The Assignment

Captain Von Delgo is a man who is lost. He is known as a turncoat, a hero and a mass-murderer. He has no beginning, and as far as he can see he has no end. Which makes him just about the most dangerous man alive. After the completion of his last job Captain is on his way out to receive his payment and rest up. His plans are delayed when a religious sect known as the Ravens pull him in with an offer. Captain faces a dilemma, he has never once failed in his assignments. But accepting this one and succeeding would change the way of the world, change everything that everyone has ever known, plunge it into chaos. But he has also never once turned down a job, and with his life quickly descending into a chaos of its own despair, he can see no reason why not to accept. After all, how hard can it be to kill an immortal?

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18. Chapter 18

The beach of one of the richest islands around swept up from the sea. It ended at a line of thick vegetation. Here and there, the faint pale white of the sand through the trees told you where paths were. The Captain gazed around, his eyes constant on the lookout for the natives that made the island rich. His eyes caught flashes of gold among the greenery and he smiled. They were out there, and they were watching.

‘I’ll let you off here, shall I?’ Hellvon asked, walking up behind the Captain and resting on the rails. ‘Once you’re off my boat we can begin ‘collecting’.’

The Captain nodded dully as he watched the flashes of gold disappear. ‘The natives know we’re here, they’ll be on the lookout for you.’

‘That don’t bother me, as long as I get my gold.’

‘The peeling factories are further along the coast, but I suppose you know that?’

Hellvon roared loudly, his body jerking as he shook with laughter. ‘Do I know that? I don’t care where they are, I’m just here for the gold!’ he grinned in the Captain’s face and pushed himself away from the rails.

Half an hour later, the Captain stood upon the shore and watched the small rowboat that had deposited them on the island row back to the ship.

'We're on the south-east bank of islands. Ships take a regular trade route past this island. If you stand on the beach with a fire torch in your hand, you will be able to draw a ship in and take that back to where ever you need to go. Or you can stay here. You'll understand if I suddenly leave without saying goodbye in the night, I've got an assignment to do,' the Captain told them as he watched the ship haul anchor and set sail.

The group of Ravens were silent as they listened to the Captain and soaked in the news.

‘We understand,’ spoke up Kion after a minute. He paused, licking his lips as he looked nervously at the Captain from the side of his eyes. ‘We don’t know how to thank you,’ he said at last. ‘We never told you, or attempted it, but we had orders to kill you when we found you.’ He paused again, eyes flickering away from the Captain. ‘But you did save our lives from the Gháulds, and risked your own, and from the pirates when we were too ill to look after ourselves-‘

‘Don’t thank me!’ the Captain cried, his face contorting into a snarl as he stepped back from the group. ‘

‘Please don’t,’ he repeated, quieter this time. ‘The last person who thanked me is giving me nightmares. He didn’t deserve to die the way he did, but the past is not changeable… You never get a chance to correct your mistakes, only wait for the future to give you an opportunity to make up for it.’

The words ceased from the Captain’s tongue. He breathed out slowly and then drew it sharply back in. The last person he had said those words to was Holin. The voices of the Ravens seemed to filter out as he stared at the ground as it moved and contorted, arranging itself into a portrait of the young No One. He should never have said thank you.

He breathed out again and looking up he said, ‘Tell Ravenwood, if you ever see him again, that I’m on the job. The High Lord will die. As for my pay, he said he would give me anything; my signature is still on the scroll. I want nothing from him, nothing ever again. And if he is smart, he should never want anything from me either.’

‘You will leave us now? You will not rest first and perhaps help us find something to eat? Please, eat something first before you disappear,’ pleaded Kion, stepping towards the Captain, his arms outstretched welcomingly.

The Captain shook his head. ‘I know this island well; I will find something on the way. Goodbye.’ He looked at all of the Ravens in turn, offering them only a nod as goodbye before turning and making his way towards the jungle.

