The moon glowed with red tendrils of soupy light. Wind purred as it slunk around their feet and shyly tousled the flaps of their jackets. The two tall figures sat on a park bench in the midst of a forest trail, alone in the cackling din of the ravens nesting in the oak and maple trees.
“How much longer, Elize?” The younger whispered to his companion. His voice was hoarse and papery, like something had crushed his vocal cords underfoot like a tin can. He wore a long coat the color of sand and a baseball cap tucked low over his face.
“Hush, Kiln,” Elize chastened. “We are not in a hurry and cannot be too careful.”
“But we’ve waited for an hour. Are you sure they’re coming?”
Elize pulled out her phone and typed in a twenty character passcode to unlock it. She checked her mail and messages, the brightly colored glow lighting up her face as she did so.
Finally satisfied, she responded. “They would have sent me a message.”
Kiln nodded. “How’s that bandaid holdin’ up?”
Elize looked down. A thick bandage encircled her arm and was slowly peeling away. But it didn’t bother her a bit. What did was her hair, dripping wet from the shower. And the cold air that seared her lungs with each breath. It was much too cold to be only wearing a t-shirt, denim hoodie, and thin sweatpants. Her breath fogged the air in front of her.
But she shrugged. “It’s fine.”
Kiln nods thoughtfully, resting his head against his chest as he slouched down on the bench. “You ever seen Hamilton?”
Elize rolled her eyes, a smile twitching at her mouth.
She had known Kiln for hardly a month. After she had a falling-out with her old employers, Kiln had taken her in and helped her survive. He asked endless, pointless questions until he knew every little detail about her. She found it irritating in the extreme. He knew that she hated cereal and English was a second language and that she knew twelve others fluently. He knew that she wanted to go hang gliding in Peru and that she loved lemon flavored everything. He knew she crushed her chips into crumbs before eating them. He also knew that she hated questions. But while he got on her nerves often, it was good to have someone to trust in times like these.
She sipped a swirling liquid from a black mug and looked up at the stars. There were so many, she thought. But instead of it making her feel small, she felt important to be part of a world so beautiful. There was beauty etched in every line of bark, in every grain of rock. There was beauty in the craters of the full red moon, huge with an eclipse. There was beauty in the soft hides of the maple leaves and in the dappled patterns of light onto the forest floor, painted by the gentle hand of the moon. There was beauty in the fireflies swirling in swarms, setting the trees aflame with their glow. There was beauty in the spiders’ hairy, spindly legs as they swung about, building dew-dropped webs.
“Elize, you there?”
Kiln’s whispery voice startled her out of her thoughts.
“I wasn’t listening.”
Kiln frowns. “Oh, I was just going on about seeing a Chimera and Hydra fight. It would be quite a spectacle.”
Elize shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest. Kiln stared at her, a grin dancing on his lips. “What?” he protested, “I have an overactive imagination. My therapist told me so.”
Elize continued to ignore him. Kiln sat back on the bench and threw his cap onto the ground. “Don’t tell me you don’t know those are. The Chimera! The Hydra!”
“I know the myths, Kiln. I just don’t care.”
“So who would win?”
Elize scoffed. “You don’t give up, do you?”
“Never,” he whispers with his crushed voice, a broad grin on his face. “What’s your favorite color?”
“If I tell you it’s navy, will you shut your trap?”
Kiln considered it for a second, then shrugged. “No.”
Elize studied him, fighting a sad smile that tugged her thin lips upward. She had grown quite fond of him, with his eager attitude and endless talking. He seemed so young, though he was only several years younger than her. Without the cap covering his face, he looked quite handsome in the moonlight. He had warm brown eyes and an easy grin. His hair was always messy and his skin was the tone of melted chocolate, and soft as a baby’s bottom. And his voice. His whispery, broken voice. Elize loved that voice.
She shook her head violently. Focus on waiting, she chided herself.
Elize scanned the landscape repeatedly with her sharp black eyes.
She imagined that her eyes must have been some color when she was younger, but she had trouble remembering. Maybe a warm brown like Kiln’s or a tough navy blue. But then she shrugged mentally. She liked her eyes the way they were. They were beady and hard, and dark as pitch. She sipped from her mug again, wincing at the bitter taste.
“None of your business.”
“Is it poison? Are you building up your immunity to it, like in the Princess Bride?”
“Is it a super serum? Are you going to jump over buildings?”
“What is it?”
“I’m not telling.”
“Fine. Keep your secrets. Want to play cards?”
“Boring,” Kiln declared.
Elize sighed and looked up at the trees.
The forest was alive with chatter. Ravens murmured and laughed amongst themselves. A frog’s bugle echoed through the trees, the croaking eerie in the dark. Worms squirmed in the mud at her feet, thrashing about, doomed to drown or be eaten by the birds that lingered above.
Elize sipped her drink more. Pulled on another layer of clothing. Pulled it off again. Tugged her long, auburn hair into a ponytail. Checked the ammo in her gun. Twiddled her thumbs.
“Kiln,” she said suddenly. “Was your voice always like this?”
Kiln looks up. “Oh. That.” He sighs. “It happened two years ago. I was fourteen. My Pa owed a lot of money to a lot of bad people. One winter night, one of them broke into our house in California and killed him and Ma. I managed to fight the attacker off, but this…” He pulls his coat collar to the side to reveal a scar pale against his skin. “Was what I got from her knife.”
