Chapter 1: A Child Mercenary
Jonathan Light was well along in his years when he was faced with the worst situation of his life. He had instantly, but secretly, sought help. But he had little to offer as a reward, and most passing mercenaries hadn't taken it. The risk, they'd said, wasn't worth the insultingly low reward. Twenty copper coins for killing a crime lord? Some of the mercenaries had laughed at the elderly novelist. Experienced and amateur alike, every present sellsword had declined the offer.
Jonathan turned from his desk to face his young granddaughter. "Andria."
"Grandpa, you look tired."
"I'm . . . yes, tired."
Jonathan had recently returned from the tavern where traveling mercenaries usually dropped in. Twenty had turned him down before he returned to his small two-story house near the edge of town.
"Andria, when you grown up," he said, "please don't let anyone make you do anything you shouldn't do."
The old man smiled. "Nothing. Nothing." Ruffling his granddaughter's hair, he continued, "I might have to go away soon. I don't want what's happening to me . . . to happen to you. When I leave, I'll take you to Miss Kenna's house."
"Yay! Miss Kenna!" Andria grinned and sat down on her knees. She pressed her hands together and put them to her mouth in an imitation of the woman in question. Then, looking up, she asked, "When will you be back?"
"I don't know."
Jonathan took a sheet of paper from his desk. "Want to hear a story, Andria?"
"Yeah! Which one?"
"A new one—a true story about good people who dedicate their lives to helping people in need."
"They're heroes then. Miss Kenna says anyone who is good and helps people who need help is a hero."
"Yes, you could say that. These people are heroes. They live in Treviri and travel the world to fight bad people and scary monsters. These people are warriors, healers, monks—like Miss Kenna, archers, scouts . . . there are a lot of them. There has to be, in order to fight all the bad things in the world."
"Is Miss Kenna one of them?"
"No. But people like Miss Kenna are. They're called Seekers. They're said to have abilities beyond those known to us—stretching possibility's limits. Almost magic. But it's a special gift. There are people who are born with these abilities. Whether they actually become Seekers is, of course, their own choice."
"What kind of abilities are they?"
"I'm not entirely sure. I've heard tell that it's like reaching your full potential early in life and being able to add on to it—to make it better."
"What you're able to do. Your full potential would be what you're able to do based on your natural limits—like age, build, and other things. But you can make it better. It's strange, isn't it? Being able to do your very best, then do better?"
Andria kept listening. But before her grandpa could continue, there was a knock on the front door. Jonathan knew the sound of the knock. "Stay here," he said to Andria. He descended the stairs, clutching the railing. When he opened the door, the man he didn't want to see stood in the doorway.
"Hello, Mister Light. I assume you've started rewriting your manuscript in the way the incident really happened."
"I haven't had the time to work on it, Opeil. But—"
"Then should I remove your distractions?"
Opeil pointed in the house past Jonathan, toward Andria, who was peering out from behind the staircase.
"You won't touch her!"
Opeil raised a fist and sank it into Jonathan's stomach. "I'll touch what I will, Light. Don't make me wait another day or that girl's going to be stuck on the end of my blade. So get working. Now!"
The door shut. Still recovering from the punch, Jonathan looked around at Andria, who asked, "Is he one of the bad people the Seekers fight?"
Jonathan waited a moment to catch his breath. "Yes," he said. "He's exactly what the Seekers fight. From now on, whenever he comes to the house, hide."
A day passed. Jonathan reluctantly rewrote his novel's manuscript. He kept the old one, because he had no intention of releasing this altered one if he could find a way to get rid of the crimelord Opeil. While he was working, Andria read his old stories—ones he had written especially for her. Neither of them heard the door open, but they both heard the footsteps on the stairs.
"Hide!" Jonathan whispered to Andria, who crawled under Jonathan's bed. A moment later, Opeil arrived.
"Light! Good to see you hard at work. And I see you're doing the right manuscript this time. But what's this?"
Opeil picked up a stack of paper from under Jonathan's chair. "Is this the manuscript I told you to throw away?"
"I needed it for reference to the events in the new one."
"Hm . . . well, that's reasonable, but I need to make sure you're not thinking about releasing the old one. So I'll take that girl who's hiding under the bed. Oh, and don't even think about trying to stop me. I'm no Seeker, but I assure you, my fists are as deadly as any blade. If you do good on the story and get it out on time, I'll give the kid back, unharmed. If not, I'll sell her to the eastern slave merchants."
