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It wasn’t that Haran wanted to kill the child. It wasn’t that at all. It took a rare, sick fuck to want to kill children. No, Haran hadn’t eagerly volunteered for the job because he was a sick fuck and enjoyed prepubescent murder. He wasn’t that bad of a person.
But, on the other hand, it didn’t really bother him, either.
“Come on, Haran. Shan Spencer will be passing in minutes. We don’t have time for your mind to be wandering today,” spat Lynne, her eyes as hard as usual. Her dark braids were as tight as her taut muscles, too; her posture betrayed the nerves she would not speak of. Predators always hid their weaknesses.
“You scared, Lynney Loo?” Because Haran could not not bait her. He himself felt little fear; he rarely did. Although death was always a possibility when leaving your bed in the morning with the intent to end a life, it really didn’t concern him.
After all, what was death without pain? Not much more than a nap, and Haran loved to sleep.
“Shut it, Haran. I’ve always advocated for cutting out your bitter little tongue. It would save us a lot of grief and you wouldn’t even notice the knife.”
“Ah, but how would I pleasure you, then?” He raised an eyebrow at her, which she didn’t see.
“The same way you do now. By providing me with dreams of your eventual death.”
Haran chuckled quietly. Lynne loved him and they both knew it. Even if she’d never admit it or act on it. But Haran could tell.
“Alright, let’s get ready to move. There’s shouldn’t be more than four, and we’ll kill two of those quickly. Then, the others don’t even have to happen quietly,” Haran said.
“All four quick and quiet would be better.” Lynne checked her sword along with her various daggers and boot knives. The woman was a walking armory.
“Wouldn’t it, though?” Haran didn’t mean it. Quick kills were boring.
* * *
His first kill had actually been a child, though it didn’t really seem it should count that way when the killer himself had been even younger and it had been an accident. Mostly an accident, anyhow.
Morad has always been a bit of a bully, as larger children often were simply because they had the strength to enforce their will. That logic seemed to stick as children grew, even if size was replaced with wealth and strength was less palpable power over others.
Though a bully, Morad had seldom thought to bother Haran. And, quiet and careful as he was, Haran never allowed himself to be baited. His mother had taught him too well for that, and he’d never been prone to strong emotions.
Which wasn’t the same as not feeling them at all… at least, when pushed too far.
“Hey stick boy, catch.” A rock hit him in the cheek, knocking him off balance. He put his hand to the wound, feeling the stickiness of blood. He looked at his red-stained hands, letting his mouth drop open in shock.
It was what a normal child would do.
Mother had taught him to feign pain so that he would blend in. If they knew he felt nothing, some might see him as cursed by She Who Hides and condemn him as a demon. Others might try to see just how much it would take to elicit a scream from a painless boy.
“What gives, Morad?” A barely contained sneer was fighting to surface against Haran’s control. But, he make it look like a pout, and he kept his fists at his side. He wasn’t a fighter, and at two years older, Morad dwarfed him. Haran himself was, as Morad said, a stick of a boy, and his mother always told him to avoid fights at all costs.
“Katina says you’ve been bothering her, stick boy. That’s not okay.”
“I’ve not been near her! Leave me be.” His teeth were clenched tight. He liked Katina and her lovely hair. She was fun to be around, though she was often a little mean to him. She’d call him names and such. Haran’s father said that was how women showed affection, and because Haran had seen Katina smile sometimes while she insulted him, he believed his father.
Morad tossed another rock, and Haran batted it away. The rock was likely sharp, and would have cut his hand if his palms hadn’t been more calloused than a wayfarer’s feet. His hand had scabbed over more times than he could count, typically having to catch him as he fell or when he climbed rough walls. Of course, it never bothered him, though the wounds were hard to hide.
“I’ve left you be enough times, stick boy. I’d not have a little fucking twig like you scaring away the girls.”
Morad has an audience, Haran noted. Bullies usually had a crony or two, and Morad was no exception. But today he also had some just-pubescent girls nearby, and he was obviously aiming to impress.
Katina was among them. Her hair, dark and wavy, seemed to glimmer as she watched the altercation, worry tickling her expression. Or was it pity? Haran always struggled to deduce the finer layers of emotion.
“The only thing that scares girls is your rat-fucked face and your mouse-sized cock,” growled Haran, not believing his own words. He’d never sworn like this before, and had only heard the people who worked with his father, porters all, say anything similar.
Morad’s face flooded red, either in embarrassment or rage. He jumped down from the steps leading into his house and strode right toward Haran with clenched fists. Morad had no choice, really. Threatened bullies must either take down the threat or abdicate their power. Morad wasn’t the abdicating sort.
With no preamble, Morad swung a meaty fist right at Haran’s face. Even had Haran tried to dodge, it was so quick a move that he’d not have had a chance. The force of the blow knocked him from his feet to the ground.
There was some scattered cheering from the crowd, with a couple of disappointing groans from those who’d hoped for more of a show. As Haran’s hand closed around the discarded rock, he realized that he intended on giving them one. His mother’s careful lessons leaked from his mind as if jolted free by the collision with the dirt.
“Who has the mouse cock now, you fainting—”
Haran surged to his feet and smashed the rock into Morad’s cheek, sending the bigger boy reeling. Haran pressed the attack, slamming his fists against the dazed boy’s body with all of his strength.
Dazed. That’s how most acted when suddenly in pain. Haran was a little dizzy from the jolt, but fine otherwise. Pain might well have been a made-up construct to him, except for how other people reacted when their bodies were damaged.
Morad, though, was still older, bigger, and stronger. He somehow shrugged off the blows and cracked Haran a few more times. The crimson coloring his vision told Haran that he was bleeding from his scalp.
He should pull back. It might be a bad wound.
But something inside him was broken. The years of restraint and caution, of keeping his head down and being forced into discipline. They all fell away in the moment.
He took every punch and kick, despite hearing the crunch of a broken nose. Despite a limp and his leg barely responding to his orders after a fierce kick. He kept coming and coming, and Morad fell back even as he continued to hurt Haran.
“Alright, enough!” shouted Morad through gasping breaths. He was scared now; Haran recognized that emotion very well. “I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”
“But I want to hurt you,” Haran hissed, not quite loud enough for the crowd to hear. He had no need for outward bravado.
