If you have not read the other installments of this series, I highly recommend you check them out. You should start with Strange Weight, then the Tunnels, A Good Life, and The False Prophet. Enjoy!
Life is meaningless without a code to live by. Most let others choose their code; religion, government, family. It’s easier to stick to the ones set by others. It gives the freedom to occasionally veer but be quickly reminded that you have strayed from the norms through social pressure.
The codes set for oneself, though, they take dedication.
When you live a life that steers clear of people, the only person to remind you of your errors is yourself. You must truly want something, otherwise, you revert back to whatever base nature the world deemed you worthy of.
He had done plenty in the past to deserve the fear of those who knew about him. Plenty that had earned him the disgust of even those who hired him. He was the necessary evil that people sought out but outcast at the first chance, and rightfully so.
Agiion’s life had been filled with accomplishments that only a select few knew about. Accomplishments that were so horrifying he had been scarred from the inside. It was never the horror or hatred of others that burrowed through him, but his own.
He had never once hesitated, never once backed down. Their screams, their pleas, their sobs and gargles, their eyes. All of it should have caused some form of pause within him, but he had never once felt anything while he completed his job.
At least he could say that he had never killed due to hate or malice.
He knew the men who led the organizations that provided a code for others, having placed most of them in their seats of power. It was the exact reason why he could not adopt their codes.
Agiion abhorred violence, but he was also good at it. Not just good, the best. He was the closest thing to death there was. If that babbling fool Baylo had actually been right about anything, one could say Agiion was the Unbroken One’s right hand, delivering the living from their suffering. But Agiion knew better.
They were lies.
All of it fabricated to keep people ignorant of the truth that lay below the surface. The Prophet and his gods. The Unity and their one mind. Jahul and his family of freedom, which he doubted was still around after the botched attack on the Sovereign’s capital, which brought him to the biggest fabrication of them all. The Sovereign and his Collective, his united lands, his undivided future. Maybe at one point they had been something worth following, but Agiion knew too much now.
He had made the mistake of allowing himself to be seduced by the man before, and that was all the Sovereign was, a man. At least he had been. The man had become an untouchable, a being so powerful that no one in the entire land could lay a finger on him and survive. No one except Agiion, of course.
But he was no longer there to destroy.
Agiion dealt only in information now, nothing more. He may have been an assassin at one point but he lived by a code now. The only violence that escaped him now was when those who had the information refused to release it.
And it seemed that it was always.
Agiion scrubbed his hands clean of the blood that dripped off them, at first only smearing it. He stared at the woman on the bed, swollen, broken, and bloody beyond recognition. He couldn’t understand why they chose this, why they kept the truth from him when it was so much easier to get it off their chest.
She hadn’t been very smart, but she knew more than she let on. She had been good, innocent. As innocent as a whore can be, of course, but at least better than most of the creatures he was hired to extract from. It was a shame she hadn’t been more willing to help him. Now all of it was gone. Everything she ever knew, ever saw, ever felt. Maybe he had done her a service.
At least he had gathered enough.
He threw the bloodied rag next to the pile of teeth and picked up the parchment on the table, careful not to get too much blood on it. He made toward the door and pulled it open. A child stood there holding two bowls of carrier meat and red grains, her eyes wide with surprise.
The child dressed like a boy, even looked like a boy, but there was no doubt in his mind that this was a small girl.
He studied the parchment as he rode on the back of his beast. It was different from the ones he had seen before. It was a replica. He had come across a few, finely detailed and covering large sections of both sides of the Road. Areas he hadn’t even been to before. But they always left out everything that went beyond the Forbidden. Not this one.
There was the clear line that always kept everything in, the edge of the world, but then it kept going. It went past the Forbidden, suggesting a land that was not supposed to be, and not just in vague drawings and descriptions. The parchment showed it in just as much detail as the rest of the areas that Agiion did recognize.
It showed the Vaults.
