rating: +28+x

The key is not to hesitate. Do it fast, hard, and vicious, or don’t do it at all. It’s not for their benefit. What do I care if some unlucky, limp-dicked Larry suffers for a few hours or days before he dies? No, the reason you do it is for you. If you play the game like I play it, you can never be quite sure of who it is you’re about to get in it with. They could be a salaryman coming home from his day job who’s never been in a fight in his life, or they could be some shrieking half-banshee who throws fire like fastballs and thinks your bones would make a good fuel for their blood magic. If you do it hard, it won’t matter who they are or what they can do, because they’ll be dead before they can show you.

I’ve got plenty of tools to hunt with, but my favorite is the bone-knife. Earned it after some punk tried to slash my belly with it and I caved his skull in with a barstool. Before he tried to stick me with it he’d been bragging that it was carved from the skull of a Margrawn and blessed by a coven of death witches. I don’t know if that was true, but I do know that I haven’t met anything yet that it couldn’t cut.

When I first started playing, all I had was a gun, and not a very good one. A Mossberg Patriot my dad had gotten me when I turned 18. When I tried to hit my first target with it I missed, and he fled. Spent four more weeks tracking the bastard down. After I finally killed him and went home, I found a package with four hand grenades in it sitting in my mailbox. I’ve only ever used one of them. That’s their little joke really. Whoever’s running this show puts on a front of giving you equipment, info, rewards when you do well, but anyone I’ve ever met who’s succeeded at this business has barely used any of that stuff. The best tools are the ones you’re able to find on the hunts.

I met a player once who told me he’d been on over three hundred hunts. We were tracking the same prey, which is rare but not unheard of. He stole my kill by seconds. Afterwards he bought me lunch. Some sort of gesture of pity. He was an old fuck – probably in his forties – but damn if he didn’t move quick. And he ran his mouth like some sort of 14-year-old on Adderall. Talked about all the places he’d been, the people and things he’d killed, the gear he’d stolen and lost and traded. Spent half the time showing me the toy he’d used to light up the prey. Looked just like a laser pointer or something, except its beam cut a building in two and turned a golem into gelatin. Not for me, thanks.

“I found this on my seventeenth hunt. A man tried to kill me with it. Not even my target, just one of his guards! He came with practically a battalion of people I had to blast through. Never been covered with that much viscera before. Most of them just had paltry black guns, the kind every wannabe carries that’s better for looking intimidating than killing anyone with. Barely noticed them, but this fucking thing almost burnt right through my armor, and I knew I had to have it. Anyway, when I finally got to my prey he was cowering behind an overturned bookshelf, crying. Not the most self-respecting fellow. Right before I melted his head off he whimpered something about ‘The Black Queen’. I searched his files and lo and behold, I had found my next target. She was a tough bitch to take out. And she led me to the next target, and the next to the next, and so on. You’ve seen how it goes. Always just enough breadcrumbs left to pick up the next trail.”

He paused to breathe and light a cigarette.

“The trail is what got me thinking. It was around this time that I began to realize it, to really step back and think. I’d been hunting for around ten years at this point. It all started with a letter in the mail, just like it did for you. Who was the first poor sap you had to kill? Did you hesitate? I doubt it. I didn’t. No one I’ve met has. Me, they had me take out this cleaning lady. Only lived a few blocks from me. Not many people can say they had a first hunt that easy! As I was cleaning up the body – you know, I was inexperienced, I still thought I had to cover my tracks, didn’t realize just what I was getting into – Bam! Somebody sees me dumping her head into a river. So that was my second hunt. Took two weeks to track him down. All I knew was that he had a red hat and a limp. And who was he? A psychic, of course, something I didn’t even know existed at the time. So my third hunt was set up just by finishing the second. And on and on.

“I spent some time, when I could, when the hunt wasn’t calling me, to try to figure out what the whole business was. But nothing gave me any hints, the deliveries I got from… whoever it is running this game didn’t give me any hints, nothing I found in my research could lead me to them, even other hunters I met only knew smoky rumors that disappeared as soon I tried to follow them. So I stopped caring pretty soon. It didn’t matter who or what was running this, as long as they let me do what I needed to do. But after these hunts, after the Queen, after the Cannibal of Derize, after the Mutineers… the itch came back.

“This couldn’t just be random killing. I was following a path, a purpose, and when I really began taking my time, investigating each target thoroughly (sure it slowed me down, reduced my efficiency, but my God was it worth it!) I became more and more convinced of that. I wasn’t just leaving random bloody trails across the universe. I was traveling towards something. This isn’t a game, this is destiny, I can feel it. And I’ve heard rumors, vague ones, worth little more than lines in a work of fiction, that convince me I’m correct. People who have changed the course of history with this game. People who have finished it and disappeared. People who claim they’ve known people who’ve heard of hunters who’ve ventured to the edges of all of the universes. That’s why I hunt now. The pleasure of killing wore off a decade ago. It’s the pleasure of knowledge I seek now.”