Elize stared at the scar, a shiver down her spine. Two years ago. Two years ago she had been doing work in San Francisco. “Work,” being a loose term.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally.
“Yeah, well. I just hope I can help you with your situation instead. Mine can’t be helped.”
She nodded, a lump in her throat. She suddenly became very impatient for the hour to come so they could get out of there.
Kiln rubbed his temples and the bridge of his nose.
“Elize, I’m scared,” he whispers, barely audible.
Elize stared at a squirrel digging in the dirt to escape looking into his eyes. Anywhere but those warm, soft eyes. Dozens of long minutes passed before she spoke again.
“I am too.”
“Kiln, they’re here,” She said out of the side of her mouth. Kiln raised his head from where he dozed on the side of the bench.
Five shadows loomed out of the dark in front of them.
Elize’s mind boiled with rage as their faces came into view. “The Bronze Eye Syndicate,” she muttered vehemently. Each of the elite members had an eye replaced with a metal one, as the Syndicate’s way of testing the Elite’s nerve and dedication to their cause.
“Elize! Welcome back to the States!”
Kiln looked over at her in alarm. “You know him?”
Elize sighed. “That’s Dane. And I did.”
“You did? Oh, so cold,” Dane complained, gesturing wildly with his hands.
“Elize, why did you abandon the Syndicate?”
“I was done,” she said simply. “I didn’t agree with your ideas anymore.”
The wild, dramatic attitude was dropped from Dane in a flash. His grey eye turned icy and his long salt-and-pepper hair swayed dangerously at his shoulders. Elize was struck by his resemblance to an old panther- lean, experienced, but still lethal as a blade.
“Then put her in the van. Shoot the boy.”
Elize backed away so she covered Kiln with her body. She could almost hear his heart thumping from where she stood. She saw that his eyes were wide with fear. Her eyes narrowed as she assessed the situation. This wasn’t going to plan. There were five Elites in front of her, and she could hear several gunmen rustling in the leaves behind her. Her only option was her least favorite one. Reason.
“Dane, just wait a minute. We only agreed to meet up so we could make a deal. We didn’t want violence.”
Elize could feel the gunmen closing in behind her. Dane looks at her with hollow eyes.
“You chose violence the moment you chose to stop being an assassin.”
Elize heard Kiln make a surprised sort of choking sound behind her. “That statement is wrong on so many levels!” She cried.
“Then let’s talk about it in the van,” Dane replied, nodding to the men behind her.
And he pulled his pistol from his hip and shot Kiln in the stomach. The boy jerked back and doubled over, blood spurting from the wound. He fell to the mud, groaning, the wide grin gone from his face.
Elize tried to rush forward but the men were already there. They took her gun and hauled her bodily into a black cargo van, Kiln’s bleeding figure burned into her mind all the while.
Dane and the other Elites sat with her in the back.
The world seemed so much less warm without Kiln’s endless, whispery questions. The ravens quieted. The frog’s call tapered off into silence. Even the stars seemed dimmer in the sky. Looking at the stars then made her feel small, but in a different way completely. Everything disappeared until only the sound of the van’s engine and its wheels against the gravel remained.
“Elize, don’t tell me you’re becoming attached to that boy,” Dane chided. “You know better than me not to get attached to people in our business.”
“So that we can kill them if we need to.” Elize’s voice was cold and numb. Not a single tear leaked out of her eyes, to such extent was her anxiety. She had to get back to Kiln and…
She paused. Then what? See if he was alive. If he was, though, would he even want her help? She was an assassin after all. She had lied to him. And if he wasn’t, well, Elize couldn’t think of what she would do next.
“Yes, to kill them if we need to,” Dane admitted.
“I’m not an assassin anymore.” Elize spat.
“But you could be,” Dane said quietly. “You were unstoppable. We were unstoppable.”
Elize narrowed her eyes. Then, with lightning speed, she drove an elbow into the Elite next to her, jabbed two fingers into the solar plexus of another, delivered roundhouse kicks to the other two, and stood. She slipped a gun out of one’s belt and pointed at Dane, who had jumped to his feet and stood behind her.
“How’s that for unstoppable?” She asked, blowing hair out of her beady black eyes. “It was a mistake for you not to bind me.”
“We thought that it was not required.”
“Why?” Elize scoffed. “Because I would join you?”
“Yes,” said Dane unflinchingly.
Elize laughed a humorless laugh, cocking the gun. “I left for a reason. Why would I go back?”
“For me.” Dane gazed at the ground.
Elize stopped and stared. “What?”
“We were partners. Or have you forgotten that too?” Dane took a deep breath. “I only came tonight because I wanted to offer you a choice.”
Tears leaked down the sides of Dane’s nose, crooked from being broken several times.
“Come back, Elize,” he begged.
Elize hesitated, the gun trembling with her pale, shaking hands.
She thought of Dane, his tough love and dramatic flair. His pale grey eyes. How those eyes lit up when on a mission.
“What’ll it be, then, Elize?”
And she thought to Kiln, of his broken voice and easy, warm smile.
And how she might never see it again.
Elize took a deep breath and kneed Dane in the stomach. She broke the lock on the van doors with the hilt of the gun. Then leaped off, rolling straight into a sprint.
Her heart was heavy, but she ignored Dane screaming for her return.
I’m coming, Kiln. Don’t die on me now, She thought.
The air was clean as she pumped adrenaline into her legs. The ravens cheered and the wind laughed, swooping along in her wake. Light from the gracious moon lit her way as she ran.
And the stars shined brighter than ever before.