It was a bad day.
Relentless rain soaked the man’s coat all the way through. He sloshed through the street, eyes straight ahead, focused on a lone couple sharing an umbrella.
No sane person would go out on a day like this. Even though it was barely past noon, it was as dark as night. The deafening storm combined with thick fog destroyed visibility and covered all smells with the musk of rain. It was some small wonder that there was no lightning.
So why, then, was this couple out and about? Why, of all places, were they strolling around Chinatown like it was Christmas? And why, of all people, was one of them his hydrophobic target?
He clenched his fist in his pocket, bending the laminated photo in his fingers. He memorized the face weeks ago: thin nose, thin brow, thin cheeks. Pale skin, red eyes, black hair. Roughed up from wild living, but no notable scars. His given name was Jasper, but he went by other names as well.
The man hadn’t asked his employer why he wanted a skinny twenty-something dead. As long as he got paid, he didn’t give a rat’s ass about who he shot. But he’d be damned if this target wasn’t hard to pin down; he was constantly travelling, never in the same place for more than a day at a time, and never unarmed. The man was not an impatient one, but he was growing weary. It had taken over two weeks to find and catch up to the target. Accomplishing that, he couldn’t find a good opening to take him out.
At least, until a few days ago.
For no apparent reason, the target had ventured into a town and stayed with this girl, completely against the behavior his file suggested. He stayed there for two days, and now he was out here with her, unarmed, wearing a collared shirt and jeans, walking around Chinatown holding a bag of foreign sweets.
It was the perfect opportunity.
Jasper stopped walking, said something to the girl, and gestured towards a nearby shop. The girl looked at Jasper, replied, then took the bag of sweets from him. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek and left with the umbrella, waving back at him.
Jasper watched the girl leave, hands in his pockets, then turned into the shop he had indicated, unaware that he was making a fatal mistake.
The man followed after him, pulling a gun from under his coat and turning the safety off. He went over his inventory: two fully-loaded handguns, two extra magazines, and a combat knife—sixty-eight cartridges and insurance, respectively. One bullet was usually enough, but it never hurt to be sure.
The man stopped before the door. It was a porcelain shop. As with any other Chinatown shop, the shelves were prohibitively close to each other—barely a shoulder-length and a half apart. It wasn’t ideal, but it wouldn’t matter if he got a clear first shot.
The man pushed the door open, a cheap bell signalling his entrance. As he stepped, the world shifted beneath his feet. Colors flashed in his vision, and he saw himself turning. The target was at his side with a hunting knife in his hand, lunging at him...
The man preemptively counterattacked. His fist crashed down to intercept the attacker’s skull.
And suddenly, Jasper pulled back. The man’s fist swung through empty air. Surprised, he stumbled. Before he could react, there was a flash of silver and a sharp pain across his forehead.
Hot blood flowed down his face and around his eyes. His breath was heavy in shock. What just happened? His future sight was never wrong.
He didn’t get the chance to think it through. The world shifted again, and he saw the red knife come down, down towards his throat. Last time it had missed. This time, it would not...
The man didn’t think. He pulled back, dodging the knife. He raised his gun and fired without aiming.
Ceramic shattered and there was a scream from the back of the shop. The shopkeeper, probably. This wasn’t the time to worry about that. Cold hands grabbed his wrist, wrenching it upwards. The man struggled with Jasper, trying to aim the gun right between those red eyes.
Jasper tried to twist the gun out of the man’s grip, but between keeping it pointed away from his face and avoiding spilled blood and water puddles, he couldn’t manage it.
The man tried to detach one of Jasper’s arms with his free hand, but his enemy’s grip was surprisingly strong. He tried to disengage, but Jasper matched his steps, backing him into the display counter. Cursing, the man threw his arms down to the side, throwing the target off balance, and kicked.
Jasper pulled back too slowly and the man’s heavy boot clipped him. Not in the kidney, as the man had intended, but the bony part of the pelvis. He recoiled in pain, freeing the man’s wrist. The man aimed and fired.
Jasper sidestepped, but not quite fast enough. The bullet went into his arm, tearing into the flesh. Clutching his arm, he retreated into the shelves of the shop. The man didn’t follow. He needed a moment to recover, too.
Dizzy with blood loss, he wiped his forehead. The right half of his face was hot and slick. He didn’t understand. There wasn’t supposed to be a fight. There was supposed to be one gunshot. Clean and simple.
Something had happened. The target had been ready and he was the one caught off guard.
Why had that first blow missed?
Jasper released his arm, assessing the damage. The bullet had missed the bone, but ripped through part of his bicep and lodged there. It had miraculously missed the brachial artery and major nerves, so the damage was minimal, all things considered. That said, he couldn’t move his forearm at all. White-hot pain radiated from the wound, cutting deep into the flesh. His ears rang from the gunshots. His hip ached, but that was only a bruise.
The hunter wasn’t pursuing him into the shelves. Perhaps he was getting to grips with the last couple of minutes too. Jasper bit his lip. He hadn’t expected a fight. Just a knife in the kidney and another across the throat, that’s all it should have taken. But then the man had countered so quickly that Jasper had been forced to withdraw.
A normal person wouldn’t have been able to dodge that counterattack, Jasper thought ruefully. It was the brief window between the sensed intent and action that allowed him to react.
He cast out his mental net. The shopkeeper had fled, and anyone else who had heard the gunshots probably assumed it was the storm, none the wiser to the fight next door. The hunter was still at the door, displeased and confused. Well, that was good. That meant the hunter didn’t know his abilities yet.
