Today – a free excerpt from Assassin Hunter, my latest novella, now available on Amazon.
“I’M TERRIBLY DISAPPOINTED IN YOU.”
The words hung in the air like a spider web hungrily anticipating wandering prey but Vaya Sage was too groggy to recognize the trap. His eyes flittered open and squinted but blurry vision registered little more than a frail figure standing in front of him, a thin splotch of white clothes with long dark hair dripping to a navel, a gothic parody of impressionism that warned him to close his eyes, envision more pleasing images.
With deliberation, Vaya Sage inhaled deeply. Rich pine scents mingled with the musky odors of rotting trees and moss-covered branches greeted his nostrils but the groggy stupor held fast, refused to be casually tossed aside. Coarse bark gnawed at his back, teased his consciousness into recalling his bonds. He tugged against toothed-twine, winced. Sore wrists protested but the pain helped clear his mind so he persisted with repeated, futile efforts as faint shadows of memories began to surface.
He persisted in his efforts until finally, a particularly ambitious breath revealed the residue of something bitter on his tongue, something he couldn’t place. Perhaps it was nothing more than mold-ridden stench coming from a nearby, felled tree, he thought. But the bitterness didn’t strike him as organic. Instead, he guessed this was the chalky residue from whatever drug had induced this mind-numbing brain fog. He shook his head again, vainly tried to spit out the taste.
With prodigious patience, the ghost-of-a-figure studied him, jealously held her silence.
Vaya Sage vacillated between blinking his eyes, drawing in deep breaths, and with restraint, bonking his head against the tree trunk in search of any discernible trace of mental clarity. A few agonizingly slow moments passed before he was able to quasi-intelligently process her words. He grumbled something he himself recognized as incoherent before offering something intelligible.
“To be fair, your thugs drugged me. Anyone can be surprised.” He would have said more but his head flopped helplessly, a heavy boulder he could no longer bear to hold up. His eyelids sagged and his eyes rolled as he inadvertently flirted with unconsciousness. He grunted in protest. It will pass, he promised himself. Give it a few minutes.
“Still,” she coyly persisted. “I heard you were unstoppable, the perfect assassin. Three of my men easily took you down when you knew you were being hunted.”
The verbal jab at Vaya Sage’s pride found its mark, clawed for his attention. “You might as well be proud of shooting me from a satellite,” he groused. “If you’re game,” he paused as if speech was laborious, “for a fair rematch, I’m happy to play with any three you choose.” His bravado could have come across as overconfidence but both of them knew substance met speech. He yanked at his bonds but it was little more than an emotional reflex.
With determination, he held his head steady enough to glare at his captor. He could see her somewhat more clearly now. She wore a ruffled, white crop top that hugged her lithe torso beneath the shoulders. The front was triangular, its tip pointing toward and nearly reaching her navel. Matching armbands wrapped her biceps. A loose box-pleated skirt playfully failed to reach mid-thigh and thin, traditional silver threads loosely weaving their way through her long obsidian hair tumbled farther down where they teased the bottom of her skirt. They sparkled, kissed by random rays of sun. Her pristine visage all but demanded dimpled cheeks but her pale blue eyes were what entranced Vaya Sage. Framed by bronze skin and thick eyebrows, they nearly looked otherworldly. Then again, his vision remained somewhat blurry.
Vaya Sage barely trusted his eyes but this young girl appeared far too young to be engaged in this sort of business. He locked eyes with her for several moments, grimaced as her budding femininity became glaringly obvious.
Keenly aware that years of rough living had prematurely etched for him a biting visage that intimidated seasoned men, Vaya Sage was surprised to find this young girl seemingly unfazed by his gaze. She narrowed her eyes to a slit and then grinned, apparently to taunt her new captive.
He wasn’t surprised when she lobbed another jab.
“There are running bets over why you were kicked out of your brotherhood.” She pressed her forefinger against her lips and arched her thick eyebrows. “Perhaps you’ve … been … slipping?” She stretched out her words like a yawning sloth, slow and deliberate.
Vaya Sage’s icy scowl failed to intimidate his now-less-blurry captor.
She casually feigned fear before offering a bemused smirk. It fit her well.
“Poor Vaya Sage,” she teased as she slithered toward him. “I’m afraid I’m not a very good host.”
