Hazamo was in a foul mood. Lying in a hospital bed, wrapped from head to toe in bandages and splints, with both his legs propped up on the air, all he could do was glare venomously at the nurse who was changing his sheets. Four weeks. Four smiting weeks, he had been in here after that Sorakine wench had nearly killed him.
Finch, though… He owed her his life. Gnasher’s partner in crime had given him the worst thrashing of his life. Even his defeat against Gnasher, while embarrassing, hadn't been as painful as this. A third of his bones were broken, the doctor reported. He would be bedridden for months, perhaps even years. He would have drowned, helpless as his broken body sank to the bottom of the lake, if Finch hadn't flown out and rescued him. She had given up the perfect chance to engage Gnasher and Zashiel to do it too, and now the ship they'd gotten onto was long gone. He still hadn't been able to piece together why she had done that.
Not that it mattered. She had left immediately after dropping him off at the hospital. Hazamo had yelled at her, cursed her, made threats that killing Yasmik’s most wanted criminal without bringing him back to be tried in court would provoke an international incident between Yasmik and Hashira, all to no avail. None of it had mattered to her. Finch had even laughed at the idea of Yasmik declaring war on Hashira.
“You humans wouldn’t last a day,” she’d said, the loathing clear in her eyes.
“Big words after one person almost managed to wipe out your whole city.”
She had left without another word, and it had taken three doctors to keep Hazamo in bed when he’d seen her fly away from his window.
It wasn't fair. He had trained his entire life for this. He'd had to see his family get murdered by bandits. His parents, his grandparents, his brother and three sisters, all of them slaughtered before his eyes. He had honed his mind and body to be a killing machine. It had taken years, but it had been worth it. The blood of a hundred men was on his hands. He was Yasmik's most deadly bounty hunter.
And he still couldn't hold a candle to a little girl.
“Smiting woman,” he grumbled. Even though he was talking about Finch, his nurse still gave him an affronted look. Hazamo didn’t apologize as she left his room with a huff, turning off the light behind her. With nothing else to do, he closed his eyes to let the painkillers do their work. lulling him into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The door opened again.
A lifetime of honed instincts pushed back the cloudy haze in Hazamo's mind, and his eyes snapped back open. His body itched to leap to its feet and draw his weapon, but he forced himself to lie still. His vision was still a little blurry from sleep, and he blinked as quickly as he could to clear them.
Had the nurse come back for something? The doctor? Who…
His vision sharpened, and despite the pain he couldn't help but jump in surprise. It wasn’t the nurse, the doctor, or anyone else he had seen since he’d been admitted here. There were five of them, all men, and all dressed in black. Hazamo's heart began to beat harder when he realized he didn't recognize a single one of them.
“Hello, hunter,” said one of them. His head was topped with thin, stringy black hair, and a scar that ran just beneath his left eye. Judging by the way the others flanked him protectively, two on each side, he must have been the leader, even though he was clearly the youngest out of all of them. He clasped his hands calmly behind his back and stepped forward. “How are you feeling?”
Hazamo eyed him suspiciously. “Who are you?”
“My name is Jira. I’m here representing Yasmik’s best interests.”
Hazamo's eyes widened, and a chill ran down his spine. Was Finch behind this? Had she sent word back to Yasmik that he’d failed, spurring the government to send yet another team after Gnasher? The five of them stood so still they might have been statues, their faces void of any emotion as they looked at the bedridden man. There was no doubt about it, they were all brutal and efficient killers.
“I... this is just a minor setback,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Three weeks and I'll be back on the hunt.”
Why did he feel so intimidated? He had fought more dangerous criminals than anyone else alive. These were just normal men, not even Sorakines. This wasn't the first time he'd been confronted while injured. Even then his heart hadn't pounded as hard as it did now. There was something about these men that was... wrong. He didn't feel safe. And he didn't like it.
Jira shook his head. He was in good shape, but not particularly muscular. Were Hazamo in fighting condition, he could have easily overpowered him. That was what he told himself, at least. The look in Jira’s eyes was cold. He looked at Hazamo the way he might look at a bug. Even Finch’s gaze, frigid and disdainful as it was, didn't carry the same utter lack of interest as this man's.
“I'm afraid not, hunter,” he said. “There's been a change in plans.”
“What kind of change?”
