“Hey, what’s a kid like you doing with a sword like that?” the gruffy blacksmith asked as he eyed me suspiciously.
I didn’t really blame him. If I saw what appeared to be a preteen boy carrying a claymore nearly the same size he was on his back, hell, I’d be suspicious too. It didn’t help that I was wearing a loose black cloak and a scarf that covered the lower half of my face. The blacksmith probably thought I had stolen the sword. That would explain why he hurried out from behind his stall in the marketplace in order to stand in front of me in the street, blocking my path. But just because I understood why he did it, doesn’t mean I forgave him. His misunderstanding isn’t my fault, after all.
“SOMEBODY HELP,” I yelled, “THIS STRANGE MISTER’S TRYING TO LEAD ME INTO THE ALLEY!”
I don’t really like playing that sort of angle, but I don’t really have the time to explain myself the normal way. Besides, I knew this method would get results. Sure enough, my little outburst caused the man to look at me with shock, and then nervously look around at the passerby that had heard me as well and weren’t looking too pleased. The man backed away from me, his palms out in a gesture of harmlessness, facing the crowd.
“Wait,” He began, “It’s not what it looks-“
I kicked him the shin for good measure, giving me an opportunity to juke around him while he clutched his leg in pain. The crowd was already shouting jeers at him, some were even throwing a few things. I knew his reputation would suffer a bit because of this, but really, it’s his fault for not minding his own business.
Finally free of my unwanted attention, I continued at a brisk pace towards my destination, the local tavern. Taverns are great places to gather information; they’re well known meeting spots for adventurers, mercenaries, and military men. As a bonus, drunk men have a wonderful habit of talking about things they shouldn’t quite loudly and boisteriously. And so I made my way through the streets towards one such tavern, in order to gather information.
Upon entering through the simple swinging door, I caught a few strange looks. It wasn’t anything I didn’t expect. After all, I have the appearance of a preteen boy, and I’m dressed in dark clothes while carrying a sword. I knew that my appearance would seem suspicious no matter where I went. That’s why I arrived in the tavern relatively early in the evening, so that by the end of the night the tavern-goers would be too drunk to remember or care about my strange presence.
As I entered the tavern, I quickly made my way to a lonely table in a dimly lit corner of the room. Even though I was there to gather information, my strange appearance meant getting info the normal way (i.e. talking) wouldn’t be as effective. No one looking for a drink wants to have a conversation with a kid, especially not the type of conversation I was looking for. The first part of my information gathering plan relied on me being able to overhear another’s conversation. Again, I find these kind of tactics distasteful, but I had little choice.
As soon as I sat down, a sexy little Lilim waitress skipped over to my table. A girl like her in a bar like this is just common business sense; I have no doubt a girl like her flirts with the customers in order to get generous tips. Although, one look at her and I could tell she didn’t have to work hard for it. She had quite the impressive chest, and a shirt with ample cleavage to show it off. As she moved over to my table she wore an expression of coy sensuality, the kind she’d probably use on any other clueless tavern-goer that came in here. I assume she wore it by reflex. I say that because as soon as she got closer and saw me, with the body of a child, her expression softened into a sort of embarassed sheepishness. Say what you will about the Lilim and other Succubi, but they have a code of ethics when it comes to children. I can respect that, but it’s still pretty fucking frustrating.
“Hello! How can I help you…” The waitress paused as she deliberated on what term to call me. “…sir?”
I was grateful that she deemed me worthy of being called “sir.” I’m sure at first she must have wanted to say “young man” or “kid”. It’s a nice change to hear “sir”, even if she only said it to humor me.
“Ah, yes,” I said. “I could really go for some mead.”
“Some mead?” The Lilim waitress scrunched her face up in mock irritation. “Oh you silly boy! Mead is for adults! How about I get you a nice warm milk instead, huh big guy?”
And before I could say ‘but I actually am an adult’, she giggled and turned away and left, presumably to go fetch the milk I didnt really order. It wasn’t a lie, either. I really am an adult, I’m 26. I just happen to have the body of a 12 year old boy. I sighed. So she did really think of me as a kid, after all. But, again, I can’t blame her. I can’t blame anyone for all the bullshit I get. That doesn’t mean it makes it any easier to bear.