Her sultry stride was immediately inconsistent and confusing. Vaya Sage estimated she’d barely welcomed her teens. Fourteen at most, he guessed, and yet she oozed with unfeigned confidence as she approached him with the gait of a seasoned siren. He furrowed his brow as he tried to place her role in his abduction. She was too young to hold any allure and yet she glided towards him like a veteran seductress certain of imminent victory.
She’s a ruse, he deduced. Bait.
As consciousness more fully emerged, Vaya Sage began to absorb his surroundings and calculate potential methods of escape. This pedophilic siren was nothing more than a diversion, someone intended to instill unthreatened overconfidence. Eyes nonchalantly scanning the forest, he estimated a dozen men held weapons trained on him, ready to take him out the moment he freed himself.
But he saw nothing.
“Hmmm. You don’t feel safe …” The teen paused as she drew close, reached up, cradled his strong jaw with her right hand, and offered a reassuring grin.
Outwardly, she appeared a gracious dove but that didn’t assuage suspicion. Vaya Sage answered nothing, scowled, and continued to survey his surroundings while she caressed his evening stubble with her thumb.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. She turned her attention to an enormous, fallen pine tree to her right and waved her hand dismissively. “Men! You’re out.” A few soldiers stepped out of the shadows and walked away. She pointed toward a cluster of heavily leafed trees drenched with hanging lichen that nearly brushed the ground and repeated her command. More men disappeared into the forest. “If anyone else is left, you’re dismissed as well,” she said with the loudest tone her not-yet-mature voice could offer.
Vaya Sage observed only one more man leaving. Eight total.
More would be lingering.
Prearranged. All show.
Smirking, the girl produced a knife from behind her back and let the sun hit the blade as she observed its shaft. “I’m Treiliki,” she announced as she walked around the tree to cut his bonds. The instant the tooth-twine bonds around his wrists and waist gave, Vaya Sage reached down to loosen the ropes around his knee bonds and then gauchely tried to maintain his balance while squatting down to free his ankles. All the while, he discreetly scanned the area for his hood, jacket, boots, and other gear.
He found nothing but as he searched, he noticed Treiliki was barefoot. Walking around a bed of pine needles, she didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered by their continual pricks. Vaya Sage frowned. He couldn’t help noticing the needle bites and he was standing still.
As she rounded the tree, Vaya Sage observed that she wore no sheath for her blade.
Treiliki smirked knowingly as she caught Vaya Sage’s eyes surveying her backside, donned an exaggerated swagger that left him feeling markedly disturbed. He shuddered, considered attacking. If he grabbed her quickly, he could use her as a shield, demand his gear and …
No. He needed to wait. Something wasn’t right, something he hadn’t yet identified. He quietly grumbled at Treiliki’s deliberately sensual movements. She seemed overly accustomed to accentuating her barely pubescent figure. Too genuine to be a ploy, this was old hat.
Despite his profession, Vaya Sage considered himself strictly bound by moral codes and child sex trafficking lurked far beneath those codes. He wanted to slit her abductor’s throat. Already, he sensed the exhilaration of satisfaction as he imagined the kill. When the opportunity arose, Vaya Sage would track him down.
“There,” Treiliki began as she stopped walking away from him, her visage now hidden. “Do you feel safe now?” With stunning deliberation, she turned her head to meet his gaze, her own expression as innocent and unpresuming as a lost child – bone chilling, otherworldly eyes excepted.
Vaya Sage silently scoffed in disbelief, cocked his eyebrow. “No.”
He wasn’t lying. No boots, no weapons, no legitimate assurance there weren’t still a half dozen drugged darts aimed at his neck. He had next to zero reason to feel safe.
“Hmmm.” Her voice seemed genuinely pensive. “Your gear is eight feet above you.”
Barely considering she might be setting him up, Vaya Sage looked up and saw his gear. With no low hanging branches, it would be awkward to climb the trunk but he could pull it off fairly quickly, lack of boots notwithstanding. He’d wait to secure gear until later, of course.
“You’re freshly unemployed,” she began again, turning toward her captive and teasing the edge of her blade against her forefinger. “I thought you might enjoy some work. I have a certain contract that needs fulfilled.”
