Tools and Weapons

monk22
This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Someone flicked Zion’s forehead and he stifled a yelp, opening his eyes. He had dozed off, soothed by the stillness and the fragrant lavender that hung drying from the ceiling. Solas stood with his arms crossed, a smug smile playing across his lips. Zion noticed his damp hair and the scent of the olive oil soap the Order bought from the bedouins. He wondered if Solas had bathed merely to rinse after the trial or if he was trying to rid himself of the smell of Redheart.
         “Did the Council change their minds?” Zion asked. “Or is it already time for me to be disciplined ?”
         “Get up,” Solas said, ignoring his question.
         Zion held up his ruined shirt. “Will I need clothes?”
         “Garth? Get the boy something to wear.”
         Zion’s fingers moved quickly, telling Garth to forget it. The healer looked between the two, half rising from his chair. Solas’ smile had vanished but Zion stood, pulling on his ripped shirt, and held out his arms to say he was ready as he was. Solas’ fingers twitched once, calling him a name that would bring any other two men to blows. Zion raised his chin slightly, lessening the gap in their heights, and smiled at his mentor. To his surprise, Solas snorted and turned, preceding him out of the room, without saying a word. Solas did not speak as they made their way through the wide halls, giving Zion plenty of time to remember those first brutal years as he struggled against the Brothers, the other novices, and the sinking fear of failure that threatened to engulf him before the trials.

         As they passed various doors, sounds wafted out–mandolin music, singing, voices raised in monotonous repetition. They learned more than killing–more than Zion thought his brain could hold at first. A true assassin must be able to take up any role, any place in society necessary to gain him access to his mark. He winced as he remembered his failed attempts at every musical instrument the Brothers tried. Brother Calver had not been surprised, saying his hands were more fit for casting nets than playing the harp. For once, Zion was only too happy to agree.
         “Well, Brother Solas?” Zion finally broke the silence, knowing it was calculated to make him speak first. “Are you going to take me out in the forest and leave me for a day and a night? I passed that test on my first year. No?” He quickened his pace and turned to walk backwards in front of Solas. “Perhaps three days in the pit? Or was it four? I did not think I would ever be able to straighten again.” He searched Solas’s face for any hint of expression, but the assassin was impassive. Zion let his expression slip into one of barely controlled panic and did a slight jig. “Not dancing lessons, for the love of Avior, don’t say more dancing lessons.”
         Solas’s left hand shot out and gripped the front of Zion’s shirt, pulling him to a clumsy halt. His other fingers pressed against Zion’s windpipe making him gag before he relaxed against the grip, feeling for a moment like the kitten Rael had killed so many years before.
         “Watch your mouth, boy. Do you think the Council is not searching for reasons to cast you out? Do you know how long a lone assassin lasts before the Council decide he is too much of a risk–that he may too easily become a weapon, ready-honed for someone else’s hands?”
         Zion felt a cold tendril wind down his back and instinctively clamped his mind against the tingle of fear. They were told that they could leave at any time in their training, that they would be trusted to keep the secrets of the order, knowing full well the consequences if their lips loosened. But no one left by choice. Solas’s threat was not an empty one. The Order created tools and a tool was only useful so long as it obeyed the hand that wielded it.

         “How long does it take?” Zion asked.
         Solas’s heavy brows lowered and Zion swallowed hard feeling the pressure of Solas’s fingers as his Adam’s apple moved.
         “How long does what take?” Solas growled.
         “How long does it take to forget you are a man with a will of your own?” Zion knew if he looked away, he would never have the courage to question his mentor again, so he stared into Solas’s dark eyes.
         “For some, the first month. For others,” the assassin’s hand tightened briefly around Zion’s throat before releasing him. “Never.”
         Zion waited until Solas had turned away before massaging his throat, aware of how easily the older man could have ended his life.
         “Come on. We don’t have all day,” Solas said over his shoulder.
         Zion padded quietly after his mentor, wondering how long he had before he pushed Solas too far.