“Your services will no longer be necessary.”
The bluntness of his words struck Hazamo like a punch to the gut.
“You don't have to do this.” A bead of sweat ran down his brow. “I can still hunt him. I can still bring him back!”
“In the state you're in? Doubtful.”
“I'm not going to be in this bed forever! Once I get out, I'll—”
“Hunter,” Jira’s voice was strict, with a hint of irritation, “you're finished.”
Whatever confidence Hazamo had left leaked out of him like the last bit of air from a punctured balloon.
“So you're just going to let her have him, then?” he grumbled. “After everything he did, you're just letting the Sorakines have their way?”
The corner of his lips quirked upwards. “Not hardly. I said there was a change in plans, not that the plans had been abandoned.”
Hazamo looked up at him, confused.
“From now on, my men and I will be conducting this hunt. That is why your services are no longer needed.”
That earned a chuckle from Hazamo. “You five? What makes you think you can do what me and a Sorakine warrior couldn't?”
Jira kept speaking as if Hazamo hadn't said a word. “All we need from you now is information. Where did the Juryokine go?”
Hazamo looked long and hard at the five men gathered before him. He truly was helpless, wasn't he? It wasn't something he liked to admit, but it was true all the same. Even if he weren't tied in place with these smiting bandages, his injuries wouldn't allow him to fight. A child could kill him in this condition. Though it burned him to do so, he knew all he could do was answer their questions.
“And what's in this for me?” he asked.
Jira’s eyes flashed with irritation again.
“I chased Gnasher for over a year. You want to take over? Fine. But what do I get for all my hard work?”
Jira looked Hazamo in the eye, expression unreadable. Then he took his hands from behind his back, and suddenly the room was flooded in green light.
“You misunderstand me hunter,” he said, extending his hand over Hazamo’s chest. “I said I was working in Yasmik’s best interests. I did not say I was from the government.”
Hazamo looked down to see some kind of metal glove on Jira’s hand. It was made of black metal, and the green light was shining from within it. A tingling feeling washed over the skin below it—and then came the pain!
It came out of nowhere, but all at once it felt like Hazamo’s bones had come alive and were writhing like snakes inside of him. His muscles cramped, uncramped, and then cramped even harder. He clenched his teeth together, determined not to scream, but he didn’t know how long he could last. This pain was like nothing he’d ever experienced, not even when Zashiel had nearly killed him.
Then, just as quickly as it had come, the pain was gone.
“What ship did they leave on?” asked Jira. Hazamo tried to look at him, but his eyes wouldn't focus right.
“Thhh… thhhmite you!” you managed to say around a swollen tongue.
The pain came again. Hazamo bit his tongue. He wouldn't scream. He wouldn't give this dropper the satisfaction! Again, it simply stopped.
“Do you not serve your country, hunter?”
More pain. Still Hazamo refused to cry out. Jira was creating a Gravity Storm inside of him! Hazamo didn't know how, but he knew he was right.
“By helping me, you will be serving your country.”
The pain went away again, save for the aftereffects that flashed through his body like lightning. Jira stepped forward again so that he was standing directly over Hazamo.
“Service to one's country is a reward in and of itself. Wouldn't you agree?”
Pain. Agonizing pain. Unimaginable pain. Something inside him snapped, and he couldn’t take any more. Forty years of training, of fighting, of killing, of turning himself into the most lethal creature in Yasmik, all of it simply abandoned him. In that moment, Hazamo was nothing more than the child he had been all those years ago, sitting huddled in the corner, crying while those men—those bad, bad men—had slaughtered his entire family before his eyes. Hazamo the warrior was no more. He had never existed, as far as his mind was concerned. All that mattered was that this horrible, sanity devouring pain STOP!
Above him, he heard a pop, a hiss, and then bang. The pain stopped again, and Hazamo snapped his eyes open to see that the green light in Jira’s metal glove had gone out, and that a thin trail of smoke was trailing up from around his wrist.
“Smite it,” Jira hissed, looking at the glove with disdain. He pushed it off his hand, letting it clatter to the floor, where one of the other four men hurriedly picked it up and stuffed it in his pack. “Not again.”
“P- P- Please,” Hazamo whispered.
Jira ignored him and pulled a knife from his belt. “Oh, well. There are other ways to do this, I suppose.”