I leaned back in my wooden chair and rubbed my temples. I was in for a long, boring night. In fact, there was a chance it would be a fruitless one as well. I had done stake-outs and information gathering like this before, but never without any alcohol. I just hoped the cute waitress would stick around, I needed some sort of distraction to get me through the night.
I ended up finishing my warm milk fairly quickly, and then ordered several more after that. Each time, I was served by the same Lilim waitress. She was still chipper and bright each time, but she never stopped treating me like a child. It worked out for the best, though, because while she was leaning down to speak to me at “eye level” (you know, that patronizing thing adults sometimes do to give children the illusion they few them as equals), I got a pretty good view down her blouse, so I didn’t complain. Honestly, I think she caught me looking the last time, not that I tried to hide it. She didn’t say anything, but she looked rather perplexed and embarassed. I guess that serves her right for talking to me like a kid.
It wasn’t long after that incident that I began to hear the sort of conversation I was actually here for.
“Are you really thinking about going after her?”
“Got no choice, need the money after all. Hasn’t been a bounty this big in these parts in years.”
The conversation was between two armed men drinking a few tables away from me. As soon as the converation seem to drift favorably for me, I fished out a crumbled piece of parchment from inside my cloak and unfolded it. In the middle of the page, in bold black ink, was an artist’s rendition of a scantily clad Amazonian woman. The usual adornments of blood and skulls were present in order to get the message across that she was evil and dangerous. Amazons were rare around these parts, so I guess whoever was offering the bounty wanted to make sure the locals got the message that she was bad news. The top of the parchment read ‘WANTED: DEAD’. At the bottom where the words ‘ETHNEA THE UNBROKEN, 10,000 G’, which I assumed to be her name and bounty, respectively. As I did this, I concentrated my hearing toward the table with the two men; I wanted to make sure we were talking about the same person.
“You really believe that shit about her?” One guy asked.
“What shit?” The other dodged, stalling while taking a small sip from his mug.
“You know ‘what’, asshole,” the man insisted. “What they say about how she got her name.”
“‘Ethnea’? I assume her mother gave it to her.”
“No, smartass, I mean the part about her being ‘Unbroken.’ I heard it was a bit of dark irony, since she…you know..”
“…Since she likes to break the bones of her victims.” The other man reluctantly finished. “Yeah I’ve heard it.”
I had heard enough. I quickly re-crumbled the piece of parchment and stored it inside my cloak. It was now time for phase two of my plan. This part relied on me playing up my child-like appearance, which I don’t like doing, but I had little choice. I stood up from my seat and walked over to the table with the two men, who promptly turned around to look at me, immediately realizing I had overheard. They both wore scowls of disapproval as they prepared to berate me for this, until I did something they didn’t expect.
I started crying.
“Oh, no! Mister,” I wailed. “Is the big scary woman gonna come break my bones?”
“Oh jesus,” One of the men scowled. “Can’t you just fuck off? What’s a kid like you doing in here anyway.”
“Greg!”shouted the other. “Have some heart! Can’t you see he’s scared?”
“Oh shove off, Rick,” the grumpy man said before turning to me. “And you, aren’t you a little old to be crying like this?”
Well, he wasn’t wrong about that.
The one man took pity on me while the other frowned into his mug of ale and turned away. I had gotten lucky this time. I can never be quite sure how people will react to a crying child. Most of the time, especially in a tavern like this one, they react unfavorably. But I’m grateful that at least one of the two men had a soft spot for children. It made me feel guilty that I was going to exploit it, but only slightly so.
“Hey buddy,” he said reassurringly to me. “Don’t you worry, no one’s gonna hurt you, not while I’m around.”
He flexed his arms impressively, seemingly to prove to me how capable he was of protecting me. All the while he wore a huge earnest grin on his scarred and weathered face. Truly a swell guy, could have probably passed for your cool Uncle Charlie at family dinner. Although he was smiling, I could see there was still some uneasiness in his eyes. He patted me in the shoulder a little roughly, hoping that would stop my crying. Unfortunately for him, I hadn’t gotten the information I needed yet, so the tears wouldn’t stop just yet.
“B-but,” I sobbed. “W-what if she comes into town, at night? What if she sneaks into my bedroom?”
“Don’t you worry, little buddy,” The man insisted. “The big scary Amazon is hiding somewhere in the woods north of here, miles away. She’s way too far away from the town for you to worry about!”
