Almost five years ago.
“You know, Eli my boy, I’m so glad we’re back here again.” The voice whispered inside Eli’s mind. These days it didn’t come and go, like it used to. Instead it was with him day and night, making sarcastic comments, whispering about murders yet to come.
He was sitting in a booth, in the bar where Aiden O’Malley liked to hang out. His hands were shaking. He didn’t want this, he wanted to be back in the Monarchy’s heartland with Rosa and her family. Instead he was waiting for O’Malley to go take a leak, so that he could shank him. The whole thing was depressing.
“Oh, lighten up, this is what you’re meant for. I mean, have you seen how easily you slid back into your role? You’re a natural born killer, you just have to stab someone to remember it.”
O’Malley got up from his seat and walked to the restroom. Before he entered he cracked a joke at one of his friends back in his booth. Slowly, as to not draw attention, Eli got up and followed his target. Nobody tried to stop him. This was O’Malley’s territory, nobody would dare touch him here. Nobody, except the truly desperate.
The restroom was empty, safe for the gangster, who was whistling a tune Eli recognized, but couldn’t put a name to. It was as if the whole world slowed down, as if time had taken a break. It is a feeling Eli knew well, the blissful moment just before a kill. It was a high like any other, and all assassins were addicts. The moment of perfect peace, in which there is only the assassin and the target, the hunter and the prey.
The knife slid into his hand, smooth cold steel, more trustworthy than any gun could ever be. His footsteps were inaudible, his breathing a bare whisper on the wind, O’Malley’s whistle and the clattering of piss down a hole drowning out all other sound. Eli rose to his full height behind the gangster. In an almost tender motion his hand snaked around O’Malley’s chin. With an iron grip he pulled the man’s chin to the side and shoved the blade into his ear, all the way up to the hilt.
There was a moment between seconds in which the world was completely still.
“Well Eli, my boy, it sure has been fun, hasn’t it?” The voice said, feigning warmth. “It is here that we will part ways I’m afraid. Now, you remember your lessons, or I will be back.”
The moment between seconds passed. Time resumed at its normal pace, O’Malley sank to the ground as Eli pulled out the blade and released the man. He turned and was about to walk away when he caught his reflection in a mirror. The black markings were gone, he was no longer obsolete. Instead he was once again an assassin. It was a fate that seemed to be inescapable. The voice had been full of shit, but it seemed to be right about one thing, this would never be over. The killing, it would never end, for he would go insane if he stopped.
He left the bar in a daze, not stopping for anything. He didn’t even react when the sound of an uproar followed him down the street. He got rid of the disguise he had been wearing to conceal his marks. He felt as if his whole life was a joke, and he the only person who didn’t get the punchline. Less than a day ago he should have been convicted for his sins, but instead he had wiped his card clean by adding to the list of sins.
Huginn is dying. It doesn’t make sense. He had been so sure, he had felt it. The second his master had approached him with this assignment he had known. This was what he was meant to do, the very reason for his existence. But it had ended before it could even begin. Everything had been perfect; the stage had been set and the actors were all there.
Slowly the snow around him turns red. It is pretty. It reminds him of the day his master found him. He and his sister had been sitting in a box, huddled together, waiting for the cold to take them. Then, like a god his master had extended his hand. He could even see it now. He frowned, this wasn’t his master’s hand. This hand was scarred, his master’s had been smooth.
The raven mask is pulled from his face. A man bows over him, rolling him unto his back, giving him a good view at the sky. It isn’t blue, but white. The clouds are so densely packed together that there aren’t any visible individual shapes, just an endless sea of white.
“Fuck, you’re just a kid.” A low voice says. His killer comes within view, but his face is blurry. Huginn wants to say that it is okay, but the words won’t come. That too isn’t a problem, Muninn is going to kill the target, she always finishes the mission. He wonders if she will be okay on her own.
The world slowly grows dark, until he only sees a white pinprick in funnel of darkness. It is cold, the world is always so cold. It always felt like he and Muninn were the only warm beings in a world of tin men with metal minds and stone hearts. It is cold, but everything has always been cold. It is okay. Maybe in the next life it will be warmer.
