Vito -are: v. to avoid, to shun, evade
Vita -ae: f n. life, way of life
Conall: Male, under 45 kg, about 150 cm, pale with genetic lack of melanin, violet eye color, brown hair color, twelve years old. Raised by: Milo – Occupation: Monk – for at least eight years. No documented parents, relatives, or history, prior. Medical records show various infections – Staphylococcus, Mononucleosis, Influenza, Acute Appendicitis, Bronchitis, Tetnus, Candidiasis, Measles, Parotitis, Shingellosis, Diptheria, Epididymitis, Gonorrhea, Infectious Arthritis, and Rosalea – and successive cardiac failures between ages of four and ten, undiagnosed cause. Considered Human, but definitive evidence is questionable. Current residence and guardian: Officially unknown.
– Source: The Official Records of Known Civilias
He knew better than to say anything as the man led him up the staircase. Somehow, he felt like he was being led to the tower or the hangman's post or the guillotine. Still, his steps did not falter. He wouldn't let them. It was part of the game; the moment he faltered or hesitated, he lost and then everything would be over, but he wasn't going to lose.
The boy's name was Conall. That's what he had been called, once. He'd never had a last name and now, he had no name at all. The man and all the other adults where he was now didn't call him at all, except for the occasional 'You'. The only one who still called him by name was Mike. To Mike, he was still 'Con.' It was an earned privilege, one which only Mike had earned to date.
The man – Con and all the other children called him 'Pappa', even though they all knew he was anything but – stopped, then turned to grip Con's shoulder, as though he were restraining himself from moving his hand to the child's neck.
"Remember, you do not speak unless spoken to, and I am ALWAYS right. Understood?" 'Pappa' intoned.
"Yes, Pappa." On the inside, Con was shivering, as though all his organs were shriveling up like raisins. On the outside, no one could have guessed – Con was THAT good at hiding his emotions. He was that determined not to lose this game.
"And, as promised, the rewards will go to your debts." 'Pappa' released Con and turned away.
'Pappa' was almost two meters tall, and in each of his hands, he could've crushed a child. Unlike other adults his size, 'Pappa's hands were cold and being held in them didn't feel like a fatherly embrace or even a stern, but guiding teacher's grip – rather, it almost felt like the clasp of iron chains around his neck. Con didn't like it, but he knew Mike didn't like it even more, so he put up with it.
Con's face remained so stoic and calm, the marble relief on the wall would have changed expression before he did.
The medicine was the reason Con was agreeing to do this – normally, 'Pappa' wouldn't have cared if Con agreed or not, but this was a special job that not just anyone could do, nor could they be forced to do it well. Reluctance would get him killed, hesitation would get him killed, and refusal to act would get him killed. It was dangerous, but it was also a job to bargain with. Con knew that he would get at least SOME of what he wanted this time.
"Will be delivered. Don't be impudent." 'Pappa' snapped, reaching for his belt. Con didn't flinch.
"You've lied to me before – I want at least some of the medicine before I go in there. How else do I know that you even have it?" 'Pappa' turned around, masking his threatening gesture by slipping a hand into his pocket. One of Con's eyes followed it, but his gaze remained on 'Pappa's face – nobody would have noticed the wandering eye.
"You're certainly a haggler – maybe I'll decide to change my mind about this and then, you won't get the medicine at all."
Con's eyes hardened; if they'd hardened anymore, he could have turned 'Pappa' to stone, just by making eye contact.
"If it was for me, I wouldn't care. But this isn't my health. If you try to lie to me again, I WILL strike back." Con even looked like it – his eyes were sharpened like a cobra rising from it's basket, his head stiff on his neck, but his body both relaxed and tense enough to move back if 'Pappa' threatened him, or closer for a strike.
"Oh, threats now? Who do you think owns who, here?"
If a cat may look upon a king, Con stared up at 'Pappa' as though he were the most wretched, downtrodden stray still turning his nose up to an Emperor. Just a little narrow of the eyes and the slightest tilt of his head backward and he somehow managed to stare down at 'Pappa', even though 'Pappa' was a so much taller than him. In his peripheral vision, Con saw 'Pappa' reach for his belt again. Con let his head drop and opened his eyes normally, again.
"Of course you own me. But if you treat your appliances wrong, they have a tendency to break and zap you back just when you need them most."
'Pappa' didn't care about Con breaking; Con knew that plenty well. As far as Con and the other children knew, 'Pappa' had taken a big risk bringing them into this city, and purely for their benefit. If they didn't show at least the proper respect, 'Pappa' and the Others would teach them to do so. Then again, 'Pappa' knew that if he beat Con, everyone would notice AND Con couldn't do his job – profit-wise, it wasn't worth it.