“Boys! Stop this right now! You’ll fall off the cliff!” came an authoritative voice. Mistress Shelnina, the Granese school teacher, was intervening. Katina, out of breath, stood next to the schoolteacher. The girl must have sprinted away to find help.
The fighting boys had indeed approached the cliff. Appolonia was built on a mountainside overlooking the sea, in a multi-tiered, winding fashion. They were on the fourth tier; the poorer tended to live higher up here so they would be forced to climb more often.
Morad’s back was to the precipice, only a couple of feet away. No wonder he was so scared; Haran had lost himself so much that he hadn’t even noticed the sheer drop.
When Haran turned to the school teacher, he truly did slip in the blood. There was so much streaming from his face—and She Who Hides only knew where else—that it was bound to happen.
So, he did legitimately fall, and that was what everyone saw.
But the broken part of Haran urged him to kick backwards as he fell, to lash out at his enemy. And the disciplined Haran gave in, catching Morad solidly in the knee and causing him to stagger backwards as he lost his balance. He was tumbling into open air even as Haran turned, horrified at what he had just done.
At least, he appeared horrified, just as his mother had taught him. In reality, he was fiercely interested.
What was it like for Morad in the moments before his body collided with the rocks below? It must have been thrilling.
* * *
The Shan’s summer estate, nested in a hard-to-reach valley far west of Appolonia, was plush yet defensible. The Shan always traveled with forty soldiers, and, were he here, he would be able to man the fortress walls and easily cover the only major passageway into the valley.
Haran and Lynne hunkered down in their vantage point, watching the Shan and his forty disappearing down the path, the Shan himself obscured by closed windows in his carriage. Haran had never met the rich merchant lord—or rich tax thief, or rich landlord, or whatever you wanted to call him based on whatever other riches he was known for. But he’d seen him before, always dressed in Granese silk and encrusted with jewelry. He was the type to flaunt his wealth, which awed many and created enemies of others.
But he thought he could afford enemies because of his affluence and the loyalty of his soldiers. He was near untouchable. His family wasn’t, though. He prioritized his own protection over that of his blood, his daughter. What a terrible fucking parent, thinking only of himself.
“Come on, Backstabber. Lead the way. The guards are probably just popping open a bottle of Sestrian red to celebrate brief freedom from the Shan.”
Lynne glared at him over his choice of nicknames. One of her partners had died, years ago, from a dagger wound in the back. It had clearly been inflicted in the confusion of battle when an assassination attempt had turned into a wild melee. Not a person thought Lynne had perpetrated the crime, yet someone had posed the nickname… and it had stuck.
As with any nickname, Lynne’s anger at it only firmed up ‘Backstabber’ as a lifelong title.
Now, her anger didn’t last long. Though reactive, Lynne was never a slave to rage.
“Stay focused, Haran. I will not put my life at even greater risk because you feel the desperate need for attention in cracking a joke.” Lynne’s eyes were fixed on the fortress, searching for signs of life. It should be near deserted, save for a few staff and the four guardsman who were on retainer.
“Right. I’m the one who needs attention. Not the woman with pants so tight that I can see every fold and contour of her—”
He guessed the elbow to his face would have set another man low, but the crunching sound to Haran was practically like laugher. Lynne knew she could be rough with him because of his blessing, and she took full advantage of it.
“Shut it and stay behind me.”
With pleasure. That was what Haran began to say, at least, but he mustered enough restraint to keep his mouth shut. His mother has always lectured him about provoking additional injury just because he could. Some of her lessons had stuck, after all.
They extracted themselves from their rocky perch and began to approach the fortress, sticking to the trees and hugging the shadows. The sun rose behind them, which both blinded any lookout and created comfortable pockets of blackness for them to scuttle about.
“Could you be any louder?” Lynne whispered angrily as he snapped a twig.
She whispered a snarl, which was somehow possible.
By sticking to the edge of the valley, they managed to approach the fortress retreat undetected. ‘Fortress’ was a little generous in term; this structure was more of an opulent fort. The walls were intimidating, but behind them lay a lovely, multi-story manor in the flowing Granese style. It seemed so out of place, with Appolonia being a city built upon practicality. But the Shan apparently loved the style and culture, and therefore tried to model his life around it.
It must be nice to be affluent enough to choose your culture.
“Alright, you scale the walls, drop the rope, and I’ll follow. Should only be one on watch. The others will be in the guardhouse, hopefully already back asleep. But, with the number of staff, we’ll have to take them out immediately to maintain surprise,” Haran said, recounting their plan while checking himself for cuts and wounds that he might have missed on their walk.
“Check, check, check!” His mother would always say in her singsong voice, memories of which still brought a smile to his face.
“Thanks for telling me what I already know.” Lynne was still waiting, cautiously observing the fortress for any abnormalities. Haran saw none himself, but knew he lacked her vigilance.
And, apparently, her patience.
“Just fucking go already.”
Surprisingly, Lynne complied without any complaint, taking off toward the wall at a sprint. Twenty feet of height and minimal hand-holds posed no barrier to the Backstabber. She was a beautiful monkey, climbing the wall as easily as he might climb a rope. Easier, even, he realized, once he started to strain to pull his body to the top via the thin line of cord she quickly secured.
Part one of the plan was successful. Part two—the murder of the soldiers—would be measurably more challenging.
And it started precisely wrong, which pulled Haran’s lips upward in a smile.
As he pulled his foot over the wall, he could already hear the sounds of combat. Accelerating to his feet, he saw that Lynne was down in the U-shaped courtyard being assailed by two guards. She was holding her own—the woman was faster than an Appolonian whore on distribution day—but the guards were no slouches, either.
Haran couldn’t focus on her, though, as he had his own set of issues.
The sound of tearing leather pulled his attention. Glancing at his arm, he saw the cut and the blood. An arrow must have hit him. He spotted the archer only thirty yards away, partially obscured by some crates.
Without the hesitation that might otherwise have been brought on by fear, he sprinted forward. The guard was so surprised that he fumbled his arrow, and Haran’s dagger was in his throat before he managed to look up.
Now, Haran’s blood was charging through his veins. It was so rare to feel this thrill, this heavy pulse of life, setting fire to his body. It happened, really, only when he fought and killed. Maybe those who felt fear, or those who were otherwise normal, experienced this all the time.
But Haran didn’t have that luxury, so instead he looked around for more people to kill.
