Freebie Mondays: Let’s Make it a Game (Story 11 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Freebie Mondays: Let’s Make it a Game (Story 11 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Since I write roughly 22 stories every year, I thought it might be fun to do a project for 2022.

In 2022, the 22 shorts I write for my blog will be taken from prompts related to the 31 stories in 31 days project from January of 2022. Each will relate to the multiverse that all of my stories take place in, and I will try to keep the main characters that appear on my blog to the background (unless I get a super cool idea). (Incidentally, I broke that last rule for this prompt because cool idea!)

I’ve written each of these stories on stream. If you want to witness this installment as it was crafted, the VOD is on youtube!

The prompt for this one was: “The monster that hurt me will stop hunting by the end of class but the students can’t know…”

This short ties in with my Assassins universe. In retrospect, I think I forgot aspects of the prompt because I got excited by my idea, but it still works. You can learn more about this universe here!
. . .

The cold tingle that tickled the back of Domerin’s neck usually warned of danger. Under different circumstances, he would have spun on his heel to scan the room behind him, seeking signs of movement. But it would do little good.

At the moment, he was surrounded by a small swarm of wriggling bodies, all excited to press close against his person. Normally, he wouldn’t allow such crowding to hamper his movements. But when it came to the guild’s children, he made a lot of special exceptions.

Those raised to the life of an assassin experienced little enough joy as they grew older. He wished to preserve as much for these children as he could for as long as he could. So instead of motioning them aside and trying to escape their tight press, he drew them closer. He even knelt so his eyes would be on their level when he spoke.

Those icy claws remained pressed to the back of his neck, a constant reminder that danger stalked his every move. But he must give no sign to his charges. They were still too early in their training to resist the urge to panic, and he didn’t like the idea that one of them might be hurt in the coming struggle.

“Shall we play a game?” he asked, and allowed a hint of a grin to brush his lips.

This happened so rarely that every one of the children reacted the same way. Wide grins split their lips and several began to bounce on their feet while others eagerly clapped their hands. It wasn’t that they never got to play games – their caretakers ensured they devoted plenty of time to play. Especially play that could be used to teach. But it was rare they got to share such a game with one of the guild’s masters.

Most of the higher ranking members of the guild felt the new trainees weren’t worth paying attention to until they were old enough to display actual skill. A mistake in the guild-master-in-training’s esteemed opinion.

“You’re really going to play with us, Master Lorcasf?” one of the bolder children called above the muted exclamations of excitement.

He hesitated only the barest of seconds before answering, taking a moment to focus on a small, out of place sound behind him. With the children all eagerly celebrating his announcement, none of them were likely to be skulking through the thick foliage of the guild’s conservatory, causing the stray rustle of leaves.

That would be his stalker then, revealing their position.

There was a small possibility one of the other guild masters had come to observe his interactions with the children. But there was no reason not to make their presence known, especially if they hoped to judge him in some way.

Better to assume the guild had an intruder. He couldn’t sound the alarm at the moment, so he would have to be clever instead.

“Of course I will play,” he reassured, nodding to the speaker as he picked them out of the crowd. “Unless you would prefer I watch?”

This question instantly produced a round of protests. Some of the children were even bold enough to lay hands on his arms and shoulders to try to entice him – something their adult counterparts would never dare do.

This time his sensitive ears pressed past the childish exclamations to catch the scrape of a boot somewhere behind him and to his right – and upwards. His hunter was climbing.

Given the nature of their surroundings, it made sense. How many times had he climbed into the trees or rafters to hide from the children during their games?

All he had to do was avoid the trouble until the children’s regular caretaker returned to resume their care. No more than half an hour remained on that particular timer, and no one in the guild would ever dare be late to an appointment with a master.

Keep the children safe and happy. Deal with the threat as soon as they’ve gone.

He could do this. He had certainly faced more dire situations.

“Hide and seek then?” he suggested. It was the children’s favorite game, after all. He held up a hand to halt the wave of cheers that flowed in the wake of his pronouncement and adopted a conspiratorial expression. “Let’s add a little extra twist, today, shall we?”

The children all exchanged glances, unable to contain their glee to be included in such a delightful plan. When they began to whisper, “What is it?” and “What could it possibly be?” Domerin motioned them all back to silence.

“Let’s pretend that there are monsters in the bushes.” He curled his hands into false claws and bore his teeth for the barest of moments, which caused several of the children to giggle with glee. “If you see any movement, you must freeze and stand as still as you possibly can. Barely even dare to breathe, for these monsters can only detect you while you move. Once you are sure they have gone, you may resume your search for me.”

He would be the target, of course, as always. That would allow him to slip into the shadows long enough to make their game safe.

Or so he hoped.

