sands.
“You left, and that was foolish. But now you come back to - what? Threaten us? Oh, mirage, you’ve made a mistake. Maybe you would have lived if you’d run, and never stopped. But I doubt it.”
Another knife whistled through the air, and thudded into the back of Thana’s shoulder. She drew in a sharp breath at the sting of it, thinking, considering her choices.
“Mirage?” asked Felim. “Don’t tell me you’ve given up. That would be more than disappointing.”
Thana didn’t get up. She pretended to try, letting out a sob as she did so. She had to kill him on the next strike. She heard him become a whirlwind, swirling down to reform next to her -- already in a crouch, prepared to finish her. He stabbed down immediately, trying to be efficient about ending the fight. Thana Moh rolled towards him, not away. The strike that should have come in at an angle under her ribs scrapped her side and she punched both of her own daggers into Felim’s chest.
He tried to become the whirlwind, Thana’s daggers loosening in his chest for a moment, before he failed. He tried to stab her, but his grip was weak. Grimly, Thana tossed him over her -- yanking her daggers free.
He rolled further down the dune. Thana didn’t need to check the body. She knew when she’d killed someone.
Carefully, Thana picked her way back up the sandy hill.
At the top, she found the totem Felim had used to stop her sand magic. She crushed it with the butt of her dagger and felt the spell loosen. She spun up into a whirlwind -- and the little daggers Felim had hit her with fell down onto the sands.
She gathered them carefully, made sure the bleeding wasn’t too bad, and then settled back down to sit on the dune again. Waiting.
There were, by her reckoning, fourteen more assassins left. Perhaps some of them would listen to reason, but perhaps not. She must expect to fight all of the others.
Thana Moh, the Mirage, she who would be the last assassin, waited with the sunlight on her face for her next victim to come to her.