Assassins’ Academy II

Aconitum_napellus-6

This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Before the week was out, the boys were roused from their beds for the trial, stumbling after the Brothers with sleep-shrouded eyes, the tension was palatable. They never knew exactly what the trial would be until it began–although dark hints from the older boys left even the bravest lying awake into the early hours of the morning. They were all surprised and twice as wary when the Brothers led them into the dining hall. It was cold and lacked the comforting smells of breakfast, as the first meal of the day would not be served for several hours yet, but there was nothing threatening in sight. Instinctively, the boys pressed together, scanning the room. Brother Calver moved to the head table where a large, misshapen mound was covered with fabric. He pulled the cloth aside with more flourish than necessary, Zion noted, keeping slightly to the side of his fellow novices. If there was to be some sort of attack, he did not want to be caught up in the crush of their fearful bodies. For a moment, he was back on the docks, ripped away from the protection of his Mother and sister’s hands and unable to escape the mob. He hoped no one could see the sheen of sweat on his brow as Calver began to speak.
         “There will be no swords, no bows and arrows, and no knives, today.” He waited for the rumble of dissent and confusion to die down. “This is the only weapon you need, boys.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “This is the only thing you will use today.”
         He gestured for them to draw nearer and explained that the thing on the table was a scale model of a city–Nyssa, the fabled city of unbreached walls and towers that stretched beyond the clouds–and that their mark was the Emperor of Nyssa. They must devise a way to kill the Emperor without detection and remain alive themselves. Those were the only two rules.
         “Eliminate your target and stay alive,” Solas repeated, stepping forward from the back of the group. “This is the foundation of your training. Do not forget it.”
         Zion did not turn to face his mentor like the other boys but as the assassin walked towards the front of the room to stand behind the table, he paused imperceptibly and Zion caught the flicker of his fingers, hidden from the others at his side. Luck go with you. Zion stood at the table, scanning the model and the symbols painted on it that represented archers and guards and boiling oil and pitfalls and traps. He had never believed the stories of Nyssa, but looking at it as though he was a raven soaring high above its so-called endless towers, he could see the cleverness of the design. It was diamond shaped and two of the four walls were carved directly into the cliffs behind. The cliffs were made of slate if he understood the symbol correctly–sheer stone that would flake at any attempt to drive in footholds. At the back corner a waterfall tumbled down the black walls.

         Long after the other boys took their seats, sketching and toying with bits of rope and wood, Zion studied the city. He ignored Brother Calver’s sighs and the creaking of the floorboards as he shifted impatiently. When he cleared his throat and announced that they had half an hour remaining, Zion walked over to the table of supplies, mind whirring. He picked up a piece of parchment and several pots of ink and a quill. For the next half hour, he bent over his work, stopping only flex his cramped fingers. He wasn’t certain if they would be given time to explain their methods, so he painstakingly wrote down the steps he would take in addition to his diagram. When Brother Calver announced that their time was concluded Zion put aside his inks and wiped his stained hands on his shirt. Calver and the others stopped at each boy and allowed him to explain his scenario. The Council nodded and shook their heads almost in unison, doling out heavy criticism. A few of the boys received grudging compliments for their innovative thinking, but one by one their plans and mechanisms were torn apart, the gaping flaws pointed out to them.
         When the Council came to Zion, he stepped back to give them a clear view of his work. The painting master, Brother Andrew, made a noise that could have been either a cough or a sign of approval.
         “And what,” asked Brother Calver slowly, “is this?”
         “Monkshood. Or Wolf’s Bane,” Zion said, gesturing to the meticulously painted flower. He had enjoyed leafing through Brother Garth’s herbal on the rare occasions he spent time in the infirmary.
         “What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Brother Mendic asked.
         “The waterfall that runs along the back of the city–it is their main water source.” He pointed to the rough sketch he had made of the city, the way the water disappeared underground to well up again in fountains and cisterns. “Everyone, from the lowliest maid emptying chamber pots to the Emperor of Nyssa himself drinks this water. The forests around Nyssa no doubt contain enough Monkshood to make the water deadly, but an assassin could carry a concentrated supply as well.”
         “But how would you ensure only the Emperor drank the water?” Calver asked. “What about the rest of the city?”
         Zion looked down at his carefully outlined plan, from gathering the plants and distilling their poison to adding it to the water system, how to completely avoid notice from the guards, the townspeople, even the huntsmen and goat herders in the forested hills. He let the silence stretch until he could almost taste Brother Calver’s anticipation of his failure. Then, he raised his head.
         “That wasn’t one of the rules.”

         Two days later, Zion spent his first night in the pit. The pits were small, stone lined holes beneath the foundations of the main buildings. They were damp and cold and there was not enough room to sit or lie down or stand fully upright. A man–or even a boy of fourteen–had to crouch like a beast in agony until everything went numb. Brother Calver said it was for insolence, for other minor infractions that had been overlooked for too long, but Zion had seen the tremor that ran through his hands and the flicker in his eyes at the group trial. Brother Calver was afraid of him.

NEXT>>>

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Whisky and Reminiscences

If you haven’t read the beginning of this story, go here.

