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Young Writers Society
The Silver Serpent
Tue Nov 19, 2019 5:54 pm
I, uh, wanted to post this around here so that peeps could read it if they had any interest, but at the moment I'm not really looking for feedback, so I didn't wanna publish it for the Green Room (maybe I will eventually!). I hate long introductions, so I'll just, start dumping, and any of y'all who like the look of it can...keep reading.
Warning, though: mature themes; alcohol; drugs; graphic violence (not meaninglessly so, but still); mental illness. There's no graphic sex or anything, although there are implications.
"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost."
Tue Nov 19, 2019 6:00 pm
Chapter I: Courtesy of der Silberfuchs
Particles of dust drifted in semi-golden light like snowflakes across the hotel room and onto brown covers. The blankets had been mostly dislodged from the mattress to leave the sleeping form of a blond-haired man in its wake. His sky blue-colored pajamas covered with the print of small yellow ducks contrasted sharply against the shimmering silver hue of the knives that glimmered next to him, nearly twelve inches long and as strong as they were thin. The silent serenity of the early morning was promptly pierced by the blaring, repetitive shriek of the alarm.
In a blur of motion, his arm shot out in reflexive, defensive reaction to the sudden sound. Kratzer smacked the beeping device off of the table and it nearly took the knives with it in its sharp descent. It went quiet the instant it clattered onto the ground. Whether the button had been hit upon its landing, it’d been unplugged, or the batteries had fallen out, the man neither noticed nor cared—he was more preoccupied with his complete and utter lack of motivation to face the day ahead of him.
He wished that, like most men, he could claim that it was the monotony bogging him down, but he knew that would be a lie. It’d be just as untrue as saying that he completely and wholly disliked what he did because of its savagery. Instead, he was forced to blame it not on the pay, the job itself, nor even his boss, but on the fact that, somewhere along the line, he must’ve developed a conscience. More likely, it’d been there all along, and things were simply quiet enough for him to hear it now. Not that it mattered. His life wasn’t about to change on a dime regardless of his thoughts on its morality or his own ethical stance.
He sighed as he kicked the blankets aside and stepped onto the colorless carpet. He strode past the duffel bag on the ground to make his way through the usual packing and readying. It was the same process that he, and most men like him, repeated most every day. Never staying in one place for too long lest the law or the hounds catch up to them. He had, however, determined a single thing to make this process not a simple chore out of the force of habit, but an act of enjoyment each and every time. This was Frank Sinatra’s immortal music, and it was to the tune of
“Luck Be a Lady”
that Kratzer picked his way past a burnished silver mask towards the bathroom.
“Luck, let a gentleman see/just how nice a dame you can be.”
Crimson still stained the porcelain of the sink’s bowl from the night before, and he hummed quietly to himself as he grabbed toilet paper and scrubbed at it. He ignored the pockmarked visage that peered back at him in the mirror’s glass. Vital and young, once; now, haggard and hung with exhaustion and resignation. The only thing that remained from his childhood was the scar that tore a line across his face. There in the beginning, there in the end, and everywhere in between.
The hard black gun case; the green-tinged mask, eared and shaped in a vulpine likeness of sharp angles and twisting designs; the trench coat too similar to those of the war that he’d never be able to leave behind: they found their way, one at a time, into the bag. Handled with the utmost care and as beautiful as a spider’s web in the shimmering morning dew. Instruments of agony and lifelessness that had become his life as much as it was the death of his unfortunate prey.
He replaced the clock, made the bed, brushed off the counters to be pristine such that the woman who came to clean would be able to do so with ease. He slid a few dollars onto the desk for the maid. Soon enough, he’d checked out of the hotel and was strapping his bag to the back of his motorcycle. A manila envelope sat on the seat with a name inscribed in neat cursive on its surface:
Taipan, who he was certain had delivered the papers, was already gone, or so it appeared. No hazel eyes nor telltale cinnamon scent. Kratzer took a seat on the bike, flipping the envelope open as he turned the radio on on his phone, listening idly to the news as he withdrew the papers.
“--four dead in Smith Valley, Nevada, matching the profile of former kills worldwide.”
Target: Callaway, Carter. Location: San Francisco, California. Affiliation: Independent. Profile: aged 23, Caucasian, a doctor at Southshore Medical Center. Species: human, with a possible demonic pact. A photograph of a man with pale gold eyes and dark hair was clipped to the top of the paper, but Kratzer’s gaze barely skimmed across it as it found the most important part of the contract.
“Police unable to find a trail. Witnesses are encouraged to call--”
He flicked it off. That was all he needed to know. The law, at least, wasn’t his concern at the moment, so long as he was careful. He slid the envelope into his bag and the bike came to life with a vicious roar beneath him as he peeled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Heat shimmered up in waves from the warm asphalt in a mirage of water. Some twisted salvation lost in an illusion.
Taipan was waiting for him when he reached the city.