Kion, twitching nervously, took a hurried step forwards. ‘Wait! This… This man who thanked you, what happened to him?’

The Captain stopped suddenly, sending a spray of sand through the air as he did so. The air he gave off was so still that the Ravens thought he must have frozen.

‘There was… desperation.’ The Captain’s voice carried silently across the sand, the Ravens had to strain to hear the whisper. ‘The Tolvas payed… someone… to put him on one of their ships. I don’t know what he went through before he died, but I hope he was able to spare a moment to forgive the man. I hope he died anyway.’

The sand shifted and rolled down the hill as the Captain continued walking. The Ravens seemed to freeze, with only the sound of their harsh breathing as they watched his back.

One of them broke the silence. ‘I hope he finds something in the future to make up for what he did. Not that I can think of anything that can make up for what he did.’

Kion made a complicated sign in front of his chest as he bowed his head. ‘Let us pray that he will find peace for his soul. If there is any left.’

 

~2~

 

The jungle closed and squeezed against the Captain as he struggled against its vines. Sweat constantly dripped into his eyes as he hacked and sawed a path with a sword he had borrowed from the boat. With each swipe he cursed the man he was going to see. Why’d he have to make himself a house so hard to get at? He wondered. Because he is the fattest person I know. It's the only reason he's so rich. However, it was a place to hide.

The sun shone brightly in the sky, to the Captain it felt like a dragon was breathing on him and basking him in flames. His clothes were soaked from sweat and his mouth was desperately dry. It was worse than the desert. At least when he walked through the desert he could see the dangers before they saw him. In the jungle, everything was compressed, held so close together it was impossible to see everything that was there. Poisonous plants and flowers hid behind canopies and leaves that the Captain would brush against, only to spring back as he realised what he had almost touch. He knew from experience that the flowers were almost more dangerous than the Shadows. They looked so pretty, they drew you in and begged of you to pluck them. Then they would come alive and eat you. Now and then the Captain would pass one and it would give off a rancid smell as something horrid and brown tinged with red oozed from it’s roots.

Hacking away a small clearing free of dangers, the Captain took a short break. He leaned against a mossy tree and closed his eyes, gulping madly for air that could be sucked up with a straw or sliced like cake. Quietly, the Captain stepped back from the tree, his hand moving slowly to his coat. The creatures that had constantly yammered at him since entering had ceased. Every rustle of the wind through the trees and every snap of twigs on the ground he heard as a gun shot through the air. He stopped when he was on the edge of the small clearing, and dropped to the floor just as a bullet whistled into the tree beside him.

‘That was a warning,’ a silky voice from the trees shouted to him. ‘Surrender your weapon, take it from your coat and place it on the ground in front of you. Keep your back to my voice and begin walking.’

The Captain crawled back to the tree on the other side of the clearing. Using it as a stand, he hoisted himself up and started to turn. A bullet smashed into the trunk just below his hand, shards of wood chips blew through the air stabbing the side of his face and his hand.

‘Drop your gun and do as I say,’ the voice ordered patiently. It’s silkiness seemed to be replaced by a faintly robotic whine.

‘Alright!’ the Captain surrendered, raising his hands above his head to show he had given up. Slowly lowering his right hand, he reached into his pocket and withdrew one of his pistols. He let it drop to the floor and winced as it hit the dirt. He hoped his capturer would pick it up. He really didn’t want to lose it. They didn’t make guns like that anymore. Stepping over it, he picked up his sword and began hacking once more at the jungle.

After what seemed like an age the jungle started to clear, the vines becoming thinner as the land slopped sharply downwards. Suddenly the jungle cleared and a metal wall fenced along the top with barbed wire appeared. The voice behind ordered the Captain to stop. There was a low rumble, and then the metal gate slid into the ground. The Captain was ordered forward again. As soon as he had passed, the gate there was another low rumble and the gate raised itself back into place.