          “How about that drink?” Mina turned to face him. “Call it a day. You’ve enough influence in there for that.” She jerked her head in the direction of the Firm.
          Del knew it was a waste of time to argue with her. He dialed the number for the secretary he shared with two other associates and told her he’d be out of the office in meetings for the rest of the day and to hold all calls unless one of the Partners wanted him. She wished him a happy Friday and he halfheartedly returned it. His weekend had been shot to hell since the first email from Mina.
          “Let’s go.” Del strode across Copley Square, ducking his head against the wind.
          Mina kept up easily and seemed at ease as with her short hair whipping across her face. They walked in silence to the prudential center and for once Del didn’t pause to admire the tall glass and chrome edifice. He shoved through the revolving door and was greeted by the stifling heat. They rode the escalator up and wound their way through kiosks and past boutiques, dodging smartly dressed professionals, the inevitable tourists, and sulky salespeople, passing through another revolving door before they boarded the elevator for the Top of the Hub. The elevator shot them to the 52nd floor and Del felt his ears pop at the change in pressure. They were greeted by the hostess as they exited and she led them to a table. Del couldn’t help scanning the bar for familiar faces–people from the Firm were regulars and he dreaded trying to introduce Mina to some guy he knew from daily run-ins at the espresso machine. Luckily, they were still too early for most of the lunch crowd. Del slid the leather-clad cocktail list to Mina and tried not to fidget as she looked over it with obviously false concentration. He looked out the window at the view for which Top of the Hub was known. Boston spread out around him, frosted with haze. The waitress sidled up to them and Del ordered a Johnnie Walker Black, neat. Mina closed the cocktail list, looked at Del, and said, “I’ll have the same.”

          He wondered if she did it on purpose–repeated things from the past like they were lines in a script. The glossy menus and plush carpets seemed to blur for a moment into the stained wooden counter and smoky, low-ceilinged Kocsma Kedv. The Mina that sat across from him in the vision bore little resemblance to the one he saw now. He wasn’t hungry, but he ordered the spicy lobster soup when the waitress appeared with their drinks. Mina ordered a salad. Del took a bracing sip of his drink and felt it burn along his gums and warm his belly. Mina rolled her glass between her palms, staring at the amber liquid as though it held the future.
          “Well?” Del finally asked, leaning back in his chair and taking a good look at her. Her coat hung on the back of her chair and the black sweater she wore hugged her body. It looked expensive–as had the coat. He readjusted his view of her. Again.
          “This was a mistake,” she said, so quietly he almost didn’t hear. “I knew you worked for Them and I still came.” She swore in Russian and took a gulp of her drink. She coughed and her eyes watered. That wasn’t like her; she could usually handle her alcohol.
          Del addressed the skyline, “What does my job have to do with it?”
          Mina’s dark eyebrows rose into the fringe of bangs across her forehead. “You’re joking.”
          “What’s the problem? You were the one who taught me there were things in the dark. Besides, things are different–more people know and there are records and protocol and–”
          “Things are not different, Del.” She shoved her glass aside and leaned across the table. “Not for me. Just because the monsters are out in the open doesn’t make them any less evil.”
          “I don’t–”
          Mina cut him off, “You know the people you work for represent some of the worst…people in existence? You’ve probably represented some yourself. How could you? After Budapest? After–” She fell silent as the waitress brought their food.
          Mina fumbled for her drink and downed it, wincing as she set the empty glass on the table. Her hands were shaking. He blinked several times. There was no mistaking the look in her eyes. He’d seen it the first time they met. Stark, undiluted fear.
          “What happened in Budapest had nothing to do with the Firm–I would know.” It sounded defensive even to him.
          “Would you?” she asked. “You helped me then, when I had no one and I knew it was just a matter of time before I gave up. Before I stopped running and…” Mina shoved some lettuce around on her plate. She looked up at him, spearing him with her blue eyes. “I didn’t think I’d have to run again.”
          Del’s stomach clenched. There was no way in hell this was starting up again, it was his turn to gulp his Johnnie Walker. “Tell me,” he said finally. “Tell me everything.”
          He knew he was repeating the same words he’d spoken ten years ago in the grime and chaos of Kocsma Kedv–a bar like any other in Hungary–leaning over a foaming mug of Warsteiner Dunkel and trying to comfort a complete stranger. She’d grabbed his arm in the street outside and begged for help. Del could almost smell the Szamosi cigarettes and hoppy aroma of the pub again.