She stood by the road. The silver coils of a metal snake were draped across one ear, the serpentine ear cuff curling around cartilage as its eyes glimmered emerald in a warning only he knew. She bore no further adornments, finding them an unnecessary risk when combat inevitably arose. The only additional expression of vanity was the long, ebony curls that fell about her shoulders. No makeup was borne on her delicate countenance. She wanted to escape notice, just like he did, and she did a considerably better job of it given her lack of an accent and scars.
The motorcycle came to a purring stop and he dropped his foot onto the sidewalk as she sauntered over. The woman rested her shoulder on the parking meter that he’d no intention of using, and she looked him over with a critical eye. “Evenin’,
,” she greeted, a smile quirking her lips at the immortal nickname coined in the distant past.
“What is it she wants of me, Taipan?” His tone was curt, even, neither friendly nor hostile. Although his accent was but a ghost of its past self, it still made itself evident in his staccato rhythm and distorted ‘w’s.
“You’re to remain in the area after the completion of your contract per our mutual employer’s orders,” she replied, her eyes habitually scanning their surroundings to identify any potential threats—or targets. “It sounds like there’s another hit she needs carried out but I didn’t get much more than that telltale smirk. You know how she is.”
Didn’t he? A dark frown came across his face at this, but he didn’t argue. Contesting orders was futile. “No further word? No reason why she’s bothering with this Callaway lad?”
“Nope,” Taipan shook her head. “She said to make it nasty, though. Let him know who you are; this is a warning, not just a kill. Apparently, he started talking to the wrong people. Make her happy, Foxy-boy. You know how snakes are.”
“Mm. You staying in town?”
“Me? No. No reason to. Not if you’re here. Now, if there were still thirteen of us instead of four, maybe I could.”
“Well, excuse me for ruining your fun,” he drawled, smirking. The fact that there were far fewer of them than there once had been was, indisputably, his fault, and he took some pride in that fact. “Where’s Viper nowadays?”
An eyebrow shot up the woman’s face and amusement flickered in her hazel eyes. “Viper? She’s missing. Has been for months now. Sieben’s with her, as per usual. Where’s your hacker girl?”
“She’s none of your concern, Tai,” he retorted coolly, a warning inherent in his tone. The man took great care to keep that ‘hacker girl’ safe, and he had no intentions of telling Taipan or anyone else with her associations where the young woman was. He shifted his weight on the bike, resting one foot on the vehicle in preparation to get back on the road. “Anything else I should know?”
“Everything else is the same as always,” she said. “Until the night.”
“Until the night.”
got to change your evil ways, baby/Before I stop loving you.”
The rhythm of four-four time accentuated by drums and a keyboard sung over the radio of Kratzer’s phone and through his earbuds. Santana’s work was never a particular favorite of his, but he could appreciate almost any music. He’d listen to everything from the old folk songs he’d grown up on to modern, alternative melodies. If it was music, he’d take it, particularly as he made his way towards his next hunt.
It’d been almost a week since he’d met with Taipan. He was holing up at some dingy motel in San Francisco that had cockroaches but was bedbug-free. Most of his time had been spent scouting out Southwest Shores Medical Center, where his target worked. He’d stalked Callaway, began to pin down his patterns, and had at least four different ideas on how to kill him. Sniping was his initial intention, but those hopes had been dashed when he’d seen the route the man took from home to work and the fact that both buildings weren’t in ideal locations for such long shots. He had no wife and no family, so Kratzer had finally determined that the optimal method of murder would be to sneak in his home and take him out there. He’d go in the evening, after Callaway got off work, run a dagger through him, pin him to the wall, drop a call card, and go on to his next contract.
The soles of Kratzer’s worn tennis shoes tapped against the sidewalk in time with his music as he came to the house that Callaway’s apartment was in. It was two stories, and a shade of green that was meant to be mint but looked like the chalky, bluish mold that crept over bread that had been left out for too long. Kratzer only felt halfway guilty for what he’d be doing that evening. Callaway saved lives, after all, but it seemed that he’d gotten involved with the wrong people and said the wrong things. Why or how, the hitman neither knew nor cared. She had ordered him to come here and kill the man, so that was what he’d do. The primary source of solace in the face of such ethically ambiguous matters came from the fact that Kratzer, unlike many, kept his hits relatively quick and clean. Some, like Viper, preferred to play first. So, if nothing else, Callaway would have a relatively humane death at the hands of the so-called Silberfuchs.
Most thought he was named for a fox because of his cunning or guile or quick wit. A trickster-type, they thought, with a silver tongue. Thus, Silberfuchs: silver fox. In truth, the man who was the closest thing Kratzer had ever had to a real father, Aurick, had started it. He’d just called him ‘fuchs’ or ‘the fox boy’ or ‘foxy lad’ and, over time, the name had stuck. It wasn’t for some noble reason like his agility or even something to do with his physical appearance. Rather, it was due to the fact that, when they’d first met in France in the winter, chickens had been going missing. Their disappearance had been attributed to a local fox that had historically caused trouble but never been caught. Then, one evening, when Aurick had sought it out, he discovered that it wasn’t a fox. Rather, it was a skinny street rat of a boy with blond hair and icy eyes and a sad excuse for French. So, unknowing of Kratzer’s real name, Aurick had just called him ‘fox’ and it’d stuck.