Behind the fence was short chopped grass. It lay dying; in places, dirt patches took away the beauty of the grass. Ahead stood a two-story house with a flat roof. A ramp of pale wood ran up the side, a veranda surrounded the house leading to the door set in the second floor. There were only windows on the down stairs floor so it seemed the only way to enter would be up the ramps. The Captain continued walking after pausing to take in the strange house. He headed up the ramp, walked along the left side of the house and came to a stop next to a table with chairs.

As he stopped, a door in the side of the house slid open and a silver-skinned man walked out and paid a tray with cups and a jug of juice on the table before retreating.

Hearing no more of the voice behind him, the Captain sat. After his trek through the jungle, the juice looked welcomingly refreshing. He licked his lips. If he moved forwards, would the mysterious voice behind him say anything? He leaned forward, prepared to sit back the moment someone spoke. Silence. The jug was made of light plastic, the same as the cups. He poured himself a drink and sat back, tasting it as he did so. It tasted strongly of peaches and there was a slight fizz to it. He frowned; it tasted familiar. Sticking his feet up on the table, he relaxed, taking another sip of his drink and making sure that the movements were noticeable. Any moment soon, someone would arrive. He grinned as a pair of heavy footsteps sounded on the planks behind him.

Rising from his seat he turned. A very, very large man stood watching him, dressed in even larger robes. His face was gold, his hair silver with old age. His flabby face moved and shook as the muscles strained to form a smile. He took a step forwards and his whole body rocked and wobbled. His hands caught the Captain by the arms and before the Captain could object he had been pulled into a bear hug. Gold flesh and rich cloth enveloped him. Just as he began to suffocate in the black, he was released and went stumbling to the floor.

‘Welcome! Von Delgo!’ the man’s voice boomed out.

The Captain tried to straighten a smile as he rose to his feet and tried to ignore the sharp poking pain in his chest.

‘Hello, Hel-Cohre. Still as large as ever I see. Life is good then?’

‘Good! Good is good! How is it with you?’ he boomed, settling himself down in the other seat and pouring himself a drink. ‘I see you have already started on the juice!’

The Captain smiled and held up his glass as he sat down. ‘I couldn’t see you and I was thirsty, so yes.’

'Yes! In this heat I don't blame you!' Hel-Cohre wiped his brow with a small piece of material that seemed to be lost in his hand. 'So what brings you here?’

'An assignment. It's kind of a secret, but it involves going to Gamdagleeare Luff.'

'Gamdagleeare Luff!’ Hel-Cohre’s cup slipped from his hands and hit the floor; the juices spilled and fizzed wildly on the floor. ‘Haven't you been in civilization?’ he demanded, scooping up his cup and refilling it. He caught the Captain’s blank face and froze. ‘Oh, of course you wouldn't have been. What a silly thing for me to say!'

'Why's it a silly thing to say?'

'You're wanted by the Shadows man! Don't you know that? They say you were seen killing Shadows! Eyewitnesses they say they've got!'

The Captain’s eyes widened. It had completely skipped his mind, in fact he hadn’t spared a thought to it since leaving the harbour. How long ago it seemed. And impossible, he still couldn’t understand how he had been able to kill two shadows. Unless it was a trick, or a plan to look like he had.

‘I had forgotten,’ he said quietly. Getting in the City of Shadow was going to be a problem then. And he had told Hellvon who he was, what a stupid mistake!

‘How could you have forgotten?’ cried Hel-Cohre, waving his hands wildly. ‘Every creature is looking for you. The Shadows have put such a reward on your head that the Bounty Hunters have taken to fighting the people to prevent them from finding you before they do!

So while he had been lost at sea, the world was tearing it apart trying to find him? ‘Do they want me dead or alive?’ he asked suddenly, swirling the juice in his glass around. Hel-Cohre hadn’t refilled his empty glass, and the juice still tasted like peaches.

'They want you dead, but are willing to pay more if you are brought alive.’

'Ah. And is this why you sent someone into the jungle to find me and bring me here? And then lay out drugged drink?'