There was a third guard—wearing the bright colors of the Shan as a signature of his higher rank—seeking to join the fight with Lynne. Again, Haran did not hesitate; he leapt straight off the wall, dropping nearly twenty feet and rolling as he hit the ground. That should probably have hurt, he thought, as he pulled free his old short sword.
The captain turned at the sound, and he was quick to deflect Haran’s charge. The man was a superior fighter, and Haran knew it in a single pass. He was young and nimble, dancing lightly about with perfect footwork. Haran was a competent fighter, but nothing close to a master.
He really didn’t need to be a master. When it came to trading an injury for a killing blow, Haran always won.
That was the case here. The captain seemed keen on bleeding him little by little rather than going for a mortal wound. That did not serve Haran’s purposes. Instead, he began to chop at the man’s guard. He fought in the way of an amateur, hoping to bait an overconfident mistake. Few men were so good that they wouldn’t fall prey to impatience.
The right thing for the captain to do would have been to step back, fight defensively, and let the wildly swinging Haran wear himself out. Though he felt no pain, Haran’s muscles would eventually weary just like any other man’s.
But the captain let temptation, tempered by belief in his abilities, sway him. He jabbed Haran’s ribs, and Haran had no trouble exchanging a deep cut for a chunk of the man’s scalp.
He found himself grinning hugely, like a child on his birthing day. Fighting was damned fun when one was basically invincible. He was excited to see the new pattern the scar on his ribs would make with a crisscross of other healed wounds.
“Will you stop grinning like a fucking fool and come help me?”
Lynn’s voice brought him back to reality. One of her opponents was wounded, but they still had her hard-pressed and fighting defensively.
Haran grinned like a madman as he sprinted toward the melee, his heart blessedly pumping harder and harder, painting his stoic soul with life.
* * *
Haran’s first paid mark had been a good man. A decent human being, the type that had few enemies because he committed few wrongs. But, as it turned out, having few enemies wasn’t the same as having no enemies.
Make it painless, the Executor had advised. Haran had chuckled at the thought. At that stage in his life, for all he knew, everything was painless. How do you tell a deaf man not to make a sound? Or a blind man to avoid being seen? Though he understood the concept of pain, in theory, he never truly comprehended what it meant.
So, he made this opportunity into an experiment.
Joachim was a clothing merchant. Not particularly successful nor poor, he was an honest man who made an honest living. Such honesty could get you killed, especially when you also served in the local council and integrity ran at odds with the values of the criminal element.
He lived alone, so Haran had no issues subduing him. The man was so honest that he didn’t even lock his doors. The cellar served quite well as a testing ground, with doors so thick that you couldn’t hear the screams.
Haran waited, of course, for the merchant to regain consciousness. He saw the rising fear in Joachim’s bleary eyes as he realized that he was lashed to a table. The man began to howl through his gag, and Haran made shushing noises, like a mother might do to a crying child. Haran had never heard these noises from his own mother, as he’d never cried.
His body didn’t produce tears.
“I’m sorry, Joachim. Someone wants you dead. I honestly don’t even know who. But, word got to the Executor, and he took the money in return for your life. I am the person who will be delivering the sentence.”
Joachim struggled greatly against his bonds, veins popping out against his forehead.
“I know. It is a cruel punishment for being a good man. Some people are just evil, no? And, I have a confession. This is my first time. My first kill. I am a little nervous.” He wasn’t, but it seemed like the right thing to say. Joachim, of course, could not answer.
“I was told to make this painless. The truth is, Joachim, that I do not feel pain. I do not understand pain. It is as otherworldly to me as religion might be to a heretic, or land might be to a lifetime mariner. The difference is that a heretic might eventually be convinced of the existence of She Who Hides. Or, a sailor might end up marooned and be forced to adapt to land. I’ve no hope of experiencing pain. My body was built differently.”
Haran pulled out a small knife, the type a physician might use when excising filth from a soured wound. He held it in front of Joachim’s face, and the man renewed his struggles. Instead of striking the merchant, Haran rolled up his own sleeve, drawing the blade deeply against his own forearm. Blood began to trickle, and then it streamed from the significant wound.
It dripped down, pooling on Joachim’s well-made clothes, a harbinger of things to come.
“See?” Haran flung his arms wide, splattering blood across the textiles stored in this cellar. “Nothing. No pain. No twitching. No reaction.” He felt a familiar frustration bubble up. He wondered, so often, how much of his life was dulled. Sure, he didn’t feel pain, which many would see as a blessing. But he rarely feared. He never cried. Did food even taste like it should? Was pleasure—which he took with prostitutes so that others would not judge his many scars—what it was supposed to be?
He dragged his knife across Joachim’s arm, creating a similar wound to his own against the man’s flailing and muffled cries. Tears leaked from his clenched eyes, agony painted across his face. His chest heaved in great breaths as he struggled to get air around his gag.
“You felt more in that moment than I have in my entire life, Joachim! I want to see what such sensation looks like. I want to understand it. I want you to show me.”
Brandishing his knife, Haran began at Joachim’s feet and worked his way upwards. He eventually cut the gag so that Joachim’s shrieks could fill his ears like an off-key symphony. He learned, that night, that the human body had a nearly infinite capacity for pain.
All of his mother’s efforts to teach him guilt must have failed.
* * *
Having no guilt made it easy to approach the Shan’s daughter’s bedroom. The only hindrance, really, was that Haran was walking oddly, with one foot denying his full weight. He must have twisted something in his leap from the wall or the subsequent fighting. He didn’t feel it, of course, but his body ignoring his commands was, indeed, annoying.
His chest still bled, but that didn’t bother him. In fact, he probably cut a fearsome character, standing straight-backed with half his torso marinated in his own blood. Not a single servant dared approach him.
“Come on, Lynne. No need to cow them any further!” Haran called back to his companion. She was not without injury, herself, but masked it so much so that she might as well have the same blessing as Haran.
She was brandishing her blood-soaked sword at the servants, keeping them confined to the various chambers. Shoving any courage they might have been vomiting up right back down their throats. Most were older, though, and posed no threat.
“Mistress!” came a high-pitched call. A ruddy young man in the dress of servants was running right up to them.
“Mistress! I’m sorry! Everything was as I said it would be, except that they were doing a training exercise. The new captain insisted! It was not the norm. Do you need bandages? Can I get you something for that—”
His words were interrupted when Lynne’s sword slammed into his mouth, exiting through the back of his head. As he fell, his weight twisted the hilt from her hand. Lynne cursed, bending over painstakingly to jerk the weapon free. The young man’s face was a disaster; thankfully, the blow had severed his brainstem, killing him instantly.