          He was twenty-two, fresh out of LSU, and enjoying his whirlwind tour of Europe on the money his grandfather left him. Hungary wasn’t originally on the itinerary, but when he and his roommate Lucas met two girls in Germany, there was no choice but to accompany them. In Hungary, Chrysta made it clear she only cared about the view inside Lucas’ hotel room and Chrysta’s friend melted away before Del could decide if he was interested or not. He was walking by himself to a bar recommended by some locals when a petite blonde grabbed his jacket and demanded in heavily-accented English that he help her. At first, Del thought it was a scam–he envisioned scenarios in which he was led into a dark alleyway and mugged or woke up the next morning with no kidneys in a bathtub. The look in her eyes finally convinced him and she let him lead her to the bar. He reasoned that a room full of witnesses and a drink would be the best thing for both of them.
          “They’re after me,” she said, lowering her husky voice as they wedged themselves into a table against the wall.
          “Who’s after you?” Del looked around for Lucas–he wouldn’t put it past his roommate to pull an elaborate prank in a foreign country.
          The strange girl wrapped her fingers tightly around her glass and looked at him helplessly. “I can’t say.”
          “Where are you from? Here?” When she shook her head, he repeated, “Where are you from?”
          “Russia.”
          “And your name?”
          Her long lashes flickered once and he could tell she was thinking quickly. “Mina.”
          “Well, Mina, I’m Delancey. But my friends call me Del. If someone is…after you, I can go with you to the police–or your consulate?”
          She shook her head her head, wide-eyed, her lips moving as she muttered in furious Russian. “No, no. Not the politsiya,” she said.
          Del took a deep breath. “Are you running from the police, Mina?”
          Her blue eyes were huge as she met his gaze. “I’m running from everyone.”

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The Firm

 

© Hannah Sears

© Hannah Sears


While you don’t need to read anything prior to this, I suggest you check out The Initiative first

          Delancey St. Clair hadn’t arrived at the law offices of Holler, Grim, Alberich & Mors later than 7:50 a.m. in five years. On his first day at Holler, Grim, Alberich, & Mors–known by employees as “the Firm”–he was ten minutes late and thought he was going to lose his job and breakfast during the earsplitting lecture from his superior. Since then, come blazing heat, deluge, or freak blizzard, he was on time. The newest receptionist smiled timidly at him, sliding through the elevator doors before they snapped shut. Del smiled back; she was cuter than the last one. He knew he made them nervous, always arriving before they opened the office. A silly tenet of office protocol, really. Some people never left, showering in the company gym’s locker-room and keeping three extra suits around. At the Firm, the lights were always on and the place was never entirely empty.
          He winked at the new girl as she settled herself behind the tall mahogany and glass desk. The walls across from her were covered in awards: Boston Business of the year, nine years running, the Beacon Award for Diversity and Inclusion, four years running, and countless other plaques and meticulously framed certificates–all polished to a mirror-like sheen. He wondered briefly when the cleaning staff came in; he never remembered seeing anyone. Shrugging it off as another of the Firm’s many mysteries, he continued down the thickly carpeted hallway to his office. In one of the offices across from his, several men in worker’s coveralls were ripping up the carpet. Del shook his head; they went through too much carpet here–especially with the new Executive Partner. He paused to admire his nameplate–Delancy St. Clair, Associate Partner–the black letters were still bold against the brass plate, barely a month old. Of course, it didn’t matter that there were dozens upon dozens of Associate Partners at the Firm, it was just another rung on the ladder.
          Del slid into the buttery-soft leather chair and started up his computer, drumming his fingers on his glass-topped desk. His law degree from Louisiana State University hung on one wall and a bookshelf of various law books lined the other. He had a few decorative items from his travels–some of his more unique cases often took him out of Boston–but no photos. No clutter, he thought, surveying the room. The third wall, behind him, was solid glass and if he glanced over his shoulder, he would see fog draping the buildings in Back Bay. It was his favorite time of year–when fall was flirting with winter and the trees still wore manes of riotous gold and flame.
          He skimmed his emails, consigning some to the trash and answering others. he’d wrapped up a tough case the week before–another “W” added to his record–and was grateful it had been a relatively slow week. He could use a few days to unwind. But the week was almost done and Del felt twitchy. He ran a hand through his dark hair–worn longer than most considered professional and certainly long enough to irritate his mother–and adjusted his silk tie. Eyeing his spam folder, he noticed it was fuller than usual and opened it, scanning through misspelled advertisements for porn sites masquerading as online dating services and phishing scams. As he reached the bottom, he saw three emails; each sent a day apart the week before from the same address. He didn’t recognize it–WilhmMurray17@aol.com–but the subject line sent his heart rocketing into his throat before sending it down to rest in the toes of his handmade Italian leather shoes. All three had a single word in the subject line: Budapest.
          Del’s mouse hovered over the first message, sent at 4:26 a.m. on October 23rd. He swiveled around to face the Boston skyline instead. The fog blurred the tops of the tallest building into the slate-colored sky and for a moment, instead of the towering glass peak of the John Hancock building, he saw the white spires and brick colored domes of Budapest’s Parliament building, and, just beyond it, the flash of the Danube. He swore suddenly, violently, and glanced over his shoulder at the thick door. Keep it together , he told himself. Turning back to the desk he rubbed his hand roughly across his chin before clicking on the first email.

