Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Killers' Path

Imperial rule in the north found it expedient to deploy assassins to help achieve its ends. These were trained almost from birth, and divided into groups by specialism - strangling, poisoning, stabbing, and so on. What begins in utility ends in ritual: over the centuries these groups evolved into formal religious cults, devoted not only to the Emperor but also to murder itself as a holy act, and believing purposeless killing to be the ultimate celebration of the triumph of the uncaring cosmos over man’s petty goals and desires. Their religiosity enabled them to survive whatever precipitated the collapse of the Empire, and thereafter they roamed the region where the Dark River meets the Great North Road, further refining their arts and the application of them, and preying at random on the populace.

It took the Lady to unify them and to found what became the town of Killers’ Path. Nobody knows to which cult she belonged, and it has become important subsequently for her origins to remain mysterious; but what is known is that she was a prominent, skilled assassin, well-versed in her technique and devoted like no other to the cause of empty and premature death. Yet she herself became the target of rivals, and was murdered by them - only to come back from the dead a month later with a revolutionary message. This was that it is possible to cheat the cosmos and defeat death through will alone, and in doing so to return fully alive rather than in the empty parody of life that is undeath. She brought the different cults together with this tale of hope, and created with them a settlement which grew gradually into a burgh.

Killers’ Path is now, at a superficial glance, an ordinary market town, filled with ordinary freemen and their families and servants. But the cults remain. By no means every freeman of the town is a member, but a significant proportion are, and they play out a half-secret ‘Game’ alongside the comings and goings of mainstream society - one in which ritualised murder is permitted and encouraged. The rules of the Game are straightforward. At the beginning of a Round, one member from each cult is selected at random to be the ‘Hare’ - that is, the target for assassination - for another cult, again chosen at random. Over the course of the Round, usually lasting a year and a day, the cults each attempt to kill their respective Hares however they see fit, the only other rule being that they must kill no other citizen of the town, including members of other cults.

This is an exercise in brinksmanship. The later the assassination takes place in the Round, the better; the last cult to kill its Hare is the winner. But failure to kill the Hare at all by the last day of the Round means shameful defeat. The aim of each cult, then, is to kill its Hare as late as it can bear the risk of leaving it. This means that for most of the time the cults are simply plotting and scheming; it is only in the weeks leading up to the end of a given Round that the ‘action’ truly takes place. Naturally enough, however, each cult also spends most of each Round plotting to protect its Hare from assassination so as to frustrate whatever cult is targeting it this time. The result is that, each Round, all of the cults are engaged in a complicated dance of espionage and counter-espionage as they plot their final attacks and attempt to uncover - and hinder - each others’ schemes. All of this takes place under the noses of the inhabitants of the town, of course, who feign ignorance even as they await patiently the ‘sport’ to begin when the Round draws to its conclusion.

The Lady still rules Killers’ Path, though she is rarely seen. When she is, she appears as she has for as long as the living can remember - half way between middle-aged and old, handsome and cold, supremely calm, her jet black hair touched here and there with grey. She has no apparent servants, nor entourage, and lives alone in a tower in the centre of a small courtyard hidden behind some townhouses off a quiet street. Yet almost all obey her without question. She is as close as one can come to being a living God, and the members of the cults naturally take her word as law, her commands as instructions. This is reinforced by what is common knowledge in Killers’ Path: any who go against a decree from the Lady or act against her interests do not remain alive in the town for long.

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