If this was real, it suggested that someone had actually been through the Forbidden, somehow survived the creatures that lived there along with the immense level of radiation that permeated unseen through its space, and traveled beyond the end of the world. It would have been impossible. And then, they somehow made it back.
The ticking of the beast’s nails against the cement ground created a welcomed rhythm as he traced his finger over the area that read Vaults.
He wanted to believe that this was real, but Agiion knew people to be liars. To fabricate stories in order to elevate their importance.
He hated living like that, in constant disdain of others. He had adopted a life of solitude in order to distance himself from the shit that coursed through people’s beings. The cruelty, the lies, the selfishness and monstrosity that made up most people. That way, he could focus on all the good, all the beauty that they held.
That way, he could see from afar those that truly deserved their lives.
The Sovereign may have been a good man, maybe even still was, but Agiion could no longer tell. From up close, the man seemed more corrupt than the very forces he had been trying to depose all these years. From afar, the line between helping the people or enslaving them further was so blurred that even Agiion was unable to see.
He had always prided himself in his vigilance, in his ability to pick up everything past the surface. He had realized too late that he had been blind to it all during his time under the Sovereign’s employment. Agiion had thought he could see it all, that he had been in control, but in reality he had been a blind fool. A killer for someone else’s cause.
He had thought he was helping the innocents, had believed so deeply in the cause that he had not questioned who or why they needed to be killed. He had simply done and trusted that he was moving the needle along. It wasn’t until it was too late that he began to see how lost he had been, unaware of all the moving parts.
Now, all the good he believed he had been doing was only a reminder that he could not stay close to any one cause.
He wanted to believe that it was he who had left the Collective, but he knew deep inside that he had been pushed out. Once he was no longer needed, he had been discarded.
The pride he had once felt when he saw how high he had allowed the Collective to rise was no longer there. He could see their false gods, their codes.
Agiion was his own man now, more aware and living under his own banner. He held no ill intentions toward the Collective or the Sovereign, although he couldn’t say the same about the shrivelled creature who preached about the gods. He would work for them, sure, as long as it did not conflict with his rules of neutrality, but he would only stay neutral for as long as he could not see clearly where the men were headed.
If he ever saw the Sovereign abuse his power, Agiion would be the first at his doorstep, and he would not be seeking information.
The same could be said for the Home. They had given him no cause to think the children had been mistreated, but they would absorb every step of violence he had ever managed to restrain, a million times over, if he ever found otherwise.
He heard a gunshot from a distance. A second and third, soon followed by some yelling. Agiion calmly folded the parchment and stuffed it into his satchel. He rubbed the inside of his thighs, adjusting himself into a more comfortable position, and dug his heels into the animal’s sides.
The beast began to gallop as more yelling and gunfire pierced the air. He could see the smoke from the blasts trailing up, even from a distance. He closed his eyes and listened to the voices as they screamed profanities to their prey.
One, two, three. Five total men attacking, plus a potential sixth but he got the feeling that the deep growls coming from that one were from fear, not aggression.
He stopped the animal when his eyes finally saw the first attacker atop the metal bones of the structures before the Doom. The other men were not far off, two of them standing on other bones while the other two rested their rifles over them and kept a careful aim on their prey.
Agiion stepped off his beast and placed his satchel over the beast’s neck. He undid the string of the bag around its waist and withdrew a small, curved blade and two small pistols, which he put through hooks at his waist.
“Stay here,” he said to the beast as he scratched the back of its ears. The beast blew out snot and Agiion took it as if it were agreeing.
He couldn’t see the prey, but he wasn’t concerned. The Hunters were still screaming at them, which meant the prey had a relatively safe spot for now. The deep growls were now frantic moans coming from beyond the Hunters.
Agiion did not want to be caught against whatever behemoth of a man was making those sounds.