He felt his arm. Beneath his now-red sleeve, he could feel cold shadows rushing over his skin and filling his wound. Slowly, carefully, the the black mass dislodged the bullet and carried it out, along with some black powder and flecks of metal. He caught the bullet as it rolled out of his sleeve. Now he didn’t have to worry about bleeding or getting infected down the line. He dropped the bullet in his pocket and considered his situation.
He was in a better position than the hunter. The hunter’s weapon of choice was a gun; he had known that much for over a week now. Those didn’t handle well in a small shop like this, as the shelves destroyed maneuverability and visibility. He, on the other hand, didn’t need much space because he wasn’t using his bow—only an idiot would face a gunman with a bow. He could sense the hunter’s location, so reduced visibility was no problem either.
He hadn’t known about the hunter’s ability to fight in close range. The hunter was stronger than he was, and about as fast, but he had faced worse before. It was the man’s reaction time that really concerned him. It seemed supernatural. Probably was.
Jasper tilted his head from side to side and the tag at the back of his collar scratched his neck. He disliked “normal” clothes, but it was a necessity for today. Fortunately, collared shirts had stiff, loose sleeves. He shook out his good arm and rolled back his cuffs, uncovering a knife sheath on each arm—one for his obsidian dagger, one for his hunting knife. He slid his dagger out of its sheath and transferred it to his left hand, then unsheathed his hunting knife.
He had carefully stacked this fight in his favor, and he was going to end it.
The man finished applying salve to the gash in his forehead. It could only do so much, but it was enough to keep his eyes clear and further blood loss to a minimum. He was as ready as he’d ever be.
His future sight flashed again. Above him. A porcelain teapot lobbed from behind a shelf...
He moved out of the way, and the teapot shattered on the linoleum, throwing ceramic shrapnel everywhere, cutting into his leg near the impact. He winced. He couldn’t afford to wait around. He wanted to end this now.
Silently, he cursed. He didn’t know where in these shelves Jasper had disappeared to. He couldn’t fire randomly; he didn’t want to give his location away and the chance of hitting was slim to none. He drew his knife. It seemed like the right time to call in his insurance policy.
He heard a clink of ceramic and a few pots flew at him from above. He ran out of the way and they smashed on the floor behind him. He rushed into the middle of the shop, looking down rows of shelves for the target.
The man walked from side to side, scanning back and forth without avail. He didn’t know how a grown man could disappear so completely in such a small shop. He stopped pacing and listened.
He turned towards the sound and saw a flash of white. He dodged the wrong way and the figurine cocked him straight in the face. He swore.
The man headed after Jasper, knife in his left hand, gun in his right.
Time slowed again as it came before him. A knife snaked out from around the corner, aiming for his side...
He parried Jasper’s hunting knife and lunged at him. Jasper ducked beneath his thrust, not so much as wincing as the blade nicked his scalp.
He saw again. This time it was an upwards slash. He moved his knife to parry and aimed his gun where Jasper’s head would be...
There was a flash of steel as the knives struck. The man pulled the trigger, but Jasper disengaged too quickly. A vase exploded, shards cutting and scratching both fighters.
The man attacked again. He feinted with his knife and thrust with his other arm.
Jasper didn’t take the bait. He stepped back and smashed the hilt of his knife into the tendons of the man’s wrist, forcing him to drop his gun. It hit the floor with a clatter. Jasper kicked it away.
The man took a step back, right hand twitching with pain.
How? How was the target dodging every one of his attacks? It was as if he...
The target couldn’t possibly have the power. After all, what had he gone through to gain that power himself? He had to do that ritual with that snake, he had to carve that eye into his skin, he had to endure that pit. And now there was this man, not even thirty, with some power that overwhelmed his own?
He would not lose.
He flexed his hand, letting his will rise, directing his power at this black-haired wretch.
Cut his vision. Then kill him.
Heat concentrated under his skin. Pain gripped his heart and lungs, but he didn’t care. He was going to kill this target, no matter what.
The target staggered, and the man struck. His arm snapped out like a snake, aiming for the throat. For sure, his target was paralyzed with fear. No one could fight suddenly blinded.
For a split-second, those red eyes squarely met his and he faltered. Jasper hopped back, avoiding the man’s strike. Just as the man realized he had missed, Jasper’s foot cracked him in the thigh.
There it was again, colors swimming in front of his eyes. Jasper’s knife came down upon him, already stained with his blood once...
He swept his knife up to deflect Jasper’s and reached for his second gun.
Sparks flew as the knives came together and he froze.
It wasn’t by choice. Sharp pain pierced his side, firing what felt like needles through his torso. This time, it wasn’t internal.
After what seemed to be the longest time, Jasper slid all seven inches of black glass out of the man’s rib cage. As the man crumpled, he looked from the bloody dagger to Jasper’s face. There were patches of black swarming across his skin where he had been cut. He could see more blackness frothing out from beneath his collar.
He had blinded his opponent, but that hadn’t stopped him from striking the finishing blow.
The finishing blow. That arm was shot. There was no way he could move it.
But then, as Jasper sheathed his knives, he saw. His lamed left arm was enveloped by the shifting black substance. He realized dimly that he had foreseen the attack from the side, but completely disregarded it for the hunting knife.
Jasper looked down at him, scarlet eyes calm, almost bored.
Perhaps this was the face of a demon, the man thought, blearily conscious of the hot blood filling his punctured lung and spilling out onto the floor.
Jasper turned and walked away. Faintly, the man could hear him talking to that girl.
“Ah, you’re finished. You don’t look so good. Will you be all right?” the girl asked.
"My arm is on fire and I can't hear very well, but it's nothing permanent.”
“That’s good. Are we even now?”
“The lure worked, so yes.”
The target had played him this whole time.
It had been a bad day.
It was a bad day.