Strike of the Deal; Flit of the Match
Hands cuffed, the shuffling of chains audible, attached to a stretcher, the Inflicted Man was rolled down a beige hallway, guards on either side of him, and behind, and in front. He was wearing a blindfold they’d wrapped around his face in the car. The procession halted.
He heard three short taps, and then “Come in.” A woman’s voice, succulent and languid.
He was moving again, then again stopped. The blindfold came off.
The light was harsh, blinding. Things resolved themselves.
He grinned. “Mrs. Morgose? Of all the people I expected to nab me up, you weren’t even on the list!” He spoke as if they had just bumped into each other on the street. “How are you? How’ve you been? Good? I’ve been good.”
“Be quiet,” said Morgose. Her hair was long, black, and straight. Her eyes were brown, but harsh red flecks that caught the light spiraled toward their pupils. She was young, beautiful, rich, powerful, and frightening. “I see my reputation has once again outrun me.”
She looked back down at some papers. “Aren’t you going to invite me to sit?”
Without looking up, she said, “Of course not.”
“Then why am I here if not to sit?” he grinned.
“You’re here because I need you for something.” She put the papers down, picking up a pen and marking something on one of the corners; and then down went the the pen. She folded her hands on the desk and looked straight into the Inflicted Man’s eyes.
“I think I’ll sit.”
“I think you’ll stay.”
“I think,” the Inflicted Man began, but whirled into action. He kicked out as hard as he could. If the straps had held his legs in place, he might have bruised them. The thick leather tore effortlessly.
His feet pushed hard off the ground, toppling the stretcher backward into the guard behind him, crushing the man beneath.
The Inflicted Man might have had his head damaged by the fall, if all the other restraints, defying probability, had not also given way, allowing him to backwards summersault to his feet; he used the fallen guard’s larynx to support his entire weight as he righted himself.
There was a crack and gurgle.
The men on either side pointed their guns at him, flicking the safeties off, aiming, and pulled their respective triggers. Instead of an automatic burst of fire, there was a clicking. Both weapons had jammed.
While this went on the Inflicted Man leaned over, picked up the dying guard’s pistol, and pointed it at his first target: the man on the left.
He pulled the trigger.
When nothing happened, he tried flicking the safety. The next time, he put the man on the left down, permanently; the man on the right rushed toward him, heaving his gun to the side, but his foot caught on the fallen stretcher. Bang, bang. Two rounds in his head, and now this guard, like his compatriot, was also dead.
The final guard who had taken point looked to Morgose, who hadn’t even batted an eye. She waved him away.
He went, leaving the powerful woman and the homicidal, cannibalistic lunatic staring at one another.
“Now why won’t I kill you, exactly?” asked the Inflicted Man, waving his gun.
“Because it’s hard to shoot someone with a tree branch,” she replied. And as she said the words, his gun became a gun shaped tree branch.
“I see,” said the Inflicted Man, tossing the useless piece of wood onto one of the corpses. “May I sit?”
“If you must.” He sat.
“So, Morg, what’s the deal-ee-o?” Morgose shuddered at the name, but tolerated it.
“I want you to use your unique gifts to kill someone for me.” The Inflicted Man giggled.
“Okay, why would I do that for you?”
“Because I can give you what you want,” Morgose answered. Her lip curled invitingly.
The Inflicted Man thought for a moment. “But I don’t want anything.”
“What if I told you I could kill you,” said Morgose, “would you want that?” The Inflicted Man laughed.
“Can’t be done, Morg.”
Morgose threw a letter opener at his leg, it nicked the side of his pants and landed in the carpet.
“Jeez, what was that for?” said the Inflicted Man. Then he saw his knee. Where the pants were ripped was red. Blood was welling up.
His blood. He was bleeding. He was bleeding.
He put two fingers in and tasted it, just to be sure. He looked up at Morgose, the humor gone. His face was a dark cloud. “How?” he demanded.
“Because I am the only one who can kill you,” she said. “That’s all you need to know.” The Inflicted Man got up, angry, and smashed his hand down as hard as he could on the desk.
It felt like he had barely touched it. A feather landing. “Fine, I’ll do it,” he said, but there was something icy in his throat.
“Good, you’re on the next flight to London. Company jet, very nice.” The Inflicted Man didn’t respond.
“But let’s get one thing clear,” he said. “If I do my half, and you screw me, if you screw me, if you think about backing out, I am going to hunt you down; I am going to hunt you down and eat your brain out with a spoon through your eye sockets.” Morgose rolled her eyes.
