The sound of my heart, drowning everything out.
The world moves around me, but I am motionless.
I have waited here, sitting on this rooftop, for the past two days.
Small insects crawl over me, then continue on their way.
A bird perches on my shoulder, then flies away.
People pass through the street beneath me, heedless of my presence.
And I am motionless.
My target has yet to come.
So I have yet to move.
I am sure one of them will come here.
One of my old colleagues, that is.
Because this is the perfect spot from which to fire upon the governor’s palace. The perfect spot from which to assassinate Milla and make a clean escape afterward.
Standing on this rooftop, you can see, but you cannot be seen.
So someone will come.
From my vantage point here, I can sometimes see Milla, passing beyond one of the windows of the palace or strolling through the governor’s gardens.
Every time, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake, if I’m going to see her suddenly fall from an attack coming from another direction, one I hadn’t anticipated.
So I continue to wait.
Even worrying about Milla doesn’t make my heart beat any faster.
Always the same beat.
Very, very slow.
Because now isn’t the time for sentiment.
Now is the time for me to do my work.
Now is the time for me to kill people.
Actually, now is the time to wait.
So that is what I do.
One with the world around me.
Merging with it.
Fading into it.
Because I am not here.
Because I am nowhere.
And finally, as my second day of waiting slowly draws to a close, my patience is vindicated.
I don’t make any movement – I don’t even turn my head or shift my gaze to look at it – but I see the small trapdoor leading up to this rooftop slowly open, out of the corner of my eye.
A cluster of reddish-brown tentacles slither up its edges and lift up the thin, squishy body attached to them, depositing it upon the slanted tiles. Apart from those tentacles and soft body, there are no other discrete body parts – not even a head. Basically, this creature looks like an overgrown, red octopus, with a single huge eye in the middle of its ‘torso’ and a round mouth just below it.
Since they’re the species who look the least humanoid of all majin, rhuths can be difficult to tell apart, for the rest of us, but this one I recognize.
His name is Aran-Riha.
I worked with him for quite a while, until I was captured and imprisoned, a year ago. He is an extremely accomplished sharpshooter.
As I expected, he would be the one to act.
He would be the one to come here.
Aran’s eye sweeps over the rooftop, to check no one is here.
His gaze passes over me, but it doesn’t stop, and I detect no sign that he might have noticed my presence.
Even though I’m sitting just a few meters away from him.
I’m very conscious that most of my success as an assassin comes from my concealment magic – poison, too, but mostly concealment.
As far as I know, it is quite a rare, high-level rune. So much so that it allows me to hide under the noses of practitioners of a much higher rank than my own. So much so that it allows me to hide all fluctuations my magic might give off when I cast spells. So much so that I’ve never even heard of anyone else possessing it.
But even that concealment magic alone wouldn’t be enough to shield me from Aran’s trained, inquisitive gaze.
Magic necessarily has to be supplemented with skill.
Well, perhaps I shouldn’t call it skill, when it’s an ability I was born with?
People think of asmodians as shapeshifters.
And I suppose that is correct, but shapeshifting is only an application of a wider power.
Quite simply, we asmodians can control our own body as we wish. Outer appearance is included in that, of course, but it’s also perfectly possible to tune the sensitivity of our senses or consciously regulate the behavior of our internal organs.
Those abilities are greatest during youth and slowly wilt with time. At birth, an asmodian doesn’t even have a fixed form. Genders and species all come and go freely, fluctuating along with our emotions and our thoughts, the distinctions between one and the next blurry and hazy. Around 30 years old is when this fluidity hardens enough that we have to choose what ‘default’ form our body will always gravitate toward from this moment on. This ceremony of adulthood isn’t quite so simple as choosing how we will look, however. The inner workings and composition of our bodies are also subject to conscious decision. It is entirely possible to turn into some sort of strange creature with fur like steel and skin like rock, with incredibly sharp senses and powerful muscles. But strong social pressure makes most asmodians simply borrow the form of one of the other majin species and live and die among them, perfectly integrated.
…Well, that was in the past, when there were enough asmodians left on Caldera for such rules to matter at all.
The point is that, even though I look like this, I’m actually at quite an advanced age, as far as asmodian powers are concerned. My abilities are not what they used to be.