“O-okay,” I said, wiping the tears from my eyes. “Thanks mister.”
Sometimes adults, especially ones not used to dealing with children, will panic when trying to placate them. They will give in too much to the crocodile tears, and tell them things they in all fairness should not have. In many cases, they will tell them lies, which can be harmful in its own right, but in this case the man told me a dangerous truth that an experienced father wouldn’t have let slip. He had a kind heart though, even if his grumpy partner was much wiser. I kinda hoped he wouldn’t get himself killed during his mercenary work. Kinda.
As I made my way to the bar counter to pay my tab, I spotted my dear Lilim waitress hovering around the bar, dealing with other customers. I had already left her a few gold coins as a tip on my table as compensation for the great service and company she had given me tonight. However, I still wanted a little bit of fun. As I was leaving, I saw the waitress bent over, taking an order from another table. I gave her behind a rough little smack as I walked past. She turned around initially with a look of shock and anger which changed to confusion and embarassment as she saw who it was that had given her the slap. I gave her a curt little wink and then walked out of the tavern before I had to deal with an angry tavern owner.
I guessed it was time to go camping.
Once I made it a few miles from town and was completely in the woods, I changed my attire a little bit. I was able to take off that silly scarf of mine and put on the black bandana I usually used to cover the lower half of my face. I prefered the bandana because it fits closer to my skin and doesn’t get all caught up in anything when I’m on the move. The only downside is it’s not acceptable to wear among people, attracts the wrong kind of attention from people who assume I’m some sort of bandit. I could get away with wearing the scarf since it was pretty cold around that time of year. I wasn’t too sure what I’d do once it warmed up. Maybe I’d have saved up enough money to buy a closed helmet and pretend I was some knight’s squire.
Anyway, I had found the wanted Amazon’s trail within half a day from embarking from the town. Honestly, it wasn’t too difficult; Amazons are not known for being stealthy or hard to find. I don’t think that was every really the issue with the local mercs, anyway. The reason the bounty remained unclaimed was that none of them really wanted to go up against an Amazon. Rather, you’d almost suspect she wanted to be found, with how blatant and obvious her tracks were.
It was just sunset when I spotted her campfire through the woods. I set down my gear and unpacked my looking glass. I was on a hill less that half a league away from her camp. Through the looking glass, I could see that she was cooking something over the campfire, boiling something in a large pot on the fire. I assumed she was making a soup of some kind. I was mostly looking to make sure she really was alone. The fact that she, an Amazon, was alone was both good and bad news for me.
The good news should be obvious, even to people who’ve never lifted a sword. Especially when fighting a stronger enemy, it’s almost always better to fight one-on-one. With monsters like the Amazons, that isn’t always possible. The Amazons have a culture deeply rooted in tribablism. Therefore, they have a strong sense of familial duty with members of their small villages. They don’t usually believe in ganging up on the same opponent, but you can bet that most of them go ‘man-hunting’ together as a group. So finding an Amazon that is completely alone is a rarity that I was grateful for.
However, a lone Amazon also spells bad news. As I already mentioned, Amazonian culture ties all the members together pretty tightly. There aren’t very many things that they would do alone and not as part of a village-wide event. They even treat fucking as a communal activity. The only Amazons that truly act alone are exiles, and exiled Amazons are the fucking worst, I tell you.
What makes them so bad? Well, I don’t pretend to be privy to the exact teachings of Amazonian society, but I do know that members of a tribe or village are only exiled in very extreme cases, usually violent. Now, if you know anything about Amazons, you probably know they are a pretty rowdy bunch to begin with. They’ve got no qualms tearing up human settlements and raping their potential husbands in the streets. So, imagine what one of those lumbering barbarians has to do in order to be cast out from such a brutal society. That’s the kinda shit I was dealing with.
Now, even though I’d considered myself to be above the average merc or bounty hunter, that doesn’t mean I would have wanted to fight an Amazon head-on, if I could help it. That’s why I decided to wait until nightfall. The original plan was to camp out for a few hours under the cover of the trees and hit the Amazon’s camp while she slept. I’m sure this comes as no surprise, but I place very little value in ‘honor’, so killing someone in their sleep didn’t faze me one bit, especially if I’d get paid ten thousand gold for doing so.