“Yes, no need for the dramatics.” He glared. “Anyway,” she continued, “that goes without saying.”
Blaise flew on enchanted wings; the head of the wizard order sped through clouds, holding the magical sword, Caledfwlch, in front of him. He had twenty minutes to reach a small warehouse downtown in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. Fifteen hundred kilometers left.
“Fenri’ri’anae’ona’tamcha!” A hole opened in front of him, a strange entity hanging in the sky. He passed through it, taking him from over coastal India to New Zealand’s eastern tip. Five kilometers left.
He pushed for more speed. He had gotten the distress sign twenty minutes before from his apprentice, Vilamur. A sonic boom erupted behind him, tracking water droplets from the feet of his cloak. Two kilometers.
He sensed the screams. Then, he was slowing, crashing through a roof window. His wings dissipated into the air. He landed, his sandaled feet touching the ground. It was dark.
He raised an arm and tiny orbs entered existence near the roof, casting their light into the warehouse.
There was Vilamur, crucified. Blood dripped from his right lip, and he caught his master’s eye. Blaise was a wrinkled, tiny man adorned in rags with hair that fell to his feet. ‘Old’ would not account from this man, a spindly stick. “Vilamur, what has happened?” he said quickly, not waiting for nonsense. His voice was the billowing of thunder.
The small, brown man looked up at his master. “I’m sorry, master Blaise. They made me call you,” and before he could say anything else a bullet erupted from the back of Vilamur’s head, its path almost striking the old man.
Blaise whirled, facing the dark around him. “You kill my order,” he shouted. “You try and trap my might?” The bellows echoed around the warehouse. “Well, come and die!”
And they did come.
Fifteen men, dressed in body armor and fatigues. Instead of guns they carried swords: rapiers, scimitars, longswords, broadswords, claymores, and some of a make Blaise didn’t recognize.
“Master Blaise, how nice of you to come,” said one of them. Blaise didn’t care.
“Caledfwlch, burn and prepare for battle,” Blaise said, and the sword gripped in his bony hands caught aflame. Tension and heat brought sweat to his brow.
This was the fourth apprentice he’d found in such a state in three weeks.
These, clearly the men responsible. “Who are you?”
“We’re the order of the Grail, master Blaise, and our lady demands the blood of wizards.”
“Morgose,” he hissed. “Very well, I challenge all of you to combat.” Some of the men laughed. They were knights, real knights, each and every one. “State your names, blaggards!”
“You insult us, wizard?” spat a man holding a claymore. “I am sir Delany!”
They announced themselves one by one, Blaise barely listening. Finally it came to Blaise.
“I am the Wizard Blaise, first among Mages, carrier of Avalos’s keys, keeper of the Fates, master of the orders. Let us combat, cowards.” His mind saw only Vilamur’s head exploding outward.
Blaise charged before they even had a chance to move. One moment he was standing in the glow of werelight, the next everything was pitch black save for the burning sword.
It lit horrified faces, protruded from jaws and chests, leveled heads from their shoulders. One moment it was so clearly in front of the Knights of the Grail, then it was behind and someone was screaming.
Swords struck the ground as they’re owners arms were separated from their bodies. You could hear the swish of raggedy robes passing by you, brushing your clothes, and would check to see if you were still breathing.
Blood begot blood, and death begot death. None survived, save for a single, tired old man. He looked like a beggar except that he carried a sword. It looked like a normal day, except for the warehouse burning behind him and the bloody footprints his sandals left as he walked.
The Truce and The Monster
The stretched feeling faded almost the instant it had come leaving both Boris and Vivian dazed; it had been roughly like seeing a new colour.
“What the fuck was that?” Boris muttered groggily.
“That was me leveling the playing field, mister Gant,” replied Mrs. Vole. At the sound of his name Boris jumped, or would have, if something weren’t keeping everything below his neck from moving. This woman, whoever she was, had far superior resources and intelligence than the dossier had lead Boris to believe.
He swiveled field of vision, hoping to find that Vivian had gotten free and was about to make confetti out the old bird; unfortunately, his partner was in much the same state as him. He wondered how much of a liability she would be, now that she knew his last name. “Also, mister Gant,” Mrs. Vole continued, “please do watch your language. There are children scuttling about everywhere.” The look she gave Boris was comically stern, especially when he remembered he was in an orphanage.
“And how,” asked Vivian, “have you leveled this field?”