Vaya Sage gritted his teeth, said nothing as he noted how Treiliki spoke nothing like someone her age. He silently waited for terms. They’d come soon enough.
“You’ll hunt down your brotherhood, take them out one at a time, report each job, and I’ll tell you where to find payment when each kill is verified. Payments increase each hit and I pay better than your old boss. When you’re finished, you take out Ji Anna. Fifteen total. Do we have a deal?” Treiliki spoke quickly, like an experienced gangster who didn’t enjoy prolonged conversations. She turned her back to him again, stretched her big toe to trace something in the needled flooring.
Vaya Sage clenched his jaw. Asking for time to consider the offer wasn’t an option. Either he feigned acceptance and fled deeper into hiding or he took the job. Any greenie could discern that this offer didn’t pass the smell test but acceptance remained the only viable option.
Treiliki didn’t skip a millisecond. “You have five weeks.”
Involuntarily, Vaya Sage released a mocking gust of air and barely covered a chuckle. The deadline was laughable, nigh unto impossible. True enough, most of the brotherhood would remain local for the next few weeks as they planned their upcoming, convoluted hit. They would need time to review details, contingencies and would be distracted, possibly off guard. At least two others were commissioned to take out Vaya Sage. They wouldn’t be difficult to find. Three more were set up for outside jobs. They would disappear as fast as a diving squid in the abyss. As for Ji Anna, Vaya Sage vaguely remembered she was hiding in a nearby town and he couldn’t recall how he’d learned her location. Perhaps he’d remember when the drugs wore off.
Regardless, after a few hits, everyone would be on edge. Some would become more aggressive while others would become more stealthy. Either route would make them difficult to take out. But if the first several hits were especially clean, Vaya Sage might earn an extension. Contrarily, if events deteriorated, he could leave traces of his new employer with the newest corpses and disappear with enough fresh money to sustain a humble life on the outskirts of society for a while. The two brotherhoods could fight it out and Vaya Sage would be too remotely secluded to trace. If he played his cards wisely, he’d win either way.
A branch cracked a dozen paces away. Vaya Sage instantly believed he’d been tricked. Perhaps Treiliki worked for the brotherhood. Perhaps they were merely hunting for an open betrayal to bolster their case. Self preservation kicked in. Vaya Sage lunged toward the young girl, grabbed the knife from her hand as he pulled her to the ground from behind and hooked both his legs around her own. Though much smaller, he held her on top of himself for cover and firmly pressed the knife against the loose flesh hovering over her carotid artery and jugular vein.
A lion bitten by a lamb wouldn’t have been more surprised.
Vaya Sage loosed his captive, scrunched into fetal position, fell into convulsions, and began vomiting. Trembling under Treiliki’s psionic attack, Vaya Sage was only vaguely aware when she resumed barking out orders at unseen soldiers. Several minutes passed in silence before he regained enough self control to venture a peek at his captor.
Hovering over him like a cobra, she widened her mouth, hissed.
He recoiled and hugged his knees more tightly, babbled unintelligibly.
Treiliki didn’t budge, did little more than breathe as she waited for him to regain his composure. “You gave your word,” she growled in otherworldly tones. “I expect you to keep it.” She ambled away, impregnated the air with a haunting silence. “Don’t disappoint me again,” she added without looking back.
Vaya Sage’s eyes lingered on her swaggering gait as she disappeared into the forest with men decked in camouflage flanking both her sides. With power like that, why don’t you do it yourself? he wondered. She could probably induce a heart attack just by thinking hard.
Neither superstitious nor religious Vaya Sage was a dogged skeptic. Until this moment, he’d been entirely unpersuaded to believe in mind control despite impressive advances in promising technologies and nearly ubiquitous local folklore. And yet, there he lay, frozen on the ground like a butterfly trapped by soggy wings, captive by the very thought of some thin little waif with a cutesy name. None of this made sense and it deeply disturbed his reality as he allowed himself time to rest on the pine needle flooring. Slowly, involuntary convulsions eased and sporadic twitching ceased as well.
After many minutes had passed and with very little dignity remaining, Vaya Sage mustered the courage to climb the tree to recover his gear. As newly appointed assassin hunter, he feared his nerve to carry out this job might fail him.
To read the rest, purchase it on Amazon.