The tribesmen heard from the radio that a humanitarian group had breached the bulwark and smuggled trucks of supplies into the rebel-controlled territories. It took them weeks to establish contact with the group and proved themselves that they were no rebels seeking to steal the supplies meant for war relief.
The point of contact was a mercenary who disguised herself as an orphan beggar, a role that was sadly not all too uncommon these days. She was sent to verify the tribesmen’s affiliation and, once that was done, tasked with guiding them to one of the group’s supply drop points.
They treaded the scorching sands and endured a long detour around the frontline. It was a tedious journey but a less dangerous one.
Or so it should have been…
The first shots came without warning. They lost five men before they could bury their heads in the sand. They heard two streams of short three-bullet bursts unique to an assault rifle in bullet-saving semi-auto mode, and a single reverberating crack of a bolt-action sniper rifle. Two gunners and one sniper at the minimum; this was a standard three-man team employed by the army.
But why would the army open fire on civilians?
A good five minutes passed by without any further development. The mercenary brought out a pocket watch whose lid contained a small mirror and raised it above the dunes to observe the surrounding. Slowly, she scanned the area for their adversaries. She observed nothing; just shadows of the dunes and mirages of the sands.
“No cigar!” she told the tribesmen, “They must have relocated. We need to move.”
The mercenary put away the mirror and drew out a Swiss Army knife. A long bungee cord connected the knife to a belt clip which, in fact, held a full set of foldable brass knuckles. Bearing a gleeful grin on her child-like face, she equipped the brass knuckles and gently flipped open the main blade. She hid the blade in her brass knuckles like the claws of a feline and instructed the men of the battle plan.
The preparation was only for show. She knew her odds against three trained soldiers and those were not good odds. What these powerless civilians needed was reassurance and luck, a truck lot of luck to escape this plight.
They began to move in the direction of the shadows. As she explained, snipers had a tendency to avoid getting the sun in their scopes. They were like vampires, she jested but none laughed, the sun hindered their camouflage and blinded their aims. As long as the tribesmen kept the sun on their back, they would be less likely to run into the enemies.
Then, all hell broke loose.
The group came under heavy fire from the rear. She had miscalculated. The enemies had not moved from their position at all. They simply decided to keep their heads low and not go trigger happy on the glint of a mirror.
The mercenary shouted and made a U-turn directly towards the enemies. Her words were drowned out by the screams and the ruthless gunfire.
At two hundred meter distance, the soldiers finally took notice. The flanker wielding an assault rifle started firing his weapon at her. The desert’s heat haze reduced his effective range against a moving target from three hundred to one-fifty. He was confident that he could nail her before the one-hundred-meter mark.
He was wrong. The girl kept on running past one hundred meters. Her small frame caused him to misjudge the distance. Her speed was…unpredictable. She did not run at a constant top speed like a desperate civilian would when they were shot at. She varied her speed and direction to throw off his aim.
This was the movement of a professional.
The soldier cracked a devilish grin.
“Target at five, ninety meters, fire at will!”
The sniper swiftly got up from a prone position and drew a pistol from the holster at his waist. The spotter lowered his optics and raised an assault rifle.
“Roger,” the two men acknowledged and began firing at the girl.
But they were one beat too late.
The mercenary stretched her arms and used the elasticity of the bungee cord with the throwing force of her whole upper body to launch the Swiss Army knife at the sniper. The knife embedded itself in the man’s hand. His palm was impaled by the blade like a piece of steak on a barbeque stick. The man shrieked in agony and dropped his pistol.
His teammates both dodged the knife by reflex even though they were never the intended targets. The follow-up attack came before they could recover from the shock.
Riding the momentum of the knife throw, the mercenary’s free hand precisely caught the whipping end of the bungee cord and wrapped it firmly in her grip. Again, she stretched the cord and swung her upper body in the other direction. This time, she launched the brass knuckles at the flanker.
Suddenly, the brass knuckles changed course and were knocked away by a violent gust. The trail of sand particles left in its wake told her she was not dreaming. A relentless hail of bullets bombarded her position and the mercenary was forced to take cover behind a nearby dune.
Winds began to pick up speed. A vortex formed under the mercenary’s feet and encircled the whole area. Her cloak was caught in the whirlwind. She sensed weightlessness for a time but the buckle quickly gave in and only the cloak was swept up in the air. Right away, there rang a dry crack followed by a resounding bang. A 7.62 NATO shell punched a hole through the cloak’s chest area.
Before her eyes, the vortex began to shrink and push her into the eye of a sandstorm.
“You have gotta be kidding me…”
That was aerokinesis, Emperor-class aerokinesis.
The situation had gone from bad to straight-up impossible.
Not only did she have to fight at the number, position, and equipment disadvantages; but she also had to go against a psychopath. He was the living violation of the nonproliferation agreement and every ethic code on live human experiments. He was the serial killer who should still have been behind bars for another ninety-five thousand years and seven months.
Aeolus the wind keeper.
