Laura glared at the blonde woman in front of her, “I don’t care who you are! You’re not going to kill that kid over a few coins!”
The blonde turned around and laughed in Laura’s face, “This brat,” she hissed, dragging the boy to face Laura, “stole from me, and this,” she raised her sword to the youth’s neck, “is justice.”
“You don’t have the right to decide that!”
The blonde tossed her golden mane and cackled, “That’s what you think,” she said as her tan became a bronze metallic sheen. Laura growled in the back of her throat as the stranger’s teeth grew into daggers and her face’s elegant heart shape turned longer and crueler.
“So you’re an Executioner,” Laura’s voice shook with what the assassin mistook as fear, “more fun for me.” Laura tackled the woman just as the sword bit into the boy’s neck. The weapon flung away from the blonde’s hand and Laura stopped in the middle of reaching for her own blade. If she was going to pick a fight, it was going to be a fair one. In Laura’s hesitation, bronze daggers dug into her elbow. She took out her knife and sliced at the Executioner’s collarbone. Well, bronze teeth probably count as weapons anyway.
As the bronze face stumbled backwards, the fleshy feet kicked forwards, knocking Laura on her back. Laura’s metal-faced assailant picked up her sword and grinned as she held the tip of the blade over Laura’s forehead. Laura had heard how an Executioner’s blade could cut though anything; she’d seen one slice a cliff in two before, herself. A human skull would be no trouble. She glanced around at the crowd surrounding her for anyone to help. She thought she saw a sandy-haired man almost step forward, but he quickly dropped his jade gaze and sank back into the abyss of frightened faces. Cowards. Of course she would be the only one stupid enough to challenge an Executioner.
Swearing under her breath, she rolled just as the sword lunged for its target. Not letting the stone floor’s destruction distract her, Laura kicked the confused assassin’s feet out from under her. As the blonde stumbled forward her neck jerked directly into her sword’s dangerously sharpened hilt. Her throat being unprotected by the mask, it was sliced through cleanly and quickly by the decorative metal spike.
Laura turned away from the scene, only to see the crowd turned away from her. Only two faces would meet her eyes. The pale one of the boy’s appeared solemn and reluctantly grateful, blood leaking from a red line curving from below his Adam’s apple to behind his ear lobe. The green gaze of the man who almost stepped forward was inspecting and fierce. I wonder, Laura thought, if he planned to help me, or the Executioner?
It was dark out and the moon was hidden. Laura glowered at the window across the frozen room as she stoked the fire in the small iron stove. She knew she was in trouble. Ever since the royal assassins themselves raised up against the monarchy nearly a millennia ago, Executioners have reigned as the law makers and the law keepers. True, they were corrupt, most of them either cared for only money or killed for the love of it, but they were the law nonetheless. And now she had a choice. That is if they decide to give her one.
As if summoned by her thoughts, a man appeared in front of her. His Executioner’s mask was aged copper, already turning a weathered green around his mouth and eyes. He silently lifted a finger to his metal lips and offered her a cloth gag. If she refused, she would be watched insistently by them and possibly executed at the first slight of hand. If she wore the gag, she’d begin training to be an Executioner herself. Not exactly something she’d take pride in.
Training was…difficult. That was how most people would describe it. Not because it was particularly unspectacular or aggravating, although at times it was. But for the mere fact that the horrors one saw in Training was the kind that stopped hearts and emptied stomachs. No one wanted to remember the terrible things they witnessed or the appalling things they did in Training. So, for a lack of a better word that didn’t drudge up guilt and vomit, it was merely described as “difficult”.
Like all recruits, Laura wasn’t allowed to remove her gag except for eating. Like a few of them, she managed not to vomit into her gag as she witnessed the carnage. Unlike any of them, she managed to attract the Glory Executioner’s attention. By the time the snow left the tree limbs, she had been called to take part in a public execution. She, of course, did not participate in the beheadings herself, that honor was restricted for the Glory herself. Honor, Laura thought hollowly, unconsciously scratching at the rash forming under her gag, I thought I knew what that meant. I thought Executioners had none. I thought…now I know. She hated it all, the executions, the corruptions, even the faceless guards wearing heavy iron helmets and standing vigil dumbly outside the doors, unaware of what lied within, seemed somehow cruel in her eyes.
