Eradico -are: v, to destroy, to eliminate, to eradicate
Asu is a metropolis with a population of roughly 25,000. The civilians are Human and non-Humans are not permitted permanent residence within it's walls. They are also not permitted temporary residence, nor passage through the cities entrances without proper documentation, licenses, permission from the Police, Elites, and the House, and an escort of guards ensuring they leave the city within their documented time restrictions. Violations of this restriction will be punished in a manner to be determined by a judge and Lord Iraes, usually execution.
Source: Guide to Asu: What You Don't Know Can't Hurt You
Con hit the ground, heavily, as his bony body absorbed the blow. Pappa stood over him with his arms folded, and next to him, there was one of the Others, holding onto a long, steel pole with a heavy weight of lead attached to the end. It was almost like a mace, except without the spikes. Con could feel his ribs resetting and returning to their proper place and the pain faded, but Con still struggled to draw his breath. It wasn't pain so much as it was numbness and shock. He never really did feel pain, not anymore. And when he did, it was so brief that Con sometimes wondered if it had been real.
'Moments like this make the whole Sponger thing come in handy.' Con had learned, just a few days ago, that he was a kind of absorbent magnet for unusual abilities of any sort. Where he'd gotten this ability to heal from, he didn't know, but it had been with him long enough that he'd survived things that would have killed grown men, much less a twelve-year-old boy. The ability had also granted him an unnatural amount of raw strength and strategic flexibility that had convinced Pappa of Con's usefulness in the position of a Hunter; and any number of diseases, dilemmas, and handicaps that had gotten Con into this debt with Pappa and the Others in the first place.
There were other things that had happened in the past week that Con hadn't thought would ever occur, even in a lifetime.
'Especially not to someone like me.' But, happened they had. And Con was certain that there would be more to come, once he got back out into the forest.
"Do you want me to pull my permission on this?" Pappa asked, "You're still underage – they need permission from a parent or guardian, even for an exception like yours." Under normal circumstances, Con would have seriously doubted that, even for prodigies, dangerous jobs would allowed a child into their midst. His circumstances, however, were anything but normal – after all, they were in this strange city, where neither Con nor the other children understood the language or laws, where everything was dictated by the Elites, where outsiders were unwelcome, where being different got you arrested or worse.
Where God no longer existed. Where only these other, horrible, cruel Humans controlled everything.
'Even though you're not fooling ANYONE with that story that you're my father.' Con refrained from saying. Whether anyone believed it or not, Con had always called this man 'Pappa', and so did all the other children he'd brought to the City. And all that really mattered was that everyone else believed that Pappa was Con's guardian – that's what it took for Con to have a job as a Wild Hunter in this city.
"No, sir." The Other with the mace gave Con a sharp tap on the back of his skull. His bright purple eyes rolled back and he felt blood dripping through his thin, brown hair. In a moment, though, Con's injury healed and his concussion faded. Con knew that Pappa and the Other were used to this. Con had had this healing ability for years, even before being brought to the City. After two years of customers and harsh treatments, Con was convinced that the Others actually saw an advantage to all the strange powers Con had picked up over the years.
"I could have made more money off of you if I'd cut your customers to a fourth for the past week. There's been no end of the trouble it's caused us." Pappa seemed perfectly calm, even given the apparent financial trouble. Con knew that Pappa was never upset – somehow, it seemed to scare all the other children more than shouting and anger would have done. At least, that's what Con guessed – he had never been that scared of Pappa, until recently.
And even then...
"And, of course, you've still got fines to pay off for renting this equipment."
'Yes, yes. Blah blah blah, fines, blah blah blah, added debt, yadda yadda yadda... I need to work and make money for you.' Con knew not to say it – he'd done enough of that before, and it tended to get him more beatings. None of them lasted or did real damage, but it still hurt.
But, more than any other injury, Con's insides burned with every moment. His muscles ached to flex and move to their fullest potential. He wanted to lift Pappa and the Others up, off the floor, and throw them like putting a shot or throwing a hammer. Instead, he was here, on the floor, almost groveling to them. It made the bead that pierced his right ear throb, like it was red hot, and the collar around his neck constrict, like a snake trying to eat it's own tail.