The hitman had picked up the name ‘Kratzer’ much later in his life, after Aurick had died and he’d struck out on his own again. Then he just hadn’t gone back, because his god-given name carried too much with it that he wanted to forget. Now, Silberfuchs served as his face in the underworld, and Kratzer was what he gave the overworld. It was sufficient.
There was a gate in front of the entryway to the apartment. This wasn’t surprising, but it was mildly annoying, and he slunk around the side of the building to search for an alternative entrance. Callaway lived on the third story, which meant that he sought either a window or a balcony.
“This can’t go on/Lord knows you’ve got to change.”
There: the flicker of reflective glass that peered into a room containing a couch. He couldn’t see past that, but he didn’t need to. The window was framed by off-white trim that was yellowed with age and there was a small metal balcony in front of it that could’ve fit planters if Callaway had wanted them. Kratzer walked up to the wall, staring up at it, and then he slid his earbuds out and put his phone into his pocket.
Climb through the window; don his mask and coat; use gloves; get in, wait, kill, get out. Leave no trace.
He shouldered his backpack and pulled black leather gloves from a ziploc bag in his back pocket. He was careful to only touch the cuff and not the fingers with his bare hands, lest he leave a mark, and then he put them on and started to scale the building. Like many apartment complexes, there was a window on each story, and each was placed just close enough to the last for him to hook his fingers over one sill and plant his feet above the other.
It didn’t take him long to reach the third story, and he rested his fingers against the windowpane. It slid open with ease—the poor bastard didn’t know he was being hunted, and evidently hadn’t double checked that the window was locked—and Kratzer slid silently onto the grey carpet. A brown sofa dominated the space before him, with a couple chairs planted in a semicircle about a coffee table. A flatscreen television opposed them. To his left was a modern, rectangular dining table, with blocky wooden chairs around it, and a display case where Callaway had his china. A kitchen adjoined the dining room and connected to an open hallway that had a few closed doors—closets and bedrooms and a bathroom, presumably. Below the television was a mantelpiece, and upon it sat plaques and trophies and framed certificates. The rewards of Callaway’s work. Photographs, too, were displayed, and he picked his way across the floor to them.
The umber-haired figure peered up at him through the glass, none other than Callaway himself. He stood with his arms around two other men who seemed to be similar to his age and familial in relation. Brothers or cousins, perhaps. They all had wide, white-toothed smiles, his target most of all, and they were standing in front of a storefront. Callaway Cod Fishing Supplies. Did he come from a family of anglers? To think a doctor had come from tradesmen. Working up in the world wasn’t easy, something that Kratzer knew all too well, and he found a certain respect for the soon-to-be-dead man. A kinship, almost, because Kratzer’s family herded goats and he’d made it to the top of his field, just as Callaway had his.
A framed, handwritten of the classical Hippocratic Oath was next to that, and Kratzer’s pale eyes traced the words in some careful thought as he moved on from the photograph.
“I will keep them from harm and injustice...I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect...Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional justice, be they free or slaves...”
Kratzer himself was no stranger to oaths. He’d taken one not all that dissimilar to the one before him, once, a long time ago. He still bore its mark as ink on the base of his neck—a silhouetted shield-mark crossed with something akin to a sword—but it’d since been marred by a streak of half-melted flesh. Now, the only oath he held was that to keep the contract. Maintain his signature. To, when he struck a deal, die to keep it, or back out of it on mutually consented-to terms. There was no honor among the hunters of mankind; only solidarity.
He stepped back, striding into the hall. The bathroom was the first door to his right, followed by a closet, and then a bedroom with a king-sized bed with a gray comforter and some anatomical drawings mounted on the wall.
In stealth-based melee hits like this, it was best to not be seen until it was too late. With a floorplan as open as Callaway’s, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to hide unless he was in a room and waited until he heard the front door to emerge. One could see the living room, the hallway, and the kitchen within moments of entering. Thus, the hitman took refuge in the bathroom to lie in wait.
Plastic crinkled when he pulled it out of his backpack and he set it carefully across the tile. It was a clean place, with white tiles and a granite counter and a spotless mirror that reflected his azure eyes. Clean places were always easier to kill in. There were fewer variables to contend with, although one had to be careful, because any evidence that was left behind would undoubtedly be found.
Elastic, semi-translucent fabric was the first thing to enter his hands. It was a full-headed hood that covered everything from his hair to his neck but for a thin slit cut out for his eyes. Then came the trench coat. It, too, was black, extending to his knees with two rows of buttons and a folded collar. He shrugged it on over his t-shirt and jeans and methodically fastened each and every button as with the care of a father to his son. Boots trimmed with silver-black fur slid over his feet to replace the sneakers. A suppressor was screwed onto the pistol he strapped to his leg. Knives found their way into sheathes on his calves. Then, finally, he withdrew the mask.
