April 19, 2015
Hide and Go Kill
Above all else, Morte 'al Ngin considered himself as a master of his craft. Before he was born, Gau Ternion was known to be the best in the trade, and while he was still young it was Arelius de Nau. However, for the past twenty years both friend and foe agreed that no one alive was as good at killing as he.
In fact, during the twenty-eight years Morte had been a killer for hire, there was only one contract he had failed to complete. The fat old merchant, Tel 'a Jin. Morte had stalked the man from Trellor to Derah, and was ready to make his kill, but the fool of a merchant had decided to take a short cut through the cursed swamp of Thanos. Morte waited days for the man to emerge from the depths of the swamp and even risked entering the fetid marsh himself. In the end, he found no sign of 'a Jin within the swamp and the man had never come back out.
Some lesser men would have said "dead is dead" and moved on. Yes, Tel 'a Jin was most certainly a corpse within a swamp that had claimed the lives of so many others, but he had been Morte's to kill. Even months later, Tel 'a Jin's escape from his blade (if not death itself) still ate at Morte. Which, upon reflection, was probably why he took the contract to kill the wizard.
There was an old proverb that said "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger" and Morte normally took those ancient words as law. Killing a wizard was never, ever, worth the effort or the pay involved. They all died in the end, but between the lingering curses that sometimes took weeks to fade or the complete lack of willingness to stand and fight like a man, it just didn't pay. During one particularly nasty contract, the mage's counter spell (triggered as he died) left Morte thinking he was a rabbit for the better part of a day. Magic users were just a headache he did not need. After his failure with 'a Jin however, Morte felt there was something he needed to prove.
The contract was delivered to Morte in the usual spot beneath Trellor by Vonleige himself rather than Imrah, his apprentice. This was unusual, as it was rumored that because of the price on his head by the Duke of Trellor, Vonleige had not been seen outside his hideout in years.
"A rouge wizard has been terrorizing a small village to the southwest." Vonleige told him.
"While normally we could care less about the middle of nowhere, it's been bad for business as of late for a valued associate."
"A no-name wizard in a corner of the world that no one ends up in unless their dragon takes them well and truly off course. Why do you need me?" Morte questioned.
Vonleige agreed. "Normally we would not. We sent a recruit to deal with the problem. It should have been an easy task but he never returned. The Spider followed after personally and we have heard naught in over a fortnight. I'm afraid the Spider may have been taken or killed as well as our novice."
"Find someone else." Morte replied with a half-smile. "This isn't worth the time it would take me to fly there."
After that, it was just bargaining.
And so, a day later, Morte dismounted his dragon before the gates of the small village. The contract said his target could be found near here. As Morte entered the village, little more than a collection of straw huts, a small child ran up to him.
"You're not from around here, are you?"
Morte flatly ignored her.
"You must be looking for the wizard" the child prattled on, oblivious to Morte's indifference. "People are always coming here looking for him".
At the child's mention of the wizard, Morte looked down. The child was a girl no older than ten or eleven years old. She had brilliant green eyes, hair that might have been red if the layers of dirt and grime covering her were removed and a slightly wild look.
"I betcha you are looking for the Wizard, aren't you." The girl repeated. "I can take you to him, but you have to catch me first!"
"Where is this Wizard, child?" Morte demanded of the little girl, but she was already running, through the gate and in to the glade beyond.
"I'm in no mood for games, little one." Morte shouted as the girl fled. With the grace and indifference possessed only by children, the girl flatly ignored him and continued to run.
"Nothing is ever easy." Morte grumbled and with a sigh, he drew his dagger and stalked after the girl in to the woods.
The sun was sliding quickly toward the horizon, marking the end of Morte's first day in the glade, and he had found no sign of the wizard. Morte had questioned or put to the question several denizens of the glade but either they didn't know where the wizard could be found or they were more afraid of an old mage than they were of him. Well the former, he could do nothing about, but the latter...
warning, a small, childish voice broke his musing.
"You didn't find me! Tag. You're it!"
The filthy girl from the village burst out of the foliage to Morte's left and barreled past him, brushing her hand across his arm as she did, only to disappear into a thicket on the other side of the path.
"Child," Morte said to the girl. "I can still hear you there. Why don't you tell me where this wizard can be found."
"Are you hungry? I have some excellent bread here." Morte said, pulling a loaf from the griffon-hide pack he wore across his back.
Still no answer.
"What about a silver mark?" said Morte as he plucked a single coin from his purse. "Just tell me where to find the wizard and you can have it."
"Don't want your smelly bread. Don't want silver. I want to play!" the child wailed.
"I don't have time for this. Begone, girl." Morte pocketed his silver mark before kneeling to pick up a small rock. He pitched it in the direction of the girl's voice and was rewarded with a satisfying thud, followed by a short shriek and the sound of a small body running through the undergrowth, as fast as little legs would take it. With a smirk, Morte took a bite of the bread he had offered to the girl and continued through the woods.