If only he could pull them off. If only Con could be free to fight.
Con pulled himself up, only to be pushed back down to the floor by the Other with the mace.
'If I don't argue back with them, will they get bored and stop beating me, or will they try to make me fight back?' Con wondered, but it didn't last long. The Other started speaking to Pappa.
"Maybe we should try the hose – we had another stubborn one last week, too, and it worked on her."
Inwardly, Con cringed, but he knew better than to let it show. None of the Others knew that Con could understand them; Pappa had found out, earlier in the week, but Con was fairly certain he hadn't told any of the Others. Even his ability to understand the language was something new. Con had only started understanding since he'd started work as a Hunter, and he wasn't even sure how he did.
He just... understood.
It hadn't done him much good – Con knew that, in the City, just understanding the language wasn't enough. There were plenty of other markers that made him stand out, and if anyone figured out that he was an outsider...
"Shut up." Pappa snapped at the Other. For that, Con was grateful – the only thing that he couldn't handle seemed to be water. Granted, his ability to heal had saved him from any serious, permanent damage, but that was only once he got out of the water. As long as he was wet, he couldn't heal, and as long as he couldn't heal, Con would have any variety of symptoms – from rashes to spasms to asphyxiation. That had been the worst, since he'd been a child, before he'd acquired this healing ability or unusual strength.
"Are you listening to me?" Pappa asked.
Con looked up from where his face was being ground into the floor by the Other's foot. If he answered – either sarcastically as he wanted, or seriously – or remained silent, he knew he was bound to get another whap upside the head.
Really, more than anything, he wanted to fight them. He'd killed monsters easily ten times his size in the last week with little more than his hands. It would be so easy for Con to flip the Other onto his neck and pummel Pappa into a paste.
"If you're no longer going to cooperate, we can figure another way to make our money back off of you." Pappa growled.
'Of course, the minute control starts to slip, you dangle Mike over my head.' Con thought, resentfully. He'd grown tired of the game long ago, but it was the only game that he had no choice but to play. As long as they were in the City, Con knew that Pappa and the Others were the only place they were absolutely safe. They had nowhere else to go, and the police arrested children who were on the streets in the City. And arrested children went back to Customs.
He resented the game even more because Pappa and the Others knew that all they had to do was turn on Mike and Con would automatically throw himself at their feet. Mike couldn't defend himself. He couldn't even try. He couldn't even run. He was an easy target, and that was where Con was trapped.
Of course, since his meeting with Lady Deimos, Mike had been afraid and resentful of Con.
"I'll take more customers, if that's what you want." Con grumbled, not really caring if Pappa heard him or not.
As he expected, the Other hit him over the head, again. Con's forehead met the floor like an egg hits the frying pan.
"That's barely going to make up for the expenses. Do you even know how much money we lost during this week?" Pappa hissed. Con resisted the urge to snap something impolite and barbed at him.
'No, I don't. Of course I don't – you've never told me any exact figures, because then I'd be able to get out of this debt without you making any profit. But I do know it's a lot, because you've been repeating how you've lost so much money during the last twenty minutes.'
Pappa did this a lot. Con thought the man just liked the sound of his own voice. Or maybe it was because he really thought repeating the obvious over and over was supposed to be frightening. Maybe it really did scare the other children.
Then again, the other children had never actually won in a physical contest with Pappa. Con had. More than once.
"And I still haven't paid off that fine they put on me for those bad kills you made. You caused me more trouble in this last week than all the others do in a whole year. And I've still got to provide for all of you – that food you eat isn't free."
And Con just could not hold it in, anymore.
"It's not my fault if you can't manage your own money. You've even got a few dozen other children bringing in a profit for you. It's your own damn fault."
That earned him a punishing blow in his lower back. The Other with the mace didn't even move his tool – he just kept Con pinned, not giving his bones a chance to reset or heal. It didn't even hurt. Con couldn't move his legs, but he couldn't feel them, either. It could have been worse.
'...This could be permanent. Yeah, like that kind of worse.' He thought before the Other raised the mace and hit him over the head much harder than the previous times.
Con landed on his feet, just meters from the cage. There was heavy mist on the ground, almost illuminated with the silvery blue glow of the sky as the sun crept closer to rising, but still hiding behind the horizon.