Andria didn't scream or cry as she was kidnapped. "You're taking this well," Opeil commented as he walked down the stairs.
"Because you're a bad person. And Seekers beat up bad people."
If the girl's age had been in the double digits, she would have been beaten for such a comment. But Opeil simply laughed. "Seekers are nothing but a myth. And even if they do exist, they're not about to save you. And even if they did that, there's no way they'd ever get past me."
A person in a dark cloak with white edges watched the muscular, unshaven man walk away with an unwilling child in tow. The same person watched an old man come out of the house from with the previous two had come. This one headed in the opposite direction, toward the tavern. Interested, the cloaked person followed.
He was reduced to begging. Jonathan pleaded with the mercenaries at the tavern to save his granddaughter. The cloaked person walked in as he was rejected by a tall mercenary with a long sword at his belt.
"Can you help me, good sir? My granddaughter—"
"Sorry, gramps. I heard your story. I'm not takin' Opeil on. I'd just do what he says if I was you. If it's any help, I can tell you that he likes to read about heroes failing against people like him."
"What!?" Jonathan exclaimed. "Doesn't that ruin the entire story?"
"He did the same thing to Canien Wend not too long ago. Surprised you didn't hear about it."
"I don't want to."
"I don't blame you. Good luck, old man."
Jonathan looked around at the group of mercenaries. None of them had agreed to help him, at least not for the price he'd set. He looked around for anyone new to the tavern. He spotted a female figure in a black and white cloak, sitting at the bar. Although there was noise, the tavern was quiet enough for him to hear her and the bartender converse.
"Hey there, lassie. What can I getcha?" the bartender asked.
"Water? Aye, ye not be of drinkin' age?"
The woman—or girl—didn't answer.
"Well, ya look t'be 'bout . . . ya look like . . . nineteen, tops? Fifteen, mins?"
"The water. Please."
"Aye. Certainly. Sorry 'bout that."
A girl at the tavern? Was she a mercenary? Jonathan was curious. Maybe she could help him. Then again, if seasoned, aged mercenaries were turning him down, he didn't think a teenager would be of much more use.
"Here ya go. Water. That's two coppers."
The girl gave her thanks and put five copper coins on the table.
"Lassie, the water's two . . ."
"You were concerned for me, if only a bit—about my age. It was unnecessary. But I appreciate it. Besides, you're low this week, aren't you?"
This girl was rather strange. Her accent was northern, but she didn't cut her words off as most northerners did. She had identified a financial problem with the bartender, and she showed more consideration than most of the other customers. Just maybe, she could also save a child from a certain manipulative crimelord? Her insight was good—but he had only seen one example, and although his heart told him it was wrong, he was looking for someone who could kill. Jonathan considered approaching her. Before he did so, she came to him.
"Mister Light," she said. "Where did Opeil take your granddaughter?"
"You'll help me?"
The bartender hadn't misjudged. This girl was certainly a teenager. Her body wasn't visible beneath the cloak, but her height and her face were those of a teenager of fifteen to nineteen. Her voice was also young, but much more level and controlled than most people her age.
"I'll help you," the girl said. "Please tell me first, if you know, where the child is being held."
"Opeil's house, I think. Factory, maybe? Whichever it is, he lives there."
"I'll go at once. I only need to return your granddaughter unharmed and convince Opeil to leave you alone, correct?"
"Yes. But will you be okay?"
The girl smiled. It was something Jonathan hadn't expected from her, but it wasn't a bad thing. Her smile was rather pretty. "You're concerned for me too. Or are you just worried that I might fail to bring the child back safely?"
"Well, admittedly . . . both. It's a bit odd to see a girl of your age taking on a task like this, so I'm concerned both for your wellbeing and for my granddaughter's."
"You're a good man, Mister Light. I wish more people were like you. Please trust me for now. I promise you, you and your granddaughter won't be bothered by that man after today."
"What is your name? I'd like to know so that I can tell my granddaughter who it was who saved her."
"Naomi. Naomi Revertere."
With that, she left. When Jonathan looked down, only five of the twenty copper coins he was offering were gone. He hadn't noticed Naomi take them, but he was thankful that she'd left him enough to live off.
