Just Another Hit - By Zelgaddis
I think I got into this line of work for the same reason winter is my favorite season. I like to see how things end. The way I've got it figured, every person you see, everywhere you go, has a story. Every story's gotta end sometime or another, right? I may never make it happy, but I always, always give it a proper ending.
I don't tell people that. Not anymore, anyway. People always think it's for the money, or the thrill of the hunt. Something exciting or tangible that they can relate to. I've come to learn that if it's one thing the rest of the world and I don't do, it's relate.
Besides, it doesn't pay too well, anyway.
Which is exactly the reason this particular hit drew my attention. Some family or something needs a guy offed, and apparently, I'm the guy for the job. I don't try to put on airs that I'm something I'm not. I'm no legend. I told them that up front. All I could guarantee was a corpse. Despite being a mage, I don't do disappearing acts.
Some guy named Chevtul. Yeah, I think I've heard the name before. I say, "I think," because I didn't want to tip my hand. But deep down, yeah, "I think" he's my best friend.
Yeah, I was shocked. I guess I was also a little bit curious as to what exactly my buddy did to get on these guys' bad sides. This was sort of an important family I was dealing with. The sort of family you'd rather die before you got on their bad sides. At least if you died, you could choose how you'd go. I guess in a way Chevtul was lucky. I'd hate to see what they had in store for him if they wanted to make the hit themselves.
Then again, I don't like getting too attached to my hits. Or my clients for that matter. The only reason I know these guys' names, is because everyone else does too.
But none of that really matters now, anyway. Besides, everyone in the business has his or her own style. I worked with one gal once who wouldn't even give me her name, but before the mission was over, I think she was drinking buddies with every one of this poor sod's friends. The night we finally made the hit, this gal walked all through his house, looking at all of his stuff. Sat in his chair, looked at the paintings on the wall... like it was some kind of an art museum or something. I'll bet if I hadn't dragged her out of there, she would have slept in his bed and cooked breakfast the next morning.
Some real strange folks in this line of work, but don't let that fool you. My partners, they're some of the nicest, most real people I've ever met. That's the difference you see between one of us and almost anyone else on the street. We know who we are. What room do we have to judge? How can we lie to ourselves? We kill people for money. End of story. A lot of us you'd be able to trust with your kids. Of course, I don't say all of us. Yeah, there's sickos, too. But hey, you'll find those anywhere.
And even with all those nice guys I was just talking about, you've really got to trust your partner. Because if they don't respect you, fear you, if they don't really care about you, you might as well go dig your own grave and hop on in, because you're not going to survive that next mission. I guess that's why I worked with Chevtul so often.
Crazy thing is, I don't think he'd even call himself a merc if you asked him what he did. He'd fess up to a job, if he thought he could trust you. That's courage.
Mercenary mercenaries are big business, these days. I guess someone smarter than me would call it a "cycle of violence.” You kill one of theirs, so they get one of yours to kill you. Some idiot goes blabbing off about who his last paycheck came at the expense of is just begging for it. Me, I try and forget who that mark even was.
Then again, there's some marks I'll never forget.
"I'll do it."
For two chests of gold and gems, a lot of guys would be willing to kill their mark in Medievia's castle square. Right kind of spunk, wrong idea. I figure for that much coin, I'd better be sure that I live long enough to enjoy that money. That's gotta last me until the next job. I've done them as low as a sack of coppers. I'm not ashamed to say it. I've got two mouths to feed, not to mention my own. Rule number one you've gotta learn in this line of work: Never, ever underestimate a desperate man.
That works both ways.
The next time I saw my mark was in his own home. You want to talk about sweet setups, here you go. My buddy, Chevtul, right? He had some kind of crazy spell put on his house when it was first built, so that no gods could enter. Only a true idiot would pass up a chance like this. So I guess that makes me a true idiot, because something kept me from finishing the job right there. I think back about it, and I don't even know why. I could have gotten away with it.
