TW: child death, murder
The mask of human nature is deadly. You never know what lies behind.
Sofia woke up with a start. A puddle of sweat had creeped around her on the bed sheet. Moonlight filtered through the window, sparkling on the tears that streamed down her face. With a quivering hand, she raised the glass beside her to her lips and took a sip of water. Her eyes fell on the picture lying next to her. The picture of a young boy, no older than six.
Tenderly, she ran a hand across the photo, almost feeling the boy’s soft brown hair. Everybody said that his eyes resembled hers. Now, gazing into those deep blue eyes, Sofia had to agree with them. He was wearing his favourite red T-shirt with a Pikachu on it. It made him look like Ash, he said. The garden in the picture was a rich green, and sunlight kissed his cheeks, just as she had at night when he slept. His smile, which had once been the source of joy to her, sent a stab of pain through her heart. She clutched her breast, as the flood of tears burst through her lids again.
The nightmares hadn’t stopped, like the doctor said they would. On her last visit, he had increased the dosage of pills to three a day. But the dreams never stopped. They started haunting her during the day as well, always filled with the images of a charred road, littered with shards of glass. A bus lay on it, it’s top torn open like a Christmas present opened by an eager child. Smoke erupted from it, as the smell of roasted flesh reached her nose. Her ears still rang with the thunderous explosion, and the cries of people sounded muffled around her. She looked in horror as the concrete was stained in an ever increasing pool of crimson. Bits of flesh and limbs hung from the traffic lights, some even plastered onto the glass windows of shops. In each dream, she could hear herself yelling, then running towards the bombed bus. Invariably, she would stumble upon a bloodstained bag. A bag with a Pikachu on it.
It was at that point her dream would end and Sofia would wake to a world she hoped didn’t exist. The police said that a van laden with explosives had rammed into the school bus. There were no survivors. For days, Sofia refused to believe them. She insisted on seeing the bodies—or what remained of them. Each day, her hopes dimmed until one day, she accepted the truth. Her son, her dear Ahan, was never returning. Luckily, the officer who gently held her hand had said, she escaped with just a minor injury to her legs and a strained eardrum. She wondered whether it was really lucky.
The hair at the back of her neck bristled and she felt a cold hand touch her. Whirling around, she called for Ahan.
She cried bitterly, begging the lords above to return her child to her. But, there was no response. Sofia got up wearily from her bed and made her way to the laptop that stood on the dining table. A notification buzzed and she opened her mail. In the faint glow of the screen, her eyes blazed with ferocious determination as she read the words. Typing a response, she gently closed the laptop. Soon, Ahan. Mumma will be with you soon.
“Are you sure about this, Sofia?” The man with the grizzled beard and kindly black eyes asked. They were seated in a café, not very far from her house. Sofia nodded her head, tea from the cup warming her damp face.
“Look, I understand your situation. But, we can’t have emotional –”
“I’m sure, Kasel.” She glared at him, her eyes flint. Kasel stared back at her. After a few moments, he sighed.
“The training will be hard, and you might not like everything you see. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I have seen everything I didn’t like,” Sofia murmured. Kasel smiled with paternal affection and patted her hand. “Welcome to the Blades, Sofia.”
“Just temporarily,” she replied.
The Blades was the intelligence wing of the government. Its tasks ranged from gathering information, interrogating suspects to killing terrorists and preventing attacks. A few days after her meeting with Kasel, she had been whisked from her apartment and taken to a secluded farm at the outskirts of the city. Sofia wasn’t expecting a walk in the park, but the sheer intensity of the instruction took her by surprise. At night, she would collapse into bed, her muscles aching from the rigorous exercises she had to perform. Various styles of martial arts were drilled into her, forcing her already strained body to stretch beyond its limit. Her mind was continuously fed with lessons on espionage, surveillance techniques, details of terrorist organizations and interrogation tactics. Kasel visited her several times, which raised several eyebrows from the officers in charge of her. It was unprecedented for the Chief of Blades to focus so much on one recruit.
“He was quite a beautiful boy,” Kasel told her once as they walked down the gravel path near the farm. Sofia’s response dripped with rebuke.
“Have you been searching my personal belongings?”
“Standard checking protocol.”
Sofia fell silent as a wind blew across the fields. She shivered. Kasel looked into the distance, towards the glimmering city lights and skyscrapers. Without looking at her, he asked, “What after that?”
“You avenge his death. Then?”
Sofia raised her hands to the sky.
Kasel gave a soft chuckle. “Since you don’t have a newspaper here, I’ll fill you in on some information. The Renegades have claimed responsibility for the attack.”
Sofia’s eyes hardened. The Renegades was the leading group of terror in the world. Convinced that the blood of children were required to appease the Gods, they had carried out a string of horrendous attacks across the globe. Nobody knew their true identities. Using the murky alleys of the dark web, they had amassed a significant following of brainwashed servants. Kasel noticed her clenched fist and said, “You are familiar with the name, I see. Then you must also know how difficult it is to track them.”
