Chapter 4 - Three of Swords
They haunt me relentlessly.
All the people I've murdered over the years.
I've cut off their heads. Carved their hearts from their chests. Sliced their torsos right through the middle. But no matter what I do, an army of corpses continues to pursue me. I see them every time I close my eyes. The politicians, the nobles, the merchants, the rich and powerful.
'Just leave me alone! Leavemealoneleavemealone leavemealone!'
I frantically swing my sword at them.
I cut and cut, bisecting them. Slashing them apart.
But they don't relent.
Chunks of flesh and bone, viscera and intestines, lungs and brains. They gather into a writhing mass that comes crashing down on me like a gory wave, threatening to swallow me whole.
I try to escape, but they corner me again and again.
My victims, staring at me with hollow eyes. Accusing me.
'How could you do this to us?! How?!'
They throw themselves at me, their decaying fingers gripping my neck, trying to rip the life out of me just as I did to them.
'Let me go! Letmegoletmegoletmego!'
I frantically thrash and struggle, but no matter what I do, I can't break away.
Rotting blood and bile trickles down my body, dissolving my skin.
The wave finally swallows me up.
I just want a normal life.
I just want my humanity back.
I woke from my nightmare, my breath short and ragged. My entire body was soaked in a horrible sweat. I fought back the rising urge to vomit.
The night after completing a mission was always like this. The only difference was seeing one more face in the crowd.
Even after years, my disgust for murder had never abated, not even in the slightest. No matter how much time passed, I couldn't rid myself of the scars left in my mind by the terrible acts I'd performed. And yet, I had no choice but to continue.
Nine and I were nothing but tools. Our individual thoughts and ideals had no meaning. They were completely unnecessary. All the Organization required from us was a skillful capacity for murder and unquestioning subordination--to kill as we were ordered to. Our entire existence boiled down to this singular point. To reject an order or attempt escape was tantamount to suicide.
To even speak its true name was forbidden. It was a group of professional killers that existed in the shadows of society. Its core business was eliminating marks, but its true objective likely lay elsewhere. As a low-ranking member, I was simply one of the Organization's weapons--there was no reason for such info to be shared with me.
Most members of the Organization had served it since they were children. Children deemed to possess special potential were made to undergo combat instruction and exercises in a place known as 'the factory.' The majority of children who entered the factory would never again see beyond its walls. Unable to endure the merciless training they were put through, it would become their tomb. The 'lucky' ones who did survive, however, were officially recognized as entry-level members of the Organization.
That's what happened with me. I was forced to abandon who I was when I first passed through the factory's doors at seven years old. Anyone who dared utter their former name would be subject to severe punishment. There was no concept of individuality. Life in the Organization meant being nothing more than another tool in an arsenal. It wasn't until I graduated at the age of ten that I was given a name. It only served to solidify my status as a weapon, however. Our names--more like titles--are based on tarot cards.
In my case, the moniker I received was from the Minor Arcana: 'Three of Swords.' It didn't have even the slightest bit of humanity to it, but it was better than having no name at all. Both the higher ups and a small fraction of the very best candidates were given a name based on the Major Arcana. Everyone who survived training and made it in was skilled, but in terms of combat ability, the Major Arcana could run circles around the rest of us. Rumor had it they were even more powerful than top-ranked bracers.
I left my room and peeked into the neighboring one. It seemed like Nine was still sleeping. It was time for my report, so I headed out on my own. Lower-level members of the Organization generally operated in pairs. My partner is Nine of Swords, a girl one year my junior.
Nine was a natural genius. She graduated from the factory in a single year, despite the fact that the average kid takes three to five--if they even make it to graduation without 'dropping out,' that is. From gathering info to analyzing battle situations, acting abilities to infiltration tactics... She was top-class in a multitude of fronts. That's to say nothing of her combat style, which made use of needles and wires, allowing her to control the field of battle and dominate her foes. All in all, her abilities were far better suited to assassinations than mine were. It was a bit awkward for us when we were first paired up, but after working together for a year, I could honestly say she was the best partner I'd ever had--and the most reliable.
At the same time, she was also the person I needed to regard with the most caution. The reasons why the Organization used a partner system were twofold. The obvious reason was that it helped facilitate missions, but it also forced each partner to monitor the other. In the Organization, betrayal was swiftly returned with death. A tool is doomed to serve until it breaks. As such, we were expected to be part of the Organization the entirety of our lives. As a general rule, we were afforded no freedom. There did, however, exist special rules. If one were to sense that their partner was scheming to betray the Organization, they could sell them out to gain their own freedom. All you had to do was make your report, present sufficient evidence of your suspicion, and then you were given the task of eliminating them yourself. If you succeeded, you were free.
Simply running away meant resigning yourself to looking over your shoulder the rest of your life. The Organization had eyes everywhere. Anyone who wanted true freedom was better off waiting for the chance to turn their partner in.
There was another problem, too--the worst of the worst would actually fabricate proof of their partner's betrayal in an effort to earn their own freedom.
Thus, the person you needed to regard most cautiously was not an enemy you'd face on any mission, but the partner who was always at your side. You needed to entertain and accept the notion that you could be betrayed at any time. Members did not turn their backs on the Organization. This was an absolute requirement for survival, and a lesson I learned very early on through personal experience.