A young man, not more than half a decade older than her, stopped Laura on her way to the recruit’s dining hall. “Where do you think you’re going,” he grinned. The man was obviously an Executioner. Only they traveled the corridors without gags, helmets, or an escort. Laura motioned with her hands that she was hungry, and tried to walk past him. “Not there.” Laura glared back at the boyishly smiling Executioner. Something in his light brown eyes and childish curls seemed familiar. “Follow me,” the man said, linking arms with her as if they were old friends.
To Laura’s surprise, the strange man led her right to the door of the Hall of Executioners. Laura dug her heels in and made frantic hand signals. Recruits were not allowed in the Hall.
“No worries,” her captor laughed, “the Glory wants to initiate you, after lunch, of course.”
Initiate her? Most of the recruits end up being those bucket-headed guards or killed. The number of Executioners has been constant for over a thousand years. Who was she replacing?
As the Hall doors opened, Laura was instantly greeted by a redhead with a grating voice, “Oh! IT’S SO NICE TO MEET YOU! I personally want to thank you! I’m Suzy! You’ve met Jameson,” Suzy said, nodding towards the grinning young man as he released Laura’s elbow, “and this is Miles,” she motioned toward a heavy set man with a long scar parallel to his jaw line, “Oh, HA, HA,” she screeched, causing Laura to wince, “silly me, you’re probably wondering what I thanked you about! That Executioner you killed? She was the Armored Executioner! Emphasis on WAS! The new one is- Ta-da-da-da!- ME! Oh, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! I WAITED FOREVER to get a seat in the Hall! I just know WE’LL BE BEST FRIENDS!” Laura wasn’t quite so sure about that, “Miles is the Stone Executioner, and Jameson is the Wisdom Executioner! I wonder what Executioner you’ll be? Sorry, but I don’t keep track of which Executioners die anymore! I used to, but only to know when a spot opened up! Oh, did I tell you? THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THAT!”
Fortunately for Laura’s ears, the dining room bell rang, and Jameson pulled her over to an empty seat. Suddenly, on the far side of the Hall, a set of doors swung open, and everyone turned as the Glory Executioner took the seat at the head of the table. Glory raised her hand for silence, not that she needed to, and the pure gold of her mask rippled and glowed in the enchanted firelight as she spoke, “Tonight we dine in mourning of an old friend. Hannah Lichen was a faithful Executioner for fifteen years before she turned treacherous and will be remembered for her heroics and loyalty, not her later insanity. Tonight we dine in the presence of a new friend. May young Laura Sweetgrass be far more successful in her place. You may now open your napkin, Laura.” Surprised, Laura opened what she assumed was a napkin wrapped around her silverware, and instead of cutlery, found a slightly blackened pair of pure silver lips. “I suggest you put on your mask after we eat, moving your lips will take some getting used to,” the Glory Executioner said coyly.
Laura turned to Jameson, who she realized was trembling. Jameson chuckled softly and nervously, “Congratulations! You’re the new Nightmare Executioner!”
“Wha du ya mee I canna ta e oof?!” Laura slurred.
“I mean what I said, silly,” Jameson said with that boyish grin, making Laura want to slap him, “your mask is bound to your skin, unless someone cuts your lips off, you can’t take it off.”
“Ehj oar meh ide?”
“YEP!” Suzy chattered, “The Glory HERSELF ordered that Jameson finish his father’s work! JUST LIKE A STORY BOOK, HUH?!”
Laura winced before turning back to Jameson. “Oar fatur?”