"How's business?” He asked.
"Slow.” I never quite knew how to take this question. The way he always asked it, it was almost that he sort of was trying to feel me out. Like he somehow knew, he'd be on my list. He probably didn't, but he was funny that way.
"I'm telling you, Chev, slow."
"Why don't you quit that, already? Make some real dough with me and the guys?"
"I've told you why and you know it."
"Look, I remember what you said. Something about spring..."
"Winter, right. But look, you aren't some kid anymore! In fact, you've got two of your own right now who need you. I'm not telling you this because I want you to feel bad. I'm making you a real offer here!” Chevtul leaned in close and lowered his voice, like there was someone else he didn't want to hear this, "I hear Bloodstone's gonna be ripe for the picking in the next few days..."
"I told you, I'm no treasure hunter! I've never even been to, what is it, Bloodstone? I've never been there! I don't even know what you're talking about half the time! Bloodstone! Asnor Mountains! Elysium! Some Alps somewhere..."
"Gods! I'm not asking you to lead us! I'm giving you a job. Don't tell me you're too proud..."
I sighed, flopping into a nearby chair, rolling my head back and staring at the ceiling. "Don't start this again."
"Just tell me," he said as he approached, staring down at me from behind the chair. "Are you hesitant because you don't want a handout?"
I couldn't help it. I cracked a smile.
"You're joking! Two years of this, back and forth, back and forth, because you don't want to take a handout from your friend?” He laughed, relieved. "If that was- wow... that's all?” Chevtul began pacing, turning all this over in his head. "Really? Why didn't you ever say anything all the other times I asked?"
I cringed. "Look, just because you know why I don't want to do it doesn't mean I suddenly want this conversation to end any less."
Chevtul stopped, mid-pace. "So that's not all..."
I smiled, "no, that's not all."
"Then what is it? How is treasure hunting any different from bounty hunting?"
"You know I hate it when you call it that."
"Right. How is adventuring any different from bounty hunting?"
I sat up and stared at him, a smile on my face. "That's not what I meant. But since you INSIST on knowing..."
Chevtul sat down next to me, only half-faking exasperation. "I insist!"
"Well, being a MERCINARY," I paused, milking it, giving the word plenty of time to sink in. I smiled again at Chevtul, though he was far too set on finally resolving this to be bothered by a little bit of levity. That always sort of bothered me about him. When he set himself on something, nothing could distract him. But again, it's just another reason I was able to trust him as a partner. "It's a lot more... I don't know... psychological."
"Okay, boom, I threw a shockwave through your head, you're dead now. That's psychological!"
"It's a lot more elegant than the way you put it. And besides, there's more to being a hired killer than just killing."
"Don't give me that. Remember when we had a mark on that one woman, and she just KNEW in her heart of hearts, that we were gonna off her?"
"And we sat across the table from her, talking back and forth, all night. She suspected us the whole time. I don't think she trusted anyone in that whole tavern. About twice she nearly went for that dagger, but every time she was at the edge, we pulled back a little. We played her like a fiddle the entire night, and when it came time for last call, she coulda been our best friend."
"Too bad about that."
"Yeah. She was really nice. I probably coulda married her."
"I could have!"
"You're so... you think?"
"Yeah. My kids now could use a mother like her. She'd probably always suspect they were up to something, though."
Chevtul chuckled, "yeah, probably. Gods she was paranoid."
"See, like that! It's like...” I paused. There had to be some way to put it that Chevtul would understand. "It's like... It's like rolling for gold."
"You're saying contract killing is like gambling."