Naomi arrived at the factory soon enough. It was, in fact, a factory, albeit inactive. As she put her hand on the door, it opened, and a young woman stepped out, looking quite depressed. Seeing Naomi, she said, "You're not another one of his whores, are you? No. You don't look it. You're just a kid."
"I'm here for a girl child who was kidnapped. Have you seen her?"
"Aye, the redhead kid? 'Bout six or seven. You gonna help her, by all means, go ahead."
"You bear resentment for Opeil?"
"Girlie, if I didn't, I'd be either an idiot or evil. See this?" The woman rolled up her sleeve to reveal a light engraving on the back of her hand. "It's sort of a magic bond. When it's like this, when Opeil calls me, I have to come. Otherwise . . . bad things happen."
"I might be able to help."
"If you could just kill that man, I'd be grateful. Watch out though, girlie. If he gets his hands on you, you're not gonna like what happens. You're a pretty thing. I don't think he could resist, even if he wanted to."
Naomi heeded the warning and entered the factory. It was a relatively small place. All of the equipment for whatever purpose was packed in close. There was a single, long stairway in front of her that led to a second floor where, Naomi guessed, she'd find her objective. She started up the stairway and was met by a guard. Wielding a short spear, he stopped Naomi just before the stairs.
"Stop. You a student? Doin' field research? If so, leave. This place is restricted."
"I'm sure you can find it in your heart to let me pass. I want nothing more than to save the life of a little girl."
"Ah, you a northern girl. Ya got the accent. Ya human? Elf? Pretty, that's f'sure. Say you gonna save a kid? That's good. Go on ahead. But . . . don't tell Opeil I let you in, else I get a beatin'."
"You were just seeing to a possible intruder from the back and didn't see me come in," Naomi said. "I have nothing more to tell."
The guard liked this girl. Her lie sounded like the honest truth, and in addition, it was a lie to help him. He hoped she wouldn't go and get herself killed by Opeil.
"Be careful of Opeil. He's a powerful sorcerer, and a martial artist at that. One punch could be the equivalent of a guillotine, so watch yourself up there."
"Thanks. But I'm not worried about a sorcerer."
Naomi headed up the stairs. Protective spells in the center, she thought. Just skittle around them and . . . I'm at the top! There were three doors on this floor, one on each wall. She quietly opened the door to her left. Immediately, she slammed it shut and backed away. Every one of her senses had screamed, "DEATH" at the moment her toe entered the room. Heart racing, she took a deep breath and turned to the middle door. This one wasn't trapped, but Naomi's fear remained, and she was cautious as she stepped into the room.
"Andria Light?" she said. "Are you in here?"
Her answer came as a small tug on her cloak. She looked down. A little girl was gazing up at her. "Are you a Seeker?" she asked.
Naomi put a finger to her lips. "Sh. There's someone else here."
Naomi stepped swiftly behind a cabinet just as the door opened. Opeil walked in. "Hey. Kid. You didn't go and try to get into the other rooms, did you?"
"No," Andria said. "I was here."
"The ripper was unsettled. Maybe it was my fool of a guard. But to someone like him, I'm surprised he didn't just walk in. You can't feel the ripper's intent unless you've got exceptional power. Ah, what am I blabbing about? You don't understand me anyway. You're just a kid. All right, just stay here till I'm done with the old man. If it turns out well, I might feed you this month."
"You're an evil man, Mister Opeil," Naomi said. She stepped out of hiding and faced the man. "You took a young girl hostage to force a man to write lies that uplift you. You enslaved an unwilling woman using an engraved bond. You keep a ripper to kill people who know the things that I do."
"You a mercenary? You sound like a runt."
"Step out of the room, Opeil. If you hurt the girl in our fight, both of our objectives are forfeit."
Opeil walked out of the room. Naomi followed him. "Stay here," she told Andria. "I'll take you home soon."
"So you're a scout, are you, girl? Either you are or you've got the talent of one. The way you read me is good. It'd be a shame to kill you and waste such abilities. Why don't you remove your cloak, so I can see if I want to keep you for pleasure or for hitman work?"
"My cloak stays where it is. I'll ask you this once. Will you release the bond you have on the slave woman and free this child? I don't want to harm you, but if you don't comply, I will."
"I don't think you understand your situation, girl. Scout or not, you're just a kid. I'm a sorcerer and a martial artist. Knowing that, do you still wish to challenge me? If you revoke your challenge now, I can promise I won't do anything to make you uncomfortable."