It wasn’t fear he felt. Agiion was no stranger to his body warning him of danger. He still remembered the spike in his blood from the first time he had been surrounded by the older boys as he walked home with his family’s food. They had beat him down, kicked him until he could barely breathe, until his ribs and arm were broken, and then pissed on him as everyone watched and did nothing. He had grown very comfortable with that feeling over the years later. This was just simple good sense.
He strolled closer to the Hunters until he could see the sweat dripping from the back of the closest man’s neck. It wasn’t hot. One of the men kept messing with his rifle and only one held a pistol.
“Y’all find somethin’ good?” he called out to the Hunters.
All five of them spun around and focused on him. The one closest wasn’t quite a man yet, his rifle shook in his hands as he aimed it at Agiion.
“Ain’t ya score,” yelled a big scruffy one furthest away from Agiion. “Fuck off.”
“What y’all find?”
The frantic moaning grew louder.
“He say fuck off!” yelled another.
“Let me help,” said Agiion. “We split it six way, doh?”
“Shoot ‘im,” said the scruffy one to the young one. “Jal! Shoot ‘im!”
The moaning picked up and joined by a loud metallic creaking. The big scruffy one and two others turned back to face it. Only the boy and the one who had been messing with his gun faced Agiion now.
“Ya no want a do nothin’ like that boy,” said Agiion, keeping his voice calm and letting a faint smile appear on his lips. “Trust.”
“I say shoot ‘im Jal!” yelled out the scruffy one without looking back. The boy raised the rifle to his chin. Truly a shame.
Agiion stepped forward and the boy fired. The bullet hit one of the metal shells and made a loud clang. Agiion withdrew his pistol so fast that no one had a chance to react. He squeezed the trigger and splattered the back of the boy’s skull onto the metal bones behind him.
The man that had been messing with his rifle’s eyes went wide. Agiion shot him through the throat, causing him to stumble backwards and fall.
By then, the other three were facing him. The big scruffy one was staring at the dead boy, his eyes wide enough to release them from their sockets.
“Jal!” yelled the scruffy one. “Jal!”
Agiion could see the similarities in their features now. They were clearly related, but he wondered if it had been his son. Maybe a brother?
Agiion shot the man to his left before ducking behind one of the shells. Only two were left now. Only one with a pistol. They fired at him, the bullets clanging against the metal.
He saw the bullets pierce through the shell and fall to the cement next to him. Agiion waited until he heard the ticking of the pistol and one more shot from the rifle before stepping up and firing a round into the scruffy one’s stomach. He walked toward the last man and shot him in the head, sending him sprawling off the shell and onto the cement, just like the bullets.
A loud moaning continued, joined now by pained groans. He walked toward the scruffy man who lay on the roof of one of the metal bones.
“Rot with the defiled,” said the man, spitting blood with each word.
Agiion stepped onto the shell and took the man’s hand, pushing it over his wound gently. “Keep tight,” he said as he looked around at all the death. “It be worth it?”
“Fuck you,” said the scruffy man struggling to get his words out through the pain. “The Unbroken One, shit, over your life.”
Agiion nodded and took the man’s head in his hand. He placed the pistol back on the hook at his waist. “I be sorry about ya brats. I be sorry about ya too.”
He took the curved blade and ran it across the man’s neck.
Habits are hard to break. Seemed this one would keep being broken, with no end in sight.
He was an information seeker now, he wasn’t supposed to destroy. He was supposed to have a code. His own code.
He wiped the blade on the man’s tunic and placed it back on the hook as he stared around at the carnage he had just caused.
The panicked moaning slowed and Agiion heard ruffling from the direction it had come from. He could see out of the corner of his eye a tiny head poking through one of the metal openings.
“Quiet,” whispered the tiny voice from an even tinier man. “Quiet Grim, I handle it.”
Agiion turned his head and waited for the man to face him again. The tiny man’s nostrils flared as he saw the man watching him but it was only for a split second, giving way to a very warm and inviting smile.
“Good man,” called out the man, putting an open palm next to his face. “Me brat and I thank you.”