I’ve slept on bounty hunting excursions before. Especially when I was as far away from my quarry as I was. I’m a pretty light sleeper, too. I wasn’t too worried about being snuck up on while napping. Of course that’s a risk any hunter faces, which is why most bounty hunters travel in pairs or trios, in order to take shifts on watch. However, doing so means you have to split the gold as well. I’d decided to just travel alone, keep all the gold, and completely give up the concept of ‘deep sleep.’
In a routine fashion, I leaned myself up against a tree with my sword cradled in my arms. I closed my eyes and let my head droop down. I was asleep within seconds. It had been a long day of hiking, the main reason I didn’t want to stay awake while I waited. Fatigue can be deadly, and I needed my rest. The other reason being that I was bored from all the waiting I did the night before, trying to get information in that backwater tavern. Of course these are all excuses. I know now that I made a huge mistake.
Since I’m such a light sleeper, my eyes snapped open as soon as I felt a shadow fall over my face. I looked up and saw possibly the last thing I wanted to see right after waking up; I saw the Ethnea the Unbroken, the wanted Amazon, standing over me.
Let me tell you, she looked like a fucking brute: had to be over eight feet of muscle and raw feminine power. She was naked except for a loincloth around her waist and a necklace made of oddly-shaped little bones. I noticed she had numerous tattoos of lines and runes running up and down her arms and torso, which told me in the back of my mind that she was an accomplished warrior. In the pale moonlight I could see bits of blood coating the area around her mouth and the pointed teeth she was flashing at me in a smug grin. I immediately decided that her breath would be rancid. Her hair was a pale blonde, with streaks of mud and grime in it. It was a mess of tangles and loosened braids. Her eyes were wide and piercing, giving her a crazed look as she stared down at me.
Oh, and resting on her shoulders was a warhammer that looked more like an anvil on a pole.
Just as I was about to open my mouth and give her a sarcastic greeting, I saw her begin to move and I instinctively rolled away from my spot against the tree. I heard the loud splintering of wood behind me as I rolled. I looked back to see Ethnea had done a number on the tree I was sleeping against. With just one hand, the swing of her war-hammer had dented a good portion of the wood in the area I had been only seconds before.
Wordlessly, she whipped around and re-shouldered the war-hammer once she had realized that she had missed her mark. From the new angle, I could see her face bathed in the pale moonlight. She had this hungry look in her eyes, and her mouth was twisted into a creepy smile. Honestly, I wished she would have started taunting me or laughing or something. A silent wrecking ball of a woman out to pulverize you with a smile just creeps me the fuck out.
Of course I was cursing myself for being careless, for being so obvious in my tracking that I was the one being ambushed. But in that moment, the adrenaline was pumping so fast that I was also running through scenarios that hopefully didn’t involve my death. I considered running. Multiple times, in fact. The primal, basic instinct of mine when I looked at that eight foot tall pillar of pain and crazy was to run. But I knew better. I knew she could outrun me with my short child-like legs. I was blessed to have retained the strength of an adult male, but my stamina was severely lacking. I knew if I ran I would just die tired.
So I readied my sword, grasping it with two hands, and leveled it out in front of me, pointing towards Ethnea. As I adjusted my stance, lowering my center of gravity, I saw her smile diminish and her eyebrow go up. She probably didn’t expect me to fight back. Honestly speaking, the ideal situation didn’t involve a fight. But at that moment in time it was flight or fight, and I’d already ruled out flight. So I was determined to fight. I’m not a coward, just don’t expect me to fight fair.
I sucked in air, hissing through my teeth and fumbling my stance a little as I pretended to be injured from the first attack. Ethnea grinned as she took the bait. As she charged towards me, I reached for a pouch hidden in the sleeve of my shirt and flung the powder hidden inside at Ethnea, getting a good amount around her eyes. Truthfully, it was actually powdered Lamia venom. The venom is a mild neuro-toxin usually used during mating. In a solid form, getting the venom in the eyes has the added effect of temporary blindness coupled with excruciating pain. It’s probably not as effective on an Amazon, but it would still give me an advantage.
