It was the final trial of the assassin. The trial of the desert.
The markers leading to the centre were clearer than Asherak had ever dreamed. The tall, dark pillars that pierced the sky were obvious and easy to follow. In the distance, the mountains were huge vague shadows thrusting upwards from the desert sands. There was even a faint structure that could be seen, looping between the mountains. The structure was his destination, the headquarters of the assassins, La Mort.
He was the last survivor of the ten assassin trainees. The others had failed the previous trials. Three had died by blade, not fast enough to evade the assassins assigned to them. Two had died by poison, trusting others to fetch drinks for them. One died when she failed the leap between two buildings. Two were awaiting trial, captured while attempting to take out a target. He knew that they would not survive until the trial. One fled, no longer willing to risk the training after four of their fellows had died. Asherak doubted that he still lived. There was no such thing as a failed assassin trainee. Either you became an assassin or you died.
He walked. The sword was still in its sheath on his back, his cloak flapping in the wind. Sand swirled everywhere, making it difficult to breath. He adjusted the assassin mask he wore but the fine grains still found his nose and mouth.
He stopped briefly for a drink and realised that the distance he had to travel was deceptive. Two hours of walking and the mountains were no closer. The winds howled wildly as they whipped sand into his face.
The howling wind meant he was not prepared for the attack, though he had suspected that he’d face more than just a hike. A beast roared upwards from the sand, and he barely escaped the first blow. He rolled away from his attacker, and discovered that the beast was faster than he on the sand. He jumped to his feet and pulled out his sword.
The beast was half his height and had scales that were much like heavy armour. He noted that it had tiny slits for eyes, an adaption for living beneath the shifting sands. It seemed unlikely that the beast could see him, but it could still track his movements. He rolled again, sword in hand this time. Then he stopped moving entirely.
The beast had not managed to follow his movement this time and it started to hunt for him. The long, flickering tongue caught the assassin’s attention. He waited, not moving and barely breathing. The beast moved ponderously in his general direction.
When it was close enough, he stabbed the tongue. The beast shrieked in agony and whipped backward. He waited, ready to stab the beast again if it persisted. Moments later, it retreated to under the sand once more.
The assassin wiped his blade and debated if he would return the weapon to its sheath. Walking with the blade in hand would be more tiring. But having the bare blade ready to use was more prudent. He resumed his cautious progress toward La Mort. Today, he would become an assassin or die in the attempt.