Phantoms

Moonlight.

It is faint, but enough for me to make out the grey lines of buildings in front. I glance to the side and see the pale faces of my companions, their mouths thin, dark slashes, lips pressed tight.

They are afraid, hearts pummelling and breathing uneven. We try to hide our fear behind impassive stares. Hands are clammy with sweat, senses are stretched taut. Every whisper of wind is a threat.

The sounds of the night - they are not a rustle of leaves but an unseen enemy; our death by a cold, swift blade.

Eyes flicker nervously from corner to corner, asking questions of shadows and catching glimpses of a phantom assassin as he flickers in and out of sight, toying with us.

I cannot ignore him. He taunts us, making us touch the hilts of our blades and tense at every change in the silence. Of course, it is not him, but us. I try to strangle my imagination, but it strays. It makes danger out of shadows and heightens fear. The absence of sound is like thunder in my ears.

It is the sounds in my head; of the breath leaving my nose and the pounding of blood. It is the gentle caress of the breeze and the rustle of fabric. I can almost hear my muscles creaking; painful, tense and locked.

In this loud silence, we strain our ears for the slightest whisper or footfall. We cannot ignore him. Just this once, he might be real.

I stare, and stare, and stare into the shadows, however as hard as I try, all I see is black. I blink, knowing I have been staring for too long.

There.

My head snaps to the right. I have seen something. A black shadow, movement in the night. Something out of the ordinary and I am reaching for my blade, muscles taut, breath quickening, heart hammering in my chest, but it is only a cat, slinking past the buildings, down the alley. I catch a glimpse of its sleek, black form in the moonlight as it passes between shadows, disappearing into the darkness.

My shoulders sag in relief and I share a knowing glance with one of my companions before we train our eyes back onto the street. Waiting is agony. For an interminable length of time, we are waiting and then we hear the faint sound of voices.

Voices.

Real voices? I strain to hear, wondering if it is simply my imagination, but there they are again. My heart pounds. My chest is going to explode.

Voices, cries of men, shouts; the unmistakable sound of violence.

It... they... no, he has come at last, and we no longer have time to feel afraid. The shouts are becoming louder, moving toward us.

A gasp of pain splits the night like a thunderclap and I know someone has died. My heart is beating in my head and I can hear almost nothing but the sound of my own, rasping breath.

Footsteps; heavy ones, cause me to tense, but they are stilled as I hear a body fall. The cold wind rushes by, blowing my hair into my face. I blink and try to clear my vision.

My palm is slick with sweat as it closes around the familiar, worn hilt; my arm is taut and it is painful to wait with the blood pounding in my ears. There is a sudden brush of the wind; a premonition; cool breeze sweeps past my face and then, like a dream materializing, he appears in the the alley.

He is no brute of a warrior, but a small, almost delicate figure. He pauses in the moonlight. I see a flash of liquid crimson, and I am reminded of blood, but then I realize it is only his wild, long hair, whipping around his face.

I experience the odd sensation of hope, as I think that perhaps, just perhaps, they have been defeated, and he is all that remains. I had not been expecting only one of them...

Then he is gone. I spin around as air whistles past me. He becomes a blur. I turn around to the mesmerizing, fluid arc of a blade whipped out of its sheath. The silent hiss of a sword; it makes me cold.

My heart stops.

The sound of steel slicing through sinew and bone really is a strange one; it is almost noiseless, but I can hear - or perhaps feel - flesh being cleaved, even though it is not my own. Warm blood splatters onto me, onto my face; my clothes. I am frozen. I know nothing but the metallic smell of blood. I blink; my vision is clouded red.

I want to run, I want to flee, but I am unable to move as my remaining companion stares across at me. A heartbeat. Then he falls, under a killing swoop. I can no longer see the assassin's blade in the moonlight; it has become dark.

Run!

I can't.

Run!

My mind is frantic; my body is frozen. I am going to die. He has turned around, changed direction. He lifts his sword.

You are already dead.

Death is no more terrifying than a pair of glowing amber eyes and the rush of the wind. It is nothing more than a pale young face and a swift, bloodied blade and the coppery scent that fills my nostrils as I look up for the last time through a clouded gaze. Perhaps death is tempered with compassion, but I am probably imagining things again. I cannot be sure, for there is blood in my eyes, and I...