“Man, you’d make a great professor,” I said. And I finished my coffee and left before he had a chance to start telling me about how in fact, he actually had been in grad school before-

As for me, killing still brings a whole lot of pleasure. And you’re not reading this to hear about some old man’s ramblings. You’re looking for the thrill of spilled blood. So I’ve got my own story for you. Remember the half-banshee?

This was my sixteenth hunt. I was feeling cocky. The last one had been simple. Cut a prophet’s throat while he was asleep. I didn’t feel like taking a breather. I’d already hopped across three different universes to find this guy, figured it would be enough of a pain in this ass to get home no matter what I did. After killing him I went outside. It was a calm night. The stars were out, and nobody outdoors knew their messiah was dead yet. Sometimes – more often than not, I guess – the places this game leads me to are shitholes. War zones, death cults, Chicago. This place was… nice. A primitive city surrounded by jungle and ocean in a world that hadn’t discovered pollution yet. Good food. Good drinks. Beautiful women. I had just washed the blood out of my hair and was sitting outside smoking a cigarette (apparently no one in this world had heard of tobacco. I’ve learned to start carrying a few backup cartons whenever I travel). From far away, I heard a couple of guys talking. I couldn’t hear much, so I walked a bit closer, all casual-like. Listened in.

“Laem told me in Pellos there’s a man with golden eyes who makes charms. Carry them with you and they ward off danger. Could even get hit by a sword and it wouldn’t cut you.”

“What would Laem know about Pellos?”

“He’s been there. Back when he was a soldier, fighting against the Somia alliance.”

Like it always does, it hit me like being punched in the stomach. The feeling of knowing, from the top of my head all the way down to my balls, that I’d found my next target. Pellos. I’d heard of the place while I was hunting for the Messiah. A small cluster of islands, a rich alliance of trading cities. And as I imagined it I could feel my blood beginning to simmer with excitement. I checked my scanner. Sure enough, a new image was popping up. A picture of a youngish man dressed in black robes and glittering jewels. Below it, a brief description told me he was the “Soothsayer of Pellos”, and not much else of anything useful. But I had my target.

Two weeks later I was getting off a ship in a sunny port, ready to track down the man with the golden eyes. It wasn’t difficult. He was a well-known guy, which makes sense if even shmucks across two thousand miles of water were talking about him.

I kill people in their sleep when I have to, but I prefer my targets awake. Not enough changes when you kill a sleeping person. They bleed and twitch and then just stop. It’s when they're awake that you get to hear their moans, see them collapse, see a living thing truly transform into a sack of meat. So at noon, I went over the stall the man had set up to watch him. There was a massive line of people, decked out in so many types of dyed clothing, feathered hats, and glittery jewels that you would have thought it was the entrance to some sort of ball. The man took his time with each one. He asked what they wanted, wrote it down carefully, then went to a small, tent. He came out about ten to twenty minutes later each time, gave the customer what they asked for, and moved on to the next one.

It was a tricky type of environment. I could have waited in line, gotten to the front, then taken him out in one strike. Or tried to sneak into the tent and wait for him there. Or just ran up and gutted him, if I’d been feeling up to it. My hand tightened around the handle of my knife as I savored the thoughts. But there were so many people around, and though the idea of having to outrun them all did thrill me a bit, my gut said that it might be a bit too much to deal with. I decided to wait. When the sun started setting, he shooed the rest of the people away from his stall with kind words and began taking apart his wares. When he left an hour later, I followed him. Made it about a hundred meters before the fucker turned around and looked straight at me.

I like to think I’ve gotten good at making myself look non-suspicious. I can dress like a local, walk like a faceless member of a crowd, fake dialects, and most importantly, don’t give off any killing intent when I’m on the hunt. So I don’t know what it was that alerted the guy, but as soon as he laid eyes on me he took off running.

Do I chase them or not? It’s a question I have to ask myself fairly often. When your target turns tail, a lot of the time it’s just better to let them think they’ve escaped and come back some other time. But with this guy, I got the feeling if I let him get away it’d be the last of him. He’d pack up to some other city and I’d never be able to find him again. And if that happened I’d never be able to move on to the next hunt. So I sprinted after him… followed him around a corner and… he was gone. Fuck.

Only a few people lingered around the street on the other side. A couple gave me funny looks as I came sprinting around and skidded to a halt. I’d seen people pull this kind of disappearing act before. It’s a pretty common trick. An invisibility charm or climbing up or even putting on a simple disguise. I looked around slowly. Nothing on the rooftops. No people who looked like they could have been him in some new outfit. My infrared scanner – I didn’t really care about pulling out the strange technology at this point, I was already exposed – didn’t show any hidden objects. It might take-

The ground next to me exploded. The blast punched me off my feet, tossed me to the ground ten feet away. I was starting to stand up, ignoring the massive, probably broken pain in my right shoulder, when a wave of heat passed inches from my face. I heard the sound of a wall shattering behind me. Didn’t turn to look. Letting yourself get distracted- that is what gets you killed. I stared straight ahead.