“Okay, okay!” Hazamo wept, tears running down his cheeks to stain the bandages wound around his face. “I'll tell you! Ju- Just don’t do that again!”
Jira paused, knife still held at the ready. “Very well. The ship, hunter.”
“The Seventh Swordfish,” Hazamo blurted out without a moment's hesitation. He didn't care about Gnasher. He didn't care about the money. He would have gladly let himself starve to death, so long as it came with the promise that the agony he'd just lived through would never touch him again. “It's a barge. Big colorful one. He and the Sorakine left on it.”
“The Seventh Swordfish,” Jira echoed. “A barge.”
Hazamo nodded as best he could. “I- I tried to stop them. The Sorakine... she did this to me. I couldn't catch Gnasher. I- I'm sorry.”
Jira smirked again and sheathed the knife. “There is nothing to forgive. We'll take care of everything from now on.”
He gave a barely perceptible nod, and the other four men filed out of the room. They hadn't said so much as a word the whole time. Hazamo breathed a sigh of relief and laid his head back down. It didn't matter. Gnasher didn't matter. Nothing mattered except that he was going to be all...
Something was wrong.
Hazamo tried to sit up, but his restraints kept him from doing more than lifting his head. There was something in his chest. No... something wasn't in his chest. Something he'd had since the day he was born. Something he had never been without. Something he had taken for granted to the point that he had never even acknowledged its presence until the minute he realized it wasn't there anymore.
His heart had stopped beating.
Already Hazamo could feel his himself dying. Without his heart pumping fresh oxygen through his blood, his body was shutting down. He could see very little of his skin through the casts and bandages, but what little there was had turned a sickening shade of blue. Within seconds he had lost the strength to even raise his head, and it fell back down onto the pillow. Shadows danced in front of his eyes. Through it all, he could feel an odd sensation. A strange pressure pulling on him, centered in his heart, keeping it from beating.
No, he thought. Not like this. I refuse to die like this.
Jira still stood over him, his face revealing nothing.
My whole life has revolved around becoming stronger. To keeping myself alive when others wanted me dead. I've killed... I've killed...
His thoughts were beginning to come more slowly
I've killed... dozens of men... hundreds... This isn't how I die... It isn't... I refuse to...
One final breath escaped his lungs, and Hazamo's eyes clouded over. His body spasmed a couple more times, feeble attempts to hold onto life, but even those stopped before another minute had passed. Still, Jira didn't let release his anchor on the bounty hunter's heart for another five minutes. It was a very small anchor, barely more than a tug. It had taken him half a year to learn how to do it properly. Hazamo was right about one thing: he had been the greatest bounty hunter in Yasmik. That was why Jira waited. It simply wouldn't do for him to be revived. It would take a miracle, true, but Jira had learned long ago to go out of his way to prevent miracles. Bothersome, irritating things.
With the fresh corpse lying peacefully in the hospital bed, Jira turned and went to the window. They were on the third floor, and from here he had the perfect view of Doku's harbor. He stood there for a while, thinking. The sun set, leaving the city in darkness, and in his mind’s eye he could almost see Zashiel’s sister—he didn’t know her name—flying after his quarry. He frowned. It had taken him over four weeks just to track Toke this far. That was a four week head start the Sorakine girl had on him. Could it be that she had already…
He banished those thoughts and pushed the window open. Even if Toke had perished, Jira would still pursue him until he saw his corpse with his own eyes. He couldn’t help but wonder what Master M would do if that proved to be the case. The very thought made his hands shake.
“The Seventh Swordfish,” he whispered to himself. The dock's records would tell him where the ship had gone. After that it would simply be a matter of following it and finding Toke.
Jira nodded to himself. He had done a good day's work today. He hadn't caught up to Toke yet, but he was finally on the right track. Closer than he had been in over a year. Soon the Juryokine would be in his grasp
He smiled a little at his own thoughts. Toke was no longer the Juryokine, was he? How easy it was to slip into the language everybody else used. Chuckling, he stepped out of the window and began to walk down the side of the hospital. Up above, he heard a scream when the nurse returned and found the corpse he had left behind. Yes, a very good day’s work, indeed.
He smiled to himself and whispered, “Let the truth be known, let justice be done, let the guilty perish. The day of Towerfall approaches.”
TO BE CONTINUED