A shot rang out. Followed by a second.
To a normal human, there is barely more than an instant between the two. To a Sherak, that’s plenty of time.
She faced this strange man she was told to kill and found herself conflicted. He wasn’t like the others, children who fancied themselves killers with barely a decade of killing behind their names. This one reeked of the death of many. He was more like a Vampyr than Man. He had no regrets. She could see this in his eyes.
Cold, merciless, without doubt or reservation.
She was for the first time in decades filled with the anticipation — no anticipation was the wrong word — the fear of the hunt. The fear a hunter has when going after prey more dangerous than they are. The only prey worth chasing.
She had been hunting men for nearly two centuries. They had grown soft, fat, and slow. They had become complacent, dependent upon their technology. They had lost their edge, their vicious unpredictability; she was nostalgic for the men of previous eras, strong, hardy, distrusting, cunning. For a time there was challenge, especially when she was so young in her power.
But it had been a while since any Man could show her anything, teach her anything new, surprise her in any fashion. Mostly they died, pitiful, mewling, little more than an unappetizing snack if she could be bothered to eat any part of them at all. Most offered her nothing in the way of experience, nor guile, simple creatures, their brains would offer her no new knowledge of her arts of murder. Their souls, shriveled abominations barely worth the time it took to swallow.
This one was different. He was full of tricks. She could see his experience surrounding him, a miasma of death and treachery. One of the gifts of the Sherak, to see men as they are, their life’s story written in the very air they exuded, a cloud of habits, thoughts, behaviors, weaknesses, guiding the attack of the Sherak to the most dangerous, most skilled, stopping the threats in order of preference. And giving them the insight to slay them with ease.
And then she saw it. A flash of light while he gestured with his cane.
His treachery causes her left shoulder to explode with the force of a high velocity round from a nearby rooftop. If she had been any slower, it would have ripped right through her chest, tearing one of her hearts from her body. His smile confirmed his involvement.
He distracted her with his questions.
The second round found nothing but empty air. She disappeared, muscles bursting with speed, she stopped in the shadows behind a bus using it for cover.
“I trust I have your attention now, assassin.” He spoke just louder than a whisper. She could hear every word clearly.
“The Lady Ign has decided to terminate my contract. You have attempted to fulfill your duty to her. Instead I would like you to relay a message to her.”
“If I were going to relay this message, and I am not saying I will, what would that be, my target?”
“Say my name, Assassin and I will say yours. My name is Marcus Darby.”
“I am a Sherak, and we do not share our names, for names have power.”
“Then I will call you what I will then. I will name you ‘White Dress’ though I was forced to stain it.”
“It matters not what you call me Marcus Darby, for I have not stopped trying to complete my contract. What were your words for my lady?”
“Before she decided to have me killed, she asked me to remove impediments to her expansions into the lowlands outside of the center of the city proper. The men you killed were those gang leaders and their lieutenants. Thank you for your efforts. Saved me the hassle.”
“I am now effectively the power in those areas. I moved my agents into those regions and expressed strongly my desire to take over all illegal operations in those areas. There were few detractors.”
“The Lady Ign was certain you would be successful. She indicated you were capable. She has already informed your troops they would be working for her after your unfortunate accident.”
“Hence her dispatch of a Sherak instead of the shadow-jumping Boomsha. She had to kill everyone I hadn’t yet. And me. I feel so special. I hope you didn’t cost her too much.”
“Her fee will be well spent.” She tensed, her planned movement already a vision in her mind. Her will to kill had already foreseen any possible defense he could make. This battle was a good as over.
“Let’s do this.” He stood, his stance like water, ready to accept her assault, loose, like a viper before striking.
“Let’s.” Jumping to the top of the bus, she takes to the air outside of the lighting from the bus yard. She tumbles through the air, the flutter of her dress the only sound. All four of her claws slash through empty air as she lands explosively, throwing gravel in every direction.
A glint of silver from the corner of her eye is the only indicator of the ball from Darby’s staff wheeling out of the darkness. Turning at the last second she manages to remove some of the force from the blow.
He never stops moving after that. Quick, fast, powerful. Strike after strike, some high, some low. A coordinated and practiced attack and against anyone else, they would have been devastating. His technique was clean, efficient, effortless. He was a practiced killer of men. Fast, strong, ruthless. She felt a smile forming despite herself.
He struck successfully one time in three. She used each exchange to gauge his strength and speed. As he grew faster and more relentless, She sped up her perception keeping pace, needing to be a second ahead, expecting him to step away at the right moment and allow his shooters an opportunity while she was distracted.
Her mind running fast, she stayed close to him to throw off their chance of making a decent shot. His close combat was brilliant, possibly based in Wing Chun, his armored coat blunting her blows, while attacking simultaneously. The shot never comes. After a flashing of claw and staff, the two of them broke contact and bounded apart.
She could hear his breathing and her hands and legs stung severely where his blows landed. These were no ordinary strikes. A mortal would have already been crippled. He melted into the darkness. She hesitated but only for a second.
She twisted her foot to gain traction and sprung forward, gravel flying out from beneath her feet breaking windows in buses behind her. Now we would fight on her terms. Her claws tear through the air, supernaturally fast, but his staff always manages to be just a bit faster. As if he could anticipate her every attack.
She doubles her speed. Now she is just a blur, her attacks ringing from his staff like music. He holds her at bay, but not without cost, wound appear on his armored sleeves, shoulders, chest and back. He retreats, slowly giving ground.
Sensing a chance to end the battle her talons rip across his armored chest , ripping through the ceramic plating, her fingers hungering for the bite of bone, instead only grazing the man. She licked her fingers, the metallic taste of titanium and ceramic mingled with the hot, spicy blood of this very strange man. His awareness of her movement was without precedent. No Human could do this.
What was he?
While she was momentarily overextended, he followed with a solid kick to her hip, knocking her back through the air into the shadows. It would have crippled a normal man. She landed catlike, three points, looked up at his eyes, squinting, trying to read his intent.
He shrugged out of his coat revealing his partially shredded under armor, military-grade, designed for hand to hand, speed and mobility.
His cane dropped down in front of him, both hands on it, using it as a short bo staff, he had proven to be more than adequately skilled in its use. Only one drop of sweat from his brow indicated any level of exertion, let alone a fight for his life.
Why hadn’t he had me shot from a distance? Why would he give up the advantage? Was there a message in it? Was he simply toying with me? Could Lady Ign have sent me to die at the hands of this impossibly-skilled mercenary?
Enough of this foolishness. No matter how much he intrigues me, I must finish this now. He retreated back to the center of the now empty bus terminal yard. He stood in the center, breathing deeply with a look on his face, the most dangerous look she had seen on the face of a man in a long time.
At his feet, she could sense the darkness swirling around him, slowly surrounding, rising up, dimming the lights and sounds of the bus station, behind him. His staff was now a spear of obsidian. His eyes glowed crimson, the only light she would focus on now. He has revealed himself.
In our next exchange one of us will die.
House of Oak: Red Star, White Sun © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies: Awesome Allshorts: Last Days and Lost Ways (Australia, 2014), The Future is Short (2014), Visions of Leaving Earth (2014), Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond (2014), Genesis Science Fiction (2013), Scraps (UK, 2012), and Possibilities (2012).