The charm-seller crouched on the ground about 20 meters in front of me. He’d removed his black cloak, revealing a shirtless, scarred body. The pale skin was beginning to ripple and change, bulging like hundreds of beetles were crawling around just beneath. His golden eyes glowed. Around them, his face was starting to expand, bits of cheekbone sprouting out from the skin like horns, fanged-mouth widening, until he had changed entirely from human to a lime-skinned, slimy demon.

My good arm was busted up. A cut on my head was spilling blood, obscuring my vision. The creature’s left hand was starting to fill with blue fire. Most times here the best thing to do is run. If I did that though, he’d catch up to me or roast me from afar in seconds. My best option here was to charge. I ran forward, screaming as I pulled my knife from its sheath.

The creature didn’t even bother to move. He flicked his wrist forward, and a ball of flame exploded outward. I jumped to the left, rolled, heard another blast as it collided with another building. Before I could get to fight the creature had jumped. It covered the ground between us in one leap. When it came down, it kicked a taloned foot right into my face. I felt my jaw shatter, the skin across my cheek being ripped open. Still have the scar from that.

My body can take a lot of punishment. I’d been banged up worse than this before and walked away. Usually, though, there wasn’t a seven-foot-tall creature dragging me to my feet and lifting me up by my neck. The thing grinned.

“Usually the people who come for me are stronger than this,” he said in a surprisingly light, musical voice. He pulled back the arm that wasn’t holding me, and I saw fire beginning to form.

Fortunately, my knife was still in my hand, and I’m a quick bastard. I stabbed it up, right through the wrist of the hand gripping my neck. The creature screamed, a sound like some sort of dying antelope, and dropped me. Before he could react again I was slashing at his ankles. Managed to cut what felt like a tendon before he skittered back.

Now the staredown. I was crouched on the ground, he was standing out of reach. Neither of us moved from our spots. He was breathing heavily, smiling slightly, clenching and unclenching his good hand.

“I’ll be using your blood to fix this,” he said. “Grind up your skull and keep the powder in a jar. Sell your remains to the highest bidder who needs an aphrodisiac.”

I didn’t say anything. I don’t speak to the people I’m about to kill. I clenched my knife tighter and stood up. I was in bad shape, but he didn’t look much better. Like it was taking all of his willpower just to stand on his fucked up leg. There wasn’t much space between us. I made a half-hearted attempt to feint. He didn’t bite. At this point in a fight, tricks don’t do you much. It could only be resolved in one way.

At the same instant, as if a gun had gone off at a track race, we leaped towards each other. I brought my knife up, swinging it with my bad hand. He grabbed my wrist, drove his bleeding hand into my stomach, and twisted his body. It brought me with him. In one second I went from running forward to being flat on my back, staring at the night sky. He stepped into my vision. Grinning. Motherfucker. I’d lost my knife in the fall. I wasn’t sure where it was. He knelt down and wrapped his hands around my throat. I could feel his palms burning my flesh, the temperature of his skin rising and rising. A thin drip of boiling saliva spilled from his teeth and across my cheek. His eyes were bloodshot, wild. He squeezed my throat tighter.

In situations like this, your best bet is: go for the eyes. The ground we were fighting on was loose dirt and pebbles. I swept to handfuls of them up, hurling them into his face. He winced but didn’t let go. It was all that I needed. Before he could recover his focus on me, I jabbed forward, thumb outstretched. It went right into the jelly-filled socket. Now he let go, roared back, screaming and clutching his face.

He began to desperately toss fire around him, but I was already moving, and his blows were too telegraphed. My knife was a few steps away from where I’d landed. I grabbed it and, with a scream filled with as much pain as triumph, rushed at him. The blade caught him in the chest and he froze. For a second he just stood there, unmoving. Then, in almost slow-motion, he crumpled to the ground. Didn’t move. Didn’t breathe. I pulled the knife from his chest and wiped away the blood.

Sometimes I take trophies from the people I kill, pieces of their body. Didn’t bother this time. I grabbed his bag of charms from where it had fallen on the ground and began to sprint away. People had seen us fighting, the authorities were probably only a few minutes away from arriving. I had to figure out how to escape this damn city half-dead and get home.

I did, of course. It’s not as interesting a part of the story. Probably not what you’re looking for.

I don’t know or care how you found me. What I do know, is that I’m leaving for my next hunt in five days. Pay for the rest of my drinks and food before I go, and I’ll tell you anything you want. But for now, I need to go up to bed. All this talking makes a man damn sleepy. Maybe if you’re still here tomorrow I’ll tell you about the time I accidentally killed the wrong dragon.

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