Mrs. Vole grinned widely, revealing gums and teeth too healthy for her age. “I have discovered that I do not need to — necessarily — kill you like the last few.” Tiny things began connecting in Boris’s mind with her words, giving him the sensation - then the realization - that something had eluded him. Something was not right with this assignment, something that didn’t quite sync. But that all depended on what the old bird meant by ‘last few.’
He needed to be sure.
“The last few?” Boris said.
“Yes, you are the fifth team that has been sent after me,” answered the old woman, “but I think I won’t have to dispense with you just yet or maybe ever, if you act sensibly.” The way she said think made Boris’s momentarily relief run out.
“And why might that be?” said Vivian.
“Ah, miss Bracht! You’ll have to thank your friend, mister Gant, for this good turn.” Boris memorized the name, in case he needed to use it. Gant for Bracht: he could make a trade of secrecy, maybe not have to kill her.
“Sorry, what I do?”
“You, unlike your predecessors, have knowledge which will allow us to converse on a,” she thought, “more reasonable and common ground.”
“And where does the path of this ‘common ground’ lead?” demanded Vivian, which made Boris worry that she would go into hysterics and get them both killed.
“That will be for you each to decide on your own — once you’ve gotten the gist of things of course.”
As a rule, Boris hated circling around the point; he wanted to charge in and get things done — or set them on fire. “Alright, transmit the gist.”
“Most equitable of you. Let us begin by understanding that we have mutual knowledge,” said Mrs. Vole in a lecturing tone that she might have to explain something trivial to a child. “I know that you and your predecessors are employed by the Goruiren corporation.” Vivian laughed. “What’s all this dear?”
“Then your information is wrong,” she said. “We are never told who employs us; it’s part of the contract!” Boris wanted to slap her. The ‘common ground’ may be they stood on to keep themselves alive. Spoiling it did no one any favors.
Then, he registered what the old bird had just said. The connections in his mind completed, moving faster and toward an inevitable conclusion.
“Ah, but look at your comrade’s face there, miss Bracht.” She did, becoming confused by Boris’s look of frowning concentration.
“What about it?”
“He,” replied Mrs. Vole, “knows that I am correct.” She dipped her chin to indicate Boris’s direction; Vivian looked again, studying her partner’s features more carefully, perhaps looking for denial somewhere inside them, but finding nothing but his stony face guarding his thoughts.
“Is this true, Boris?” Vivian asked hesitantly. There was silence for a stretch of time where everyone watched Boris expectantly. Finally, he snapped out of his thoughts, having reached the logical destination and felt he’d adequately considered the options.
“Yes, that is the truth,” Boris said. Something about his thoughts made his tone go very grave. He felt like all all of him wasn’t quite there. Could he even go back to the Crematorium after this?
“So, mister Gant, do I sense that you have a grasp on the implications?” asked Mrs. Vole.
“Yes,” he answered breathily. Sweat creased his thick brow, but he didn’t feel hot.
Vivian, feeling left out of life-or-death parts of the conversation, became insistent. “What implications? What is everyone talking about?” she asked in diffident tones.
“Alright,” said Boris patiently. Vivian alive might be slow to the uptake, but they’d need each other soon. This was reason enough to keep her abreast of things, though part of him wanted to cut a deal with Vole then and there, leaving Vivian out. She was, after all, also a liability.
Mrs. Vole sat quietly, looking not a little amused.
Boris sighed. “Alright, so four other groups were sent here, right?” The harshness of this fact — his closeness then to death — made him reflexively shut his eyes as he spoke.
“According to her,” Vivian replied almost instantly, spitting her words at the old woman. “She could be lying, trying to get more information before killing us.” Boris resented that, though mostly because she was wrong.
“You’re the idiot, love. She’s already got at least as much, if not more, info than I do. If there weren’t other teams she’d just kill us here and now, then go about her day.”
“Oh,” Vivian acquiesced.
“So?” Boris prompted.
“So they sent four inferior teams? What difference does this make?”
“They all died, Viv.” Something in her face told Boris she’d gotten it.
“They didn’t expect us to live.” She considered this. “But why send us in the first place then?”
Mrs. Vole interjected, “Miss Bracht, it’s terribly obvious, though. You were never meant to finish this alive.” Boris found a superior mind in Mrs. Vole and traced her conclusion.
“Shit,” he cursed. He’d found the flaw in the assignment, the oddity that had nagged at the back of his mind the whole time. “Even if we’d succeeded we’d have questioned you and then killed you. Shit.” He didn’t understand how he could have missed something that obvious — maybe if that stupid german girl hadn’t distracted him.