It was metal and silver-washed, with a green tint that overtook its surface when the light struck it properly. The dual leather straps that held it in place against his head were worn and the holes were frayed from years of use. Its eyes were sightless, empty without its master. It shone brightly despite having been weathered from decades upon decades of bloodshed. Ears rose upon its crown and the intricate, angular patterns depicted a nose and muzzle, making its vulpine roots unmistakable.
Kratzer took it in both hands. His gloves whispered against its surface and he brought it to his face, fingers working the buckles, and he felt it settle into its place. Its weight was familiar and comfortable now. He rose. The tall visage of the cloaked figure stared at him with irises of ice and a faceless countenance. No longer was it a man that met his eyes in the mirror, for it had been replaced by something far greater. Immortal. A story, a boogeyman, the monster that hid behind every door and slunk through every shadow to creep into nightmares and darkened imaginations, painting in crimson on a canvas of birth and death. Silberfuchs.
He picked up the bag and folded the plastic, then went to the window and stared at the ground below. Nothing but articles of clothing remained in the pack so he dropped it, watching with indifference until it hit the cement of the alleyway below. Then, he returned to the bathroom where he would wait.
The only sound was that of his breath in the air while he stood, statuesque, atop the porcelain. He turned his knife over in his gloved hand, fingers working across a wrapped hilt and rotating its balanced weight. It was nearly as long as his forearm, flat on one side and wickedly sharp on the other. It, too, was washed in silver.
Eternity was endless. Stretching into oblivion in all directions, reaching its tendrils through space and sinking into the hearts of men and monsters alike. It was a weight upon the shoulders of all that lived, a detestable burden that every creature bore and none was relieved of until the day that their bodies went limp and the earth beneath them drank their still-warm blood. It was in moments like these—between the hunt and the kill, the beginning of his ritual and its completion—that he could taste it in the air. It was neither sweet nor sour. Merely ever-present.
A key in the lock, the tumblers falling into place, the turning of the handle. The front door opening. How long he’d waited for this was irrelevant; the chase and the kill had begun.
Footsteps padded on the carpet. Silberfuchs could see the faint, luminescent outline of his target through the wall—an ability his mask granted him—and his heart stilled itself in his chest. He could taste the metallic tang in the back of his throat, tainting his tongue. His fingers touched the bathroom door and closed about the handle, turning it slowly.
The knob caught mid-turn and came to a sudden halt. Caught as if it was locked.
The wall shuddered with force and a crash rang through his ears from the living room. Silberfuchs could see no aura but that of Callaway, although he knew there had to be another person there. He stepped back and turned his eyes to the door. He planted himself before he rammed his heel into the wood beside the lock. The door shook beneath the force, the sound of splintering wood ringing in his ears as it flew open. Then he turned into the corridor.
Golden eyes met his, scarlet leaking across the colorless ground. The man’s breath gurgled in his throat as red pooled towards his lips and he choked on his lifeblood. Callaway’s fingers twitched and his chest rose with each labored breath. Before him stood a petite figure, no taller than five feet, and she wore only black with a mask covering the lower half of her face and a cowl obscuring the rest of her head. She held a pure white dagger in one hand as she raised her mahogany eyes to meet the other hitman’s, then stepped back. Rivulets ran down her weapon and onto the ground as she stared at Silberfuchs.
He was no stranger to harsh winters, to cold so penetrating that it wound into one’s very bones. He had seen will a hundred thousand times in his years, seen it born and broken. He’d observed death more times than he could possibly comprehend. The scene before him was one that had been repeated in his long lifetime innumerable times.
But there was something in her manner. Something in the way she looked at him. A spark flickering behind her pupils that made him take pause and reflect upon it. The lower parts of her eyes scrunched up in what could only have been a smile. Then, she padded back towards the window and raised her hand in farewell.
“Until the night,
she said to him. Her voice was smooth and light, not quite thick enough to be considered honeyed, but certainly pleasing in its legato. Before he’d a chance to open his mouth, she stepped onto the windowsill and was gone, leaving him with the still-dying man on the ground.
“Please,” the man rasped. How he managed an intelligible word, Silberfuchs had not the faintest, and he turned to the mortal at his feet. “Please.”
She seemed to have stabbed Callaway in the chest. Obviously, she’d missed the heart, probably deliberately, and Silberfuchs knelt before the doctor in silence. The human was dying so tantalizingly slowly. The agony glazed his eyes, and his hand worked to open in close in some futile effort to hang onto life.
“O’ God, the great Shepherd of all sheep, receive now unto you our brother,”
Kratzer began in quiet German, taking his blade firmly in his fingers. The metal came to the man’s neck and he set it carefully over the throat with a slight angle. He placed his off-hand onto the pommel so that he would have enough force to drive it straight through the neck and sever the spine at the base of the skull. The point pressed gently against Callaway’s skin without drawing blood.