"The psychology of it is, yes!” I leaned in, looking up at Chevtul from my chair. He knew I was into it. Hell, I knew he knew... because I was. "It's like you're standing there, and your mark's standing there. And no matter how bad he needles away at everything you've got, you can't even look shaken. You just sit there, unafraid. Because you know, you have him where you want him. All that time, he thinks he has you right where he wants you. All that time, he thinks he can just walk away with all he's won. But he can't. He's been raking it in all night. And you've just gotta let him think that bank balance won't ever hit zero. There's one thing that you know that your mark doesn't, though. That this whole time, you're in control. And it doesn't matter how long it takes for your numbers to come up. If it's your first try or the tenth, when they do, you've got everything, and he never even had a chance."
The way Chevtul looked at me was sort of startling. I don't think I'd ever seen it before. Not from him, anyway. Respect. "So that's how it is."
I nodded slowly. "Yep. You know. You know something that the other guy doesn't. The only thing left is not letting him know what you know before you bury that shockwave in his chest."
Chevtul smiled. "You know, sometimes you really frighten me."
You don't really ever hear of famous mercs. Some of the big names, the names guys like me always look for chances to drop, aren't half the killers that we career guys are. That's not exaggeration, that's a fact.
A fact I could expect to hear mentioned several, several times anytime Chev and I got to talking about "what I got myself into."
"Who can you trust, Zel?"
"I have people," I said as I made a move for my tankard. Chev was always a good host. I was hungry, too. Starving, more accurately, but I didn't say a word.
"Do you? Like who?"
"Why don't we start with you?” I took a sip and replaced it on the table.
He looked at me, through me, almost. His entire expression slack, a visage almost as dumbfounded as it was unamused. "I'm not a merc, either."
"That's right. I HAVE. You DO. Isn't that why you can trust me so easily?"
I sighed. I knew he had me. You don't get to be feared, rich, and famous by being a lifer. You want fame? Two hits, daring-as-you-please. Outnumbered, preferably three-to-one. And the paycheck? Whatever he says it is. And then, you've gotta disappear. Sure, they'll talk about you long after you're gone, but you'd better get used to not using that famous name of yours. "Look, I'm tired of-"
"We've been fighting back and forth like this forever. It's not going anywhere, so lemme break it down to you. I know you love your kids. Obviously. I know you've gotta keep 'em fed. But why's it gotta be on your own terms? Why's success got to be measured with your ruler?"
"I don't want to teach my kids that you can't make it unless you have a friend who's better than you."
"And I don't want to tell your kids that Daddy died trying to raise enough money to buy them new shoes. Is that what you want your kids to remember? That their father died because of them?"
He hit it. The one thing, the one question that I had buried in the back of my head for so long. I tried not to panic, or get flustered. And I started to realize that if I offed this guy, my best friend, this had to be it. No more after this one. Who would take care of my kids if I died the next day? "Your little 'treasure hunts' are plenty dangerous, too."
Chevtul knew he had me the second he put the period on his last sentence. Now, it was just a matter of pulling me in. Well, it would be, if it weren't for that massive bounty on his head. "My boys and I haven't lost one yet. We care about each other. And if the worst should happen-"
I didn't want to hear this anymore. The back of my head burned and my stomach dropped... guilt. Simple guilt. "You're right."
My chin dropped to my chest. I couldn't even look at him anymore. He's trying to save me and he put that last nail in my coffin. Gods forbid if I welch on my clients now. They wanted a corpse in five days. And I knew that if I didn't deliver, it wasn't me I had to worry about.
"Daddy! Daddy welcome back!” Kyoot rushed me, wrapping his arms around my waist as I shut the door softly. It killed me to know that, if I decided to sell this junk off, these tools of death I wear wherever I go, we could live. Not well, if the money was going to last, but we could live. I looked around, surveying what I called "home," a filthy, spider-infested, one-room shack. To my right, the bedrooms, three successively smaller moth-eaten bedrolls on the floor, browned by years spent on the cold, dirt floor, and in the smallest one, my youngest. Thage. He looks a lot like I did, to tell you the truth. And to my left, the kitchen: a breadbox upon whose crumbs we frequently dine.
