Joshua A. Spotts
I am no ordinary killer. That is what they told me. That is what they buried deep inside me. Like an old wound healed over but not cleaned, it festers. It destroys me from the inside out. But I have accepted it like a warrior accepts death. It is who I am.
There are many men who have felt the warmth of blood on their hands. There are few who truly enjoy it. I am one of those few. The deep, rich red color is to my pale hand like jewelry is around the neck of a fair lady.
The Irontrees stand tall around me, like the shafts of giants’ spears left on an ancient battlefield. Some call this forest beautiful, a holy place of creation. I recognize it for what it truly is…a place of destruction.
Only one road leads through the Irontree forest. It winds with the Mrazias River partway into the forest, and then a bridge crosses the river at its narrowest width, and the road cuts straight through the rest of the forest, running through Bones Ravine.
I kneel above the road and watch as a few loose rocks tumble down unto the road below. It is cracked and I can make out a few bones stacked behind a small boulder. An entire skeletal foot sticks out within view from the road. Some killers are unprofessional. That skeleton was probably just a victim of revenge.
Something moved in the ravine. It came out from one of the caves. Backing up from the edge, I picked up my crossbow. It was already loaded and drawn back. I sighted down the shaft. A small man, probably an outcast monk, picked a few plants from a patch of tilled ground near the boulder and the skeleton. He scurried back up the cliff-face and stood in his cave’s entrance, back to me.
He was probably harmless, but I couldn’t let him scare my target. This mission would be hard enough without that. I laid my finger to the crossbow’s trigger. I felt the smooth, curved metal press into my skin as I put pressure on it. Then it gave way and the bolt shot forward. The sound of its whistle as it cut through the air was beautiful. A startled scream erupted from the small man’s throat, echoing in the ravine. He fell into his cave, a crossbow bolt through his heart.
I began to crank the crossbow back again when I heard the rattle of coach wheels and the clatter of horse hooves coming up the road from the south. I closed my hand tighter around the crank and wound the crossbow back. With a satisfying click the string found the trigger notch. I laid a bolt in the shaft. Taking out my knife, I cut a rune unto the bolt to give it accuracy. Then I waited.
Three horsemen, fully armored, rode from the protective shade of the trees into the open sunlight of the ravine. Behind them came the coach, pulled by four horses, silver trimming glimmering. One guard drove it. Two guards stood on the back. The windows were round. A tough shot. It was a coach fit for a king and safe enough for a tyrant. Three more horsemen trotted into the canyon following the coach. Behind them marched six pikemen.
I tallied them all in my head. Fifteen guards. The pikemen were standard infantry. But the men on horseback were knights. And the coach guards were likely the best of the group. I had one shot. I closed my eyes. I listened to the sounds all around me. The horses’ shoes on the broken road, the metallic symphony of armor, and sweet hum of my crossbow string, the hiss of the hot sun.
I aimed the crossbow away from the coach, turning the sharp, glinting point of the crossbow bolt back toward the man in the middle of the three rear horsemen. I pulled the trigger and the bolt threw the man off his horse, nearly taking off his head in the process. The caravan did not panic as they should have. I had just killed their leader.
The caravan just kept riding. Then, once the pikemen had pasted the corpse, the coach and riders tore off down the ravine. The pikemen began to climb the cliffs toward me. How could I have been so stupid? My target had escaped me.
No, he had not escaped. I would get him. I threw my crossbow at a pikeman who had made it to the top of the ravine. It hit him in the forehead and he fell backward, screaming. I rushed along the ravine top. I could hear the pikemen shouting behind me.
I felt the earth shake under my feet as my anger boiled forth like a volcano. My target, the Lord Vincent Decarla, had escaped. I watched as his coat rolled away back into the forest. I knew I would never catch them on foot.
The shouts of the pikemen crept closer. I turned. Five pathetic men, holding short swords, advanced upon me in torn uniforms. I grinned like a skull. The ravine had done most of my work for me.
Two of the pikemen fell as they started to charge, my throwing knives in their throats. I whipped my two curved scimitars from their back-slings and cut through the remaining three men like a reaper through wheat. Indeed, that was what I was, a reaper, harvesting souls. But one soul, one foul seed, remained to be harvested. Its name was Lord Vincent Decaria.