As expected, Ethnea stopped completely in her tracks, dropping her hammer in her rush to to attempt to rub the toxin out of her eyes. As someone with some experience in eye injuries, I can tell you that’s a bad idea. Rubbing the eyes pushes the powder around, getting it stuck in your tear ducts and prolonging the effect. I’m sure that even Ethnea in her less that ideal state of mind must have realized that a second after she started, but by then it was already too late.
I was already swinging my sword.
I swung horizontally with both hands, using all the strength in my upper body, and most of it in my lower body for the fulcrum. Given my height, I was at the perfect position to aim for her knees. The knees are a critical location, but especially so in this case because of Ethnea’s size. As my swing connected with the middle of her well-muscled leg, I felt the knee give and crush sideways. My blade was heavy, and didn’t have a true edge to it, so it wasn’t a clean cut. Rather, there was a crunch of bone and muscle, and finally tearing of the skin as it could no longer take the tension. Sometimes, when I’m feeling especially ill, I still hear that crunch as I broke Ethnea’s knee sideways.
Ethnea immediately forgot about her eyes, as she toppled backwards into the dirt, screaming in pain.
Well, I thought, that proves her vocal chords work.
At this point the battle was pretty much over, me being the victor. It happened so quickly, but if not for my quick reflexes I would doubtless be the one screaming on the ground as Ethnea took great pleasure in breaking me. I was about to walk over to her and begin the smug monologue before securing the kill, but experience told me I should break her legs first. So I did. After losing a few bounties I planned to bring in alive, I learned to break the legs of all my victims as soon as I could on principle. If it wasn’t such a wasted effort in most cases, I’d break their arms too. That removes the possibility of them getting away or somehow turning the tables on you once you’ve incapacitated them.
Ethnea was just laying on the ground, very still so as not to upset her mangled legs. She was doing a lot of screaming and crying though. I walked over to where head was, and crouched down to speak softly into her ear.
“Guess we can’t call you Ethnea the ‘Unbroken’ anymore huh?” I goaded. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but I think your knee might bend both ways now.”
She looked over at me, and our eyes met. I guessed all that crying had finally washed out the Lamia venom and she could see again. Good. I wanted her to see.
“Nothing to say? Maybe all you can do is scream?” I wondered aloud. “Well, I guess I better finish you off then.”
I pulled out the dagger I usually hid in my waistband, bringing it close to her neck. It was extremely sharp, unlike my sword. I usually use this to finish off bounties quickly. I don’t care much for inflicting unnecessary pain, besides breaking a few bones to incapacitate. I’ve found that most people who take their time killing someone eventually end up giving their victim too much opportunity to fight back. I say just get it over with.
“Wait,” She gasped, just as my knife touched the skin of her neck.
I laughed. I really did. It was just so surprising I couldn’t stop myself. It was a genuine laugh too, none of that fake shit I sometimes put on for show. There aren’t many occasions where I’ve laughed like that.
“Here I was, wondering if you could speak,” I said between giggles. “And the first thing you say is ‘wait’?”
She opened her mouth to say something else but was cut off by me running the knife quickly and deeply across her neck, ear to ear, severing her jugular with a spray of blood. The only noises after that were the fatal rumbles that gurgled forth from her ruined throat. I have no need to listen to the last words of a criminal. I’m not a judge, nor a priest. I don’t care. I just kill them for the money.
After that it was time to claim my prize, her head. For that, I would use my sword to chop it off. Chopping off a head is actually not easy, the bones of the neck turn out to be quite resilient. The best head-chopping implements are both sharp and heavy. My sword is certainly heavy, but its duller than a village whore. So it took me a few swings to get it off. The blade crushes the neck, but doesn’t exactly cut through. I eventually got it, leaving the stump ragged and mangled.
I stuck the head to a hook on my backpack and cleaned up the rest of my things, ready to go. Before I went to collect the bounty, I decided I would check out Ethnea’s campsite, see if I earned myself a little bonus loot. Now, you might be wondering how I expected to be able to claim my bounty, what with my child-like appearance and all. You’d be right to assume that walking in to the constable’s office as I was would be a tremendously bad idea and would earn me no gold. The solution is that I knew a few individuals of questionable repute with connections to the local mercenary guilds and law enforcement. I would give them the head with which to collect the bounty in my place in return for sharing a percentage of the gold with them. It’s painful for me to practically give my share of the gold away when I did all the work for it, but it’s better than getting nothing.
