Orilyon Palace, Pandaren
Torches flickered and the thump of boots echoed through the hallway as Commander Drexus Zoldac of the Watch Guard strode down the corridor toward the war room, followed by his soldiers. Castle guards and servants flattened themselves against the wall, their expressions a mixture of fear and grief. Hours before, the people of Pandaren had celebrated their victory in the war against the Vastanes. Cheers of celebration, though, became wails of sorrow as the palace and the city of Orilyon crumbled into chaos.
“How did he get in?” Drexus asked.
“We’re still working on that, Commander Zoldac.”
Drexus stopped and slowly turned toward the guard, who glanced up at him and winced. “Work faster,” he warned.
The guard swallowed, nodding.
Drexus continued down the corridor, clenching his jaw, trying to rein in his anger. Two soldiers saluted as he pushed open the heavy wooden doors into a room buzzing with activity. Council members argued near the fireplace and his generals surrounded a large oval table studying a map of Pandaren. They stood to attention, saluting as Drexus approached. Kenneth Brenet, head advisor to the king, sat in a corner holding his head.
One of the council members hurried over. “Is it true? Is King Valeri dead?”
“It’s true,” Drexus said. He ignored the questions yelled at him and walked across the room to put a hand on Kenneth’s bony shoulder. “They need you, now more than ever.”
Kenneth nodded, set his shoulders, and approached the center of the room. Drexus stood at his side, arms crossed.
“Attention, please,” Kenneth said, silencing the room. “As many of you suspect, the king is dead, murdered in his study this evening.”
Murmurs filled the room.
“How?” someone called out.
Kenneth looked up at Drexus, who inhaled, resting his sizable hands on the table as he regarded each council member, noble, and general. “An Air Spectral killed King Valeri.”
Gasps and shouts of anger reverberated off the stone walls.
“I thought the Spectrals were on our side,” one of the council members said.
Drexus fisted his hands. “So did we.”
“What do we know about the Spectrals?” Kenneth asked.
General Charlys stepped forward, her eyes darting to Drexus. “There are two main types of magic, physical and mental. A Spectral with physical magic can either control an element or is an Amp.”
“What are Amps?” one of the nobles asked, nearing the table.
“Amps, or Amplifiers, have unnatural speed and strength,” the general said. “The Mentals are a little trickier, but we’ve determined there are five types: Shields, Healers, Vaulters, Trackers, and Psyches.”
“Psyches?” Kenneth looked from the general to Drexus.
“They can move objects with their minds,” Drexus said.
“How do you have this information?”
“When the Spectrals joined forces with the Watch Guard, I assigned General Charlys to obtain as much information about them as possible, just in case.”
“With that kind of power?” a councilman said. “How are we going to defend ourselves? Naturals can’t fight against magic.”
Drexus’s eye twitched at the whine in the man’s voice. “I’m currently working on something that will neutralize their power. But first, we need strong leadership. I think Kenneth Brenet should rule as steward until the council deems it unnecessary.”
The murmurings grew, and a few council members’ faces turned red.
“What about Queen Valeri?” one of them asked.
Drexus refrained from rolling his eyes. “She’s grieving the loss of her husband, and with her diminished health, we cannot expect her to take the throne.” He sensed a shift in the room as men and women nodded their heads—a shift in his favor. “Who supports Kenneth Brenet becoming steward of Pandaren?”
Hands raised, and Drexus smiled.
Kenneth stared at the men and women surrounding the war table. “This is an honor. I can never measure up to our great king, but I will do my best. And my first act as steward is to put into law that all Spectrals will identify themselves and their powers. We have to know who they are and what they can do.”
The room bristled with fear.
“All in favor?” Drexus said.
The motion passed unanimously.
Kenneth turned to Drexus. “Whatever you’re working on, get it completed as soon as possible. In the meantime, our priority is to defend the kingdom.”
Drexus led Kenneth away from the table. “Do I have your support to do whatever is necessary?” he asked.