“That seemed like an overreaction. His story made sense—”
“Shut it, or you are next. He’s a loose end.” She was straightening stiffly. Whatever wound she’d sustained must have been painful indeed for her to fumble her stoicism.
“Alright, if you say so. Let’s get this over with. I want to get some sleep this evening,” Haran said.
She glared at him with hard eyes. “Only you would be able to sleep well after what we do this night.”
“That’s not fair. I’m not a monster.” He wasn’t. He was only built differently and felt things differently. People were different the world over, his mother had always said. “Besides, we are still here together, Backstabber. Doing the same bad thing for money. So, I wouldn’t be so quick to judge, just because I can do my job and still sleep a solid eight hours.”
He was antagonizing her, of course, but surprisingly, she didn’t bite. She merely shook her head and gestured forward with her sword. “Go.”
Haran shrugged, checked his body on reflex—the blood was beginning to clot on his chest wound, which was good because his limbs were growing heavier—and walked toward Shan Spencer’s daughter’s door. Her name was Evera, Haran recalled. A pretty Granese name, though she did not bear their blood. The Shan was obsessed.
The double doors to her room were locked, but a short run and a lowered shoulder made short work of that. Haran stumbled into the room, tripping on his annoyingly wounded ankle. Another jolt forward and there came the sound of a crack on his skull. He’d been struck again by something hard, but he bear-crawled forward without hesitation. Those who laid down to rest were those who died the best, or so the rhyme went.
He rolled to his side, awkwardly getting to his feet and drawing his belt knife. It was unnecessary, though, as Lynne had slain yet another servant. This one was a beefy old Granese woman, a solid wooden pole falling from her calloused hands now that her throat had been severed by Lynne’s blade. She thudded to the carpet, staining the fine textile crimson.
A squeal rang out from the four-post bed which was resplendent with pink silk sheets. There was a telltale lump beneath the covers—one that was shivering in the dim light filtering through the windows.
Haran glanced over at Lynne, who’d posted herself up by the door, crossing her arms and blocking egress. She gestured at the bed, her expression inscrutable. At least, Haran couldn’t read it; maybe someone who felt the full spectrum of emotions would have been able to understand what was swirling around in Lynne’s thick skull.
Haran stepped forward, yanking the blankets aside to reveal Evera Spencer. The olive-skinned, dark-haired girl couldn’t have been more than five or six springs old, unless she was small for her age. She scrambled backwards, pressing against the headboard. Her face—still bearing some of the chubbiness of newness—was streaked with tears. From her windows, she could see the courtyard and probably the death below. The architecture of the building was such that, near the top story, there was no escape. She had been able to hear them coming the whole way and had had nowhere to hide.
“What do you want?” stammered the girl through her terrified gasps.
“Nothing,” said Haran, stepping toward the bed.
She pushed back further, but had nowhere to go. “Why are you here?” Her hair was plastered to her damp face.
“You know why I am here. People hate your father for a multitude of reasons. Your father loves you, but loves himself more. He is not vulnerable, but you are. So, here I am.” He held out his arms in a gesture of openness. One hand, though, still held his belt knife.
Make it painless. He’d learned that lesson over the years; he did not need to revisit Joachim or any of his successors, not anymore. He understood enough about pain, now. He only needed to kill, to do his job, and get paid.
Then, send that money to his mother before accepting the next job.
He grabbed the girl’s wrist and smiled, thinking about his mother’s lessons. She’d done her best, she had. She’d taught him as much as she could, or as much as he was capable of absorbing, anyhow. He owed her so much.
As his hand pulled back, aiming for Evera’s neck, he pitched forward, landing heavily on the girl. He felt a thud in his back, and then another one. The girl shrieked, pounding on his body and face in an effort to escape his weight. She managed to slither away from him and fling herself out of Haran’s sight.
He grunted, wondering why he was struggling to move. His legs didn’t respond, and his body began to quake uncontrollably. He tried to use his quivering arms—which still listened—to roll himself over, but he lacked the strength. He only managed to reach his back because rough hands flipped him over. He started upward at Lynne.
“Did you feel that?” she asked, holding up her bloody knife that must have plunged into his back at least twice.
“No,” whispered Haran, feeling his mouth pooling with blood. His eyes widened at the taste of it. That should have hurt; he’d seen the outcome of being stabbed many a time, and usually people would writhe and howl if it was not done just right.
“That’s disappointing. I was hoping that maybe pain was buried deep inside of you, and that if I struck hard enough, you might experience it. That you might suffer.”
“Apparently, you… hoped wrong. Why did you do this? Why now?”
“Because you are a monster.” She stepped out of his sight, and he couldn’t see her face.
“But you love me,” he said, around bubbling blood.
Lynne snorted. “Why would you think that? I have done nothing but insult you and hurt you since we met. I have never trusted you and have always thought you a monster. We might both kill, but remorse separates man from beast. And you are a beast.”
Lynne didn’t love him? His father had lied to him, then; affection was not conveyed through insults and violence. Damn him, he’d lied, and Haran, with his weak understanding of emotions, had believed him. This meant Katina, years ago, hadn’t loved him, either.
“I’m not a beast.” He spat blood. “But why now? Why save the girl?”
“Shan Spencer has become an ally. Even so, we needed to ensure his mutual loyalty. We wanted to show that we could harm him through his daughter without actually doing it. And, we needed to give him an offering to even the score on killing his soldiers. Who would be a better offering than our very own ‘immortal’ killer?” Lynne’s voice was without remorse, and she’d never stepped back into view.
He’d been sacrificed. Killed, so that his bosses could make a little more money, securing their station in the world through an allegiance based in mutual fear. Lynne seemed to have been happy to wield the blade. How utterly disappointing.
And her betrayal was not nearly so disappointing as dying was.
“Fucking Backstabber…” he mumbled, the words slurring in falling out of his mouth. It felt like he’d drunk too much liquor and was on his way to sleep. Even as his lungs filled with blood, he was just getting heavier, more exhausted. His eyelids felt like barrels of water, slowly drifting downward as he lost the strength to hold them up.