“Uh, yeah,” Jameson replied hesitantly, apparently none of the Executioners had a hard time translating the slur of someone adjusting to the heaviness of metal in their lips, “My dad was the Wisdom Executioner, he was actually the one that recruited you,” the corner of his mouth twitched upwards half-heartedly, “when he died a while ago, I had already finished recruitment and been a guard for years. So I took his place,” his smile became an infuriatingly childish grin again, “and the person who recruits an Executioner guides them on their first year. So you’re kind of stuck with me.”
“Yeah, Laura, how do you think me and Miles met?” small, 90 pound Suzy grated sweetly as she clung to the 250 pound man’s arm.
That night Jameson and Laura were told to pack for their first assignment. They were to leave for Mount Terra in the morning. Laura packed lightly and took the extra time to study her reflection. Her features were the same as usual: The same three freckles arranged in an upside-down triangle on the bridge of her nose. The same rounded face and plain eyes. But something seemed different. Almost…colder.
Laura glared at the mirror, searching frantically for that difference. Is this what you’re looking for? A sharp, somewhat crazed, voice echoed in her mind. Her jaw became long and thin with high cheekbones, the shape of her eyes grew exotic and slanted, her face was silver and tinged black on the lips and around the eyes, and her canines grew into long silver fangs.
The sun was as golden as the Glory’s mask shining over Mount Terra. The thought made Laura frown. She sees all, she knows all… That’s what she’d have you believe, the voice intruded in Laura’s thoughts.
“Hey! Are you ok?” Jameson asked worriedly.
“Huh? Yeah, why?” Laura said a little slowly, but thankfully not with a slur anymore.
“Nothing, you just seem quiet.”
“I usually am.”
“Guess I’ve been hanging around Suzy too long,” Jameson grinned as they walked, “I’m not used to hearing no one talk.”
“Yeah,” Laura said distractedly. The voice she heard last night came to mind.
“You know, if you need to talk, that’s kind of why I’m here,” Jameson finally said, uncomfortable with the silence.
“I thought you were here to keep me from getting myself killed.”
“Oh, yeah, that too. I probably shouldn’t forget that,” he joked lamely.
Laura chuckled, just to keep him from looking like a fool, but it still made her feel better. Jameson looked surprised, but pleased with himself. Maybe being an Executioner doesn’t have to be cruel, Laura thought. Want to bet? the sharp voice retorted.
“We’re here, your Honors,” the steel-nerved driver opened the door for Laura, causing her to wince against the harsh morning light.
“Thank you,” Jameson nodded at the driver before leading Laura down the brick path. “You know who the target is?” He asked without looking at her.
“You mean targets. The rebels, right?” Laura glanced around to make sure no one was around.
Jameson nodded again, his smile vanishing. “Sources say there’s about five of them hiding out on this mountain. We need to smoke them out.”
“Don’t worry,” Jameson touched Laura’s shoulder gently, “when you see one, just let the Nightmare take over. The Executioner Souls do all the messy work.”
The idea wasn’t much of a comfort, but Laura nodded at Jameson anyways.
Suddenly Jameson stopped, pulling Laura next to him. “You go east, that’s where the old camp was found. I’ll go west.” He looked Laura square in the eyes. Jameson’s entire manner had changed. His voice was more authoritative and he appeared much more serious and focused then Laura ever thought Jameson could be. His features shifted until Laura was looking at the copper face that recruited her two years ago. “Don’t hesitate. Your instinct and the Nightmare’s experience are your best resources in a mission like this.” The Wisdom Executioner’s strong jaw twitched as if he wanted to say something else, but he started walking west without another word.
What am I supposed to be looking for? Laura thought tentatively as she inspected the deserted campsite. There were no footsteps or paths of broken branches to follow, but the voice that invaded Laura’s mind insisted that something was there.
Open your eyes, girl! You can’t afford to be unobservant! the voice snarled.
“There’s nothing here!” Laura snapped out loud, “and even if there was, how would you know?!”
They may be your eyes…the voice sneered, but I use them better. As if on its own accord, Laura’s arm lifted to point at a bush.
