The year 375, the eleventh month. (The year 1886 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
His hiding place had been destroyed.
He discovered this when he came back near dawn, having spent the night walking the streets with nervous energy, preparing himself for what would happen the following day. He had walked every street in the Alleyway district, barely aware of cold wetness touching his cheeks, pausing only to look at the guild headquarters and the courthouse and the jail. He had finally returned to his alley to discover that a winter wind had collapsed his rickety lean-to.
That seemed appropriate somehow. And perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was a sign sent by the High Master of the dominions below, to warn the hunter that his time of waiting was ended. The hunter must complete his mission or else face consequences from the divine that were far more destructive than a bit of wind.
That would be a typical message. The god Hell never bothered to be subtle.
And so the hunter had turned on his heel and had returned to the streets, chilled through to his bones, wondering what it was like to have a conscience.
It was not the first time he had wondered this, of course. Men in his profession all dealt with their bloody deeds in different manners. Some men, like the man who had trained the hunter, had found comfort in the knowledge they were carrying out the King's orders. Others, bestial in nature, never questioned the slaking of their own desires at the expense of others. Still others came up with complicated, abstruse theologies to justify what they did.
And then there was the hunter, taken from his family at the tender age of seven, already recognized by the King's men as suitable for training in this sort of work. He wondered sometimes what they had recognized as he played with the other children in his neighborhood. A streak of cruelty, perhaps? Or perhaps simply the lack of that thing which men called conscience, a mystery which he had not known during all the years of his childhood.
He remembered the first time he had thought about such matters. It had been on his first serious mission, when he was barely into his manhood. He had been flattered to be chosen. "Find him," he had been told by the King's men. "Find Layle Smith and kill him."
It was the hunter's first mission, but Toler Forge – Layle Smith, as he had been named in the Hidden Dungeon – had not been hard to track. Forge was only a boy then, fleeing from the King's Hidden Dungeon, where he had stained his hands countless times with the blood of miserable prisoners. The hunter had tracked Forge to the river that divided Vovim from Yclau . . .
. . . and had stood there, going no further. His mission instructions did not require him to cross into Yclau. These were the years before he learned to go beyond orders, to create bloodier damage than he had been instructed. That was the way to rise, in his profession.
But on that day – oh, so long ago – he had stood on the river bank, watching the swift-moving waters tumble over the rocks, and imagining Forge entering into a new, quiet, bloodless life. The hunter could not imagine doing any such deed himself – could not imagine turning away from the delicious work of causing suffering and death. And it had come to him then, for the first time, that perhaps the world would be better off if he flung himself into the river and allowed his lifeless body to be carried away by the cold waters.
Now, as he walked down the quiet Main Street of Luray, passing the windows shuttered against the winter cold, he could not remember why he had failed to kill himself. He had returned instead to the King's men, reported the failure of his mission, and set about to prove that he was worthy of other tasks, each bloodier than the next.
In due time, news had reached Vovim of a new torturer in the Eternal Dungeon – a young man who was said to be of greater skill than any Yclau torturer in the past. The hunter had been the first to guess who this "Mr. Smith" must be, and he had taken special pleasure in betraying Forge's hiding place by informing the King. The hunter was high enough in rank by then that he had the King's ear.
What had made the hunter so angry at the news from Yclau? Perhaps it had destroyed his imagining that someone – if not himself, then at least Forge – could escape from committing murderous deeds, could turn his face away from the endless work of creating more suffering in the world.
It had taken time for the hunter to realize that, in a certain sense, Forge had done this. Forge had remained a torturer, seemingly driven by his own deep needs. But in the Eternal Dungeon, Layle Smith had yoked himself to a code of ethics which restricted him, forcing him to place the best interests of his prisoners before his own dark desires.
The hunter, rising to his own full power, had spent many years thinking about this. At one point he too had tried to yoke himself to a code of ethics. It had made no difference, though. Fewer of his captives died, and the ones who died rarely suffered before death; but this made no difference to the hunter himself. For the essential difference between Toler Forge and the hunter was that Toler cared about his prisoners. The hunter did not.
The night was growing colder now, scarring the silent streets with its frigid winds. The hunter moved more cautiously, not wishing to slip on a piece of hidden ice. The flames of the lamps above him flickered in the shuddering wind coming off the water. The darkness deepened.
He had thought he had finally found a solution, some years ago. He had retired from his profession to live a quiet domestic life. A wife at the stove, a cigarette and drink at the end of the day, his boots up as he read the evening newspaper.