He’d always felt like death would be akin to falling asleep, and always maintained it didn’t scare him. He’d been wrong. Death did scare him for the very reason that it didn’t hurt. There was nothing here. No exhilaration or true terror. No arousal or dread. Nothing worthwhile. The small part of his brain that could understand fear was active, though maybe it was filled more with disappointment.
Joachim had died the right way, in agony. Twitching and spitting and howling and crying and living. Experiencing. To be painless meant to be without that which made humans… human. Joachim had felt everything there was to feel. Haran felt nothing… just a slow succumbing to the comfortable, cradling arms of sleep. He didn’t even bother fighting its inevitability.
He heard Lynne saying something to the girl. She’d already forgotten about him, because death without suffering was just fading away. Joachim had always lingered in Haran’s mind for the very reason that he had suffered. He’d made an impact on the world with his passing, even if that impact had only been on Haran himself.
Joachim had been a lucky bastard.
The Flesh Weaver
My hand moved slowly as the needle pierced through the flesh, each stitch would need to hold for a time. If it would become a permanent addition or not I did not yet know. Whatever happened here was unimportant to me. I could feel as the flesh at the edge of my wounded stub began to meld with the freshly cleaved sinew of the other arm. The feelings of ants crawling within the wound, maggots worming their way into the muscles of my stub. As the ants moved the muscles connected with the new arms. Intense burning came next as nerve endings connected. I had put my belt in my mouth to stop myself from biting my tongue. The pain would subside eventually, if the arm was a match. If it wasn’t I would be left in pain with a working arm until I could find a replacement as this one rotted away. As I waited for the pain to subside the irony smell of blood filled my nose, I could almost taste it, though I would never attempt to. I had my task to complete, and this arm attaching would make my life so much simpler.
As the pain dulled I stood and tested my new arm, it was stiff in spite of its freshness, the body it had been procured from was just ten meters away, on a block of ice. The skin was only a shade or so darker than my own and slightly more muscular; its original owner had been a young man in the prime of his life. As the dull throb began to fade into sore numbness I knew I had found a match, luck favored me today; if I believed in luck.
“I would have preferred not to have been dropped in the middle of Bez’na’des.” The crow, Sevid, said as it rested on my shoulder, if anyone could see his finer details within the blinding sunlight of the southern sands.
“And I would have preferred if my master had taught me to create my own portals.” I said quietly to the bird. This far south it was dangerous to be a mage.
Bez’na’des was the largest city in Ve’ledre, the southern-most vestige of freedom from Asteria. It was called the Jewel of the Deserts and known as the most notorious slave market on the continent. Countless slaves of every race and creed were bound for sale on the golden sands. I had been given twelve thousand crown-marks by the college for my task. If I went over their budget I was on my own for the rest.
An attractive young girl was selling a concoction of distilled juniper a potent drink favored as either a medicinal drink or a quick way to find yourself becoming intoxicated. Another woman was hawking her own body to whomever would pay enough for it. A cat-folk was selling potions on the next corner and across from him a birdman was selling his companies sugarcane. A lizard-folk was selling cooked meats just next to the sugar-spinner. A goliath was working security outside of one of the many brothels while a small crew of orcs were loading cargo onto a ship at port. There was a tiefling working his wizard’s arts bemusing children while a Halfling walked behind the adult onlookers picking their pockets. Why this wizard was being so bold this far south was a mystery in and of itself, but I had no time to question.
This city would be the perfect place for my craft if it were not for the eternal summer and unending heat. I walked the streets towards the Grand Carnival, a large avenue in which most if not all of the slave market was kept. Slavers brought their finest wares to the Carnival in order to gloat and to show their superiority. Some slaves were caged, others kept on leashes like dogs. Few were permitted to walk freely as they were branded and everyone knew who they belonged to. Most of those who were for sale were kept naked and on at full display for those interested in purchasing them. It was how they showed not only the perfections of the body, but also the imperfections. This made my task easier.
One slave, an elven man, while slender with sinewy muscles was on the malnourished side. Though, he was not an entire loss: his body was in superb shape otherwise and with a proper diet and some decent exercise he would be an outstanding body guard. For my needs, however, he was already the perfect specimen. The current bid on this elf was eleven hundred. I raised it to twelve and if I won, I won, if I lost, oh well.
As I continued through the Carnival I found a tiefling with the most beautiful violet skin I had ever seen. He was a piece of work; having been marked as a runner, they had broken his foot and yet the skin was pristine. The bones had not marred the flesh. He was also remarkably inexpensive due to his tendency. The current bid was seven hundred, which I raised to a thousand. I could heal him in my sleep, but whether I needed to was another question entirely.
There was a human woman with an ample figure, her arms chained to the top of her cage so she could not hide herself. She was attractive beyond belief but her asking price of seven thousand crown-marks was more than I could bear. I had to pass on her, even if she would have made a lovely project.
An older orc in miraculous shape for his sixty years was being put to auction. His remaining hair was salt and pepper, and his eyes were clear with no signs of cataracts. His teeth were not rotting either. His skin was unblemished except for a number of old scars, which had healed nearly perfectly. His muscle structure was divine as if chiseled from stone. He was clearly a trained warrior and for his age, and outstanding shape as well as the discipline he was showing made him a remarkable subject. Due to his low life expectancy, he was up for bid at six-hundred or outright for eight-hundred. I had no regrets with my purchase.
“Two bids and a purchase. You are keeping yourself busy.” Sevid said as he landed and perched himself on my shoulder.
“I need to find the best materials for my craft, my dear friend.” I whispered to the bird.
“Let me help you.” the bird said taking to the sky. I watched as he began to circle in the air above one of the larger slaver caravans.
This enormous caravan had taken up the entire space between three buildings, with countless men and women leashed to poles. They referred to themselves by the name of Devroc’s Emporium, which adorned most of the signage around the caravan’s territory. Slaves wandered only as far as their chains would allow. Many of the women were sitting on divans in full view of men seeking to tickle their fancies, but there was one almost entirely chained to a pole who was being used by men with a small line forming.
At the far end of the row was a petite girl with eyes which showed no fear chained to a pole. Two men were bidding to use her. She had the most unusual hair and eyes I had ever seen, constantly shifting color. I watched as her hair changed from chestnut brown to crimson red, and her eyes had shifted from grey to green, and then to purple and blue. Each eye could change independently as well, which was fascinating to watch. As the two men argued over if she was worth more than two thousand crown-marks for their pleasure, I approached the man sitting on the dais dressed in silken robes.