Still, even for me, lowering the rate of my heartbeat and breathing, until my life signs almost completely disappear, is trivial.
In this way, I simply become part of the background.
I can even fool Aran, who should know that people such as I exist, who should know better, who really shouldn’t display this sort of carelessness.
And that carelessness will lead him to his death.
Because, old friend or not, I am going to kill him, today.
Milla may have made her choice.
She may have decided that she would stay here and die a pointless death. She may have decided that she would stay here and let the Major kill her.
And I respect that.
People should make their own decisions.
They should be in control of their life.
But… that also applies to me.
Nothing prevents me from killing the Major’s subordinates.
Just as Milla has the right to sit in the governor’s palace and wait for death, I have the right to sit on this rooftop and stick a knife in Aran-Riha when he appears before me.
…It isn’t like I don’t have a grudge against these colleagues of mine, either. I could even come up with a good dozen reasons that would justify the murder I’m about to commit.
That is also my right.
It’s little more than sophistry, but well, whatever.
Reassured that no one is near, Aran turns to gaze at the distant governor’s palace. Guards make their round and keep an eye out for any suspicious movements, but there is no way they would notice this inconsequential rooftop, lost among all the others, hidden from view in the midst of the taller buildings rising around it.
Aran’s tentacles slowly creep over the rooftop, slithering over the tiles, stabilizing his body.
He still hasn’t noticed me, sitting next to him on the edge of the roof.
I still haven’t moved in the slightest, but the evening’s wind slowly carries and spreads my poison. It isn’t a potent poison. Just something to ease the way, to dull his senses, to slow his reaction when the time finally comes for me to strike.
An assassin of Aran-Riha’s level will die, just like that.
How very, very sad.
Well, no, actually.
It’s not sad at all.
It might be pretty obvious, considering he worked for such a long time alongside someone like me, but Aran-Riha isn’t exactly the kindest, most morally upstanding person in the world.
I’d go so far as to say that he’s been drenched in the blood of countless innocent people.
Though I’m not going to throw stones on that point.
I don’t know how much time passes like this.
Hours or minutes or maybe just a scant few seconds.
Aran is still gazing toward the governor’s palace. Someone who doesn’t know him might think he’s standing in a daze, but I know better. He’s gathering his strength, harnessing his power.
Almost imperceptibly, small veins twist like snakes all over his red body, leading toward his single, wide-open eye.
If I don’t do anything, a beam of destruction will soon shoot out of this eye and obliterate a good part of the governor’s mansion, along with everyone in it. There would be many more majin casualties than human ones, but the Major won’t care about this, so neither will the people under her command.
As long as the target is eliminated, collateral damage is irrelevant.
So, finally, I start moving.
I stand up, as lightly as a breath of wind. My feet pressing on the roof’s tiles don’t make a single sound. I still don’t look toward my target. I don’t even pay attention to him. No bloodthirst clouds the air.
As I walk toward him, my steps slow and steady, as if I’m simply taking a stroll, a knife appears in my hand.
Even I’m not sure where it came from.
It just appeared, by force of habit.
Aran is still oblivious.
As he should be.
Because I am still not here.
Because I am still nowhere.
He is still alone on that rooftop.
There is no danger, here.
I step over the tentacles spread over the roof and stop right behind him. I’m so close to him that I can look over his short body. Following his line of sight, I can see Milla there, sitting behind a window. She’s leaning a little to the side, apparently talking to someone out of sight.
I’d almost think she’s purposely exposing herself, staying in such a conspicuous, easily attacked position.
She’s definitely going to die, like this.
But, not tonight.
The power concentrating within Aran-Riha’s body reaches a climax.
But the knife has already left my hand.
It’s buried deep in the folds of Aran’s eyelids, cutting into his flesh.
Aran’s numerous red tentacles spasm once, and I feel the heat of his blood and the thrum of his power running over my fingers.
I leave the knife inside him and take a step back.
He crumples down, his sleek body sliding over the slanted tiles and slipping over the edge of the roof to come crashing down into the street below, eliciting screams from the few passers-by left roaming the city at this late hour. I hear them scampering away. They’ll probably pretend they haven’t seen anything. Even if they don’t, it won’t be my problem.
thump thump, thump thump…
thump thump, thump thump, thump thump, thump thump…
I gradually relax my control over my body and my heartbeat speeds up. The blood coursing through my veins surges and energy fills my limbs. I take a deep breath of the night’s air.