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we commend his spirit to your eternal care.”
Kratzer raised his hands, the dagger hovering before its target. He positioned his body such that his shoulder was aligned vertically with his weapon. His gaze bored into that of the dying man’s. His eyes weren’t gold so much as light amber, specked with tints of orange and mustard towards the middle of his irises, like the color of the horizon when the sun had nearly disappeared but left a thin line of light between it and the night.
“Lord, may you bless him and keep him; may your face shine upon him and be gracious to him; may you lift up your countenance upon him and give him peace.”
Then, in a single, practiced motion, he drove the dagger towards the doctor and plunged it through his neck. Kratzer could feel the give beneath his hands as it slid between the atlas and the skull. The man stiffened, then jerked, reflexive tremors running through him. Then he went still. His leg twitched in the dimly-lit room that was silent once more.
"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost."
Wed Nov 20, 2019 12:19 am
Chapter II: Fräu Diamant
He’d left out the window the same way he’d come. The only sign of his presence he’d left behind was the body, the blood, and a calling card inscribed in neat cursive beneath Callaway’s tongue. Courtesy of der Silberfuchs, it read, as it had for so many years before. He’d translated into English from his native German upon his arrival in the United States, and he had to admit that, in spite of all his qualms with the English tongue, he appreciated the fewer syllables.
He didn’t see Taipan that night as he’d initially hoped, which meant that he was alone and jobless for the time being. He had every faith that she’d arrive within the next twenty-four hours with his pay—likely after the kill hit the news—and until then, he was free. No work to do, no places to be, only people to avoid. The woman from earlier still wandered through his mind. She had somehow managed to get into the apartment, lock the door to the bathroom while he was in it, and then jump Callaway, all without him realizing her presence.
He hadn’t had someone manage to outwit him like that in years. It was, largely, why he’d become so lackadaisical in his work. She’d had to have known he was coming, which meant that he hadn’t only been hoodwinked, but actively followed without his knowledge. The thought tugged at the corners of his lips in a smile that could only be described as dangerously excited. It was the thrill that set in before the matador entered the ring or a thief’s fingers closed about the glimmering gemstone, tainted with adrenaline and fear, the taste of metal still fresh against his tongue.
Still, such anticipation seemed tainted by the blood that he’d swear he could still feel between his fingers. The blood of a doctor. A man who not only did no harm, but actively saved lives, the exact opposite of what Kratzer himself did nowadays. A man who’d sworn pacifism so that he could aid the sick and the weak. A man who would’ve saved his killer’s life in a heartbeat if he’d come into the hospital with his stomach ripped open or a bullet imbedded in his chest.
It was a curious profession, that of killing. Where others saved lives, Kratzer took them. It wasn’t even to do the world a favor. He was no vigilante. He was just the mask that men stared into as their lifeblood leaked into the now-crimson carpet and they watched their lives slip away. But to die, Kratzer thought—that had to be a blessing. To be able to suffer and have it all end. To feel that agony lancing through you, to have it sinking through your bones and your heart and your lungs, permeating every breath and rising in your chest like the claws of some vicious creature that were driven deeper every second—then have it be over. To fade away into memory. To be a meaningless, lifeless speck of nothing on the face of a world that didn’t even pause when he was snuffed out.
His finger ran in a circle around the rim of his glass. The liquid within it was transparent, an otherwise clear substance tinted pink by blood, the rest of which was in a bag next to him. It tasted vile—burned down his throat, the tang of the blood bitter—but he wasn’t drinking it for pleasure. He was drinking it because death wasn’t an option for him like it was for Callaway. The hospital wasn’t, either, so if he was going to drink more alcohol than was appropriate, he was going to do it with a healthy dose of blood so that his vampiric regeneration would kick in instead of leaving him to make yet another brush with death.
Kratzer had gone to yet another hotel room not long after he’d completed his kill. His duffel, the one containing his blessed instruments, was underneath his bed. His knives were still on his legs lest the hounds finally catch up to him, as they were wont to do eventually, and his gun was sitting on the desk next to him. The suppressor was still on its muzzle and the magazine was still loaded. The weapons didn’t hold his focus, however. Instead, it was the ebony rosary that sat on the dull wood between himself and his glass.
Every bead was scratched and dented with age and wear. The corners and edges of the crucifix were pale, weathered, and Jesus was very nearly worn away entirely in his place on the cross. Kratzer wasn’t a religious man. He wanted to be. He’d tried to be. But it wasn’t in his nature to be pious. It wasn’t in his nature to believe in angels—not the ideological kind, even if there were creatures who bore their name. This, he knew, was to the disappointment of his brother who’d pressed the rosary into his hands over a century ago in the hopes that he would’ve pulled himself out of sin and into purity. That, someday, he could know salvation.