Three years ago, I tried to escape. Well, I suppose it was more 'we' than 'I.' At the time, I was partnered with another boy--one known as 'Ace of Swords.'
Ace was a year my senior, and he was a pretty good guy. We got along well enough, and he quickly grew into an older brother figure for me. He wielded a giant sword with ease--one as long as he was tall--and he used it both to destroy our enemies and protect me. He really was an ace when it came to battle. In that sense, his name couldn't have been more appropriate.
One thing Ace and I shared was contempt for the murders we were forced to perform. I can't remember how the idea of escaping the Organization came up initially, but I do recall that neither of us objected to it.
As I mentioned, the system was set up to prevent individual members from betraying the Organization, as they could be sold out by their partner. We figured the best way around that was to simply work together and escape the Organization as a team. With our objective decided on, we began planning in earnest.
We quickly decided we'd need to execute our plan as far away from other pairs of assassins 'employed' by the Organization. The first part of our plan went well enough. We entered Erebonia, thinking that its considerable distance from our normal area of operations meant we could enjoy a certain degree of safety.
That was a severe misjudgment on our part, though. The Organization had eyes there as well. We were approached by other pairs of assassins twice, and both times ended with combat. We managed to fend them off, however. Ace and I were partners for a reason, and we fought well together.
The third time, however, it was the Overseer that paid us a visit. To say that his power was overwhelming wouldn't do it justice--it was like trying to fight a force of nature.
We barely managed to escape with our lives, suffering heavy wounds in the process. With nowhere else to go, we huddled together in a cave, conscious of the fact that our next encounter with the Overseer would surely be our last. There was nothing more to be said about the situation, and for what felt like an eternity, we passed the time in silence.
'Hey, Ace?' I began speaking, believing that it would be the last conversation we'd ever have.
'What's up, buddy?'
'I just want to say that...all things considered, I think everything could have went a lot worse.'
'What's that supposed to mean?' he struggled through the pain to force out a little smirk at my comment.
'Don't get me wrong, I have plenty of regrets, but still...'
Ace waited in silence for me to continue.
'Being by your side all this time, well...it's made my life so much better, Ace. And even if we're fated to meet our deaths here, it's a million times better than spending a lifetime as just another tool.'
The fire flickered. Our shadows danced on the cave wall.
Finally, Ace broke the silence, his voice a mere whisper.
'Three... Thanks for everything, man.'
'You, too, Ace. Thank you.'
I had said what I needed to say. I felt that if our opponent were to arrive at that very moment, I'd at least be able to give my whole soul to the battle.
'If that's how you feel...' Ace started.
Suddenly, the ambience in the cave completely shifted, like some horrible hallucination. Ace's icy voice pierced through me, chilling me to the bone.
'...then die, buddy. Die for me.'
My first reaction was slight confusion. I actually interpreted it as a clumsy way of saying that we would face our deaths together. I turned to face him, just to clarify, and what I saw next was Ace's massive sword speeding down toward my head.
I immediately dodged his strike, and the ground where I had been laying only a moment ago had been shattered into rubble.
'Ace! What are you doing?!' I cried out.
'You can't figure it out on your own? Have you forgotten the final rule for those who betray the Organization?'
The final rule. I hadn't forgotten it, I simply hadn't given it much thought. It seemed irrelevant to our situation. But everything clicked into place then.
When two partners betray the Organization, the only way for one of them to gain its forgiveness was to kill their partner and present the Organization with the corpse.
The idea behind this rule was to force escapees into a sense of desperation, and then push them into killing each other, taking care of the problem so the Organization didn't have to.
To my absolute shock, this was precisely what Ace was trying to do. I understood what was happening, but all I could do was ask why, over and over.
'Ace! Why? Why are you doing this?'
'You know, buddy, becoming partners with you was the only bit of luck I've had in my whole goddess-damned life. I really did want to be free together. To get our humanity back together.'
'Then why are you--'
'Because I need to survive!' he said, his voice dripping with desperation, 'I can't die like this!'
Screaming wildly, Ace swung his sword at me again. The same sword that had been used to save my life more times than I could count was now being used in an attempt to end it.
'Just die!' he screamed.
I tried to scream back, but the horrible knot in my stomach and the storm of emotions in my heart ensured that the only thing that came out of my mouth was a meaningless warble as I met his sword with my own. Engulfed in despair, I surrendered control to my instincts and engaged this 'enemy' in combat as I would any other.
I don't clearly remember what happened from there. All I know is that I was overtaken by rage and sadness and became a slashing, screaming monster. I was finally brought to my senses by the sound of Ace's body collapsing to the ground. That's how I managed to survive. How I 'won' back my position as one of the Organization's tools.
And that's where I'd been ever since.
Our escape was a deadly failure that laid bare my inadequacies. I still hadn't given up on winning back my humanity...
...but I'd be damned if I was going to trust anyone else ever again.
To be continued
こうしてオレは再び“組織”の“道具”になり、今日まで生き永らえた。TO BE CONTINUED
Continue Reading Three & Nine
|⇐ Chapter 3: The Assassins & The Target||Chapter 5: The Overseer & The Report ⇒|