The thin man stared up at him with wary eyes and nodded.
Drexus kept his expression blank. “I’d like permission to create an elite group of soldiers specifically trained to fight the Spectrals.”
“What do you propose?”
“Hunters.” Drexus glanced over his shoulder, savoring the warmth of victory radiating through him. “Lethal assassins who will ensure the Spectrals comply with our new laws.”
The steward held Drexus’s gaze. “Fortify our army, Drexus. And train your assassins. Create a force that will breed fear by the very mention of their name.”
Bastion Compound, Orilyon, Seventeen Years Later
For the second time in Azrael’s life, he wished for death. But instead of receiving it, he became it. He didn’t fear death; he even welcomed it, which was fitting since his name meant Angel of Death. But this time, he had no one to blame but himself.
Pain like Azrael had never known rushed through his body, Drexus’s serum transforming him from a lethal assassin to something worse—something everyone would fear. He bit down on a leather strap as another wave of pain crashed through him, his muscles contracting beneath the restraints. Azrael inhaled, focusing on his anger, clinging to the image of the Spectral and his magical black fire. Lust for revenge and power fueled Azrael as agony ripped through him.
Pain is inescapable; suffering is a choice.
Azrael repeated this mantra with his eyes closed, breathing through the torment and ignoring the tubes embedded in him. He’d chosen this path, had known the risks. With the Amplifier serum flowing through his veins, he’d have the strength and speed to battle any Spectral he faced.
If the transfusion didn’t kill him.
Large hands pressed down on Azrael’s shoulders as his back arched; the taste of leather and blood permeated his mouth.
“Hold on, Azrael,” Drexus said, staring down at him. His dark eyes, etched with worry, darted to someone behind the table, out of sight. “This is the last vial. If he dies, you die.”
Black spots floated in Azrael’s vision; the stone ceiling blurred. His nails dug into his palms and blood dripped from his hands.
Pain is inescapable; suffering is a choice.
After what felt like hours, the pain dissipated. Azrael opened his eyes and drew in a deep breath. A hum pulsed through his muscles, making his skin tingle. Drexus removed the straps and Azrael sat up, peering through a dark curtain of sweat-dampened hair.
“How do you feel?” Drexus asked.
Azrael swung his long legs off the table, closing his eyes to block out the spinning room. He focused on his breathing and the magic purring inside him. He flexed his hands and looked up, cracking his neck. The corner of his mouth lifted. “Powerful.”
Drexus’s gaze narrowed as if he could see the Amplifier magic flowing through Azrael’s body. He smiled. “Finally. After so many failed experiments, my most lethal Hunter now has Spectral magic.” Drexus rested his hand on his assistant’s shoulder, who cowered by the equipment, smiling nervously. Drexus turned back to Azrael, raising his chin. “Your new power will aid our cause and end this war.”
Azrael winced, gripping the edge of the table as he staggered to his feet. Drexus reached out to help him, but Azrael pulled away. “I’m curious, Commander, why you didn’t get the serum first.”
Drexus held his gaze. “I needed to make sure it worked.”
Azrael frowned, tying his hair back. “Why me?”
“You’re the strongest of my Hunters. I knew you’d survive the procedure.” Drexus stared at the tattoos covering Azrael’s right arm. “I need you and the other Hunters to find more Amps to replicate the serum.”
Azrael nodded, following Drexus’s gaze. The largest tattoo—given by his mother when he was ten—depicted a dagger intersecting two triangles at their points. He remembered fighting tears while the needle carved into his skin, his mother insisting the tattoo would protect him. From what, he didn’t know; he never had the chance to ask her. The second tattoo was the Watch Guard symbol, the words loyalty, honor, and obedience stark against his tan skin. The third represented his first victim—the day he became a Hunter. Tattoos of every Spectral he’d killed decorated his left arm, but the design would remain incomplete until he had his revenge. Until he found the Spectral with black fire.