It almost sickened me to look at them. I was unworthy of this love, this dependence that was about to come at the expense of "uncle" Chevtul's life. If they ever discovered it was me, well, they'd hate me. But I guess I live with that, as long as my sons were provided-for. Suddenly, I wished that my clients ordered me to do a hit on myself.
But that cowardly wish can't come true, didn't come true. I accepted the cards as they were on the table, when I could have just as easily thrown them in. Again, I wish I had.
We could always run away.
No, we couldn't. What'll they think? Learning that it's better to run away? Having to start all over again, Kyoot at age 8, Thage a mere 3? It was a detestable thought, and immediately I wished I hadn't even allowed it into my head.
"You taking care of your little brother?” I said as I bent down to pick him up.
"Yes!” Kyoot said, nodding enthusiastically.
"You feed him?"
"Yes!” He said, still nodding.
"Did you have anything?"
"NO!” Kyoot said, shaking his head proudly. I closed my eyes and sighed deeply.
"Son, this is the third day in a row! How many times-"
Kyoot stopped shaking his head and looked at me, hurt. "I saved it for you."
I smiled weakly and put him down. "I ate at Chevtul's, now I want you to run and go eat that waybread before it goes bad. You didn't leave it out, did you?"
"No, dad," Kyoot shouted as he ran to the cracked, wooden breadbox in the corner. The thing was hardly worth keeping anymore. The thing was splintered in one corner where Kyoot had accidentally dropped it on my shield on his sixth birthday. How could I replace it? He sobbed all night, and almost ran away, as if he could have gotten out of the adjacent bedroll without me knowing. I'm glad my stomach took this opportunity to growl. Any earlier, and I would have been forced to eat my kid's meal in front of him. I knew he wouldn't eat if he knew I hadn't. How long had it been? A week, maybe two. Before this contract came, I came within a hair's breadth of reneging on my vow never to contract-kill another merc.
There's too few honorable ones left. But I guess considering my mark, I can't count myself among them.
Kyoot shoved a dirty palm toward me. An offering of two, maybe three bites. I smiled and shook my head, and Kyoot promptly devoured it whole.
The greeting set my heart racing as I sat bolt upright in my bed, craning my back around, a sapphire aura already fully formed in the palm of my hand before finally recognizing the intruder as Chevtul holding my two sons. I felt my heart pounding all the way up in my throat as he set Kyoot down and approached me to offer a hand.
"My," Chevtul tisked, "what startled you? Have a bad dream?"
"I thought I did," I grumbled as I grabbed his hand and pulled myself up, "turns out it was just some..."
"Daddy! Did you see what Uncle Chevvie brought?” Kyoot stumbled over his own feet trying to get around Chevtul to his backpack, withdrawing a veritable feast, course-by-course, from inside.
I smiled grimly. He knew bringing handouts into my home was the last thing I wanted, especially in front of my kids. "Thanks, Chev."
"No problem!” Chevtul winked as he slapped my back, "I figure you can pay me back with all the loot you're going to help us rake in today."
I blinked, trying somehow to suppress the seemingly audible sound of my heart smacking against my stomach. "That... was today... wasn't it?"
Chevtul didn't even bother looking at me as he started gathering my gear. It relieved me, slightly, that he distracted himself from my undeniably dumbfounded stare, "We can't join the kids for breakfast, I'm afraid, if we want to get there before anyone else, but," he remarked, grabbing my obsidian athame and giving it a once-over, "we'll be home in plenty of time to prepare the rest of this for dinner."
How could four days have passed so quickly? I thought. How could I have allowed myself to get so bogged down in my day-to-day nonsense that I had let it come down to this, my last chance? If fleeing the city and starting anew were ever an option before, they certainly weren't now.
As we stood at the brink of the gate, Chevtul introduced me to the team we would be working with. Friendly people, all. I would try my best not to kill any of them, a policy I generally tried to apply to all of my hits, though I never really beat myself up if a few bystanders had to die. When it comes down to a simple choice of me or them, well, it's a simple choice.