Dust was the most Kratzer could ask for, now. Hell seemed to be the least of his worries. In fact, some part of him thought that to die and come back there would be little more than waking up from the horrible nightmare that was his life. He understood this to be folly, of course, as it was always possible to fall farther and farther into the infernal depths of existence. Although he was no demon, he knew the Pits of Hell to be unkind, but the question was still out on whether or not condemned souls wound up there. Maybe, he hoped, he really would just be a dead mass of forgotten flesh and contorted limbs. Soulless, to be devoured by the black-cloaked carrion-eaters and red-muzzled canines and white maggots.
Perhaps salvation did exist for those of the light. Those of good. Those, like Callaway, who dealt in life instead of death. But was death truly so cruel? Or was it those who pushed survival upon the tortured and the agonized and the wicked that were, truly, the sinners?
It was the sound of his phone that jerked him out of his stupor. The device vibrated the whole table with its announcement of an incoming call. He stared at it as the name flashed across the screen:
He set the glass down, reaching out and grabbing it. He gazed at it for a couple more moments before eventually tapping the green bubble on his screen.
“Hey-o, Krazzy-boy.” Her voice came across in a singsong lilt with the slightest hint of a Russian accent, and he couldn’t help but crack the smallest of smiles at the sound of it. “I thought I’d just check in since I haven’t heard from you. Where you at? Or are you gonna make me track you like the awesome hacker I am?”
There was a reason why Diamond was known as Kratzer’s ‘hacker girl,’ as Taipan had so eloquently put it. They’d encountered each other in the Second World War, when Kratzer was trying to flee Berlin before his now-employer caught up to him, and Diamond was attempting a similar feat. She’d needed protection and he’d needed guidance, so they’d ended up together. Then, something like five years after they initially met, she almost died. He turned her to save her life—turned her into a vampire, like he was—and they’d been allies ever since. If anything had ever so much as touched the internet, Kratzer had no doubt that she could find it, and she was the most talented woman he’d ever met when it came to modern technologies. She was well sought-after in the Guild, amongst other factions, and to top it all off, she was a geomancer who could practically make her rocks sing. Most important of all, though, she was family, and that was something the German man didn’t take lightly.
“In San Francisco,” he replied. “I’ll probably be on the morning news.”
There was a pause, and concern was evident in the tenor of her voice as she continued. “You okay, bro?”
“It’s my job, Di. I’ve been doing this since before you were born. I’m fine.”
“You’re free tonight, then, yeah? Or has she already given you another contract?”
“I’m not getting into trouble.”
“I know. Meet me at The Rose. We can have a drink and I can keep your sorry ass off the dingy-fuckin’ floor of whatever half-dead hotel you’re staying at. ‘Sides, you can handle a drink. You sound sober enough right now, which means you can’t have had much. If you’re really feeling it, Thuki’s sure to toss some money your way if you want to hit the pits. There’s even a Faceless here tonight.”
“Mm. What time?”
“Before you finish whatever alcohol you have in front of you. See you soon.” A blip punctuated her words and he was left in quiet.
Kratzer’s drink was left abandoned on the desk. The blood that was diluted through the alcohol sank into the liquid’s depths. He should’ve grabbed it, dealt with it, lest some maid enter uninvited because she didn’t notice the Do Not Disturb sign on the door, but he didn’t. He didn’t care to.
The bass was pounding through the walls when Kratzer reached
The English Rose,
tenderly referred to by its clientele as
He could feel the percussion through the rumbling floor as he slid through one of its many doorways and into the modern, booming establishment that was the supernaturals’ number-one hangout.
The gleaming counter of the bar ran along the wall to his right, lined with blue and violet lights. Shelves of all manner of concoctions, alcoholic and otherwise, lined the walls behind the bar. Tables were scattered across the rest of the place, filled with creatures that should’ve been out of a fairy tale—cloaked figures playing cards, faces shadowed by their cowls and deck hovering before them; a waitress who wove through the place wore a revealing, modern corset and her eyes shone a brilliant turquoise, a serpentine tail waving across the ground behind her; a few soldier-esque individuals with bladed weapons on their hips and tattoos not dissimilar to Kratzer’s own on their necks.
In the middle of the tables was a circular cage. The wire was dark with nameless stains and it had a ground of packed dirt. The crowd around it was roaring as a monstrous werecat raced around the wall, then leapt, propelling itself from the cage and into its seemingly-human adversary. Kratzer’s eyes barely skimmed over the spectacle of savagery—it was nothing he hadn’t seen, or even participated in—and sought out his sister.
She wasn’t hard to find. Between the flashing white mohawk, obnoxiously punk leather jacket, studded boots, and innumerable piercings, she stood out, even amongst the motley company that found its way to The English Rose. He sauntered through the crowd to come out next to her, and a bright grin lit up her cobalt eyes the moment they fell upon him.
“Krazzy!” she exclaimed, and she bounded over to throw her arms around his neck. She was barely tall enough to reach his chin despite the fact that Kratzer himself was on the shorter side. She was like a puppy who’d just seen her human come home and couldn’t quite contain her excitement. Innocent, sweet, naïve, and so beautifully perfect.