Azrael strode toward the stables from the Bastion Garrison, buckling his new chest plate, the interlocking armor like a second skin. The garrison in the royal city of Orilyon was the largest in Opax, with unparalleled training and medical facilities. Steward Brenet had spared no expense when he and Drexus added on to the compound after the war with the Vastanes. It was functional and effective, like those who trained within its stone walls.
The courtyard buzzed with recruits and Watch Guard soldiers training. Azrael stopped near a group of second-years and adjusted a trainee’s grip on her sword.
“Remember, your weapon is part of you. Keep a steady hand, like this,” Azrael said, demonstrating the correct form. The young girl nodded, her eyes wide.
Azrael’s team of Hunters waited, strapping on swords or saddling their horses. At twenty-five, he was the youngest assassin to ever lead such lethal warriors. The title of second in command was an honor, one Azrael had paid for—physically and emotionally.
Azrael scanned the Hunters and located Bronn, his first lieutenant, leaning his tall frame against the wall and talking with Sabine.
“Are we ready?” Azrael asked.
Bronn nodded, examining Azrael. “You don’t look any different.”
Sabine tilted her head, staring up at him. “Oh, I don’t know. His eyes look bluer,” she said, winking.
“Did the serum work, then?” Elliot asked.
Azrael grabbed Elliot by the throat and lifted him into the air. The Hunter swore and gripped Azrael’s wrist, his eyes bulging. Azrael, six-two and two hundred pounds of solid muscle, marveled at the fact that his arm didn’t so much as quiver as he held the Hunter above him.
“You tell me,” Azrael sneered, lowering the man to the ground.
Elliot rubbed his neck while the other Hunters laughed. “A simple yes or no would’ve sufficed,” he mumbled.
Azrael addressed his assassins—twelve of the deadliest warriors in the land—and a small squadron of Watch Guard soldiers. “Our orders are to find Amps and transport them to Edgefield Prison alive.”
“Why the prison?” asked Caston.
“Why alive?” Bronn added, crossing his arms.
“I didn’t ask.” Ignoring Bronn’s scowl, Azrael turned, grabbed the reins of his horse, and swung himself into the saddle.
The three-hour ride to Havelock took his team south through grassy hillsides and sparse forests. The midday sun glimmered on the Merrigan Sea, which bordered Opax, the larger of two Pandaren countries. Paxton, the smaller province, had the Desert of Souls to the east and mountain ranges in the west.
Azrael breathed in the salty air and shuddered as adrenaline and magic coursed through his veins. He lived for the battle, relishing the clash of iron and the smell of blood. With every kill, he felt more powerful, more alive. And now, with the serum, he’d be unstoppable.
He pulled up his mask, revealing the grinning skull intended to invoke fear in those who had the misfortune of coming face-to-face with it. Only Hunters received the skull mask, and only after completing a final task during their initiation. Currently, thirteen Watch Guard soldiers had achieved the honor.
Azrael had just turned eighteen when Drexus had deemed him ready.
“It’s time,” Drexus had said, crossing his arms over his broad chest. Azrael had been shocked to learn that his last test was to kill the man who’d sold him to the Watch Guard when he was twelve. The shock turned to hunger, then satisfaction as Azrael embraced the fear and recognition in Barnet Farone’s eyes.
“For your wife,” Azrael had said, slashing his knife. “For your daughter.” The dagger cut through flesh and bone. Blood splattered onto his face and the empty whiskey bottles covering the floor. The man screamed, holding up his bloody hands.
“And for your son.” The blade cleaved the air with a final blow. Azrael had gazed upon his father’s lifeless body, doubting anyone would mourn his death. His father’s betrayal had led the Fire Spectral to their village, to their cottage. Because of his father, Azrael’s mother and sister were dead.
When he had returned to the compound, his need for revenge somewhat satiated, Drexus changed his birth name to Azrael and he became the Angel of Death, the most feared Hunter in all of Pandaren.