Charles sips his tea. Around him the council of kings had gathered. The queen of the East is outraged, and noisy. The Queen of the South is calmly laying down tarot cards. Finally the King of the West is shifty. Charles’ savior becomes restless when he stays in one place for too long.
“It seems both your champions are failing.” The queen of the South notes. “Last time I checked we were planning to throw over a centuries old government.” The King of the West gives the other members of the council a lopsided grin. “The Queen of the South is right, this is really not the time to send amateurs.”
Charles shrugs. “The night isn’t over yet, and we have options.” The Queen of the East has a sour expression on her face, like she just swallowed a glass of vinegar. “We should move up the time line. I have distributed the Aksokov devices to every major urban area in the country. If we give the order tonight, we can have our revolution the day after tomorrow.” The Queen of the South tilted her head. “Unsure of our plans, are we? I don’t like giving into panic. I vote to keep the original time line.”
The King of the West snorts. “Of course, you do. I’m voting to move it up, I need some action.” The three other members look at Charles, who serenely takes another sip of his tea. “I won’t vote until we have a clear picture. Either the prince lives and we speed things up, or he dies, and we keep the plan as is. At this delicate phase rash decisions will get us nowhere.” He smiles, everything is playing out exactly as it should.
Jesse runs through a dark corridor, the prince hot on her heels. Ever since they got to the hotel shit has been messed up. The gunfire died a few minutes ago, likely the prince’s guards with it. She’s afraid, it doesn’t take much to admit it. In her situation anyone would be. She’s stuck in a deathtrap, a deranged lunatic wearing a raven mask is trying to kill her, all the while she is dragging an unarmed prince around. She wasn’t trained for this.
To be fair, when they train you to be a spy they don’t expect you to get into, whatever this is. She wishes Eli was here, not because she misses him, he’s just a lot better at the whole killing lunatics thing. She turns around a corner, making sure her gun is pointed at whatever might come for. The corridor is empty, she breathes a little easier.
The relief is short lived however when she hears the sound of girlish laughter. The whole hotel has been turned into some kind of horror show. Ever since she saw the disemboweled man hanging from the ceiling in the lobby she’s been trying very hard to ignore the other decorations the killer left behind.
The prince follows in her wake, as she slowly and deliberately walks through the corridor. More laughter coming from a different direction, a steady drip of blood falling from the ceiling, she ignores it all. At the end of the corridor is a fire escape. Hopefully it won’t be rigged, like the front door. She shudders as she thinks about the guard who had tried to evacuate his employer, he had bled out in seconds.
She walks past an intersection, towards the window, through which she can reach the fire escape.
“Found you.” A soft voice says, followed by a solid kick to Jesse’s midriff. “We’re going to have so much fun.” The soft voice continues, mirth resounding through its voice.
I’m sweating as I run through deserted streets towards the hotel. I killed a kid just now. It is not entirely accurate. Huginn, or was it Muninn, is an adult by law, but it sure as fuck doesn’t feel like that. The boy wasn’t old enough to grow a proper beard. I shouldn’t focus too much on it though. Birdman was a killer, but not an assassin. The boy committed gruesome murders, he was as terrible as they come. I should not forget that. I didn’t kill a kid tonight, but a monster.
I stop to get my bearings, breathing heavily. I killed one monster, but the other is still on the loose. I take a deep breath and start running again. I’m worried, I’m anxious and I’m angry. I’m angry because I’m not entirely sure how I got pulled into this mess, and why. When this is over Charles and I are going to have a long talk about this whole situation.
The King of the West is smoking something that doesn’t even remotely smell like a cigarette. The pungent scent reminds Charles of burning old socks. The room is silent as the council waits for news to arrive.
The phone rings.
Charles picks it aggravatingly slow up, to annoy his fellow council members. It is childish, but he too needs some entertainment from time to time. He scowls as the person on the other end of the line hurriedly informs him of the situation. “I see, keep me posted.” He says and hangs up. He makes a show of pinching the bridge of his nose.
“So, are you going to share with the rest of the class?” The Queen of the South sounds aggravated. Apparently, she is not as indifferent about this operation as Charles thought. He turns to the Queen of the East. “Two of your three assassins are dead, one with a raven mask, the other a man called Rowan Knight.” The Queen of the East’s face becomes pale. Her champion is dead, which complicates things greatly.