“Show me how you freeze,” he commanded. The order was a sharp bark, and most of the children instantly ceased all movement aside from the darting of their eyes in all directions. Some had clearly mastered this skill better than others – it featured heavily in their training games – but all acted to Domerin’s satisfaction.

If the children avoided movement, he wouldn’t strike one of them accidentally.

He clapped his hands once and stood. “Eyes closed,” he ordered. “And count to one hundred slowly.”

Though not all the children complied at equal speed, and it took several seconds for all of them to agree on the current number before falling into a steady rhythm, Domerin disappeared by the time most of them reached the count of fifteen. He brushed lightly past the children who had closed the ring behind him and into the grass.

Even with his boots on, he moved soundlessly, padding through the fragrant grasses while nimbly avoiding crushing any of the carefully cultivated flower beds. He leapt lightly and grasped a low hanging tree branch, then swung up into the thick foliage of the leaves.

When the young children currently in his charge had mastered this small slice of the wilds carefully cultivated in their backyard, they would learn to ply the same skills that allowed them to navigate and blend in to their environments in a more urban setting. Eventually, they would swing through the rooftops as he did when he was released to hunt.

But for now, he expected them to stay largely on the ground, searching for him in the bushes before they thought to glance upward.

He hid often in the rafters, so he couldn’t immediately retreat to such a high perch or the end of the game might spoil his plans. Instead he stuck to the tree branches. The trees in this conservatory were of middling ages, thick and hearty, but far from massive. They were planted so that their branches grew close enough together, a skilled climber could traverse them even without the safety equipment they employed for moving through the city.

That innate danger sense that tingled along the back of his spine warned Domerin that his stalker – the “monster” he told the children to avoid – shadowed his movements, leaping from branch to branch, the light shuffle of the leaves the only sign of their passage.

Below him, the children reached the count of fifty, and some began to dance from foot to foot, eager to begin their hunt. No doubt some of them would attempt to abandon their counting early in hopes of getting a head start, but the diligent among the crowd would hopefully haunt them.

The teachings of the trainers might be gentle at their age, but they were strict and stern. An assassin must first learn to behave properly, and that included learning to follow all the guild’s rules with the strictest level of adherence – a lesson Domerin still recalled from his early years.

His arms and legs carried him with such practiced ease above the counting children, toward the last leaf disturbance, he used the few available seconds to contemplate who his stalker might be. Certainly no member of the guild would attempt to strike him here. They would face dire consequences even if they were successful in their hunt.

But who could breach the guild’s security in order to penetrate this deeply into their hallowed halls? Someone, it seemed, would have to answer for the day’s events sooner or later.

If only it were really a monster. Then I could at least assume it didn’t have malicious intent.

If harm came to one of his young charges, he would be even less merciful than usual.

A fresh sound drew his attention – to his left this time, and slightly below his perch. He moved carefully, trying not to disturb the leaves of the branch he moved across.

Below him, the children reached the count of one hundred and gave a small cheer before they broke formation and scattered from the path into the grass.

This was their primary playground. Their caretakers brought them here every day to run and test some of their newly acquired skills. Only the children and their caretakers were allowed to violet the boundaries of the pathways and move among the greenery. For everyone else, the gardens were merely meant to be viewed.

Domerin danced lightly from one tree branch to another, then darted toward the new tree’s trunk, hoping none of his young charges spotted him. He froze for a moment, noted the movement of children below him and the lack of startled or frightened cries, then he reoriented and continued stalking his prey.

This creature was clever, he had to give it that. But they were clearly unused to the less urban space, which made them slow and somewhat clumsy. He caught a glimpse of a figure shrouded in not-quite black, the all too familiar suit assassins tended to wear while hunting – though Domerin’s trained eye detected a few key differences despite the blurring speed of his target’s movement.

So his stalker was an assassin, but not a member of the guild.

Rogue. Of course – no one else would be so bold as to attempt to attack him here.

Domerin followed nimbly in his stalker’s path. Now that he had caught traces of his prey, he followed with ease, always keeping that black blur on the edge of his vision as he endeavored to close the gap between him.

The rogue swung higher in the tree branches, and their passage caused a rustle that, this time, drew the attention of several of the children. Their faces turned upward, looking for signs of their playmate, but Domerin tucked close against a trunk and froze.

It took a moment for the children to remember his instructions. They whispered among themselves with uncertainty, then tucked low to the ground and ceased moving. Domerin took that opportunity to scale the tree trunk, making more noise than he would usually.

He had been trying to avoid the rafters, but he swung from the highest branches into one of the structural beams, using the high vantage to scan the direction where the rogue had fled.

Now that he knew what to look for, it was easy to spot the dark blot of shadow, and he dove after it.

On the far side of the room, one of the children exclaimed excitedly, drawing the attention of their fellows to something they must think was him. But the voices were muffled enough and so clearly free of distress that he dismissed the anxiety which momentarily seized his chest.