D,

It’s Budapest all over again, but this time, you’re sleeping with the monsters.

M

          He exhaled slowly, it was more concise than he expected–not that it made much sense. He clicked the second.

I know who you work for. Bastard.

          This was was unsigned by even a single letter, but it was unmistakeable. After the first shock of seeing “Budapest” and realizing the sender could only be one person, Del felt calmer. He clicked the final email.

Top of the Hub, 3:00 p.m. November 8th.

          He felt chilled as he double checked the date; November 8th. Damn her , he thought. He clicked the reply button. The blinking cursor reminded him of an animated exclamation mark, silently demanding an answer.

M,
Lovely to hear from you. I can’t remember the last time we spoke–must have been at the ballet in Hungary. I apologize for my delayed response; I hope you haven’t made other plans. I will meet you at the Top of the Hub at 3:00 p.m. today.
Regards,
Delancey St. Clair

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“It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”

Read what’s happened so far to Evie and Owen here.

        Drip. Drip. Drip.
         Evie felt a tic starting in her cheek just under her eye with each drip of the liquid in the IV bag. She stopped wondering where all the medical equipment was from when several of the men addressed the surgeon as Sergeant. Owen’s face was gray and she saw his eyes moving back and forth beneath his lids. She didn’t look at the stump of his hand that was tightly bound and tucked into a sling across his chest. The stubble on his chin looked blue against his pallid skin. He already looked like a corpse. She stopped counting the seconds, the minutes, as the first hour stretched into three, into five.
         It took Chett a few hours—she thought, but she didn’t know when the first blood got into his leg. Somewhere in her head, she started counting down as soon as they hauled Owen into the helicopter. As soon as the stumbler latched his teeth onto Owen’s arm. The doctor—Sargent Surgeon, her brain called him—gripped her shoulder when they were done stitching and cleaning and bandaging, telling her to let go of Owen’s shoulders. She could see the bruises her fingers left under the edge of the cleaner shirt they’d put on him. She swallowed the bubble of hysterical laughter that rose in her throat. If he was awake, he’d joke about her trying to strangle him when he was flat on his back. If he was awake he’d smile that crooked, stupid smile at her. If he ever woke up.
         “Evie,” Jessamy’s voice was quiet—a crypt-voice.
         She took the cup of coffee he handed her with both hands and gulped the boiling liquid, tying to hide the way her eyes watered. Evie still heard Owen yelling, saw him standing on the rooftop, the tendons in his neck stretching with the force of his scream as the tweaker bit into his flesh. She felt the cup burning her hands, the faint numbness of her protesting fried taste buds, but everything else was cold. She leaned forward again to press her fingers to the inside of Owen’s wrist. His pulse hammered there, just under his cold skin. He felt like a corpse already except for the heartbeat. Sometimes they didn’t get the fever before the change, something whispered. Sometimes they just went cold before…
         “Evie,” his voice was clear as he said her name before lapsing into a garbled murmur.
         Every nerve drew tight as a bowstring as she waited for him to speak again. Five hours and Owen was still in there. Part of him at least.
         “You should—” Jessamy stopped at the look she gave him.          “Right.”
         “If I sleep…if I leave for a minute…he might not be there anymore. And if…when…” Evie took an unsteady breath. “I have to do it. It can’t be anyone else.”
         Jessamy looked stricken but he nodded, his face gray, he patted her shoulder awkwardly before shuffling back to one of the other beds they’d provided in the bunker.
         Evie scooted her metal chair closer and wrapped her hand around Owen’s chilled, unresponsive fingers. She pushed the hair away from his face and ran her fingers across his cheek—the bones already stuck out more from the loss of blood.
         “All you ever wanted to do was save me. And all I ever wanted was to run,” Evie didn’t try to stop the hot tears that spilled over her cold cheeks and splashed down onto the sheets as she pressed her lips to the back of Owen’s hand and squeezed his fingers as though she could force him to wake up.
         “I’m done running, Owen. But I think it’s too late for both of us.”