I tear myself away from the world around me.
And I finally appear on the rooftop.
It’s been a while since I last did something like this.
I missed it.
The act of killing itself doesn’t really stir any waves within me, but the wait before the strike is a very interesting experience. Very… meditative.
Still, right now, I feel terrible.
I haven’t eaten or drunk anything for the past two days. I’m so famished I almost want to die. And I’m tired. I want to sleep. I want to let my knees buckle, and sleep right there on the hard, bloodstained tiles of this rooftop.
But I’m a tad too busy to take it easy.
I glance down at the blood on my fingers.
I wave my hand in the air to flick off any loose droplets then clean myself with a handkerchief, which I drop at my feet.
Not only murder, but littering, too.
What a vicious criminal I am.
I glance one last time at the governor’s palace in the distance, and at Milla’s silhouette there, then I turn away and slip back down through the trapdoor both Aran-Riha and myself used to come up here.
I walk silently through darkened corridors, heading for the house’s front door, and try to ignore the smell of blood in the air. When I made my way through here to my vigil on the rooftop, two days ago, the family living in this place didn’t notice me in the least, but it seems Aran didn’t share my subtlety. I don’t know what he did with the bodies, but I’m sure there won’t be any witnesses of his passage.
When I open the door, a rhuth’s corpse lies lifelessly a few meters away, his tangled tentacles long enough to cross all the way to the building on the other side of the street.
I give it only a cursory glance before turning my steps in the opposite direction.
This is not good.
Anton and Rigelis.
I see the two of them through the scope of my rifle, their short, stocky frames walking fearlessly toward the governor’s palace. These two sons of bitches aren’t even hiding themselves.
It’s still the same night, and I’m still just as hungry and tired as before. The only thing that’s changed is that I’m standing on a different rooftop.
Because, while I successfully removed the variable called Aran-Riha from tonight’s equation, he very much wasn’t the only one sent by the Major to kill Milla. Other plans are bound to fall into place to account for his death.
Quite frankly, even if I do the best I can, it’s probably going to be impossible for me alone to take care of this whole murderous mess. But it’s not like I have any friends to call in for help. Additionally, the days allowed to me were too few to set in place any sort of meaningful countermeasure, so I’m reduced to waiting in a good spot for whatever is going to happen and hope I can trip it up before it causes any real damage.
And as it happens, this tactic did give me some results.
I did find two more of my old colleagues.
But they’re really not where I expected them to be. And their behavior is strange. They’re not making any effort to act stealthily. They don’t seem to care whether anyone can spot them or not.
The two of them are twins. Self-proclaimed twins, rather. Which doesn’t really make any sense, in fact, because they’re also dwarves, and dwarves don’t even have parents in the first place – they just mysteriously pop out of the stone, in mountains and canyons and mines, without any sort of reproduction process having to take place between other dwarves. They’re like dryads and sirens, more embodiments of nature than actual people.
What’s important is that, not only are they walking so brazenly in the middle of the street, but they’re really taking their sweet time, too. At this point, it’s almost like they’re trying to be seen.
Could that be it?
Are they bait?
In that case…
I take the scope of my rifle away from Anton and Rigelis and turn it toward the streets on the opposite side of the governor’s palace, inspecting them one after another.
In any case, this clumsy weapon wouldn’t be able to deal any injury to something like a dwarf. It’s simply too inaccurate to have even a remote chance to hit a target at this range, and even if by some miracle it could, the small metal pellets it shoots wouldn’t do much of anything to bodies made out of rock and stone. Really, pretty much no practitioners use these devices. They’re more peasant weapons than anything else. Any good bow or crossbow would trump a rifle in accuracy, range, power, and rate of fire.
Oh, and the sound, too…
No matter how good my concealment magic is, it’ll never be able to hide the noise of firing this thing. I’ll need to quickly run away from here before anyone can come see what the ruckus was all about.
I wish I had something better in hand, but both money and time were in short supply, so I couldn’t do anything about it.
It’s not like I’m any good with a bow, anyway…
This scope is quite convenient for reconnaissance purposes, at least, even though it was clearly stuck on top of the rifle as a mere afterthought…
But I can’t find the real attackers.