He had the remains from the Mora tucked under his cape, well out of sight or smell from any creature. Granted, he seemed to be the only one who could see or smell it, but he wasn't about to take chances – maybe, now that the monster was dead, maybe other Humans would be able to see it.
'Of course, if nobody except myself can see it, how can I be sure I'd get any reward for the kill? Maybe they'll see me bring in an empty bag.' He wondered. It was possible, but there was still the fact that he simply had nothing to go on, 'Besides, they've banned me from hunting monsters. Who says they'll want this, even if they can see it?'
But what did that matter? Tom had just taken him through the thieves guild – Con at least knew there was a market out there for unusual stuff. Maybe on his next night out, he could somehow trade it for something valuable. He could find some way to sneak back. Or maybe he wouldn't even need to do that – he could try and trade it to Tom. That had to be worth something
'Damn it, why didn't I think of doing that, TONIGHT?' Con could have kicked himself, except he immediately told himself why, 'Oh, right – because I'd just killed it, and because the others were having a mourning for Lu's brother. That can cloud judgement pretty well.' That and he had no idea what it would do, what it could be useful for. That would take some time to figure out. 'Amazing how calming down from a day of fear can help you think.'
"What are YOU doing back here, kiddo?" Con almost jumped, if he hadn't smelled the Hunter before he heard him. Emerging from the line of trees was the Hunter who had brought in Akechuta's head, just the night before, Hunter Lancaster. There was still the reek of a dead Wolf rolling off of the man, puffs gushing with every movement he made. Con looked away as quickly as he could without giving away that he found the smell offensive.
"Bad night for hunting, I guess." Con muttered when it finally occurred to him that Lancaster would want an answer to the question. Lancaster sidled up next to Con, giving him a glance over that would have made Con much more uncomfortable if he wasn't used to being stared at like a piece of meat.
"Yeah... guess I didn't have such a great night, myself, either."
Con tried to stay away from Lancaster as best he could – partly the smell bothered him, but he was still tense around the other Hunters. When he'd been getting ready to leave the night before, he'd been all but convinced that the other Hunters had been getting together behind his back, conspiring to get rid of him. Nothing had really convinced him differently, but he was also fairly certain he'd been overreacting.
'Still, it doesn't hurt to be cautious. I can be social when I'm sure that nobody is planning to kill me.' Con reasoned. And, in Lancaster's case, there was an extra reason to be on his guard; this Hunter had been particularly friendly after Con had been returned on the night he'd been rented to Lady Deimos. In a way, it made Con more suspicious of the man, especially since all of the Hunters had been particularly aloof and unpleasant since day one.
"You holding up okay?"
Of all things, Con hadn't been expecting that. He might have thought conversation wouldn't be unusual – but people usually talked about things like weather, inane job details, or other mindless subjects if it was just to break the awkward silence. Why was Lancaster asking him something so personal?
'And what does he mean 'holding up okay', anyway? Does he think my spine might have melted or something?' Con wondered.
"...Um... sure?" Con finally answered, watching Lancaster out of the corner of his eye. The man's single patch of beard on the very tip of his chin wiggled up and down as he spoke.
"Really?" He even sounded like he seriously doubted Con's well-being, "You just got your Calling two nights ago. Did you even go out, last night?"
Con seriously looked back over his shoulder at Hunter Lancaster. There were so many things in that single statement that made Con's hackles rise. Questions, confusion, and indigence: What exactly was going on with the Elites that everyone apparently knew about, except for him? And why was it so important, so strange that Con was recovering so much quicker than anyone else apparently had? And exactly how could he learn any of it from Hunter Lancaster?
'Guess I should go the indignant route.'
"What, are you saying I just sat at the gate all night, waiting for sunrise?" He demanded, doing his very best to sound angry at any such implication. Hunter Lancaster shrank away, an offended frown of his own growing on his long features.
"Okay, okay..." He sounded just as offended as Con pretended to be, but just a little more afraid that he'd offended Con than upset about being insulted, himself, "Just making sure."
Con did his best to look like he was taking his time to think as he glanced between the cage and Lancaster out of the corner of his eyes.
