ARDEN ELIRI

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I WAS TWELVE years old when I took my first victim. A swift slash to the neck with a twenty-inch blade was my choice of attack, and boy, was it a good one. The man, no older than thirty-two, had dropped to his knees as crimson stained the collar of his tattered shirt, mouth parting as his final breath escaped his lips. I distinctly remember the look of fear on his face, mere moments before the light left his eyes. Fear faded into acceptance, and acceptance faded into nothing. And just like that, I had completed my first mission. It was over.

Looking back on it now, it wasn't a fair fight. How could he have seen me coming? I've been trained for the best by the best. Mercenary missions are much like its victims, here one minute and gone the next. Once King Tymond issues the decree, a member of the Cruex is assigned to carry out the sentence without question.

No doubt. No fear. Just action.

Arden Eliri.

Every time my name is called, I expect to cringe, to flinch. Maybe even bat an eye. But I don't. I know it should feel wrong to kill, to take lives, to watch life disintegrate so suddenly and know that I'm the cause of it. But it's who I am. It's all I know.

And so I continue.

I stand in front of King Tymond with the others. If my name is called, it will mark my thirteenth mission. The others in the Cruex have had a dozen more missions than me, seeing as they're ten or so years my senior—that is, everyone except for Rydan Helstrom. At eighteen, just one year older than me, he has fifteen missions under his belt. With a sideways glance, I notice that his jaw is clenched and his hands are balled into fists at his sides.

He wants this just as much as I do.

I turn my attention back to the king. Guards surround him in a flurry of chaos. Finally, they grow still, and I try not to shuffle back and forth between my feet. Waiting is my least favorite part of the process.

Just call my name.

After five excruciatingly long minutes, the king finally rises, scroll in hand. He hands it to his apprentice, who hurriedly unfurls the document, the corners flipping upward at the edges. King Tymond wets his lips and looks each of the Cruex up and down with beady eyes before speaking. His glare is potent enough to shatter the very throne that sits behind him.

I take a deep breath. A shiver runs down my spine as his lips part to speak.

"Cruex Mission CLXXVI will occur in the Isle of Lonia."

I loose the breath I've been holding. Lonia. In all twelve of my missions, I've never been assigned to Lonia. I've heard murmurings of the beauty of the village from some of the other assassins. From what I've gathered, it's much more pleasant than Trendalath, where the Cruex resides and the king reigns. Cloudless skies, deep blue oceans, cobblestone streets with no rubble or debris in sight. Lonia sounds like a dream compared to the poverty and filth that lies just outside the kingdom's walls—a kingdom headed for its own demise, thanks to Tymond.

I briefly wonder what this new target did to make it onto the Cruex hit list. Our skills are only reserved for the truly despicable: the murderers, the thieves, the schemers. Take my first victim, for example. This murderer was responsible for burning down an entire village—the village of Eroesa—killing all of the women and children that had settled there, ultimately leaving it to fend for itself as a wasteland with a smog-filled sky, covered in ashes and the remains of what once was. Not too long ago, Rydan was assigned a mission in Miraenia, a nearby bay village, to assassinate a thief who had pillaged half of the town's food, leaving more than twenty dead over the span of three days. Rydan nor I have ever been to the Isle of Lonia.

Come to think of it, no one has.

I steal another glance at my competition. Rydan's gold-flecked eyes gleam as he adjusts his posture. He straightens his back and lifts his chin ever so slightly. One could almost mistake him for royalty if it weren't for the black Cruex uniform and unsightly scar woven along his right jawline.

His fourth mission. It'd happened before we'd grown close. The mission had gone awry in a most unpleasant way, and he'd been rushed back to Trendalath for medical attention. I shiver at the thought, not wanting to go any further down memory lane, and force my attention away from Rydan and toward one of the other assassins.

Percival Garrick. Hardly my competition, Percival's in his late twenties and has carried out twenty-four successful missions—but even so, King Tymond doesn't care to hide his dislike for the poor lad. A lifetime of ass-kissing and the King would still assign him the most wretched missions without a hint of remorse. A shame, really.

And then there's Ezra Denholm. A stocky, brute fellow, Ezra appears to be one of the king's favorites. He's been assigned to thirty missions, all of which he's exceeded the king's expectations, and he's the same age as Percival! My empathy for Percival grows stronger every time Ezra's name is called for an assignment. Yes, Ezra's definitely one I need to watch out for.

Standing proudly next to Ezra are Elias Kent and Hugh Darby, the most annoying pair of cousins in the entire Kingdom of Trendalath. I'm still baffled as to how the two made it into the Cruex and what, if anything, the king sees in them. I've never been assigned to a mission with either of them but, rumor has it, they're absolutely ruthless. They must be good for something, otherwise the king wouldn't bother keeping them around.

And last but not least is Cyrus Alston, the most senior member of the Cruex. Undoubtedly the king's right-hand man, Cyrus has completed upward of fifty missions. Determined not to let his age get the better of him, Cyrus spends the bulk of his time in the underground training room, keeping his weapons sharp and his mind sharper. I do hope that, one day, before the king forces him to retire, we'll be jointly assigned to a mission. I'd finally get to see the real master at work.

I must admit, being the only female in the Cruex ranks was slightly intimidating at first, but I've grown fond of the situation. I get my own bedchambers, whereas the male Cruex are crammed into a space three times too small. No one fusses with me, mostly because I keep to myself, or maybe because I've frightened them. No one truly knew what I was capable of . . . until the results from my very first mission were made public.

Strike fear into the hearts of all. King Tymond's favorite saying. I would say I succeeded.

Don't get me wrong, being an outcast does come with its struggles. Rydan's really the only one who pays me any attention. He's the only one who will train with me. Eat with me. Talk to me. But I don't mind. I'm here to do one thing and one thing only: kill the murderers, the thieves, the schemers. I'm here to do my job.

My eyes make their way back to King Tymond. He's staring right at me with those light blue—almost translucent—eyes. My heart picks up pace, thumping so hard that the feeling resonates within my entire being.

"Arden Eliri."

I feel elated as the words leave his lips. He chose me. I try not to smile. Mission number thirteen in Lonia is mine.

I step forward to accept the scroll of parchment. Seeing my name scrawled across the top never ceases to give me chills. I look the king in the eye and bow as the parchment shifts from his hands to mine.

"Report back here tomorrow at 0600 hours for further details."

"Yes, sir." I nod as I step back in line with my fellow assassins. The disappointment hanging in the air is palpable.

"Dismissed," the king says with a wave of his hand.

I hurriedly roll the parchment back into its former condition and stuff it into my waistband. I turn on my heel, realizing that I'm the second to last in line to exit through the iron-clad double doors. Rydan stands behind me. The five other Cruex members are silent as they walk back to their chambers.

I don't know what this mission will hold. I don't know what crimes were committed or who I'm after. But these things are of no concern to me, because only one thing matters.

Lonia is mine—and I never miss my target.

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