With a snarl, 'Pappa' thrust his hand into a pocket and pulled out a small, clear bag full of a fine white powder.
"I'll keep the number of the maintenance men handy, then." 'Pappa' tossed it to Con, then turned his back and pushed the door open.
Con had been expecting the interior of the room to be lavish, but really, it was very plain. The walls were gray, the window black with the night sky, and only a lamp on the large, plain desk in the middle of the room. Sitting behind it was an Old Man. The only character the room seemed to have was the Old Man's crutch leaning against the desk and the plastic figures that formed a line on the front of his desk.
"Now, stay quiet." 'Pappa' instructed, before he and the Old Man started talking. Con couldn't understand their words, and the few he had learned just by listening to conversations 'Pappa' had with outsiders and customers went so quickly and surrounded by other words he didn't know that they had no meaning for themselves. Still, he listened keenly, trying to pick up on new words or listening for the voices to give him cues. He knew that at some point, the Old Man sounded concerned, but 'Pappa' spoke so smoothly over it that Con didn't hear any more on the subject.
And, for all of this, Con remained silent and in the back of the room. He might just as well have been in a different room.
'Pappa' had bashed the idea into Con's head more than once on the way here – the Old Man was also taking a risk in letting Con into this job. If the police found out what was happening, Con and likely the other children would all be sent back to the Customs. What would be worse is that the police in this city might not even care that they were just children – they might be put in prison for being in the city without permission from the Elites or the House. No matter what happened, Con had to be quiet, stay out of the way, and not cause any trouble. It seemed relatively simple: After all, even if a squad of policemen had come into the room, Con couldn't understand a word of their language and nobody understood his. It wasn't like he could do anything to get 'Pappa' in trouble, even if he'd wanted to.
But, at last, 'Pappa' turned around. He held a large, metal band in one hand and a small, white box in the other. Con remained silent and still, waiting.
"It's ready, then." 'Pappa' announced, striding over to Con.
"I'm ready, too." He answered. 'Pappa' held out a hand and Con stepped forward, into it. With a click, 'Pappa' snapped the metal band around Con's neck. Then, tipping Con's head to the side, he used the white little box to puncture something into Con's ear. Oh, it stung, but Con didn't flinch. It went numb in a moment, anyway.
"You are now, officially, a Hunter."
"Someone's in a feisty mood today, I see." 'Pappa' mildly noted, even as two of the Others held onto the ends of the pole Con's arms had been tied to. His head was woozy from the drugs they'd used to subdue him – something that smelled sharp and stung at his eyes, and almost smelled like water from a swimming pool. Still, Con was awake enough to be angry and he let Them know it by twisting his torso a little. It was nowhere near enough force to break loose, but he could feel the two Others tighten their holds on their respective ends of the pole.
"You promised." Con finally hissed when that was all he had air for, "You were the one who said Mike would stay out of this. I do the work, he doesn't."
'Pappa' raised his hands in what would have been defensive if there was someone bigger and stronger glowering over him. As it was, Con wasn't sure if 'Pappa' was mocking him for his ferocity or for his restrained arms.
"I never said anything to argue with that." 'Pappa' commented.
"The CUSTOMER did. The customer is the one who decides how hard my work is in the end and how much money I get paid. Your words don't count once the door is closed." Con was immediately corrected by the whap upside the head that one of the Others gave him with another pole. His head inevitably flopped down, a bump growing on the back of it.
"Indeed – that is why, thanks to your conduct, you will not work as much this month, which means you will earn less, which means your debt will continue to grow without payments." Con raised his head to glower at 'Pappa' as he folded his hands on his desk, "Don't scowl at me – I have nothing to do with it. The CUSTOMERS are the ones who decide these things."
If Con had had strength enough in his legs to jump at 'Pappa', he would have gladly done so and used his bare teeth to gnaw the man's head from his neck.
"So, since you will have so much extra time to spare... I suppose we could put you to use in a fashion better suited to your talents."
Con resisted the urge to use one of 'Pappa's best insults against him – for some reason, 'Pappa' always maintained that this kind of work was the ONLY thing Con and all the other children were good for. To have talents, all of a sudden, was almost like admitting that they were worth something, that they shouldn't be working this kind of job.
"What could THAT possibly be?" Con asked. Feigned ignorance seemed the best route at the moment. 'Pappa' smiled.