If there were two ‘monsters’ hunting him, he’d be aware by now.

He pressed his boots to one of the aged tree trunks and skidded downward, the movement almost beyond his control. He wasn’t wearing gloves, so when he caught a nearby branch to halt his momentum, the branch both scraped his skin painfully and dug deep into his flesh.

Domerin gritted his teeth and ignored the momentary pain, using the strength of his arms to redirect his momentum. He stretched his leg, glad that the children seemed to have their attention riveted elsewhere so that he could take advantage of this opportunity.

The kick was somewhat wild, but he could tell it hit from the soft grunt that escaped his stalker’s throat. A tree branch jerked as the rogue used it to halt their sudden downward trajectory, and Domerin skittered through the intervening space.

With a flick of his wrist, he summoned a dagger into his hand. No assassin was ever fully unarmed, not even in the heart of their home.

His first swing bit bark and sent a small chip of wood flying as his target managed to regain their composure enough to leap out of the way, but Domerin dove off of his branch and grabbed the rogue’s back in midair.

They both came down hard in the crook of a large branch near the base of a tree trunk. The sharp jolt caused the entire tree to shimmy, drawing another round of startled exclamations from the nearby children.

Domerin was forced to ignore them this time while he tried to keep the not-quite-black-clad figure from escaping his grip. But their perch was precarious and the rogue managed to knee him in the gut, tipping him over the edge.

He twisted midair, grabbed a lower branch and swung high again, freezing long enough to ensure that more motion would not draw his young charges attention.

His stalker locked eyes with him. Their clothing was nearly skin tight, but that revealed almost nothing aside from their lithe frame and obvious muscle. Their head was shrouded by a hood and the lower half of their face was concealed by mask.

It was clear they were trying to decide whether or not to flee or strike, but Domerin solved that problem for them.

He charged along the branch, using the fingers of one hand to steady him while he struck with the dagger clutched in the other.

He knew the blow struck this time because he felt the familiar skid of sharp steel through flesh, the odd give, the strangely satisfying squelch.

It was not a clean strike; the blade didn’t make it deep enough to instantly end his attacker. But it was far more than a simple scratch.

Blood dripped from the wound, leaving a bright streak along the tree branches as the rogue struggled to redirect – fleeing now.

Domerin was tempted to follow. He should finish this. But small voices were rising from the ground below him, and he realized how unsheltered his position was.

He darted toward the tree trunk, ducked back into the shadows and strained his ears for signs of the rogue’s passage.

They were moving away now – spooked, perhaps, by their run in with Domerin’s skills.

The guild master in training pulled a small cloth from his pocket, wiped his blade and slid it back into its concealed sheath.

Then he turned his attention to the game, descending the tree branches until he found a suitable place to wait.

He never let the children win. That would spoil the game. But he had long since learned how to challenge their skills without frustrating them.

His confrontation with the ‘monster’ had taken maybe three minutes total. It took only another five or six for the children to find him.

Domerin unfolded from his perch and dropped to the ground among the excited children, allowing them to indulge a few moments of cheering before he gathered them close for a headcount.

As far as he could tell, all were present and none seemed injured. But a dark smear of red-brown o the edge of his vision warned him not to loosen his vigilance.

No sooner did he think this than did a storm of footsteps approach. Two figures appeared in the doorway of the conservatory, breathless. Two sets of eyes darted through the room, but their owners relaxed when they caught sight of Domerin among the children.

Instantly and with a single motion, he herded the youngsters toward their regular caregivers, who allowed themselves each a small sigh of relief as they took stock of their charges.

“Master Lorcasf has been called away, I’m afraid,” one of the young women announced, producing small cries of despair and protest from her charges’ lips.

The other woman slid to Domerin’s side and pushed him away from the children, behind one of the trees.

“Are you injured?” she demanded in a sharp hiss.

Domerin shook his head. “You found the rogue?”

“He was dripping enough blood, he was hard to miss. When we traced his trail, we thought the worst.”

“I would never let any harm come to the young ones,” Domerin replied, not bothering to hide how this statement wounded him.

The woman’s grip tightened around his arm for a moment, and she released an exasperated sigh. “Of course not. We worried for you too.”

“I am fine,” Domerin insisted. “I turned the situation into a game. I’m fairly sure the children have no idea anything was ever amiss.” One day, they might hear a new story told about this day and marvel that they were a part of it. But there would be many years between now and then if he had anything to say about it.

“Bless you,” the caretaker murmured, finally releasing his arm. “I am certain the danger has likely passed now, however-“

“I should go tend to the matter,” Domerin agreed. “Please apologize to the children for me. I will endeavor to return tomorrow and make up for the lost time.” Hopefully this time without a monster stalking his footsteps.

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