He had been right, in a sense. The quiet comforts of home had spoken deeply to him, satisfying something that had been lost when he was seven years old, and the King's men took him from his family. Perhaps the only life that would have been better was if he'd had children of his own.
Or perhaps not. For he still had his memories, and with his memories came the longing. And in the end, that longing could not be denied. He had turned his face away from his peace, and where there had once been a wife serving tea to her husband, he had left behind a cold body in a coffin, lowered into a grave.
Not long afterwards, there had been another body, and he had cleaned the blood from his dagger.
Even then, he had struggled to turn from his past, but it was no use, really. And so, on one cold autumn day, he had found himself in the Eternal Dungeon, disguised as a servant, watching the man whom he had marked for death.
Not far away, he could hear the whistle of a train as it reached Luray. It was likely the last one for a while; the snow would be too deep tomorrow to permit travel, until a train with a plow had come through. And that would not happen until the day after, for the snows heralded the arrival of Yclau's New Year. Today was the Commoners' Festival; he knew that. It had been around this time of year that the man he marked for death had died. Elsdon Taylor, love-mate to the High Seeker. Toler Forge's own true love.
The exact manner of the death had been a surprise; the results had not. It had been just as he planned it: like a fox smoked out of a hole, Toler Forge had fled the dungeon, out into the open where he was easy prey for the hunter.
As he reached the bridge, the hunter groped for his cigarette case, then let his hand fall. It was too windy for a smoke. Instead, he paused on the bridge, watching the dark waters travel downstream toward Love-mates' Leap. He was seeing in his inner eye the grief, the utter heartbreak in Toler's face, the first time the hunter had sighted him after the death. Toler's expression was like an open wound.
Perhaps that grief was what had held the hunter's hand, all these months. He should have moved before now, he knew. He should have trapped his prey during the shining days of summer, when commoners sang love-ballads on the street, and the world was filled with the joy of the summer's warmth.
Instead, here he was, standing on an icy bridge on the first night of the new year, trying to find the courage to carry out his plan.
He had known, long ago, what he was: a man without conscience, willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to carry out his missions. He cared for the work – oh, yes, there was that. He cared dearly that it be done well. For many years, that had been enough to carry him forward, to allow him to watch impassively as innocent men and women died in whatever agony he placed them under. This was hardly the worst mission he had undertaken. Innocent men had died at his hands, and innocent women, and beautiful, vulnerable, innocent children—
He closed his eyes then, leaning his cheek against the cold stone blocks of the bridge. He did not cry. That had been trained out of him long ago, when he was shaped to be a killer. But it was there in his memories: the awareness of what he had done to so many children. The reason that his home had never included a child. He had been so afraid, back in those years, of what he might do to a vulnerable child, if such a child lived with him.
Such fears had been foolish – he knew that now. He was not so far gone that he was unable to hold back his hand in his private life. It was in his professional life – the life he had tried so hard to leave behind – that his terrible, unforgivable deeds had been committed. The children had cried, they had begged, and the only mercy he had given them was to drug them so that they would not feel the final terror of dying. Sometimes, his orders would not permit him to do that much. He could remember the desperate looks on the faces of the children as he wrapped his hands around their small necks.
So many, so long ago. It had all been lawful: every deed he had done in those days, he had done for the King's justice. Did it matter that he knew the King had no justice in him? Would the hunter spend his afterlife screaming from the same pain he had inflicted upon others? If so, it was no more than he deserved.
And so it was, on that cold, dark bridge in a foreign land, that he made his decision: Never again. No matter how great the desire, no matter how compelling the reason might seem, he would never again harm a living creature. Not children, not women, not men. Not even dumb beasts. He could not change the despicable deeds of his past; he could not even make himself care about his victims in the way he knew he should. But he had waited too long for feelings of conscience to tell him to stop. Perhaps he had been wrong; perhaps a conscience did not consist of feelings after all. Perhaps conscience was simply this: the decision to stop.
After this day, he would never again kill. After this day, he would never again inflict suffering.
After this day, for on this day he must carry out his final mission. He could not turn from that, not even in the face of the likelihood that he himself would die. He had to do this. No matter what the courage he lacked, he had to trap the man he had marked.
And after that . . .
He struggled to his feet. He could no longer envision what would happen to him after this day. Perhaps that was a sign in itself of what little chance there was that he would be alive tomorrow. Tomorrow at this time he might be screaming as Hell's men applied their instruments of torture to him.
As the dawn began to glow upon the icy puddles, the hunter turned away from the dark waters of the creek and made his way back to Toler Forge.