“What do you want peasant.” The man said side eyeing me. Clearly, he had never seen a student of the College.
“The girl on the last pole, is she for sale or for use only?”
“All of my wares are for sale, for the right price.”
“Seven-thousand crown-marks for the girl.” I said pointing to her.
The man looked past me to the girl. “The little creature isn’t even worth five, so I will gladly accept your seven to stop her from causing me more grief.” The man, I assumed was Devroc said as he extended his hand. I took it and shook officiating the deal. I withdrew seven bags, one thousand crown-marks in each. I handed them to his treasurer who counted out each. Two of Devroc’s bruisers began to move the men away from the girl. As they unchained and clothed her. She did not even try to run, she simply followed behind me as I made my way toward the bidding counter to wait for the end of day trading to commence.
As the sun set I signed off on the last of my purchases. I had won my two bids and now had the four pieces I needed for my project. They all sat on a bench as I finished the last of the paperwork which involved signing over their body and souls over to me. After finishing I turned toward the group and looked them over again, before I began to speak.
“You may be wondering why I purchased you. The good news is you will not be doing any intensive labor, though there are some minor things which will need doing. If I could first please have all of your names?” I said looking towards the four of them.
“Victus.” The tiefling said.
“Eddrin.” the orc followed.
“Tyrion.” The elf said there were clear signs of confusion showing in his eyes.
“Cecily…” the girl said quietly.
“Thank you Victus, Eddrin, Tyrion and Cecily. My name is Darian, I hope we can all get along well.” I said looking towards everyone. “To make matters easier. Eddrin, please assist Victus. I have a small abode just at the edge of town, and it will it be easier for you to carry him than for him to walk.” I said as I began to guide my newly purchased goods back to their temporary residence.
The scalpel worked effortlessly through the elf’s flesh. His skin was turning blue and his muscles were tense in the near frozen room. I had been blessed with a house with a double cellar and the under-cellar was filled to the brim with ice. This was a benefit to my craft.
I watched as corded strands of muscle tensed and squirmed as I opened and removed Tyrion’s flesh. I could not tell if he could feel the blade’s cut, however the fear in his eyes was apparent; being flayed would terrify anyone truth be told. His heart was pounding against his chest as I slowly peeled away skin from muscle. I knew well the experience he was having as his nerve endings were being disconnected from the muscle with each measured movement of my implement. I slowly removed every inch of skin from sinew and what remained was a husk of pure flesh and bone.
I did not expect for Tyrion to make it through the remainder of the night, if he did survive until morning he would most likely die soon after. I looked at the flesh laying neatly in a pile on the floor next to the table. Both under and around the table I had packed ice to preserve this project of mine. Tyrion would act as the structural support of my most interesting research project: my experiment to end all experiments.
“Why do you always wear a hood?” Cecily asked as we walked the streets of Bez’na’des. It had been a week since I had made my purchase and, for show, I had been bringing Cecily and Eddrin with me on most of my trips into town.
“I am fair-skinned, and sunlight turns my flesh a horrid and painful red.” I replied calmly as I eyed some melons on a cart. Their prices were reasonable and so I bought two and handed them to Eddrin.
“And why does your bird always seem to vanish?” the girl inquired, her eyes changing from blue to purple
“I am a wizard, and Servid is my familiar.” I began as I looked to the next cart which was selling cured meats. Cured pork stomach was hanging on a hook it was perfectly marbled and when cut into thick strips would be a marvelous treat. “He is ethereal, and thus does not need to maintain a physical form.”
“I suspected as much.” the girl said with a smile. Her hair changed from apple to blood red. I was unsure about this girl. She was strange.
I purchased the choice cut bacon and a rack of lamb, handing the victuals to Eddrin to carry. He seemed to be enjoying the exercise as a departure from battle and was taking quite well to his new life. He might have been more hesitant to enjoy it if he knew my knowledge. “Eddrin, how are you enjoying a more simplified life?”
“It is enjoyable. I am not nearly as young as I use to be and this is relaxing, if a bit unsettling.” The orc said.
“In time you will find peace, good Eddrin, I do thank you for carrying our food.” I said looking to the orc and smiling. I tried my best to show sincerity.
“It is what I was bought for. I am your slave.”
“I do not see you as a slave, I see none of you as slaves. In time you will be paid for your work, though until then, the most I can offer is food.” I lied.
“We are purchased help then, so what is my task? You have yet to give me any work beyond what I seem to want to do. Am I supposed to be a bedwarmer?” Cecily asked rotating her head on her shoulders, I could hear the popping of vertebrae as her head swung across the back of from her right shoulder back across to her left. The sound was intoxicating, though I did my best to distract myself from it at the next cart.
“You are to remain with me for a time until you decide what you shall do. You are too young for the brothels which most attractive women are sent into.”
“I am far older than I look, good Darian.” the girl said with a smile. Her eyes had, again, shifted in color this time from violet to teal blue.
We walked for a few more blocks buying a number of spices, imported vegetables, and perserves from the north. We also purchased better clothing for my subjects. Cecily refused shoes, though she did like the newer, though simple and childish, dress.
Victus assisted me in the kitchen as I prepared dinner for everyone. I had loosely healed Victus’s foot allowing for him to put pressure on it but making it still impossible for him to run. He seemed to be well acquainted with kitchen work as he deftly worked his way around the spices in the cupboards, giving me the ability to avoid rifling through the shelves myself and appear uncertain within my own house.
“Seasoned rack of lamb with a peach bourbon glaze served with turnips. I will get to working on this shortly.” Victus said looking over the ingredients.
“Where did you learn to cook, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I learned in Corvas. Before I was enslaved I was a prominent chef for the Duke of Eddelred. Which is a province in western Corvas. They did a purge of my kind four years ago.”
“I had heard about those days, during the attempted invasion of Aster into Corvas.”
“They were not pleasant. I am just relieved I am still alive. Though they claimed I was a runner, I never tried to run. They just broke my foot out of racist pride.” Victus said quietly as he began dicing and mashing peaches into a mush. Once finished, he poured the bourbon over the peaches and mixed it before pouring it into an earthenware pot, which he set onto the stove. “I am grateful you do not treat me as a slave. You treat me with respect. You even healed my foot.”
“I did what any sound minded individual would do when not biased. I was looking for good help and recognized your potential.” I said frowning slightly. “I just wish Tyrion had not run off. He would have made a great body guard.”