“I don’t care. I will find the bastards who snatched Ahan from me. And then…”
Her voice trailed away. In the distance, cars honked and trains roared. The moon had taken its throne in the sky, its soft lustre falling on Sofia. Kasel spoke, his voice a whisper.
“Long ago, I had a child. A girl whom I loved more than anyone. She was my pride and joy. When she would jump into my arms, talking about her day, my chest swelled. But one day…”
He removed a small photograph from his breast pocket and looked at it for a moment. His eyes were wispy, and Sofia could see his fist trembling.
“She is no more?”
Kasel put the picture back and smiled sadly. “You aren’t the only one who wants to destroy the Renegades, Sofia.”
Further questions seemed inappropriate, so Sofia lapsed into silence. They walked through the fields, and the fingers of the overgrown grass gently brushed her feet. After a silence that lasted aeons, Kasel said, “Reuniting with Ahan in heaven is a strong goal, Sofia. But, you need to drop that mask. Is that truly the right choice?”
Sofia looked away. “Just before Ahan was born, his father was taken by an illness. Whenever I looked at him, I saw my husband’s face smiling at me as well. Now, it feels like I have lost both.”
“Have you though?”
Sofia looked at him quizzically. Kasel went on, “Just like a part of you was in Ahan, a part of him is in you as well. Think carefully.”
Sofia gave a grim laugh. “Are you trying to recruit me fully into the Blades? If so, then don’t waste your time.”
“Not at all. Your drive can be useful for our mission. That’s it. I was giving you advice: one parent to another.”
His phone buzzed and Kasel flipped it open. A smile spread across his face.
“Looks like your mission is here.”
“Q? That’s what they call him?”
They were seated in the farmhouse, partaking of salads and warm crusty bread. Kasel sat beside her as one of her trainers skimmed through a presentation. The face of a man with serpentine emerald eyes stared at her from the projected screen on the wall. The rest of his face was obscured by a smiling mask. Sofia felt sick to her stomach.
“He is one of the handlers of the Renegades. Mostly their spokesperson. Our sources have reported that Q is here in the city for the next two days.”
Kasel ignored the question. “That means you have two days to extract revenge. Can you do it, Sofia?”
Sofia nodded her head. Kasel leaned forward. “One last chance. If you want to leave, you can. No questions asked. Don’t get me wrong; I understand your emotions. But this is a place you might wish you never came to. Life will give you a second chance, and I don’t want to deny you that.”
Sofia coolly met his gaze. “Why didn’t you take the second chance then?”
Kasel smiled in spite of himself.
At first glance, Sofia did not recognize Q. The street bustled, cars zoomed past and people went about their business. The sun beat down on her as she followed her quarry, keeping a distance of several feet. He had removed his mask, revealing long, black hair and a well-trimmed beard. Seeing him smile idly at the shopkeepers and whistle as he walked made her blood boil. Kasel’s voice sounded urgent from her Bluetooth.
“Calm down Sofia. This is our best chance to get him.”
Sofia took a deep breath and remembered her training. Focus on your breath, not on your emotions; they said. All her life, Sofia had been a horrible meditator. But in the past few weeks, she had slogged on with a zeal that frightened her instructors. Now, she could even regulate her heartbeat after a few seconds.
“I’m ready,” she whispered.
“Good. Keep in mind that Q is also well-versed in counter-surveillance techniques. Proceed accordingly.”
Sofia nodded and walked nonchalantly, her eyes roaming the street. She stopped at several shops, inquiring about the prices of goods, talked to passers-by and plugged her ears with music. Yet, the corner of her eye was fixed on the man in a sleeveless green vest who walked a little distance away from her.
It was Sale Day, and the crowd showed no signs of stemming. Sofia, and in turn Kasel’s greatest fear was losing Q in the sea of people. A small group of customers had gathered in front of a shop, hurling accusations at him. Voices were raised, insults levied and Sofia jostled her way through the mob. But when she reached the other side, her heart stopped.
Q had vanished.
“He’s gone,” she gasped.
“Check properly.” Kasel’s tone was tense.
Sofia stood on her tiptoes, scanning the heads of people. But Q was nowhere to be seen. A stifled whimper left her mouth. All this, for naught? Ahan…
“Looking for someone, darling?” A voice that chilled her to the bone sounded just behind her. She tried turning around, but the sharp edge of a blade kissed her back.
“What’s the hurry?” Q whispered.
“You bastard! I will kill you,” Sofia muttered.
Q chuckled. “That’s a first. Usually women want to kill me after I have finished my business with them.”
Sofia opened her mouth to scream but the knife pierced her skin. She gave a cry as Q gently removed the earphones from her ear. He leaned in, his breath warming her nape.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You see that van?”