Boris groaned. He wouldn’t be going back to the Crematorium. They’d been double crossed. “If they knew the last four teams died they must have known that the old bird knew too much, or at least enough. If we’d questioned her there would be no way of telling what kind of information she’d have given us.”
“So what,” Vivian shouted back. “the other teams died!”
“That means worst case we die, best case we know too much. We’re risks. Risks get fucking killed, get it?”
Mrs. Vole slammed her hand on the table so loudly that it shocked the assassins into silence. “Mister Gant, I do not wish to do nasty things to you, but I must insist for the final time that you watch your language with children about.” The room was so quiet it seemed empty. Boris wanted to burn it all.
“We’re going to die,” Vivian said quietly. Something about the way she said it took the conclusion floating around Boris’s mind and made it finally sink in. Now, death felt all too real, too soon. He felt sick. Everything seemed queazy and slow, like the world was trying to jump up his stomach and escape through his mouth.
“Actually,” said Mrs. Vole, “you do have less fatal options.” To Boris, the words were a light at the end of a shortening tunnel or a pure ring in the midst of a metallic clamor. He grasped them tightly, and hoped.
“Tell me,” demanded Vivian, beating her partner to the punch.
“I’m afraid all these murder attempts won’t do anymore, especially with the children about. I’m going to have to leave the orphanage.” Something wet sped down along the ancient wrinkles of the old woman’s cheek. “I’ve known for a while now, you understand. I’m forced to look at everything and choose — forced to leave this,” she gestured to the room around her, “my life’s work.” She produced a small white handkerchief from a pocket and batted at her cheek.
Boris waited until she was finished before asking, “Nice that you didn’t have to kill us and all, but where exactly does matters?”
Mrs. Vole’s face took on stonier features, perhaps resolve, and she peered down the desk at the man and woman who’d come there to kill her. “By now, you must have realized that I am not all that I seem.”
Vivian rolled her eyes. “You’ve got incredible information on a secretive company and have somehow used poison darts to paralyze us,” she said. “I think I’ve got the picture.” Boris blinked; he hadn’t thought of poison darts, but now that he did, it made sense.
Maybe Vivian wasn’t entirely useless.
Mrs. Vole tinkled another of her rusty-bell laughs. “Delightful, you young people are creative, just like my boys and girls.” At the mention of the children, she sobered and cleared her throat. “Yes, in any case, there are greater goings on than you perceive. Though, I dare suspect in time you’ll discover more than you’d ever want to.”
“Assuming we don’t die,” said Vivian.
“Quite,” answered the old woman. “In any case, I propose that we all leave this together and begin work on something much grander.” Boris wondered — had he not already decided to bolt for the door the second he could— whether he would still get to burn things if he went along with ‘much grander’ things.
“Done,” said Vivian.
“Right, as we don’t have choices, yeah,” assented Boris.
Mrs. Vole clapped her hands in the way that happy old women tend to. “Oh, that is lovely of you both!” she exclaimed. “Just one more small matter to attend to. Will that be alright?”
“Since we don’t have any real say, why not?” said Boris. The old woman ignored him. Vivian said nothing.
He wondered how long the poison would last before he’d be able to get up. Could this cause permanent damage or something? Hopefully not. Mrs. Vole continued, “I need you both to take an oath of binding fealty to me and those to whom I am, myself, obligated.” Boris checked that he had heard right, realized he had, and concluded that the old bird might be more insane than he already believed.
“Sure, yes, whatever you’d like,” said Vivian.
“And you, mister Gant?” asked the old woman. Boris gave a nod.
“Excellent,” said Mrs. Vole. “Please repeat after me, in unison if you would: I do swear by Avalos and Fate and Free Will to serve the fiefdom of Aberdeen Vole, and all to whom she swears allegiance, that I do this of my own volition and consent to the unbreakable pact which binds us in chivalrous servitude to the One True King.”
Both Vivian and Boris did as Vole asked, Boris growing more nervous by the minute that the old woman would kill them anyway after making them do all this rubbish.
A few seconds after they had finished, to the sound of many cries of surprise — except from Mrs. Vole — Boris and Vivian’s sleeves began to shine with warm, golden light. The skin under the sleeves lustered out, to the horror of the assassins.
“What is this!” yelled Vivian, frantically staring from arm to arm, still unable to move. Boris couldn’t words and just shook slightly in fearful shock.
“Those are your marks of allegiance,” answered Mrs. Vole matter-of-factly. While speaking, she pulled a colourful, flowery handbag out from under the desk and began packing it with various contents. “Here, this is a big moment after all, Plen’astria! There, the use of your arms should be returned to you.”