Scoffing to herself, Laura approached the bush and crouched down to inspect it. Reaching under the plant, Laura’s fingers traced a boot print. The soil was soft from last night’s rain, so the imprint had to be fresh. Laura scowled in mild disappointment, So they are near…
A rustling sound met Laura’s ears, and before she could say “It’s probably just a rabbit,” the Nightmare Executioner had taken control, contorting Laura’s features and leaping towards the sound with deadly intent.
The Executioner drew her sword, cutting down three maple trees in one swift motion. Laura heard a rather vulgar exclamation come from one of the trees as it fell. He was there the whole time and I didn’t even notice… how did you know? The Nightmare Executioner just smirked at Laura’s confusion.
Laura’s body lunged at the man as he stood from the forest’s wreckage and aimed to slice through his shoulder and incapacitate him.
But he moved too fast, dodging the sword as if it was second nature.
Laura could have sworn she saw the man smile before he swiped a hunting knife at her midsection. Whether it was Laura or the Nightmare Executioner who took the initiative and jumped back was unperceivable to either of them.
Now a good two yards away from the rebel, the Nightmare Executioner snarled in frustration and took one of three daggers attached to her thigh. With a blade in each hand, she darted at the man; Laura’s eyes deadlocked on his neck.
The rebel took notice of this and moved back while swinging his knife towards her, intending to have her run right into it.
The Nightmare Executioner’s path suddenly curved around him— his knife biting into Laura’s left arm instead of hitting her heart— and stopped behind him, holding the edge of her sword to his throat and the point of her dagger to his back.
The man dropped his knife, but seemed unsurprised by the blades threatening his jugular and spine. His jade eyes narrowed at the Nightmare’s silver face from behind a curtain of sand-colored hair. He seems familiar… Laura remarked to herself.
To both of us. The Nightmare replied without invitation.
“Good to see you, Hannah,” he said.
“Hannah Lichen is dead,” the Nightmare Executioner replied dully.
“That explains the cold reception, I suppose.” The man carelessly brushed the sword aside with his fingertips and stood to look the dual entity in the eyes. “And the dull coloring.” He remarked, glancing at Laura’s hair.
Laura’s snarl escaped the Nightmare Executioner’s lips. “You were there when the Armored Executioner was killed.”
“One of them, I suppose.”
“You suppose a lot, Rebel.”
“I suppose so.” He said mockingly. “And I do have a name.”
“Not to us.” The Executioner spoke this time.
“Trace,” the man went on, ignoring the Nightmare Executioner’s comment, “at your service, your Honor.”
“I know,” the Nightmare nodded acknowledgement, “that’s what you told us last time.”
Us? You know him? Laura mentally glared at the murderous soul inhabiting her body.
Hannah and I. And yes. The Nightmare Executioner offered no more explanation.
“I suppose, since you have a new host, you’ll have to drag me away for the Glory and her whims.” Trace eyed the shared face suspiciously.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Laura spoke again, “I nearly died at the hands of the Armored Executioner. You’re not very good at being a rebel.”
Recognition illuminated Trace’s green eyes. He smiled cruelly. “You hate the Executioners. You practically said so yourself, that day.”
“That was two years ago, things have changed.”
Trace raised a sandy eyebrow. “Did they? Then I suppose there’s no point in resisting arrest.” He held his hands out, fists clenched and wrists together, to be tied.
Laura glared at him from behind the silver mask. “You suppose too much.”
“NIGHTMARE!” The Wisdom Executioner practically barreled right through a tree, running straight at Trace, sword drawn.
“Chase me.” Trace whispered to Laura before running through the forest to the east. He was obviously more familiar with the territory then the Wisdom, ducking and turning to avoid stray branches and roots without slowing for an instant.
So the Nightmare Executioner began to chase him. Roaring with imagined fury and bloodlust as she did so. When they were a good mile ahead of the Wisdom Executioner they stopped. “Running was never Wisdom’s strong point, not even when we were alive.” The Nightmare mused to Trace and Laura before removing her control over Laura’s body and freeing her face.