“Hey, Di.” He wrapped his arms around her, squeezing her close in a tight embrace for a moment. The woman leaned against him and her head pressed against his chest, her shock of white hair tickling his collarbone.
“I missed you.”
“Me, too. Where’ve you been?”
, unlike every other bar that Kratzer new of, wasn’t quite of the mundane sort. Supernaturals didn’t only visit the place, but ran it, and its patrons had designed it so that it had at thousands of doorways worldwide. One could get into it in any respectable town, and step from their threshold to the door that was in the back of the establishment. The only trouble was that one always came out where they’d entered. So, at the end of the day, when he and Diamond stepped through the same door, he’d end up in San Francisco and she’d arrive wherever she’d come from.
“Tokyo,” she hummed, plopping back down in her seat. “The Order’s been working on setting up a library there.”
Kratzer slid into a stool beside her and rested his elbow on the counter. “Sounds like fun.”
The bartender, a woman who appeared to be in her thirties but Kratzer knew to be much older, sidled up. She wore a neat brown vest and dress pants that complemented her deep golden skin and warm amber eyes. Tattoos lined her neck and the side of her face, and she had several piercings in her nose and left ear, but the familiar way she came to rest her hip on the bar and address the two was the most prominent attribute of them all. “Hey, Diamond, Mr. Fox. Your usuals?”
“Da!” Di promptly agreed, and her so-called brother nodded once. Thuki, for that was the bartender’s name, turned to get their respective drinks.
“I had a rather interesting encounter,” Kratzer said to Diamond after a moment, slipping into German to address her. “I was hoping that you might be able to help with all that information you have at your fingertips.”
“Oh?” she leaned forward, instantly intrigued, and she set her many-ringed hands under her chin as her sparkling irises met his.
“I had a hit today on a doctor, Carter Callaway,” he began, and proceeded to explain the day’s activities involving the petite, fiery-eyed woman that had damn near snaked his kill out from under him. He told her of the assassin’s lilting words and the look in her reddish gaze and her distinctive stature. The more he spoke, the further Diamond’s brow furrowed, and by the time he ended, the look on her face was less one of excitement and more one of bafflement.
“Your mask couldn’t detect her?”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say that was Viper,” Diamond said, shooting Thuki a smile as their drinks were thunked down in front of them. “Short, mean, reddish eyes, not killin’ him quick. But usually she hits with poison, which she couldn’t have done if you needed to finish him off, and usually she strikes with dual blades—going with the whole snake thing and all. Sounds like trouble, though, if she was following you. She’s sure to show up again. Next time, just don’t let her get away.” She paused, then, looking up into his pale eyes with an imploring and deeply concerned sort of demeanor. “And, Kratzer…Be careful. Please. Promise me.”
“I promise,” he said, and his gaze fell to his glass. “You think she’ll come back at my next hit?”
“Probably. Your employer doesn’t know?”
He didn’t answer at first, only shook his head and tapped a finger against the side of his glass. “Nein. Nothing.” She wouldn’t be happy if or when she found out, either, because it meant that Kratzer’s negligence put her on the line. The mere thought of coming face-to-face with his employer again made a chill run down the length of his spine, the skin on his arms crawling with goosebumps. Not much scared him anymore. But her? Well. She put the fear of God in him. The terror of a mouse when it was caught in the jaws of a serpent, venom racing through its veins and powered on by the beating of its unsuspecting heart. There was an irony to that thought—of the fact that it was the mouse’s own will to survive that inevitably quickened its death.
“You could clean it up. She never has to know. What she doesn’t find out won’t hurt her, and you know that if she finds out…”
“I can’t. If I go behind her back, then there’s no telling what she’ll do. To me or to Sieben. I need to talk to Taipan when she comes to give me my pay.”
“There’s no telling what she’ll do if she finds out period, dumbass, but I won’t tell you what to do. Just, come back to me in one piece. Capiche?”
“Capiche,” Kratzer replied, taking his drink and tipping the rest of it back. It stung as it slid down his throat, and he let out a breath to shake it off. Devil liquor wasn’t anything to trifle with.
She gazed at him for several moments over the top of her beverage, pierced brow furrowed in some worry, but the woman said nothing more. Instead, she finished the last of it and rose, plopping down money on the counter for her drink and for Kratzer’s. “Watch your back, brother. I need to get back. Call me if you need anything, da? Don’t just leave me hanging. You already died once, don’t make me wonder if you did again. Luck is fickle—don’t rely on it.”
“Ja. Promise. Until the night, Di.”
“Until the night.”
Taipan was standing above him when his eyes flickered open in the piercingly bright morning. She was leaning against the wall in an idle stance, hip resting against the dinged headboard and thumb tucked into her belt. Her countenance was caught in a bored stare that was looking right through him until she abruptly registered the fact that he was awake.