"Your intentions for me are purely sexual and selfish. If you like my body, you'll rape me. If you don't, you'll use me as your personal assassin. Not make me uncomfortable? I thought you could surely tell a less blatant lie."
Opeil took a fighting stance. "Then take me on girl, and be glad I have the mercy not to just release the ripper on you."
"Again, your reason for that is sexual. You don't want my body destroyed before you see it. If you see it and don't like it, you're going to open that door behind me."
"Your reading truly is amazing. Very well then. You can make the first move."
"So that you can gauge my ability in battle. Still. Prepare yourself. I might not fight with a weapon that's fair against yours."
With that, Naomi reached under her cloak and rushed in. Opeil dodged to the side as Naomi drew an empty hand from her cloak. She attacked him again, but slower. Confused, he didn't completely avoid her fist. His forearm was cut.
"Ah, very good. I couldn't see your blades at first. You truly are a great fighter."
They fought again. Naomi fought inconsistently. Her attacks were all of completely different speeds and her defense was never the same twice. Sometimes she was slower than others, but she never got hit. In a full minute of combat, neither side gave way, but Naomi was apparently winning.
"You seem to have forgot. I'm a sorcerer."
Opeil pointed a hand at Naomi, who ducked. The wall behind her cracked. At the same moment, her body caught fire. She yelped, but didn't scream, as Opeil had expected.
"I really didn't want to destroy your body yet, but I could never make you submit otherwise. Comply now and I'll put it out.
From a pillar of fire, Naomi's voice came out. "I'll put it out myself, thanks."
Her cloak blew away, in flames. Naomi stood, untouched, in front of Opeil. Without her cloak, her weapons were plainly visible. At her hip was a small gun and a sheathed knife. She wore a copper breastplate over a light coat of chain armor. One of her arms was covered in a detachable sleeve of loose cotton. The other was covered only by a small shoulder plate. Long boots extended up to her thighs, where they met cloth wrapping and a short skirt. Her plain brown hair fell halfway down her back. Impressed, Opeil nodded.
"Yes, that will do. If you wish to submit now, I'll certainly take you for pleasure, Miss Half-Nymph. I see you've donned yourself in gear resistant to fire, aside from your cloak."
"You sound so impressed with yourself at identifying my race and my clothes." Naomi's tone hadn't changed.
"I'm impressed only at your beauty. Please submit now. I would very much prefer you alive."
"You only want to spare me for the way I look. It doesn't take a scout to figure that out. The fact that you're attracted to me doesn't change my objective."
"If I may meet you in private, I will gladly release the girl and the woman and never come near them again."
With the flat refusal, Naomi took her gun from its holster. "Release the bond now. Hold up your hand. Let me see it."
"Using a gun is hardly fair."
"I warned you, didn't I?"
"If I release the woman, I'll have no choice but to make you replace her."
Naomi charged at the man. She swung the gun in a fast, deadly arc. Opeil caught the barrel, but in the next moment, Naomi's fist smashed into the side of his face.
"If you don't release it now, I'll cut your hand off and release it by force."
Opeil shook Naomi off and blasted another fire spell at her. She let it hit. It did nothing. She put her gun away.
"I have every advantage over you now. Give up and I won't kill you."
Naomi's expression changed suddenly. She rushed forward to stop Opeil, but there was nothing she could do. He had already released his spell at the door, and the moment it hit, the door swung open and the ripper appeared.
"I've starved it for over a week!" Opeil said triumphantly. "There won't be a drop of your blood left when it's finished!"
"You idiot!" Naomi yelled. She ran for Andria and pulled her gun at the same time. She picked up the girl and ran into the room, firing once at the fast-approaching monster. She swung her foot around and kicked the thick wooden door shut. It didn't stall the ripper for even an instant. Naomi heard the door shatter and the monster close in on her. She sprinted toward the window on the far side of the room. The monster swung its claws at her, skimming her clothes.
"Haha!! Kill her! Slaughter the stupid girl!"
Opeil shouted encouragements to the monster as it slashed again and again. Twice, it caught its fleeing target's form before she dove for the window. A trail of broken chains, blood, and a ripper's tooth followed Naomi as she fell. She turned a half flip in the air, protecting Andria and landing hard on her back. She heard three cracks and hoped that it was her armor and not anything important. People turned and looked. Some ran to help, but promptly fled when they heard the ripper's screech from the window. The creature was too big to fit through the opening. Naomi didn't have to look to know that it was slashing at the bricks around the window.