Having arrived at Ethnea’s camp just a half hour later, I noticed her fire was still burning, and the pot I saw earlier was still boiling away, cooking away at whatever recipe that crazed Amazon thought sounded appetizing. I decided that I would never be hungry enough to eat a deranged monster’s shitty cooking, and instead started rummaging through the bags and sacks inside the humble burlap tent set up nearby. I was lucky to find a long pipe and some loose tobacco to go with it. It was pretty utilitarian looking, but I didn’t mind. It had been a while since I’d had the comfort of a pipe. I began to look through the rest of the bags.
What I found confused me.
Bones. I found a bag full of bones. At first I thought they were chicken bones, but they were too large and too dense to be from a chicken. Upon closer inspection, they appeared to be human bones, knuckle bones to be exact. With a bit of hesitation, I held one up to my one hand. The size matched.
These were the bones of children.
There were so many too, all of them knuckle bones. I had to assume they were trophies of some sort. I took in these events, dumbfounded in a numb, clinical manner, but I kept going through the bags and laying the bones out on the ground to count them. Grouping them in pairs of ten, I determined there were at least six sets in the bag, though it’s possible Ethnea only took one hand from each victim. With a bit of of a stunned stupor, I realized I had to look at what was cooking in the pot.
Never before had I considered what my bounties had done to be condemned. It didn’t matter to me. That kind of stuff was up to the law and the men who enforced it to decide. I was only in it for the gold. I would have killed them (and have, on several occasions) even if they begged and pleaded their innocence to me. It didn’t matter whether they were guilty or not, just that someone was paying money to see them dead (it helped that this route was more legal than others).
But as I approached the bubbling and boiling pot over the fire, I began to cross a threshold. A threshold which held back the things which cannot be unknown or unseen. I walked through a one way door. I went from tapping on the glass to diving into the fish bowl. I opened the pot.
A pair of eyeballs, round as marbles and blue in the iris stared up at me, floating in the boiling water like lilies in a pond. From the dark froth there gurgled various bits of unidentifiable meat, some with the skin still on or in various stages of becoming unattached. I knew the meat was all human. I closed the pot and wretched.
I had never heard of monsters eating humans. I’d never had experience with cannibalism-no, could I really consider it cannibalism? Monsters always had a hunger for humans, but that hunger was almost always sexual. It was never, well, like this. I can’t really describe what went through my head. I began to think of how I killed Ethnea, and suddenly I wished I had been crueler. I began to wish I had shoved a hot poker up her asshole and cut out her eyes. I began to feel angry, and for a brief moment I felt comforted that I had killed Ethnea, that I had done some good in the world. That maybe those dead children would find peace because of me.
But no, it was wrong of me to think that. I wasn’t some vigilante. I didn’t avenge dead children. I was a bounty hunter, a killer for hire. I don’t do revenge or killing for good. The fact that I was shocked by what I had just seen was laughable, even. The sum of my crimes was certainly equal to what I had seen here. For at that moment I knew that I was a monster too. I am a human being; I am the most disgusting, most vile, most despicable monster in the world there is.
The twang of bows being drawn drew me out of my self reflection. My hands quickly went to the sword on my back as I looked around. I realized quickly it was too late. Out of the forest stepped several Amazons, each advancing towards me slowly with arrows drawn in their long bows. I was surrounded. I quickly put my hands up. It’s possible to fight off a group of attackers armed with melee weaponry. A sword or an ax can be dodge or blocked. You have to be extremely fast to dodge a single arrow. Dodging multiple arrows from different angles is simply not possible. Sometimes you have to know when to surrender.
The Amazons kept advancing on me, forming a tight circle around me with no escape. I waited patiently, trying to stop my heart thundering my chest. As they got closer, one of the Amazons spotted the head hanging on my backpack and her eyes lit up with recognition.
“Oh, you’re here for the bounty too?” I said quickly with false enthusiasm. “By all means, take it; it’s yours.”
The closest Amazon lowered her bow, and snatched the head off my back, inspecting the face closely. I guess it looked like someone she knew, because her face quickly shifted into one of rage.
“Bag him.” She hissed to her companions.
Suddenly a sack was tied around my head, and I could no longer see. It didn’t matter much though, because a second later I felt a heavy thud on the back of my head, and I was out cold.