"What you know about this city is very little, and even then, probably not very accurate. As such, you don't even realize the danger that all of us are in, even as we speak." This got Con's attention, "For all any of us know, there might be a beast prowling the streets, looking for something to eat and, if it finds an open door like the one behind you..." Con almost turned his head around, but one of the Others whapped him with a pole again, "It would follow the scent of whatever it smelled and undoubtedly make a tasty meal of the creatures behind the door."
Con said nothing, but he did remember the ride into the city from the Customs. In hindsight, he'd thought it was because 'Pappa' and the Others didn't want any of them escaping, but it did make sense for a double-purpose of protecting them from being eaten by animals.
"...Is... is that why our doors are always locked at night?" He finally asked, slowly. 'Pappa's smile spread.
"That's a fairly accurate assumption. As far as we know, solid doors and heavy locks are impenetrable for the monsters. Still, it never hurts to be too sure." 'Pappa' paused as Con digested this, "What if I told you that you could be paid to protect our city, and yourself?"
Con said nothing, but he saw 'Pappa's smirk grow, which meant he knew of Con's bubbling desire from some cue on Con's face, much like one knows that water is boiling because of the rising steam.
"Not only to be paid, but to be paid very WELL for it. And, of course, this would mean a good deal for your debts..."
"What's the job?" Con hadn't hesitated this time – he was smart enough to know that if he could make money, it obviously meant that he could pay more of his debt. As though sensing Con's hunger for knowledge, 'Pappa' continued smiling that queer, terrifying smirk of his.
"You would be a Hunter." Con frowned at this – the only hunters he'd ever heard about were usually regarded as poachers, and everyone knew poachers were evil men. Still, as much as Con hated 'Pappa', everyone knew that he was not evil, so anything that he made Con do couldn't be evil, either. That could only mean he wasn't going to be a poacher – and that meant that this kind of hunter was a good kind of hunter.
"What would I do?" Con finally asked. 'Pappa' lazily reclined in his chair, obviously seeing no need for urgency if Con had easily agreed.
"You would, as the title implies, hunt dangerous animals and stop them from entering the city and endangering civilian life." The chair 'Pappa' was in turned a little as 'Pappa' boredly pushed at the floor with his heels, "And for every beast you managed to kill, there would be a reward per head. Of course, it does vary from beast to beast... I'm sorry, am I BORING you?" 'Pappa' spoke condescendingly because, in spite of all his interest and intent to take the job, Con's weariness had overcome him and forced him to yawn, rather mightily, too.
In almost a second, Con blinked, sharply, then shook his head.
"What are the rewards for each beast. Tell me, please – so I know what to do." While Con did not fear 'Pappa' and the Others, he would readily admit to being afraid of not having a way to pay his debts back, which just as easily translated into a fear of not being able to make money, and thus, became a fear of 'Pappa' and the Other's power to withhold it from him. It was just as a starving prisoner fears the jailer's ability to starve him if the mood strikes.
Satisfied that he had Con's full attention and some way to hold the reigns of this conversation, 'Pappa' folded his hands over his stomach and began listing the different bounties.
"They go in order of how important the destruction of the animal is and how difficult. Small rewards for things like rats, raccoons, possums, weasels, badgers – I'm sure you understand."
Con continued to bite his tongue, but his impatience was starting to get the better of him.
"There are then, of course, the usual threats to Humans. Normal beasts like foxes and jackals are one of the best examples. Naturally, the animals themselves don't cause much harm to Humans, directly, but think about it – if a fox got past the gates, it would be a simple matter to find it's way to the farmhouses and into a chicken coop or a cattle stable. A single fox could cost the whole city several chickens, a hog or two, possibly even a whole steer. Or, even worse, what if the creature didn't kill, but merely bit and left the animals that give us food with some ravaging disease? The butchering begins without anyone noticing, the meat is sent to the shop, and three different families buy and cook chops, bacon, and loin for dinner. At least twelve people are now sick, all because of a – literally – measly fox." 'Pappa' laughed at his own, despicable pun.
"You're thinking of rabies." Con glowered. One of the Others holding onto his restrained arms batted at his head with the pole, again.
"That's only if a single beast makes it's way in. What if two sneak in and breed a whole den right under the chicken's coop? The danger increases, exponentially. And the real danger comes from the fact that, once a creature is inside our walls, there's no real way to dig it out – our exterminators are able to deal with minor nuisances that worm their way in, like insects and mice, maybe a raccoon or rat if it was stunned or sick, but predators like foxes are quite out of their league." This information didn't surprise Con quite so much as the information that they had exterminators in the city, at all – if they had people to deal with mice and cockroaches, why hadn't any of them ever come to the rooms Con lived and served customers in?