“Mornin’.” Her voice was loud, and he grimaced, eyes half-closed slits as he squinted up at her. He couldn’t remember most of whatever had happened the night before. Diamond had left, and then Thuki brought him another drink, and everything after that was a gaping hole in his remembrance. Taipan, ever-merciless, reached a hand out to hook the curtains and tore them aside. Light washed the dull room and pain lanced through his skull, throbbing with every beat of his heart.
He shot her a scathing glare. “Fuck you, Gale,” he snarled, using the closest thing to a real name he had for her before he rolled over and shoved his face into his pillow. He was still wearing his clothes from last night, the usual jeans and t-shirt, and he was fairly certain his shoes were on, too.
The mattress bounced as Tai set herself down on the bed. Her head fell down next to his and she tucked her hands underneath it. “Come now, Krazzy. Can’t you at least be appreciative for old times’ sake?”
“Nein. Just leave the money over there.” He waved an arm in the general direction of where he thought the desk was without pulling his face away from the bedding. It was too bright and noisy.
“Not good enough. Debrief, hun. You know the drill.” There was a rattling and he felt the bed move as she shifted her weight. Then there was something hard and plastic hitting his head. He let out another growl and opened his eyes, hand coming up to pull the thing off of him, and a bottle of Advil met his gaze.
Tai had always been nicer than she pretended to be.
He took a couple pills in his hand and downed them without water. His attention finally slid over to Taipan and he studied her in agitated silence for several moments.
“I was intercepted,” he admitted, teeth digging into the flesh of his lower lip. The words tasted bitter as they came out of his mouth, and he practically choked on them, as if they were something so detestable that he had to gag to get it through his throat.
“Female, five foot, reddish eyes, pale. White dagger. Stabbed target in the chest, non-lethal. I dispatched through the atlas and left a card under his tongue. Check the news. She wore black, half face mask, cowl, obviously Guild—‘until the night’ was her farewell.”
Silence. Dreadful, deafening silence. He stared down at the Advil bottle. Then, slowly, he sat up, still not meeting her eyes. “I didn’t know, Tai. I didn’t know.” His voice was a whisper, as though he was afraid to break the quiet. The look in her eyes as she beheld him was akin to pity.
“Sounds like Viper.”
“That’s what Di said.”
The sound of a heaving breath leaving Taipan was the only response he got. The vampire slid his feet out from under the blankets and stood, stomach roiling. His belabored footsteps scuffed across the carpet, ending with the sound of water when he turned on the sink, and he rinsed his scarred face with the clear substance.
“You know she’ll want to talk to you, right?”
No answer. Only splashing and the gurgle of water down the drain.
“Who’s next?” He opened his battered toiletries and withdrew shaving cream and a razor. Then, he leaned forward towards the mirror and he started to get to work on the stubble that shadowed his face.
“Dunno yet. I’ll get you your contract soon. Oh, and that paycheck of twenty-seven grand? Covers the next kill, too. Half’s in today. The other half comes after your next one.”
“Aye.” It’d been unwise to try to talk while he still had the razor, and he hissed as blood welled up on his cheek. In moments it stopped, the skin sealing itself over again.
“Don’t talk and shave,” Tai advised dryly. He ignored her. The woman went silent and thrn he could hear her speaking in muffled German on the phone—presumably to their shared employer—and he focused on preventing himself from drawing more blood.
Although he had no doubt that Taipan would kill him in a heartbeat if ordered, he had every faith that she wouldn’t harm him without explicit purpose. Besides, their employer wouldn’t order such a thing unless he knew the reason. She was a fickle mistress, but not an irrational one. Taipan herself wasn’t cruel, either, merely cold. So, he put his back to her, closed his eyes in her presence, and left his knives at his bedside so he could put a razor up to his neck.
She was leaning with her back against the headboard when he returned. Her booted ankles were crossed, and her hair was in a neat braid over her shoulder. The ear cuff still adorned her left ear and its emerald eyes seemed to follow him wherever he went. He’d never liked snakes. Not when he was a boy, and certainly not now. They were long and slick and they were damn near invisible until fangs were suddenly in one’s flesh. Their eyes were unblinking hollows that saw it all and had no attachment to any of it. He could swear that the all-father of snakes had made the mistake of peering into the abyss and making eye contact with whatever stared back, and ever since, serpent kind was eerily watching without eyelids or emotion.
“Your orders just came in from up top,” Taipan informed him while he went about cleaning up the desk. “I know you’re no fan of snakes, but how do you feel about killing them?”
“I don’t like decapitated creatures that keep biting,” he said dryly, dumping the glass out from the night before in the sink and then rinsing it. “Why?” Even as he asked, he felt his heart quicken its pace, pounding towards the crescendo. The next target wasn’t going to be another doctor, was it?
Taipan smirked, stepping forward and sliding her hands onto his hips. The woman leaned forward and let her lips brush his ear as she spoke. “Because,” she murmured, “you’re hunting the Viper.”
"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost."
There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.
— Arthur C. Clarke
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