A blank look crossed Hel-Cohre's face as he glanced at the jug in the middle of the table.

'So far you have just pretended to drink from your glass. The juice is fizzy and tastes of peaches. The strong peach taste is to hide the fact that Melondrat tastes like dirt, which the peach overrides. But it doesn’t override the fizz. You can get me once with this, but you don’t get to get me a second time.’

A look of surprise started to appear on his face. It took a while to reach all of it but it got there in the end. 'You threw your gun away into the jungle! My servant picked it up, you’re unarmed, there is nothing you can do.’

The Captain chuckled. ‘Is that what you think? I changed a long time ago Hel-Cohre, I carry two, now.’ As the chuckle escaped his lips his pulled out his second pistol and aimed the barrel at the wobbling target before him.

A strangled gurgle filled the air and it took the Captain a moment to realise it was coming from Hel-Cohre as he stared wildly in panic as the gun.

'I wouldn't actually have turned you in for the reward!' he lied. 'I've got enough money as it is!' He jiggled his body for emphasis.

'Though you are rich, you have never actually once been to a peeling factory!' the Captain accused angrily. Then, remembering that Hel-Cohre was not unlike himself, he lowered the gun.

'Well!’ replied Hel-Cohre in indignation as he flustered at the accusation. ‘I've still got enough as it is!' Placing his cup down on the tray and he clapped his hands twice. The silver bodied servant appeared from the door carrying another tray of drinks. He placed it on the table, picked up the other tray and departed.

'I would never have traded you in!' Hel-Cohre continued after the interruption. 'Really I just brought you here because I wanted to see an old friend.'

The Captain snorted. No one ever wanted to see anyone just to catch up. Unless you had something to trade, or for business.

'As it so happens, I was coming here anyway,' he said, returning the pistol to his coat.

Shock hit Hel-Cohre’s face as it split in horror. 'What for?' he demanded. 'I haven't hosted any more shooting parties since you were last here! I've been true to my word!'

'I didn’t come because of anything that happened in the past.'

'Are you sure?'

'Yes,' the Captain assured. He wasn’t sure how he would have reacted if Hel-Cohre had admitted to hunting No Ones. The idea scared him. Had he changed so much in so many years that now he was selling No Ones as slaves to mad scientists? He had. Would he now turn a blind eye to the sport played by Hel-Cohre?

'Oh, that's good!' exclaimed Hel-Cohre, sighing loudly with relief. ‘Wine?’ he asked, pouring two glasses of rich red liquid. He downed his in one shot and poured another. 'So what are you here for?'

'I told you, I'm on an assignment and I need to get to Gamdagleeare luff.'

'And I told you,’ replied Hel-Cohre patiently, ‘you'll never get there! You're wanted.'

Sighing, the Captain fingered his cup, feeling the imperfections in the glass. He knew it wasn’t poisoned, it was made of the finest gold glass in the land. Hel-Cohre wouldn’t risk him dropping it by keeling over dead.

‘I need to,’ he said at last. ‘I made a promise, and I’m being paid an awful lot to do this.’

‘Hah! There is no price high enough to induce a man to go to Gamdagleeare Luff for anything. What is yours? Because I guarantee you it is not enough, you should have asked double.’

Freedom? The peace of being alone? Maybe it was worth it, but that was most likely the price he would be paid in the end whether he succeeded or not. What were the chances of survival? Of getting inside the City of Shade, a place no one had ever seen unless they were a shadow, and of killing the High Lord, one of the most powerful creatures on the world?

For a moment the Captain felt like agreeing, standing and walking away. Hel-Cohre would not stop him, no one on the island would stop him. Unless they were out to kill him, which by the sounds of it was everyone. A frown rested on his brow as he thought. Death lay at both ends of the door. Chances of survival relied only on how good his ability to stay alive was. Which, though he didn’t want to boast, was uncannily good. He swore quietly under his breath. Hel-Cohre was still waiting for an answer. Promises! He always had to promise, to swear his loyalty to the closest power, or to swear to protect the abused and innocent. His tongue should be sawn off and then thrown to the fish.