Trace scanned Laura’s features for a moment, taking notice of the similarities and differences. “Would you betray the Executioners?”
Laura’s eyes widened at his bluntness. “They would kill me.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Answer the question, girl! The Nightmare Executioner’s voice was more venomous than ever.
Laura grimaced at the sound. “It would not be a betrayal in my eyes.”
Trace nodded. “Then I suppose you know where to find me.”
The man smirked. “Just ask the Nightmare.”
“NIGHTMARE! LAURA!!” A panicked voice reached Laura’s ears.
Trace disappeared into the trees just as the Wisdom Executioner chopped his way through the thick brush. Looking around anxiously, his face dissolved, revealing Jameson’s underneath. “Did you get him?”
Laura shook her now mask-free head. “I lost him.”
Laura absently rubbed the bandages on her left arm as she stood in front of the Great Wall. Jameson’s drawing of Trace was actually very accurate. Too bad it was on a wanted poster.
I can fix this… she heard the cruel voice whisper, if you’ll let me. Laura nodded her head once. She felt the Nightmare possess her arm, grabbing the blade on their thigh and with a swift movement stroke out Trace’s eyes and carved a vicious set of fangs over his mouth, careful not to mark his name. Laura winced. Now only you can kill him, that is our law, the Nightmare said gently.
“Laura?” Jameson’s voice came from behind her.
Laura turned around, surprised to see him. “She wants- I want- another chance,” Laura felt her voice crack, “he got away from me once. I need to settle the score.”
Jameson nodded in understanding, his trademark grin noticeably absent. “The Glory wants to see you.”
The Glory Executioner’s face was still covered in gold, her flowing hair seeming to grow straight from the hairline of her mask. Laura shifted uncomfortably in front of the imposing woman. “You wished to see me, you Gloriousness?”
“Yes, Laura. I want to warn you of something I should have mentioned before.”
“What is it?”
“The Executioner you host is…unstable.” The Glory’s face softened to appear sympathetic and almost human without shifting to reveal the vessel beneath.
The Glory sighed. “She was once my second-in-command. But her mind was stained.”
“As Executioner’s, we often have to do horrible things. Things that cause people to see us as monsters…” Glory glanced at Laura, “but we only do this for the sake of our people. Or, at least most of us do.”
“Most of us?” Laura nearly slapped herself; she was starting to sound like an echo.
“The Nightmare Executioner never cared for politics. She had a strong sense of justice and an unwavering moral compass when we first met, all those centuries ago…” the Glory seemed to whisper that last part. “She always did hate having to take the public viewpoints and opinions into consideration. In her mind, a wrong was a wrong and only the people who were present could say otherwise. The people thought she was cruel for that. But, like I said, she never did care for diplomacy, so she it never seemed to bother her what they thought.”
“Why should it? If she was doing what was right…”
“Only in her own eyes!” The golden Executioner snapped at Laura. She took a shaky breath and continued calmly. “Eventually she took things too far. She began to execute people with immunities. People who had the loyalty of the public. When I tried to stop her, she grew paranoid. The Nightmare Executioner became a one-woman rebellion, sabotaging our government from the inside. Even slaughtering our guards… I had to put an end to it.”
Over and over and over again… Laura heard the chilling voice sneer.
“Her madness is contagious, I’m afraid.” The Glory continued. “Every vessel she took has followed in her footsteps.” She turned to Laura suddenly. “Her skills are great and you must trust them in battle. But do not listen to her. Her words may very well tear this government apart, and the lives of our people with it!”
And you brought it upon yourself. The Nightmare Executioner’s voice hissed in Laura’s mind.
The Glory’s eyes narrowed for a moment, as if she could hear it, before she sent Laura away with a sympathetic smile.
Laura’s consciousness roared and ached with the fresh memory of what she was just told. The voice she heard next did nothing to soothe her nerves. I am indeed insane… Laura felt the metal in her lips smirk knowingly. But not as much as the Glory wants me to be.