Imperial warehouses are cavernous places. Entering one is like wandering a maze that no one designed, unmarked boxes stacked haphazardly. One could only guess at the types of items stored in the large wood containers—probably surplus materials, but it was equally possible that they contained unidentified relics of the ancient Geraios civilization. The bald fact of it was that the buildings were largely ignored, infrequently organized and only nominally guarded. Whoever put these things here evidently no longer cared about them. The two men who walked among the dark and twisting rows were counting on it.
The lanterns each of them carried cast weak circles of light at their feet, feebly illuminating their path but doing nothing to dispel the deep shadows surrounding them. Even considering the blind eye that the Empire turned toward the place, secrecy necessitated that nothing appear amiss from the outside, which meant the room's powerful light system must remain deactivated. The guard, a victim hand-picked for his malleable personality, had been bribed away from his post with promises of strong drink and would return with no suspicions. That, at any rate, was the plan.
One of the men, the taller and stockier of the two, raised his lantern above his head and squinted into the darkness. Sliding his other hand inside his coat, he retrieved an unsealed envelope.
"It does say this warehouse, yeah?" He thrust a slightly crumpled piece of paper in front of his companion. The other man held one edge between dusky fingers, careful to avoid the many stains of dubious origin scattered across it.
"'…go to the warehouse in Port Torim.' That's what it says, Jules. Plain as day." He tried not to sound as weary as he felt. It was not the first time the question had been asked during their journey. Jules nodded briskly, tucking the envelope back into his coat pocket. He still wouldn't be satisfied, but that could not be helped. They kept walking.
"This place cold to you? I'm like ice over here." Jules shivered violently, obviously exaggerating for effect, but the man had a point. Cyrus could feel the dark hairs on his arms standing on end. On a sudden flash of instinct he looked up, and instantly regretted it.
A dark figure stood at the railing of the open, loft-like second floor of mysterious containers. Indistinct in the shadows, it remained inhumanly still. Something told Cyrus that the two men had been watched since they had entered the building. Now it was his turn to shiver.
"What did I tell ya, Cy? Cold as a dead man's—what is it?" Jules followed his gaze and let loose a string of noisy curses that would have made Don Whitehorse blush. The figure backed away from the railing, its movements best described as gliding, and Cyrus lost track of it. Jules nervously licked his lips.
"This was a bad idea. Didn't I say so from the start?"
Everyone had, actually. But you don't ignore a summons that carries his seal. Cyrus knew it would be useless to point that out. He idly played with a tassel on his coat, twisting it between his fingers and mentally running through the reasons that they could be meeting with a Nameless One in the middle of the night. None of them were good. A voice intoned from behind him, and he didn't bother wondering how it had gotten there without them noticing.
"The one called Jules will step forward," said the voice, commanding yet distant, in the tone of one who assumed that his orders would be carried out. Jules darted a glance at Cy, then both men turned to face the speaker.
"I'm Jules," he said, taking the smallest step possible that would bring him closer to the Nameless. The figure did not speak for a moment, and Cyrus took the opportunity to examine him more thoroughly.
The Nameless Ones were called Nameless because of their inherently anonymous nature. Cy had never seen one in person, though he had heard stories. They were the eyes, ears and messengers of the highest leader of Liberty's Fist, and sometimes even acted directly on his behalf within the organization. The dark, voluminous cloaks they wore hid body structure and identifying marks, and gloves obscured fingerprints and skin tone. By far their most disconcerting feature, though, was their faces. Because they had none.
To be fair, Cyrus knew that somewhere the men and women serving in this capacity had eyes, mouths and all the other normal features one could expect to find above a person's neck. Yet by all appearances, their hoods were empty, with dark ovals of material sewn into the seams and floating where their faces would be. It was extremely unnerving to meet someone's gaze and find nothing there but blank darkness. That was the point, he imagined. The Nameless swung his head in the stockier man's direction.
"The attack on Zaphias failed," he stated. Another thing that could be said about the Nameless Ones was that they never wasted words, as if they thought they were being charged for their use. The fabric rippled slightly with the breath of his speech.
"Yes, ah, yes. I can explain that," Jules said, attempting to infuse his voice with confidence. He was not by nature a cowardly man. "Y'see, the assassins weren't picked by me. I thought any three of my men and women could take out the one guard. Guess they were overconfident."
"It was your failure. You were the orchestrator."
"We can try again, can't we? I'll choose them myself. Can't trust those idiots under me—" He waved at Cy apologetically. "You know, present company excepted and all." Cyrus was amazed that he could be so flippant, under the circumstances. The dark figure shook its head harshly.
"No." The Nameless put a hard edge on his words. "Advantage has been lost."
This was not going well. Cyrus wanted to say something, wanted to stick up for the cell leader that he was surprised to realize he counted as a friend, but didn't dare. He hated himself for it.
"You will kneel," the faceless man said.
Jules blinked, and Cy tried to somehow transmit do it into the other man's head. Not waiting for Jules to respond, the Nameless smoothly swung around, his heavy-booted foot flying in an arc until it connected with the back of his knee. Jules cried out as his leg collapsed and he fell into a rough approximation of a kneeling position. He grit his teeth, rivulets of sweat coursing down the sides of his face.
"I bring a message from our leader," said the voice.
"Yeah?" Jules said, his voice cracking with the effort. He raised his head from where he had been staring at the warehouse floor.
"This is your message," said the Nameless. Within the next breath, he drew a long, curved sword and whipped it across the man's neck. Cyrus turned his face away from the arc of red droplets, swallowing hard. He had seen many people die. This one, though—he felt sick. It took every ounce of resolve within him to confront the scene.
Jules had slumped to the floor, one hand clutching his throat and eyes widened into a permanent expression of surprise and horror. The Nameless was already facing away from him, as if he had not just snuffed out the man's life with his blade. Who could know what expression hid behind that cloth, though? They couldn't be completely without humanity. It just seemed that way.
"Your name," he said. Cy took in a ragged breath, unsure what to expect but unwilling to defy the man.
"Cyrus. My name is Cyrus."
"Only Cyrus." His tone carried the slightest hint of a question.
The Nameless nodded once.
"You are now the leader of this cell," he said. "You must carry out his plans."
Cyrus snapped his head back in shock, words of protest at the ready. He wasn't even remotely in line to lead Jules's cell, which was responsible for all Fist operations within the capital city. There would be a lot of unhappy people. But the Nameless One's order meant he lived another day, so he let the argument die on his lips. The man waved a leather-glove clad hand through the air.
"You will leave now."
A/N: I am introducing the major original characters early on to establish the plot and conflict, but please don't worry that I'm taking the focus off the ones that you know and love. They are, after all, what this story is ultimately about. If all goes well, I will be posting the third chapter, which returns to more familiar characters, by the end of the weekend.