Just as she said, Boris watched as he twitched and lifted his arm; the light had stopped.
Suddenly, three razor-sharp knives hissed through the air at Mrs. Vole, aimed perfectly at her head. Then, a half meter from the old woman’s serene face they simply stopped and clattered onto the desk. Mrs. Vole promptly scooped them up and put them in her bag, giving Vivian a small smirk.
“Ow!” shouted Vivian. Boris watched her arms start glowing again, but this time with an angry, red light.
Mrs. Vole tutted. “Dear, I should have mentioned — I just thought the oath was so straight forward you understand. Anyway, you tried to betray your oath. I’m afraid twice more and you will die, and that,” she tutted, “will be your own fault miss Bracht.” Vivian moaned slightly, rubbing her arms through her sleeves in circular motions. “There should be a single black strike on your wrist to serve as your first reminder.”
Boris grinned. He ignored the two woman’s discussion, pulling his sleeves tightly over his burly arms to examine his skin; it came as s shock when a set of twin, amber-coloured tattoos came up to greet him. He didn’t understand.
No technology he’d ever heard of could do this.
He studied the pattern of the twin doves encircling one another, making two helixes around each of his wrists. Then, he noticed words among the pictures and colors. Inside the first loop read: Sir Boris Gant. He discovered more in the second loop which read: Champion of Dame Aberdeen Vole.
Things had officially gone beyond him, and he gave up trying to reason.
He glanced over at Vivian, to see if she had experienced something similar but found she’d already looked and replaced her sleeves. Boris looked back at Mrs. Vole who seemed to be having a rough time deciding between a roll of white and yellow yarn.
“Mrs. Vole,” he said, trying to be polite. Part of him was deathly afraid of all…all this..but at the same time oddly glad about there being an alternative to death.
“Yes, mister Gant?”
“I notice that you can paralyze our body parts at will and have tattooed my arms with very specific information and, well, doves,” he said in a tone unlike his own yet all he could come up with for addressing the situation.
“Yes, I do love doves. They’re my fiefdom’s raiment.” The old woman decided on both the yellow and white yarn, forcing them into her already overstuffed bag.
“Yes, it appears that’s the case,” said Boris, “But what I was wondering was how you’re doing all this.”
Vivian burst out laughing.
Boris glared at her. “Oh, and I suppose you’ve nailed it out, eh?”
“As a matter of fact I do,” Vivian replied concisely.
“Oh, do share, darling, do share.”
Vivian smiled, “This old woman is using magic.” Boris didn’t even try to formulate a response and just let the statement pass.
Mrs. Vole hefted her flowery bag over her shoulder and muttered something under her breath. “You can move now,” she said. Boris was way ahead of her. He lurched up and made a run for the door.
Then, he was stopped. His arms glowed red and nauseous pain climbed up his midriff. The old woman sighed audibly. “You swore fealty, mister Gant. There are no special exceptions for you. Attempting to forsake your duty is dreadful.” Boris lifted up his sleeve, thinking about a few dreadful things he’d like to do to her, and saw a new, blackened strike on his upper forearm.
Magic, why the fuck not?
He was just about to say as much when Mrs. Vole made a hushing gesture accompanied by a hiss. She stood motionless. Vivian straightened from her seat and waited. “Oh, dear. Oh, oh, dear,” the old woman crooned.
“What?” asked Boris.
“Your old employers sent something to catch up with us,” the old woman whispered. “Of course, you two were the distraction. Oh, oh, dear. With me focused on you it could get close.” Mrs. Vole tightened her grip on the bag straps.
“Let what get close?” asked Vivian, backing off from the old woman.
“We must flee, now.” Her voice was urgent. “There is a monster here, close, too close.”
Boris grinned and then frowned, “A monster?” He noticed Vivian’s gaze had shifted. Then, Mrs. Vole’s gaze shifted in just the same direction. Boris turned, facing the door behind him.
It swung inward.
Standing in the frame was a tall man wearing an ink-black suit. The light from the window reflected red off of blotchy stains which peppered his clothes. Boris could tell, having enough similarly ruined clothes of his own, that it was blood; it looked fresh — wet. The man grinned, chuckled, opened his mouth to just a slit, and said “I am the Rock, and I cannot feel.”
Boris raised his fists. There was something rabid in the newcomer’s voice. That made him instinctively defensive.
“Come to burn your bridges to make me real,” the intruder whispered softly, and with the words the many shadows cast within the tiny office quivered and elongated sinuously outward until each shadow caressed the man, weaving together to consume the monster within the dark.