"In any case, their worth is considerably more for a Hunter to kill as long as they are outside the city walls." 'Pappa' continued, completely unaware of Con's puzzlings. Con nodded, but remained silent, "Then, of course, bigger animals than foxes and jackals will earn you bigger bounties – needless to say, however, they are better kills for a reason. For example, the most common kill we find is a Wolf or a bear – both would be worth a good deal, but keep in mind that they are not easy animals to slay. It takes more than the brute strength you showed with that customer just now, and I would be sincerely surprised if you could do it with your bare hands, at that."
Con continued to keep his silence, but the idea of something being so strong that he couldn't kill it with his bare hands was a mind-boggler, indeed. After all, he'd only just finished beating three of the Others half to death – only spared because Con knew it was a sin to murder – and all three of them and the customer had easily been twice Con's height and three times his weight. And if he had brought them all to their knees with little more than his arms, legs, and teeth as weapons, why shouldn't he be able to do the same to a single bear or wolf?
"Then, there are other beasts – lions, panthers, leopards, tigers, jaguars... once again, they are valuable for a reason. And of course, there are dozens of other beasts that could easily be ten or twenty times worth of customers for your rewards, and each of them, you have to earn your bounties as much as another." Con breathed in, carefully and deeply.
"Secondly, you would be charged with eliminating monsters and demons. Once again, their worth will go in order of how dangerous they are, and most monsters will also have specific pieces for you to bring back: Just as an example, if you managed to kill a dragon, it's fangs would be highly prized for their venom. And, unlike beasts, killing off monsters would easily be worth your entire debt. You might even have some extra."
Up until this point, Con had been bent double on the floor, his shoulders weighted down with the pole he was tied to and his back curled. At these words, he sat straight up, almost jumping to a stand.
"THAT much?" He exclaimed in shock and awe. Unless he'd heard wrong, 'Pappa' had just admitted that a single monster kill could pay off Con's entire debt and maybe even more. 'Pappa's smile grew wider and thinner.
"There are rumors that a Hunter who came before your time slew a Kirin and when he brought back it's horn for bounty, the reward money was enough that he could retire. They say he's about my age and living quite comfortably, as he will for the rest of his days."
Con hadn't thought his eyes could grow wider, but they did in that moment.
"What do you want me to do?" Con finally blurted out. 'Pappa's monologuing explanation stopped, but there was a pleased smile on his face that could bode no good.
"Now, now..." 'Pappa' wiggled a finger in Con's direction, scolding, "There are more duties than just those. We must be sure that every possibility is prepared for in this situation. Monsters and beasts are one thing, but your third prerogative is hybrids."
Con tried to keep calm, but it was difficult.
"As I'm sure you're aware, there's always more than one possibility when a hybrid is found in the woods. So, while their heads are worth a great price indeed, your higher priority is to capture the creature, or, if that is impossible, to tag them for tracking. If the parents are still alive out there, they must be found."
"Don't kill – capture or tag. Got it." Con muttered, but one of the Others smacked him with his pole again. Con was beginning to see stars.
"Now, now – it seems our prospect is more willing to cooperate, now. Let's stop with the beatings and loosen his arms – he'll need them." 'Pappa' said. Con's head snapped up, only to see 'Pappa' unconcernedly picking flecks of white, dead skin off of his knuckles where hair grew. Nonetheless, the pinching on his arms slackened and soon, his hands fell to the floor, smarting with renewed blood flow. Con gratefully massaged his wrists trying to restore some kind of feeling to the numb skin. As he did so, however, he lifted his head to stare at 'Pappa', frowning and wondering what, exactly, the man was up to.
'Pappa' pulled something from his desk and tossed it across the room. This would have been a lesser feat if I weren't for Con being at least a meter away. However, it was a great feat, and all the more so as Con quickly snatched the projectile out of the air, even as his fingertips started to throb from all the blood rushing back into them, unchecked. Con almost dropped the piece that 'Pappa' had thrown to him. That would have been particularly bad, since what Con found himself holding was a round, hand-held computer ball. The half of the sphere with a screen was lit up, even before 'Pappa' had thrown it, and a document reader was displayed with words in a language Con hadn't seen in years, that he hadn't thought he'd ever see again since coming to the City.
"That's a list of the various creatures and their bounties, translated for your benefit. It also gives you descriptions of each species and instructions for special cases. For example, if you found some kind of animal that had better use alive – the last capture was a pig that could tell the future – you are to lure it into a cage and bring it back, alive. There are others, but you'll see them in detail. You are to read and memorize that list: If you can do it before tomorrow, I will arrange a meeting with the commissioner for the Hunters." 'Pappa' reclined in his chair and resumed picking at the dandruff on his knuckles. Con quickly scrolled through the document.