Though Chevtul was the mastermind of the operation, Salinador, his second-in-command, at least from the way he spoke, struck me as equally competent. If Salinador tried to weasel his way through the temple and get help, he probably wouldn't have any trouble doing so. I knew if this guy made his move, I couldn't afford to waste a second before trying to cripple him. Kunal, clearly the muscle, didn't seem to pose much of a threat. I could tell just from the way he stood, uneasily shifting his weight from one foot to the other, how he never spoke unless spoken-to, how his right hand never left his sword's hilt, that this kid was the newest to the group. Except for me, of course. Probably the youngest, too. His scar-free, naturally tanned complexion and bright eyes told me that much. If it turned into an all-out brawl, though, I don't doubt this kid would rush in without a second thought. Even with his uneasiness, he pulsed with a youthful energy and loyalty. Unfortunately, it's nice kids like this that earn themselves an early grave when guys like me have a job to do.
Gulacon and Zelcon were brothers, each skilled in black and white magic, respectively. Of any of the group, I had the most to fear from this duo. For one thing, they grew up together; they know how the other operates. The last thing I needed was a mobile artillery platform distracting me while the other undid all my handiwork.
"If any of you boys are scared, now's the time to turn back," Chevtul said with a smile, turning his gaze from Salinador to beyond the gate. The burning sensation returned to the back of my head... it was almost as though he knew exactly what he was saying to turn my stomach into knots. Nausea and hunger mingled deep within my stomach as Chevtul thrust the blackened key into the keyhole. There WAS no turning back.
We passed through the gate and as Chevtul turned his back to relock the gate, I made my move. There was no turning back.
I brought the hilt of my athame down hard on Chevtul's wrist. A wet snapping sound of bone barely escaped before his grip on the key loosened and his wrist snapped into a right angle. Before anyone even managed to respond, I began gathering an aura of pure magic around me, pausing just long enough to ensure I had built up a suitable force before laying into Salinador with it... much of his armor and the skin beneath dissolved completely from the scalding black maelstrom, tossing him limply opposite the gate. I turned to see Chevtul on his knees, cradling his broken left wrist delicately in his other hand, blood pounding hard in my ears, deafening me to the scream his contorted mouth betrayed. I slammed my heel into his temple, hoping to knock him unconscious for long enough to deal with the rest of the people whom he trusted with his life... among whom he counted me a member.
As expected, the brothers didn't hesitate to respond in the most violent way they knew how. An azure ball of force escaped Gulacon's outstretched hand and pounded my body into the gate, shaking it violently. I tried to scramble to my feet only to be blasted aside by a translucent hammer. Blood poured from my open mouth as the blow shattered my rib cage and I fought to remain conscious as several splinters of bone pierced my lung. I knew I was in trouble--I hadn't expected this other one, Zelcon, to fight. I misread him. I must be getting rusty--good thing this is my last hit.
Chevtul made his way to his feet, leaning heavily on the gate for support as his right hand felt across his chest for a potion, no doubt to get him out of this mess. I struggled to roll to my feet, but they wouldn't cooperate. I'd lost too much blood too fast, and now I was paying the price for my recklessness. I lunged outward, spraying cruel frost shards from my fingertips, piercing his one good hand several times through the wrist just as he had brought the vial to his quivering lips. Again, his hand went dead, forcing him to drop the potion to the ground, spilling its contents. I looked to my right, watched the brothers begin casting their spells, knowing my these two would be the last people I would ever see in this world, and my heart wrenched with regret that my children would die at the hands of my employers for my failure.
And I couldn't let that happen.