“I still have one piece in play, she will deliver the prince’s head.” Charles inclines his head. “Perhaps, or maybe my champion will.”
The Queen of the South looks up. “It is time that we talked about your champion. I’m wondering if the girl you presented to us is truly your champion.” Her eyes are narrowed in suspicion. “Since everywhere we’re active this assassin keeps showing up, ruining things. This Eli de Winter, who we know is an old associate of yours. I would like to know why he is on the prince’s security team, since he just killed two of our operatives.”
The whole room is silent, tension thick in the air, all eyes turn to Charles. “Do you think my dear boy here is a rat?” The King of the West asks the Queen of the South, his lips curled into a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Since I brought him in, that would be questioning my judgement. Are you? Questioning my judgement, I mean.” There is this aura, which hangs around the King of the West, as if things can escalate into extreme violence at any moment. It is deeply unsettling, worsened by the man himself. The yellow hue of his eyes seems to pulsate as he stares intensely at the Queen of the South.
“Of course not, I would just like some clarification.” She backs down, but her posture makes it clear that she isn’t going to let it go. “Eli is good at what he does.” Charles says. “Back when we were both working for Cabaneri Incorporated he was one of the best. I would know, I was on his team. It isn’t strange that the council of senior aldermen would want him for the job.” The Queen of the South’s eyes narrow even further. “I thought you controlled those old farts?” Charles shakes his head. “Only broadly speaking. I can nudge large votes in the right direction. Decrees and positions like the chief of a foreign prince’s security are out of my reach.” The lie comes without hesitation, and when he looks at the Queen of the South he can tell that she buys it.
“So, it is just bad luck?” She asks. “I’m afraid so. Well, that and Eli’s competence.” Charles adds. He takes another sip of his tea, before putting it down. “If good news doesn’t reach us within the hour I will vote to move up the timeline.”
Pain, it comes in white hot flashes. Jesse’s vision is blurry on account of the tears and the blood. It hurts so much. “You’re a lot less pretty now, aren’t you?” The soft voice almost sounds sweet, making the whole situation more twisted. The knife makes a deep cut in her cheek. “When they heal they will be so pretty.” The voices says. “Like a map of silver stars.” The knife makes another deep cut. “But, you won’t heal, you will be dead.” The hand stops, the cold edge of the blade lying against Jesse’s forehead. “Maybe in the life after this one.” The voice says, as the blade follows the curves of Jesse’s face, leaving shallow cuts behinds.
“It seems that your mommy forgot to tell you not to play with your food.” A different voice calls out from somewhere behind Jesse’s assailant. Her assailant gets up, leaving Jesse lying on there, bleeding, in pain. “No, but she did teach me how to cut my meat.” The statement is followed by girlish laughter.
Olivia bares her fangs at the monster in front of her. They aren’t actual fangs of course, but they come close enough. The woman in front of her is a real piece of work. She’s wearing a white dress, which has been painted red with blood. Her face she conceals behind a raven mask. She’s carrying at least five knives, that Olivia can see, which means there are probably half a dozen hidden ones.
“I like your teeth, but they would look better if you weren’t so ugly. A few slashes and some cuts and that can be fixed. What do you say?” The woman gives her a big puppy stare, which creeps Olivia out. So, she does what she always does when she feels unsettled. The whip with its many interlocking blades snaps at the woman.
Muninn lets out another bout of girlish laughter as she ducks beneath the whip. She throws a knife at Olivia, who barely twists away, right into the path of a second knife. The blade makes a shallow cut in her arm. Oliva doesn’t pay it any mind, with a howl she pushes forwards. The whip winds itself around Muninn’s arm. Olivia twists her hand and the whip’s blades bite into the other woman’s arm. Muninn bites her teeth together in pain as Olivia pulls the whip back, tearing chunks of arm with it.
Blood drips on the floor, both women breath heavily, both are smiling. Slowly Muninn pulls the mask of her face. She drops it on the floor and cracks her neck. “You’re a cut above the rest.” She says. Her voice is no longer soft, instead it has strange high and low notes in it, as if something is wrong with her vocal cords. “Normally I would invite you to a play a different game with me, but you’re exceptional as you are.”