Sofia didn’t need to look far to see a white van parked next to the road. “It is packed with explosives. One silly move and….”
Sofia gulped. “What do you want?”
“Let’s have a chat.”
She had no choice. Her lessons in counter-surveillance had made her underestimate Q. Was it that or were her emotions blinding her? She followed Q into a network of alleys. With each turning away from the road, her heart raced quicker. Finally, they arrived at a dead end, piled with a dump of garbage.
Q turned to face her, his snake-like eyes boring holes into her soul. Sofia’s hand dove into her pocket, attempting to remove the pistol kept there. But it was empty. She looked with horror as Q twirled the gun in his fingers.
“Quite a dangerous girl, this one. A single bullet and I’d be a goner. Do you have any other weapons?”
Sofia did not move. Q sighed and fired a round near her feet. She yelped and leapt back. The silencer she had fitted on the muzzle of her gun was working against her. Q’s eyes were narrowed and in that instant, she felt like a rat facing a cobra.
“I don’t like repeating myself. Answer me!”
Despite being terrified, Sofia did not respond. Q sighed. “Look lady, either you hand me your weapons or I take them from your corpse. Choice is yours.”
Sofia took out the knife she had kept in her belt and tossed it at Q. Q caught it gracefully and flung it into the garbage dump.
“Now then. Why the hostility?”
Sofia spoke through gnashed teeth. “You are Q, a member of the Renegades. Your attack took my son from me.”
“Is it? My condolences.”
“Why do you Renegades kill children?” She screamed. Q fired another shot, this time hitting her in the left arm. She cried out in pain and fell to the ground. Q’s boots crunched against debris and trash as he walked towards her.
“You should in fact be thanking us. Look around you!” He waved his arms. “This world is rotten. Depression, suicides and crime are at an all time high. You know why? It’s because the scum running the world have failed us! They favour the privileged, while the others are fed leftovers. Tell me, would you like your son to have grown up here?”
He knelt before her, his eyes blazing with a mad fury. Lifting her chin between two fingers, he said, “All those children would have been cogs in the evil machine that is our so-called society. We freed them when they could retain their innocence. Isn’t that good enough?”
He pointed the gleaming gun at her forehead. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “You will join your son soon enough.”
Sofia closed her eyes. Wasn’t this what she wanted? She had tried to take down Q, but had failed. At least she would join her son in heaven again. She placed a hand to her chest. Her fingers felt the edges of a picture in her pocket. Ahan’s picture.
Just as a part of you was in Ahan, a part of him is in you.
Kasel’s words rang in her mind. An inferno surged inside her heart. Later, she would wonder what came over her, but in that moment she instinctively lashed her fist at Q’s face. Taken aback, he attempted to press the trigger but the wedding ring on her finger hit him square in the eye. Groaning, he toppled backwards, his palm covering his eye. Like a leopard, she sprang up. Locking his arms with her knees, she proceeded to beat him with her right hand. Her left arm was bleeding, but she was oblivious to the pain. With each crack of her knuckle on Q’s head, a shout echoed from the depths of her throat.
Blows rained like her tears and when the rescue team sent by Kasel arrived, they found her straddling Q’s chest, wailing as she battered his visage. A pool of blood was spreading around his skull, his face a mushy mess of blood, bone and gore. They had difficulty dragging the kicking and screaming Sofia off him. What happened next was blurry in her mind, but she remembered being taken somewhere in a car. When she finally came to her senses, Kasel was standing over her, his eyes concerned. She stirred, and he gave a relieved cry.
“She is back!” He exclaimed. Sofia struggled to get up, but was gently pushed down by him.
She struggled to find her strength, finally croaking, “Where am I ?”
“A private hospital owned by the Blades.”
“For how long?”
“One full day.”
Sofia looked at her left arm, which was wrapped in heavy bandages. A thought struck her and she bolted up. Kasel sensed her doubt and smiled.
“Q is dead. Though, the sheer amount of damage on his face was horrifying even for our standards. Good work, Sofia.”
“When he took my gun,” Sofia’s voice sounded distant. “I thought I was surely going to die. But then I remembered your words. I don’t know what happened, but I kept hitting with everything I had after that. Was it Ahan who helped me back then?”
Kasel patted her hand. “Can’t say. But the Ahan inside you didn’t want to die. Neither did he want you to die. The bond between a parent and child is like a thread held by two people. No matter what happens, that thread doesn’t fall. It exists, at least in memory. And people like the Renegades want to burn those threads.”
Sofia looked at him. “Then we must protect them.”
“Don’t want to die anymore?”
“For Ahan and for the threads, I must live to fight.”
“So the mask of the avenger is finally off. What are you now?”
Kasel rose. “Rest. You have earned it.”
As he neared the door to her room, Sofia asked, “One more thing. How did you know where I was?”
Kasel looked at her and grinned. “Welcome to the Blades, Sofia.”