“Don’t be needin’ ya thanks,” said Agiion.
“Ah. Course not,” said the little man. He watched Agiion closely, analyzing him. “You ever be out yond the Road here? Ina the Forbidden?”
Agiion’s eyes narrowed. “I know you?”
“I travel a many place. Maybe we run ina each other at one time, but I not know you.” The man waited until he was sure Agiion wouldn’t say anything and continued. “Listen, maybe you not want thanks, but when a man save me life, it be in me a give thanks. I be only a simple merchant, I no have much but whatever you want, it be yours.”
The man shuffled slowly into the open and spread an arm out behind him. Agiion saw all the tiny veins, bright under his thin, saggy, transparent skin. He was truly small, barely half the size of Agiion. His fingers were long and crooked, hardly looking like more than bone. His other hand was bandaged and kept curled up close to his stomach.
How a creature like this had survived for this long, Agiion did not know.
“Don’t be needin’ ya things,” said Agiion as he turned to the body next to him and pulled it off the shell. He began to dig through the man’s pockets, not looking for anything in particular but sure it would make the imp more at ease..
The little man inched closer, testing his luck. “You be a good man, cubrat. The gods give you a good life.”
Agiion chuckled and rested his arm over his knee as he turned his attention to the little man. “The gods be givin’ nothin’ a people like me. They give only a the ones that make them.”
“Ah,” said the little man with a smile. “Finally, a man who see truth.”
Agiion’s brows furrowed. This little man had a curious way of talking. He tapped the blade at his waist with the finger on the resting arm. “Who you be?”
“Simple merchant be all,” said the little man. Agiion’s silence and tapping made him nervous and forced the man to keep speaking. “They call me Bron. And this,” he turned around and called out to whoever had been making the sounds behind him. “Grim, get out here. Come on, let’s go.”
A massive hand, the size of both of Agiion’s gripped the metal shell, giving way to a man that was nearly three heads taller than Agiion. The muscles on this behemoth looked as if they were thick enough to stop a bullet. The giant could split a man in half without having to strain. Everything about this creature warned Agiion of danger.
Everything except the face.
Underneath the thickset jaw and skull, there was just a small child. A child full of fear, full of emotion. It was obvious that the giant was lamebrained. That made him even more dangerous. Agiion had been right to think that this was no creature he would ever want to go up against and so he stayed on the ground and observed their every move.
“This be me brat Grim,” said Bron to Agiion before turning back to Grim and stretching a hand out. “Come, give thanks a the man that save us.”
Grim slowly shuffled toward Bron until he stood behind the little man as if somehow that twisted imp could protect him.
“Fair,” boomed the giant’s voice.
Agiion smiled and touched two fingers to his forehead, a sign of peace used even in the Blood Woods. “Ya be welcome, big man.” He returned his attention to his rummaging.
The big man’s face turned to over-exaggerated excitement as he looked down at the imp, who patted him and whispered something back.
“Ya two best be on ya way,” said Agiion as he stood and walked toward the closest corpse.
“Aye,” said Bron. Neither of the two moved for a long while as Agiion rummaged. “Will you join us a sup a the least?”
Agiion laughed. “Ya big man there look like enough protection.”
“You be an obvious smart man. But Grim, he have his limits. As I be sure you see,” said Bron. He waited a moment before saying. “Where you be headin’?”
“Just lookin’ for a man who ‘apposed a have information I be needin’.”
“Perfect! Then it not be hard a you a eat with us. When the orb come up ‘amorrow, if the Road be takin’ us different directions then that be that. Doh?”
“Fair!” came the big man’s growl.
Agiion smiled. He liked children. In a different life, he would have liked to have some of his own, but a man like him was not suited for the task. A man like him was meant to stay as far a distance from wee ones as possible.
“Alright,” said Agiion, looking at the medallion that hung from the little man’s neck. He stood up. “Ya convince me big man.”