Landing heavier than he would have liked onto an iron gargoyle that roared its silent anger over the city Stryder looked out from beneath his cowl, a small smile hidden beneath the grey scarf that concealed a great portion of his face. It felt good to back in his armour again, to see the world through hunters eyes, to know that right at this very moment...he was the deadliest person in the City.
The night was cold and a harsh storm of wire rain was pooling above the Halls of the Order, the chemicals and smog churned up from the factories workings polluting the upper atmosphere, wire rain was a pain. Nothing more. It fell like razor thin iron bars and bruised the skin if it wasn't protected by armour or solid clothes, and as versatile as his hunting robes were, they didn't offer much protection.
So when the first jolt of rain slammed into the back of his skull, jarring his neck, Stryder took that as his queue. No one was following, and if they were the storm would certainly deter them.
Swinging on the gargoyle like a gymnast on a bar Styrder let go and flew through the air for several moments, a brief second of motionless giving him a chance to see all the way to the perimeter walls before gravity took hold and the city began sucking him back down. From the inside of the room all that would have been seen of Stryder's arrival was a quick blur of black and silver, easily mistaken as a trick of the eye, and the brief flash of his silhouette as azure lightning cracked the sky in half, releasing the full torrent of rain to fall on the streets below. But as always there was no one to see his hidden arrival, only the autonomous cameras that began scanning him the moment he stepped in from the rain. The room was simple, some could even call it plain, with only a single set of bronze doors and two cameras sitting in each corner. It could have been anything. But it wasn't.
Stryder stood in the exact centre of the room as the bronze cameras scanned him up and down, their apertures widening and narrowing periodically as more and more lightning split the heavens. Just when his patience was about to run out a heavy mechanical thump echoed from some mysterious working in the building and the bronze doors slip apart. Revealing a tiny iron box, no bigger than the room in which Stryder kept his armour and gear, but this one was unlike any other. A new innovation of the Dwarf forge masters. Stepping inside the doors closed behind him, sealing him in this iron coffin, before the machine workings ground into life. With a sharp jolt the room began to descend, through the empty floors of the empty building, through the bedrock and foundations of the city to a place so deep and dark there was no chance of anyone who lived there ever seeing the sky above their heads. Or knowing what sunlight felt against their face.
He thought dryly. The years the Guild had kept him locked away in the barracks had been the hardest, only being released under strict observation and knowing that whatever wonders he saw, that the dark black hole was all that was left for him when he returned. That's why when a chance to join the Elites came he leapt at it with both hands, to be an Elite was to be the very best, the upper echelon, a paragon of righteous fury and justified death, but it also gave them freedom. Freedom from the dark. Freedom to feel sunlight on their face and see how other people lived their lives. That's what he'd always wanted.
Another sharp judder rocked him from his daydream and before he could compose himself the doors slid open. The corridor beyond was dim, the only light coming from a dozen or so flaming braziers mounted at equidistant portions of the wall, but it was ancient. So very, very ancient. It was first believed that the facility was built by the Dwarves, centuries ago, but when the Guild took them in they denied all knowledge of the place, and to those who knew Dwarven architecture this place didn't fit. It was too gothic, to simple, the angular errors in the walls and floor were too obvious to be missed by the perfectionist eyes of the Half-men.
Which means these halls were built by men. Long before their alliance with the Dwarves and millennia before the Elves landed onto the shores of Man. These were built by a civilisation of men lost to history, by a people who didn't have the skills or knowledge to defend themselves against the horrors of their world, so buried away from it. Hoping the darkness would keep them safe.
But Stryder knew something, being trained to kill monsters gave him an outlook on the world, and burying away wouldn't protect you from any of the smaller horrors that feasted on men. But putting a mile of solid rock between you and the outside world was almost guaranteed to stop one threat from reaching you...Dragons. Even the tongues of dragon fire couldn't melt through solid rock.
'It's been a long time Shrike,' said the masked man that stood in front of Stryder.
Immediately falling to a knee Stryder lowered his hood and bowed his head. 'Guild Master,' he whispered, with the most respect you would ever here from him. 'How may I serve?'
Hearing the smile in his Master's voice he said, 'Rise Shrike, that will come later. First, follow me. I have a demonstration I would wish for you to observe.'
Looking out of the two way mirror with his face revealed and hood lowered Stryder watched the spectacle bellow. Knowing full well the aspirants in that room could see less than nothing, because when he had taken the test he couldn't either, seven were in the room in total, climbing obstacles they couldn't see and fighting all manner of beasts and monsters. But one truly grabbed Stryder's attention, the figure was unusual, it had the strength and powerful strides of a man, but the balletic grace and energy of a woman. What he couldn't tell was if it was a woman trying to be like a man, or a man who had spent years living as a female.
'Well?' the Guild Master asked from the shadows. The iron mask used to protect his identity muffling his deep voice to even more unnatural levels of bass.
'Him.' Stryder said easily, knowing he didn't have to point out who he was talking about.
'Truly? Even though he attempted to kill a fellow aspirant?'
'If he wanted him dead he would have thrown his knife four inches higher and two inches to the right, he'd know that. Even in pitch black I know exactly where to put my axe to kill and where to put it to maim. Just like you would with your sword, Master.' he said looking over his shoulder at his old teacher.
'Well put. But not everyone has an affinity for the shadows as you do Shrike, they become you and you become them. I dare say even I would struggle to find you if you didn't want to be found.'
'I am what you made me Master, nothing more.'
A soft chuckle broke from the mask. 'Just so. I will have the boy placed into Elite training with your recommendation. Now, why you are truly here.' with those words the Guild Master's voice dropped its tone of friendliness and became deadly serious. 'I hear disturbing reports from beyond the wall, centaurs roam the Blood Wood, Arachnarock spider numbers are doubling and reports reach my ears of ancient beasts awakening in the World Edge Mountains.'
'Which would you have me kill first, Master?' Stryder said, without fear or hesitation.
The iron mask turned from the window and looked at him, emotionless in the darkness. 'None of these yet. I've lost several hunters recently, not elites, but hunters non the less. I hear rumours of two wanderers roaming the Eastern Steppes, some say one has the power to bend the way of the world.'
'Warlock?' Stryder said confused. 'Master, magic wielders haven't been known since before the age of Dwarves, we haven't caught one in centuries.'
'You cannot catch the wind, Shrike Shadowson, but it doesn't mean it isn't there. I want you to go out beyond the wall and find these two, kill the magic wielder and bring the other alive for questioning.'
'Your will be done Master,' Stryder said, bowing low and turning to leave when his teacher spoke again.
'I would have you work with a partner for this hunt Shrike, do not protest!' he barked. Knowing Stryder's next words. 'If this renegade can bend the elements he will be dangerous. So before you go after them, reunite with your sister elite and inform her of your mission.'
'Who?' was the only word Stryder could say through his clenched teach.
'You'll find her in the Border Lands. Battling an infestation of Spiderlings that threaten to overrun the wall. Meet her there. And good hunting.'