I scrambled to my feet, lunging out of the way of Kunal's downward slash. Time slowed down and I suddenly felt everything around me, knew what I had to do as I tried to recall a past life that never happened. I rolled toward Chevtul as he slowly slid down the gate, shoulder pressed up hard against it as blood escaped down his arm from the thawing shard of ice. In a fluid motion, I was instantly on my feet. Extending an arm outward, I wrapped an arm around Chevtul's neck, twisting him around in front of me, holding him in a reverse headlock with a single arm to put some space between myself and the brothers and placed the cruel tip of my athame into Chevtul's throat with my free hand. If I was fast, maybe I could have killed him, taken a potion and made my escape. Maybe I would have been fast enough to get out of there before either of their spells could have hit me. Maybe. But I couldn't outrun my conscience.
"I have to do this, Chev!” I cried, drawing my athame across his throat, causing warm blood to trickle down onto my other arm.
My eyes forced themselves shut as a slight sob escaped my lips. I turned my head away, grit my teeth, and plunged my athame into that sweet spot, bursting the jugular. New life surged into my victim as he twitched even more violently. Chevtul gurgled loudly as crimson sprayed from the wound, soaking the blood-thirsty ground. I twisted the athame once, and immediately my best friend was reduced to dead weight in my arms. Letting the corpse drop limply to the earth, I shook my left arm downward, slipping a menthol potion from my sleeve. I brought the vial up to my lips, extracting the rubber stopper with my teeth before downing it. The last thing I saw before reappearing in the wilderness was a translucent hammer wielded by a heartbroken man pass through my torso.
That night, a knock at my door jarred me from my nervous pacing. Neither my pulse nor my guard had dropped since I made it back to my home. I left my kids with a relative, fearing Chevtul's comrades might demand a payment of blood. Casting a tear-streaked gaze through my peep-hole, though, it was only the second-most unwelcome visitor. I opened the door, silently nodding my head to the proud, aristocratic-looking man and welcomed him in. Behind him he dragged those two chests with whose contents I ransomed an innocent man.
"My son informs me that you have fulfilled your obligation to us."
"Yes, sir." I squeaked, trying and failing to maintain some semblance of composure in front of my soon-to-be ex-employer.
I raised my head to look at him, and was met with a look of pity, disdain, and confusion. I'm sure he wondered how someone so highly-reccomended such as myself, the 'ruthless, cold-blooded mercinary' that stood before him, could ever be so human as to weep. "Yes, well..." he paused, searching for some way to finish and leave. "My father wishes to thank you for a job well-done. Good work."
He looked at me solemnly, as though considering saying something more.
Silently, the straight-postured man turned sharply on his heel and left my home with the same crisp gait he entered.
That night, as I stared, sleepless, at the cracked, mildewed ceiling, the ground seemed harder than it had ever been. Gold coins never seemed more worthless.
I turned a coin over in my hand, clutching my athame in the other, knuckles white, as my mind lingered on my final moments with my best friend whom I betrayed. Why did I do it? What compelled to forget everything he had done for me? There would be other hits, other contracts, other lives to ruin but why this one? Was the money really that important?
As sunlight began to creep into the frigid lonely darkness I realized what I was too selfish to see all along. That I've bloodied my hands far too much to keep up this charade of humanity. Chevtul knew what I should have much sooner. That if I kept this business up, eventually I'd stain my kids with that blood. I probably already had. I uttered a silent goodbye to my friend, my savior, my final hit. It was long overdue.
I tossed my sheet limply aside as i stood up. Slowly, painfully, I removed my equipment and wondered how many years it had been since I wore anything else. Dressed like a mercenary even at home. Fitting. Salinador and the others would find me eventually, and they'd make me pay dearly for those coins to sate their thirst for vengeance. They can have it. On me, though. And when it did happen, I didn't want my kids anywhere close to it. I scribbled a quick note to my relatives in whose care my children are already better off and pinned it to one of the chests with my athame. I laid the rest of my equipment in front of the other chest and headed for the door. I didn't look back.
Winter gives way to spring, and now my innocent children can start