Eight-hundred pages. 'Pappa' wanted him to memorize eight-hundred pages before tomorrow. Con thought briefly of Mike, back in the room, crumpled up under his blankets, cowering every time he heard a noise from the other rooms, or vainly trying to pull himself into a safer position whenever the door to their room opened.
Eight-hundred pages in less than a day.
Becoming a Hunter had been relatively painless compared to what Con had thought he'd have to go through. To hear 'Pappa' talk, Con had thought it would take a matter of weeks to get him registered and official before he could start work. In reality, Con had only been required to pass a few physical examinations: Run a 5 Km in under an hour, lift 100 kg with his arms, then his legs, and vault a Km pole.
"Don't be too proud of yourself for passing so well; this is only expected of any of the Hunters." 'Pappa' had scolded him, sternly, as soon as the examiner in the black sweatsuit turned his back.
'And exactly how many chemicals do they have pumping air into their balloon-man muscles?' Con had refrained from snapping back. He might not know much about this city, nor it's inhabitants, but he wasn't stupid enough to be fooled into thinking that mere Human beings could do these super-Human feats on their own. There had to have been some sort of chemical induction or at least a surgery or two changing their muscle structures.
In the meantime, Con did have to wonder what that said about himself – even Milo had always conceded that something about Con was odd, and Con himself knew that his own, lilac-colored eyes were not a normal Human trait. Still, there was still the fact that he knew nothing about his life before Milo had found him. Perhaps it had been something with his real parents – his mother had abused steroids and he had been born with them naturally inherent in his system, or his father had been from a higher class and that somehow had affected his development.
Con didn't have time to ponder it right now – not when he was meeting the other Hunters, face-to-face. There were only three others who Con would be working with, and all three gave him looks of the greatest disgust and disdain. One was the average height for a man in his thirties with a beard all over his chin that wasn't quite a goatee. Another was short and muscular and wore an eyepatch, and the third was tall, lean, and bony with bangs of dark black that fell over his eyes like a ghost. Con continued to look at the ground while 'Pappa' spoke to them in the language that Con didn't understand.
"Porgue sus jovens est un chic desus no mires comotes aperencia para nos? Quies le madre non promeses ti y fume alredrar sun pecado." One of them spoke as his upper lip curled in an obvious sneer. Con couldn't help but stare as these three men openly jeered at 'Pappa', but he remained immobile. If Con had tried that, 'Pappa' would either have had two of the Others deliver a beating or done it himself.
"Cara lo se non est produjia dela mue: Alos dize anos para hoy yt tres semanas, arribas son ille tosado ens otras communidad por noseres alrudecion. Lo miro, yo quiero – Estan dibuji ares papes y hoche son joves estes miso chic." 'Pappa's voice sounded perfectly unconcerned with their attitude, enough that Con had to wonder exactly who these men were, that they weren't even afraid of 'Pappa'.
Come to think of it, Con's own fear of 'Pappa' wasn't that strong – 'Pappa' was tall, big, and dark in his face, but he was also far too clean. There was no hair to hide his face, his suits were always pressed, clean, and fresh-smelling, and the little portions of his skin that Con could see were hairless, from the backs of his hands to the little 'v' made by his top button being unfastened. Even his fingernails were small and trimmed and white-rimmed. Con wasn't afraid of him.
Mike, however, was. As he was of all the Others, and that was where Con was caught. All any of them had to do was take a single step into the room, and Con was on his guard because Mike couldn't be. They knew that; They used that. Hence, Con was stuck where he was.
Perhaps that was why Con had been offered this job: Not because of the obvious skills he'd shown, or because of the raw, fruit strength he had, but because he wasn't scared of 'Pappa'. Maybe it was a special power inherent to all Hunters. From what Con had seen, almost everyone was afraid of 'Pappa', even some of the Others, and Con was certain that the ones who hadn't acted or seemed afraid were just concealing it very well. Con was different, just like these men: Neither they nor he felt any kind of fear for 'Pappa'.
The conversation with the other three Hunters ended. All three of them were glaring at Con by the time 'Pappa' was finished speaking, but Con held their gaze.
They were equals. They were the same. He shouldn't be afraid of them, and he wasn't. As though sensing the challenge, all three of the other Hunters turned away in a flash.
"Now, there are some details to clear up – I'm taking you back until I can get the papers finalized. In the meantime, if you have a customer, I expect you to continue as though I am still outside your door. Understood?" 'Pappa' gave the order with such clarity that there was no way Con couldn't understand.