The sound of warning bells pulled Azrael from the past and he leaned forward in his saddle, urging his horse to run faster. The Havelock raid would be his first since receiving the serum, and he yearned to test his new power. Their orders were to take the Spectrals alive, unless they resisted. He hoped they did.
The Hunters and Watch Guard soldiers arrived at the village and split off down the dirt paths between cottages. Azrael strode along the outskirts of town, catching movement out of the corner of his eye. He removed his dagger from the sheath on his leg and rounded the last building.
A man stood at the end of the alley wearing metal contraptions on his wrist. He clicked them together and a spark of blue flame ignited. Azrael pressed his lips into a thin line. Of all the Element Spectrals, he loathed Fires the most.
“Surrender or die, you choose,” Azrael said, his voice cold behind his mask.
The man’s eyes widened, the dancing flames trembling in his palm. “Why can’t you leave us alone? We’ve done nothing!”
Azrael stepped forward. “You and your kind are traitors to the crown.”
The Spectral’s eyes hardened, and he transferred the fire to both hands.
Azrael smiled. “Death it is.”
His Amplifier magic pulsed and time slowed as a blue wave of fire exploded down the alley. Tapping into his speed, Azrael used the wall as leverage, twisting in midair and dodging the flames. In seconds, his dagger was pressed against the man’s neck.
“How did you move so fast?” The man’s voice trembled and his fire sputtered out.
“Magic,” Azrael whispered.
The Spectral’s fear seized Azrael. A sudden dizziness made him stagger, and he nearly dropped the knife before slitting the man’s throat. Azrael was halfway down the alley when the body hit the ground.
He squeezed his eyes shut and rested his hand against the wall, waiting for the unexpected emotion to fade.
What the blazes was that?
He hadn’t felt that level of fear since he was a child. He pushed off the wall and swallowed, choking back the haunting screams, his failure to protect his family. Never again. He wouldn’t allow weakness to have a stranglehold on him.
He shook his head and made his way to the center of town, where the villagers knelt. A soldier handed him a ledger with names of Spectrals and their magic, and Azrael paced in front of the cowering people. “You are harboring unregistered Spectrals and are guilty of treason.”
A laugh echoed off the surrounding cottages. “The Watch Guard is guilty,” an older man said, standing with his hands clenched. Rocks and dirt lifted into the air, circling the villagers, shielding them from the Hunters and soldiers. The swish of swords sliding from sheaths sounded behind Azrael as the Hunters drew their weapons.
“Do you wish to die?” Azrael asked, using his speed to dart through the revolving rocks. He approached the man, drawing the twin swords that pressed against his back. He stopped mid-stride and frowned. Despair warred with Azrael’s lust for blood. The Spectral raised his hands and the ground trembled, creating a fissure separating Azrael from his prey.
Azrael honed in on his anger, extinguishing the unwanted emotion, and charged. He avoided the barrage of flying debris, his body, magic, and steel creating a lethal combination of protection and ferocity. His swords sliced through the air and the Spectral’s head thumped on the cobblestones. The sorrow disappeared and the ground stilled.
“Any other heroes?” Azrael scanned the villagers, muffled sobs sounding through the town square. He strode past a woman with tears streaming down her face and flinched; the grief resonating from her made Azrael clutch his chest and stumble out of the square.
The emotion vanished as quickly as it appeared.
“What was that about?” Bronn said, his eyebrows raised.
“Not sure.” Azrael crossed his arms to hide his trembling hands, ignoring the concerned looks in a few of the Hunters’ eyes.
“Bring in the Tracker,” Bronn said to a nearby guard, giving Azrael a wary look.
A soldier led an older woman through the waiting guards, the shackles on her ankles clinking on the cobblestones. Scraggly gray hair hung to her waist. Her milky-white eyes scanned Azrael, sniffing the air.
“Find the Spectrals,” Azrael said, avoiding her sightless gaze.
“Already found one,” the woman said, chuckling, her vacant eyes boring into Azrael. “Now you’re his slave, just like me.”
Fun premise and great writing and editing!