Thrice more over the next day the girl appeared from nowhere, as if summoned by the very wizard Morte sought, to taunt him and beg him to play. Each time, Morte questioned the girl as to where the wizard could be found. Each time, the girl only laughed, taunted and ran. By the end of his second day within the woods, Morte's patience with forests, young girls and wizards was wearing thin.
The third day of the search for the wizard dawned clear and bright. After breaking camp, Morte sorted through the remaining supplies in his pack. He would need to forage or hunt for food soon; this task had taken longer than he had expected. Morte continued to study his pack, careful not to give himself away too soon ...he knew he was being watched.
Morte heard a rustle and the sound of naked feed on the soft ground behind him and was ready this time. He stepped to the side as he heard the girl begin her chant.
"You didn't find me tag, you're..."
The rest was cut off as Morte's hand wrapped around the girl's throat. Casually, Morte lifted the girl off the ground and brought her face to his.
"Where is the wizard?"
"I just wanted to play." The girl squeaked, tears forming in her eyes.
"Enough!" roared Morte and squeezed tighter.
"You're... you're hurting me." the girl gasped.
"I'll do worse the next time I see you." Morte shouted, flinging the child away from him, into the base of a nearby tree.
At first the girl didn't move. Morte was not sure that she even breathed. At last though, the girl began to sob; softly at first and then louder.
"Go play elsewhere." Morte said. To emphasize his point, he drew his dagger and threw it all in one practiced motion. The blade struck home in the tree behind the girl, just inches from her head.
"Go." Morte repeated. "The next one will not miss."
The girl gave Morte a look of pure hatred and crawled slowly away, to disappear in the glade.
Two days later, Morte had still not found the damnable Wizard. His food was gone and hunting had not been fruitful. In fact, the girl had been the last living thing he had seen. At least she had finally given up. Morte had meant what he had said; if he saw her again, she was dead. He had killed for far less.
Morte had been searched the glade from top to bottom. The last place to look was the cave. In reality, the space could hardly even be called a cave. Morte had to crouch to enter. From the entrance, he could throw a stone and hit the back wall without effort. It was dry, but that was the only good thing to be said about it. It had clearly been abandoned for some time. There were no footprints but his own to be seen in the dust.
As Morte was about to leave he saw a glimmer of light from back in the corner. An old man dressed in a dark robe stood before a small pentagram, conjuring.
"Finally." Morte breathed to himself. He drew his dagger and crept toward the old man. As Morte approached, the silence of the cave was shattered.
"You didn't find me!" the little girl said in her sing-song voice. "Tag...you lose." Before Morte, the wizard seemed to waver and shimmer like a mirage in the summer heat before disappearing completely. From behind, Morte heard the faintest of whispers. Before he could turn to face the damnable girl, Morte felt a blinding pain in his back.
In a rage, he spun toward the little girl, the wizard forgotten for the moment.
"You're going to die for that." Morte said coldly, taking a step toward the girl.
He faltered as he took a second step, the dagger he had intended using on the Wizard falling from his suddenly numb fingertips.
"What did you do to me, you little witch!" he screamed.
"It's poison." The little girl sang. "P-o-i-s-o-n. The master wanted you and could have taken you at any time, but I'm his favorite and I wanted to play. He let's me out of that dreary old swamp so rarely."
Cold was spreading quickly now throughout Morte's body and was effecting his senses. The girl was still in front of him, but she looked even more wild and feral than before. There was something about her eyes. They no longer shone with childish delight. There was something dark and ancient behind those eyes now.
"What?" he replied blankly?
"The master was going to take you either way, but I was told to take a measure of you and I got to have some fun at the same time." Neifirst finished.
The little girl, Neifirst, was still speaking to him in her sing-song voice, but he was having trouble grasping the meaning of the words she spoke.
"Now you're going to die." she said. "Unless you don't want to."
Morte shook his head, struggling to comprehend what Neifirst was saying to him.
"...die.. yes die... or live?" It was getting harder and harder to focus and ever so slowly Morte sunk to his knees and then lay down on the wet ground.
"Do ...live? ... Bound......Thanos... you ....serve.. yes?" the girl said.
Morte still wasn't sure what the girl was saying, but as he lay dying, he understood he was being offered a final chance. With the last of his strength he whispered a single word.
Morte's body shuddered slightly as his last breath left him and his heart stopped. And then Morte 'al Ngin died.
Ever so slowly, Morte lifted himself to his knees, and knelt in the damp earth. He shook his head, trying to understand what had happened to him.
He was dead, that much was clear. And yet he lived. As he looked around in wonder, he saw the faint image of the girl fading into nothingness, and heard the voice of Thanos utter a single word through the mist.
"Two." was all it said.