We sat quietly eating the roast lamb. The sauce had made the lamb even more delightful and the turnips were well seasoned and sautéed in butter and garlic adding an interesting taste alongside the peach glaze. I was unsure if it was my own abnormal palate or just the desire to consume this delectable cooking which made me eat it regardless of the odd mixture of peaches and garlic. The aroma as well was quite strange when mixed. Though each was delectable on its own the mixture of the two smells, the garlic and the peach glaze did not complement each other in the slightest.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, it was by far the best one yet they had shared together. The four of us eating, not as master with slaves, but as equals. No one sat at the head of the table. It was strangely like a family, though I had little doubt of what would occur. My question now became how obvious would a disappearance be?
Two days later, Eddin fell ill, and I immediately began the next movement in the grand symphony of my orchestration. Once more I was in the second cellar, this time I had brought another table out and laid out Eddin’s body. He had put up a fight and thus I had to kill him, though I did so without damaging his muscles. It was not too complicated to drive a dagger into an orcs eye when one can manipulate the iron within their own blood and turn it into a knife if needed. It was not a skill I enjoyed using as it always left me feeling lightheaded but the sooner I finished the faster I could return to the College.
My scalpel glided cleanly though the leathery orc skin as if it were mere paper. I did my best to keep my hand as steady as possible around joints as the skin here would potentially be necessary during the following act of this play. But, for now, my goal was to get to the muscles. The corded tendrils of sinew which Eddin had honed would be a great boon: they were tender and well-worked.
With Eddin laid out next to the structure which once was Tyrion, I began the work I had been dreaming of. I began to slowly remove portions of muscle from Eddin’s bones, moving them over to Tyrion, and began the true measure of my craft.
I began to weave the flesh together, melding the muscles together with my magic. Aether stretched thread thin and slowly looped through the tender meat with an aetheric needle leaving nary a mark on the flesh. The ability to produce untraceable strands of aether is what separated a flesh weaver from a necromancer. The necromancer would raise the dead as it had been in life, while those who could weave the flesh of the dead could accomplish so much more.
As I worked the muscles together, I rarely had to remove any excess. Tyrion was of a standard height and, though Eddin was taller than him, when weaving it was easy to adapt and twist and stretch muscles as needed to allow for the differences in size. So far I had lost perhaps six total inches of muscle after twisting further became impossible without hindering movement once the project was complete.
As I connected the last muscles in place and observed my work, the skeletal remains of Eddin were rather depressing. However, my next project would be the most complex, and I was eager to see exactly how it would go.
Cecily watched as Victus and I tended the small herb garden behind the house. It was well maintained, which thankfully, made its short period of neglect seem as if nothing were amiss. Or so I believed at least. Cecily’s hair changed constantly as did her eyes as she watched. The shades of red she was going for in her hair suited her and her eyes could not make up their mind.
It was a rare trait seen in magically talented individuals often of the sorcerer cast. If she was aware of her abilities, I was not sure. I was hoping she was not. “There is an excess of saffron, if you would like I could turn a good profit on this on the market for you.” Victus said smelling the herb, its honey and grass notes ever present in the air.
“From what I have been led to believe, saffron is one of the most valuable herbs to own. Not only for its flavor and aroma, but for its price. I do believe the going rate for a small jar is over a thousand crown-marks.” I said with a smile.
“Easily. If not more.” Victus said
“Currently it’s fifteen hundred.” Cecily chimed in from her perch in the second story window. “Oh, and the turmeric could sell for about nine hundred for a small box of it. Especially if you sell it to one of the merchant ships heading north.”
“Were you a merchant’s daughter before being forced into servitude?” Victus said sprinkling a bit of the saffron onto his tongue.
“No, I just know many things.” The girl said swinging her legs over the edge of the windowsill.
“You may want to stop hanging yourself out the window, lest you fall and we need to find you a chirurgeon.” I said almost as a slip of the tongue.
“Most in the south would not refer to a surgeon by such a name.” Cecily said looking at me quizzically. “Where are you from originally?”
“Lorthal, just south-”
“South of Glenmore, on the other side of the Expanse from it.” Cecily smiled an all too knowing smile.
“A man born south of the free elven lands. You are lucky.” Victus said as he continued picking saffron.
“I would not call it luck. Just happenstance.”
“As all life is, simply happenstance.” Cecily said swinging her legs back inside the window before vanishing.
“She is a strange one.” Victus said looking up at the window.
“She is odd, but she was better off with us than being left where she was.” I said going back to work helping with the saffron.
“You and I agree there. No girl of her age should be prostituted. She is hardly more than a child.”
It was past midday when the gardening was finished. In all we procured five jars of saffron and sixteen boxes full of turmeric. The garden had not been nearly as small as I had believed. I knew this would all fetch a decent price once my experiments were finished. Victus moved into the kitchen to begin cooking as Cecily had set the table while we were in the garden. She did not leave the dining room as we waited for dinner, and, as I couldn’t stand her gaze any longer, left to wash my hands properly and relieve myself.
It was surprising to me how this far south they had so much running water available yet feared the mages which were needed to provide it. In the north this was still a luxury, but here it seemed commonplace. Perhaps it was due to the eternal summers, which made a clean and easy supply of water all the more important for survival.
As I looked in the mirror I could see my skin had started to burn. My nose and cheeks were red, though my grey eyes still looked as dull as always. My ashen hair had grown slightly, but not much else changed. My new arm’s hand was now the same color as my own hand and, since I always wore sleeves, no one would ever see the scars which remained from connecting the arm. I smiled lightly as I flicked the excess water from my hands and returned to the dining room.
Victus had made for us a roast duck, an especially rare delicacy. How he acquired it was beyond me, but the smell of mustard seed wafting from the delectable bird was intoxicating. He had also made a side of coconut, which he toasted and served on its own. The duck was exquisite and far better than any duck I had eaten before. It was cooked to a perfect medium rare and flavored with butter and mustard, as I had thought. Victus was an outstanding cook and I was going to miss this. As everyone dug into their toasted coconut, I waited and continued to focus on my serving of duck. The texture was simply divine.
As dinner was nearing its end, I watched as both Victus and Cecily collapsed from their chairs falling into a deep, deep sleep. I had neglected to eat any of the coconut, not because I was uninterested in it, but because I had tampered with it. After Victus opened it this morning to drain, I had injected it with a powerful sleeping draft. It would be a bit of a challenge getting the two of them into the under-cellar, but I would manage.