‘I promised,’ he said at last. ‘It doesn’t matter the price, I’m not doing it for money.’

It’s going to end the world. It is going to cause chaos, and a war we haven’t seen for a hundred years. The Trenches will be cleared out, the outposts filled with the bodies of swarming armies and we will simply fall under the rule of the Shadows in the end of it all when they finally leave their halls to kill us.

Despite the fear that Shadows were everywhere, watching, keeping control, making people disappear if they spoke out, it was misplaced. The Shadows relied on anarchy and fear of them to keep control. It was rare to actually see a Shadow that wasn’t just a simple shade with no mind.

But, war was where he belonged, truly, fighting was the thing he had been born into.

‘So you promised, hooray for that. Stupid. You won’t get anywhere near the palace. You won’t even find it. I know the rumours and the stories told in secret. Some people believe that just because you were the only man to fight alongside the Shadows that they told you the secrets of how to enter their home. I do not believe. The Shadows would never have accepted you, would never have shown you their home. So what do you want from me?’ asked Hel-Cohre as he downed his drink and pushed the empty bottle into a slot that had opened in the table. It dropped and disappeared.

The Captain’s mind was a whirlwind of memories, all running and falling apart, being blown to different corners. The strongest memories attacking the weakest to remain on top. He remembered changing sides to fight with the No Ones, but he could not remember a moment before that time. Had he ever been inside the City of Shade? Did he know the way? He knew it was on the middle of Gamdagleeare Luff, that was about it. Could be believe the stories, would that make them true and his job all the more easier? He had been made into a living legend, that’s why the Ravenwood wanted him.

‘I need a place to hang out for a little while. To work out a plan of attack. I plan to go to the City of Shade. I need time to think, and I cannot get that time outside in the world. No one comes here, you keep them away. I’ll be safe. And I’ll cut your throat and peel the skin from your belly if you so even dare to send out a signal.’ The Captain glared, pulling himself to his feet as he strode over to Hel-Cohre, a knife held tightly in his hand.

‘You shall get all the rest you need, all the peace and quiet your heart desires!’ Hel-Cohre quickly promised, holding up his hands in surrender as he stared at the knife.

The Captain’s hand dropped, the knife disappearing into his coat like everything else did in the abyss.

‘I will keep you safe, but now it is late,’ Hel-Cohre carried on, hands protectively clutching his belly, as he eagerly sought to put the Captain at ease. ‘You have come a long way and I am not a man to throw a friend into the cold, my servant shall prepare a room for you. You may have a bath to refresh yourself if you wish before you sleep. You can even do it the other way round.’ With surprising agility, he sprang to his feet, his flab shaking wildly as it adjusted.

‘Okay,’ the Captain agreed. ‘I’ll take that bath. Then perhaps you can show me around your charming house before I retire. I want to make sure there is nothing here that wasn’t the last time I visited.’

‘Of course,’ Hel-Cohre oozed charm as he swung his arms wide and pushed the Captain towards the door that had just opened in the wall. ‘Nothing has changed, you will see.’

As the night gleamed in the Captain lay in bed, refreshed after his bath and satisfied that Hel-Cohre would not attempt a murder in the night. Yawning, he felt his eyes droop and then finally close as he allowed his body to drift into sleep. Images formed in his mind, his eyes flicked. He was chatting with the Ravens. They shape-shifted suddenly, turning into Shadows. They chased him through an underground jungle, their faces gleaming wet with blood, their teeth pointed and sharp as razor blades against his skin as they caught him and brought him to the floor. Just before his final breath was about to leave and his flesh made to stretch over drums, another Shadows appeared from the dark. Tall, and impossibly white. It spoke one word and everything ceased. Just as his face began to become clear, the Captain woke.

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