So the army had gone low enough to enlist murderers in their rank. There was no surrendering facing this psychopath, especially not when she had forced him to show his hand in battle. There was no winning either; only an Emperor-class could handle another Emperor-class mercenary. She had nothing that could kill a man faster than he could breathe; that was how fast a designer child could use his power.
So she must run away, but she could not see a way around this raging vortex. She could not escape on her own.
Then she must die, preferably die fighting.
There was no time to think, the vortex was shrinking. Her only range option was the sling attack but she needed a projectile…
She dug into her pocket and found only a charred potato—the leftovers of her lunch—and the old watch with a mirror in its lid. She held the pocket watch and spent precious seconds gazing at it. She felt the clockwork ticking in her palm. It was alive. She had kept it so for nine long years, never missed winding a day, and never left the house without it.
“I’m sorry, old friend. If I make it out alive, I will come back for you.”
Bitterly, she whispered to the watch before snapping the lid off. She had two projectiles and less than thirty meters uphill climb to Aeolus’ position. Then what? Unpin a grenade and blow them all up. Steal a gun and shoot him. Pick up a knife and stab his throat…
It was wrong. She could not. How could she?
No, she must. She must end his life.
The soldiers had ceased fire and merely waited for the vortex to force the rat out. They had three men, they could cover left, right and above. She would have to be a real rat to dig her way out of this.
“Nine o’ clock!”
One of the men shouted and the other two both pointed their guns at the left side of the dune. All three men simultaneously opened fire.
“Stop! Stop! It’s just a shirt! Where is she?”
“Four! She’s at—”
The lid of the pocket watch slammed into the spotter’s face. Pieces of glasses got into his eyes and he could no longer see where he was shooting. Soon after, the body of the pocket watch, also full of glass fragments and hot sands, landed squarely on the flanker’s nose. The hit disoriented the man for a moment and, at that very moment, the vortex went out of control and the wind speed had audibly increased by many folds.
So he was Aeolus: the flanker to the left.
She went in for the kill. Her vision tunneled on the murderer.
Something round and black left her hand. The object landed in the middle of the three soldiers. Seeing the mercenary abruptly ducked and covered her ears, the sniper also rolled aside by instinct and took the blinded spotter with him.
“Grenade!” the sniper shouted.
A violent gust burst from Aeolus’ feet and blasted the object into the sky. There was no explosion and they soon realized they had been tricked. It was no grenade, it was only a potato.
Their realization came too late. The assailant had reached their position. The mercenary forcefully removed the knife still impaled in the sniper’s hand as she rushed by. She had a weapon. Her target was distracted. She was in striking distance. His windpipe was wide open.
Her blade was stopped short by the ribcage. She was only able to stab him in the chest.
The murderer cracked a smile. His chest was bleeding but he seemed to feel no pain. In contrast to the mercenary’s labored breath, the man’s breath was steady and controlled. He stared down at her with eyes as cold as winter glaciers, as she stumbled backward and was horrified by his calm demeanor.
“You, of all people, should know this much is only skin deep for a designer child.”
The man pulled the knife out of his chest. His wound no longer bled as though half an hour had already passed.
“Shame…I truly thought you could finally do it. You call yourself King-class and you can’t even take a life to protect your own hide. I guess this is all that you support-type are: phony, weak—”
The hand she held the knife earlier could not stop trembling.
“—and a bunch of cowards. Yes, sweetheart. What do you want to talk about?” he mused as he wiped the knife on her exposed bra.
“H-How much do you want in order to spare me?” she timidly asked.
“Ah yes, so that’s where the Raijin got this line from. Sorry, sweetheart. You read my profile. You know how I roll.”
The mercenary gulped.
“Plus, your precious pupil, the Raijin by the way, killed our vice-captain. Our clan has scores to settle with that insolent brat and you, you are the score I am going to take from her.”
“Let’s wrap this up. We are low on battery. We won’t have to haul her back if we get the execution on tape,” the spotter interjected.
She did not realize he had been filming all this time. The sight of the camera made her conscious of her undignified state.
“You heard the man. Would you like a blindfold or nah?”
“I would like to go in dignity. I would like to cover myself.”
No sooner had she finished her demand than Aeolus stabbed her in the neck and cut open her windpipe. His action was decisive and without any excesses. He grinned in grim delight as he pulled the knife out and kicked her body down the slope. Her eyes were staring at him in disbelief till the very end.
“Please tell me you got everything on tape,” the murderer inquired his teammate.
“With any luck, I did,” the spotter sighed and checked the tape. “But really, you needn’t have—” he uttered.
Aeolus waved a hand in dismissal.
“Nah, I need exactly that. I need her to be angry. I need her to blame herself. I need her to suffer. And when the time comes, I need her to come at me like a wild beast that she is. I need her to show me what she thinks an Emperor-class mercenary means.”
In this line of work, only the cruel and the ruthless can survive. For those who hesitated, nothing but death awaited.