Olivia inclines her head, one monster acknowledging the other. “Normally I would take you up on the offer, but as you can see I’m not exactly my own master these days.” Muninn clacks her tongue. “Collars are for dogs, wolves break them.” Her eyes are cold. “If you were a true wolf you would have torn it off long ago.” Olivia snarls. “When they put this collar on you I’m going to enjoy watching you tear yourself to shreds.”
A new blade snaps into Muninn’s hand. Suddenly the sound of cackling electricity fills the corridor. Mad laughter and equally mad howling resound through the hotel, concealing a pained whimper.
The prince of Armes runs. It is not his default speed of movement. He’s an intellectual and a royal, running is for peasants and servants. He instead prefers a slow stroll, maybe a shuffle when walking through a library. He has been running a lot lately. Personally, he blames Mercia. This country is crazy, filled with insane people. He had expected scheming, maybe an assassination attempt, not this. Who sends monsters and lunatics after someone? Not only are they unprofessional, they are a hazard to everyone within a mile.
He runs through dozens of identical corridors, avoiding the ones that will lead him back to the fighting. He is lost, but that doesn’t stop him from running. He needs to get out of this death trap. Something moves in the corner of his eye. Without thinking he fires a shot in its direction. It however is just his shadow. Another shot wasted.
He looks at the gun, its Jesse’s. He took it when she was attacked by the lunatic in a mask. He hopes she’s okay, but he doubts it. The important thing is that he gets out, signs the treaty and gets the hell out of this country.
He runs into something or someone, pointing the gun at him, she, it he is about to fire when suddenly the gun is taken out of his hands.
I take the gun out of the prince’s hands. It is easy, the prince probably never learned how to shoot. I look at the gun and my heart skips a beat. It is Jesse’s. The prince recognizes me. “De Winter? Thank the gods. I thought I was going to die. There is this woman after me, she’s crazy.” He is panicking, I ignore him.
“Where is she?” I growl.
The prince falls silent, then starts shaking his head. “No, I’m not going back. They are insane, they want to kill me.”
“Where is she?”
Jesse is hurting. She no longer pays attention to whether there is fighting going on around her. There is only pain and the feeling that she’s leaking. It is not a pleasant feeling. There is a finality to it, as if she will stop feeling when the leaking does. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knows that she’s dying. She’s afraid. Deep down all people are afraid of death.
Something warm touches her face for a brief second. A few seconds later it touches her neck. It feels so nice that it makes her want to see it. She tries to open her eyes, but crusts of dried blood prevent her from doing so. The warm thing gently touches her eyelids, removing the crusts. She again tries to open her eyes, succeeding this time.
Eli is looking concerned, but when she looks him in the eye he smiles. She tries to smile back but manages little more than a grimace. He says something, but she doesn’t understand. She hears the words, recognizes them even, but they don’t register. He smiles again and shakes his head. She knows he’s worried, she wants to help him, but he turns away, looking at something out of her range of sight. He softly lays her back, saying something else and moves out of sight. The pain is still there, but Eli’s is here, so everything will be okay. He will figure it out.
A body crashes through the corridor, shortly followed by a bloody looking woman. Olivia bares her sharpened teeth at me. “Nice of you to join the party. You’re too late however, she’s already dead.” I look at the giant smoking hole in who I presume is either Huginn or Muninn. I point my pistol at her. She spits a clod of money on the corpse lying a meter or so away from me.
“Don’t bother, you’re not on my list. Now that I think about it, there isn’t a list any longer.” I tilt my head. “So, you’re not going to kill the prince?” I ask. “Neh, the boss wants him alive and well. Make sure he shows up tomorrow and signs the papers, or something. Those are his orders. If you don’t comply you won’t get paid, and I will finish what is left of her.” I’m tempted to shoot her, but I have more pressing concerns. I put the gun away and lift Jesse in my arms.
“See you around assassin.” Olivia says, before disappearing through a window.
The phone rings, once again it is Charles who picks up. He grimaces as he hears the news, inwardly however he is smiling.
“The assassins are dead. Our window is closing. I vote to move forward to the next stage tonight.”