It began with removing his skin, I had no need for the meat beneath it, only the skin itself. I needed to remove it as cleanly as possible to keep it as malleable as possible. I had made a long incision along the spinal column I would need to work diligently around the flesh to maintain it. I wanted everything to be perfect and it was easier to mask smaller clean wounds than larger ones. The spinal column would also need to remain intact. Once I had completely removed the skin from the sinew, I had to make sure I correctly removed the skin around the hands and, most importantly, the neck. I would be keeping everything in one piece as I had another interesting quandary to address, lest I make an imperfect creation as my masterwork.
Tyrion’s head was just not the right option for this project and Victus’s unique tiefling appearance would benefit my magnum opus’s perfection. I would need to transplant the entire spinal column from Victus into Tyrion’s body then reattach the neck muscles properly, which was no small feat. I had already opened up the muscles around what once was Tyrion’s back and was preparing to do the same for Victus as the girl began to awake from her slumber. I had a special need for her later, but she was useless to me currently. I began removing the muscles from Victus’s back as she spoke.
“What in the hells are you doing?” She said in a commanding tone with only the hint of questioning in her voice.
“My craft. My greatest of all artworks. And this is nearing the end.” I said looking at the body.
“You shouldn’t be talking child.” Servid said appearing from my shadow yet again. “Nor should you Darian.”
“My dear friend, I have no need to fear, my work is nearing completion.” I said as I removed the tiefling’s spinal column and began lining it up with the neck Tyrion’s head had formerly rested upon.
“You are a monster. A filthy necromancer.”
“I am no monster, just a simple man of simple means, creating the most powerful and perfect creation.” I said with a smile as the muscles of the neck attached cleanly to those of the jaw. Next I would need to move to securing the muscles properly to the spinal column. This would require more focus. “Servid if you would be so kind as to appease the girl as I work. She is distracting.” As I spoke, I felt the bird leave my shoulder and begin its flight towards the girl.
“Why would you do this?” The girl’s voice was cold, calculating. I did not like the sound of it myself.
“It is his Masterwork. The final piece he must complete to achieve his title.” The bird responded.
“Just like any filthy necromancer.”
“He is no Necromancer, he is of a higher class, a true master of the art of flesh.” Servid cawed.
“Ah, so a Flesh weaver, worse than a filthy necromancer.”
“You will not refer to my master as such.” Servid said before falling silent.
“I hate dealing with familiars.” Cecily said before falling quiet.
My work had progressed smoothly. I had finished connecting nearly half of the spinal column and had started working on fitting the skin onto the body. It was mostly easy, as Victus was taller than Tyrion originally, but with the added girth caused by Eddin’s muscles, at points it was a tight fit, as if it were a well fitted sleeve on a tailored coat. The issue was the hands, namely, properly slipping the bones and muscles into the finger flesh. It required precise and equal movements without straining the skin. I wanted perfection and, damn the gods, I would get it.
After I finished fitting the first hand perfectly into its place, I reconnected the other side of the spine and began fitting the skin once again. This time it went much more quickly.
I turned to examine Cecily, who was strapped to a table near the wall. Servid had vanished and only the girl remained. She was to be the final portion of my experiment. I returned to sewing the skin together, doing my best to not mar the flesh; everything needed to be perfect.
Once I finished, I looked again to the table. Cecily lay still as if asleep, though if she truly was I did not know. Earlier I had cleared out the other end of the room and created the ritual circles needed for the final act of my grand play. I had marked the runes perfectly and readied the needed residual components. I would be doing a soul extraction, a very complicated spell in which I would be transplanting this girl’s soul into the creature, giving it life as a glorious Flesh Golem. My true magnum opus. I began to move the table which held Cecily into the ritual circle, spacing the legs between two of the runes without altering them. Once I had her centered I could truly begin.
I stepped outside of the circle and began to slowly chant the spell. It was an ancient spell, apparently in old elvish, and I had no clue what the words meant. I only knew it because my master had taught it to me. As I worked my way through the ancient hymn, the runes began to glow on the floor and the smell of burning wood and blood filled the air around me. Cecily began to laugh. She was no longer restrained on the table but she was standing within the circle. Smiling and laughing as I maintained my focus on the chanting.
“Do you really believe you can restrain me inside of a flesh golem? I thought you would have heard stories of me, but it seems children these days lack intelligence.” Cecily said the smile never leaving her face. “Your familiar, where did he go?”
This question distracted me. Servid had vanished, but he had not been commanded to, he could materialize on his own, but he was only able to vanish upon my command. Had she dispelled him? In the back of my mind, as I continued the chant, I bid Servid to return to me without success. Either my familiar was ignoring my command or he was gone for good. I could not let this spell end, so I just stared at the girl, watching her movements.
“You think I killed your familiar? Oh, I did not kill him. I banished him for all of eternity. Or however long a familiar can be banished to the void for.” She said her smile growing wider. “And now I am going to show you the extent of what forbidden magic truly brings.”
As the last words of the spell left my lips Cecily remained standing. This girl’s soul refused to leave her body and thus the spell required its payment. Its soul. And then there was darkness.
“Look who finally decided to awaken. You look so wonderful in your flesh demon.” Cecily said looking at me. Everything felt strange. My arms and legs were heavier and I felt a bit taller as well. I looked down at my hands to see purple skinned palms and knew the error of my creation.
I had become the flesh golem. My soul had been taken as payment and trapped into the amalgamated flesh creature I had been crafting meticulously. I had perfected it as art and now I was trapped within my own creation.
“You probably cannot speak, but I know you can still hear me. You tried and failed. You used the one person immune to your black magic. I am cursed, as you have now become yourself. I am ageless and undying. You, however, are now a golem of flesh and bone. Eventually you will die because you now lack your magic and cannot maintain yourself. In time you will rot and eventually wither away. However, this will take centuries to occur. You pitiful fool, following forbidden arts. I pity you.”
As the girl spoke, I ran my hand through her chest, piercing her flesh. She hardly flinched, simply smiling as she stepped back and the wound instantaneously healed, leaving only a hole in her dress where my hand had been.
“As I said, I am undying. Enjoy your suffering,” the girl said as a portal opened behind her. She stepped through and it vanished before I could follow, leaving me alone, trapped within the flesh I had crafted: the perfect monster, my Magnum Opus.