Every bone in Naomi's body felt like glass, but as long as her back and neck were intact, she was fine—or so she told herself. Adrenaline kept the pain at a minimum as she stood up, collected Andria, and fled.
"Doin' great, Andria," she breathed. "Don' lose it on me now! Prolly should heed that m'self."
Making another decision, Naomi ran around to the front of the building. From here, the Light house was around a half mile away. There were people littered around the area, more off in the distance. The market place was only a few hundred yards away. Naomi disregarded it and reentered Opeil's factory. She gave Andria to the guard who was standing at the bottom of the stairs, his weapon pointed upward.
"Keep her safe!" Naomi yelled back, already halfway up the stairs. She came to the top and stopped. Opeil was facing her with her own gun pointed at her. She looked down at her now-empty holster, then up again.
"Damn girl . . . I'll kill—"
Opeil cut himself off, firing at point blank range. Naomi's head jerked back, the rest of her body following. Her hands covered her forehead as she fell down the stairs to a small landing. There, she lay face down, unmoving. Opeil gave a shout of triumph and jumped down the stairs, aiming to crush his dead opponent's head.
Naomi rolled onto her side. Opeil's boot brushed against her unprotected left shoulder. The man himself tried to catch a railing, but missed. His aerial journey down the stairs was sped up by Naomi's round kick. Before he hit the ground, she followed him. She ran down the stairs, not caring that she tripped halfway down. Her landing point was the same. Raising her knees, she steadied her flight and landed on Opeil's chest. His ribs gave in, but it wasn't enough to break Naomi's fall. She leaned forward, and momentum carried her through a roll and to her feet. She lost no time in drawing her knife and holding up Opeil's arm. He was in too much agony to realize what she was doing.
"This takes care of the bond. Your guard's taken Andria, and all that's left is the ripper."
"BITCH! I'll kill you!! I'll—"
Naomi slammed the stump of Opeil's severed arm against his head. When he didn't shut up the first time, she hit him twice more before he fell unconscious. She looked up, trying to spot the ripper on the floor above. When she didn't even hear it, she slowly walked up the stairs. Halfway up, there was still no sign of it. Had it jumped out the window? Naomi didn't want to imagine the result if it had. It shouldn't have been able to tear apart a cement wall in . . . two? Three? Four minutes?
On the second floor, Naomi looked into the room she had jumped from. It was empty. To her left, the door was wide open. The room the ripper had come from was a control room, untouched since whenever Opeil had put the ripper in there. To the right, a previously closed door was slightly open. On tiptoes, Naomi approached the room. Cautious, she stuck Opeil's arm in first.
She waited. When nothing happened, she slowly pushed the door open. The room was empty except for a bed.
Weird, Naomi thought. There's no way I could sleep knowing a ripper was across the hall. Did Opeil use this to torture that woman? Psychological torture . . . what a horrible man.
It wasn't until Naomi looked down that she knew she shouldn't have come into the room. She dropped Opeil's arm into a puddle of blood that flowed from under the bed. She knew it would be in her best interest to turn and run, but she had to find the ripper.
It wasn't in this room. She knew that much. There were no claw marks on the walls or bed. There were no bloody footprints leading out of the room. The creature was too big to be able to hide in any room this size.
Preparing to run, she peeked around the corner of the bed. The first thing she saw was the ripper's wide-mouthed head, its vast rows of teeth pointing at her like spears and spikes in an execution pit. Its headless body lay against the wall at the head of the bed.
"Are you a Seeker?"
The man's voice came from the entire room, or seemed to. Naomi looked for its source, speechless.
"Answer me or you'll take on the same pose as that dirty thing."
"I . . . what . . ."
He appeared in front of her, already in flight. He tackled Naomi against the wall and crossed two swords at her throat.
"How do I know you're not just saying that?"
"Go on with that mindset and you'll eventually accuse the entire continent of being Seekers."
Naomi felt blood trickle down her neck.
"Most Seekers are born with adept skill in some area. Your reflexes are beyond human. You dodged a bullet from point blank."
"How can I prove I'm not one, then?" Naomi played it calm. One wrong word would kill her.
"A Seeker is coming to this town tomorrow, to take out the bug of a man you defeated. Ambush her, kill her, and bring me her head."