If Anton and Rigelis are bait, there should be others waiting to infiltrate the governor’s palace, but I can’t find them.
Is my vantage point just not good enough? Are they somewhere out of sight?
…I don’t have time to relocate.
The scope trails back to the two dwarves, still in their slow, obvious walk down Elphen’s main street.
I hesitate for a second more before gritting my teeth and aiming at a nondescript pile of barrels stacked up in a nondescript corner of a nondescript street. In there are the few explosives I could get my hands on before Milla and her retinue arrived in Elphen, along with quite a lot of cheap, but very much inflammable alcohol.
Hopefully, one bullet will be enough.
With a small ratcheting sound, I cock the small metal hammer on top of the rifle, then line up the sights.
I deeply exhale, and…
A buzzing, distorted voice suddenly speaks up, right next to my ear.
I flinch in fright, and my finger reflexively tightens around the trigger. The small hammer flicks down, something sparks, and after a sizzling “tshhhhhh”, a small detonation and a cloud of smoke push up the rifle’s butt against my shoulder as the bullet flies toward its target.
Unexpectedly, despite the interruption, my aim is true and my luck is good. The bullet hits one of the barrels, and an instant later, the whole pile explodes, spreading flames all over its surroundings, igniting secondary fires on the roofs of the neighboring houses.
I don’t take any time to appreciate the spectacle, though. I swing the rifle like a club, trying to hit whoever snuck up on me.
But my attack is abruptly stopped when a gloved hand extends and casually grabs the rifle’s barrel, holding it in place without any apparent effort, no matter how hard I strain to move it.
My gaze slowly trails up that hand and that arm, all the way to the person at the other end of it. Under loose, ample clothes and a low hood probably magically enhanced to keep the face beneath it in shadow, the features of the person in front of me can’t be determined. Species, gender, and appearance all remain elusive. Roughly judging by the height and girth, this figure probably doesn’t belong to an ettin or a dwarf, but more than that would be pure guesswork. This person doesn’t look particularly ominous. The hood makes them seem a bit shady, perhaps, but the civilian clothes they’re wearing look clean and comfortable. There are no distinctive marks or anything of the sort. There certainly aren’t any spiked armor pieces to be seen anywhere, and no bloody, severed heads are tied up around their belt.
But there is no doubt in my mind as to who this is.
I release my hold on the rifle and take a few steps back toward the edge of the roof, debating with myself on whether jumping to my death to the street below would be a proper course of action, right about now.
“Ah, Major,” my mouth says on its own in the meantime. “It has been a while. A pleasure to see you again.”
…It’s really not, though.
“Likewise,” the same distorted voice as earlier replies.
Behind me, the fire I started crackles noisily, people rushing into the street to take a look at it and shouting at each other. Further in the distance, the shrill ring of a bell can be heard.
That should wake up the governor’s guards, right?
That should put them on alert, right?
I can’t see her expression – her, because I know perfectly well that what hides beneath this hood is a woman’s face – but the Major doesn’t seem particularly infuriated by my interference in her plans.
She shakes her head. “As I said, pointless.”
I lick dry lips and force my voice out. “Probably, yes, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Why are you even try to do anything at all?”
The Major nods. “I see. Same as me, then. But if we’re trying to mirror each other, I believe I’m one explosion short on you, right? Let me rectify that.”
With her words, she reaches inside her clothes, probably to an inner pocket. I feel a small qi fluctuation surge up from within her body, and a moment later…
An enormous blast, completely out of proportion to the paltry one I caused with my rifle shot and my stacked barrels, rocks the night. The shockwave pushes against my back, and as I stumble toward the Major, I look over my shoulder.
The scene is still obscured by smoke and airborne dust, but it’s clear that the entire governor’s palace has been blown to smithereens, pelting crushing debris all over the buildings around it. For a moment, the firefighters’ bell falters, as if the person operating it was shocked senseless, before ringing once again even more urgently than before.
I swallow a tired sigh.
“Sleep for now, Sif,” the Major’s strange voice says behind me. “We have a lot to talk about.”
I don’t even have time to turn around before something – perhaps the butt of the rifle the Major took from me – strikes the back of my head and I crumple to the ground and lose consciousness.