"...Why?" He asked, quietly, and when Lancaster's lower eyelids dropped away from his irises, Con pressed, "What difference does it make that I'm okay and fully recovered? Why do you care?"
Lancaster's eyes narrowed slightly, then he returned the sidelong glance that Con was giving him.
"Well... you were Called by Deimos, too... weren't you?" He asked. If Con didn't know any better – and if he had trusted his sense of smell any less – he would have missed the look of panic in the older Hunter's eyes.
'He's... scared of me?'
"...As opposed to... what?"
Lancaster relaxed a little, but he still had that uncertain look to his eyes. There was still something confusing about Con's presence and nature that had Hunter Lancaster on edge.
"Any of the other Elites." Lancaster answered, still with that incredulous look. Con continued to watch him with a doubting glare, waiting for Lancaster to feel uncomfortable enough to keep going, which, fortunately, did not take long, "Didn't your father tell you ANYTHING before he took you to see her?"
'So, things like this are EXPECTED in the City? And he thinks Pappa would have told me something?' Con thought quickly, finally coming to another idea, 'Maybe I can play this up. Get him to give me more info if he pities me.'
Con puckered his mouth a bit and stared, sullenly, at the ground. He contemplated huffing a little, but didn't trust himself not to make it too obvious.
"No." He mumbled, "Mom did all that before she died."
"Aah. Kinda figured he wasn't much of the fatherly sort." Lancaster reached out from under his cloak to scratch at the stubbly beard on his chin, "...My dad was the one who took me. He was one of Deimos' acolytes, too. Told me all about it, made me repeat it all to be sure I'd been listening... it was like he was scared of me not doing the right thing. Never told me what happened, but... eh, what I went through, I figured it couldn't have been much different."
'Acolytes. I've gotta remember that.' Con thought to himself, still trying to give all appearances of wanting information and attention.
"Your dad was one of Lady Deimos' acolytes... so you were, too?" Lancaster shrugged, a little uncomfortably.
"You can usually tell who else got called by the same one as you. There are little things – clues you can pick up. They're usually safe to talk to. Other Elites followers, you can get in trouble for talking any more than what you need to – s'posed to be some kind of rivalry between them, their followers can't tell each other about their Elite."
'So, Pappa must be an acolyte to another Elite... and tried to get information on Deimos from me. But why?'
"What IS she, anyway?" Con finally wondered, out loud. Lancaster shrugged, too.
"Hell if any of us know. She can't be Human, I'll tell you that. Maybe that's why they've got the Spy Hunters workin' for them – if the House ever figured out that the Elites weren't Human, they'd set us on them in a heartbeat. I don't know what I wouldn't give to have a shot at that woman."
'But, if all of us Called by her are supposed to be acolytes or something, why can we think about things like this? Or do we just get sapped of our will to fight whenever she's around us? That would explain a lot.'
And, even knowing what he did – which was still vague, at best – how did that explain the appearance of the Mora in the forest? Con was certain they were connected, somehow. He just couldn't think how or what had caused it or what he could do about it. What if another one appeared, the next night? He didn't think he could fight another one off, again.
Con's thoughts were interrupted when the bushes rustled an another Hunter emerged from the mist: the short, heavy, one-eyed Hunter Lydell.
"What're you doing back here so early, you two?" He demanded, glaring between Con and Lancaster with an eye that seemed to be trying to double in size to compensate for the missing one.
"Bad hunting. Figured it wasn't worth it to stay out all night. You?" Lancaster answered for Con. Hunter Lydell scowled and spat at the ground.
"Like someone warned the damn things I was coming."
'Maybe someone did.' Con kept himself from saying. Inside, he wished he could smile – if only Tom could hear these men talking, Con could imagine how much the ape – or monkey, or whatever Tom considered himself to really be – hybrid would laugh.
"Not a single trap with a pelt or bait traps sprung with missing beads." On the other side, Hunter Kimbark came stalking out of the forest, his cloak and long bangs sticky with mud.
'Where's he been all night? We don't really have many muddy places in the forest, not when it hasn't rained for a few days.'
"How the hell did you three get back so soon? I almost got caught in the swamp, and I thought I'd be the first one back, still." Kimbark went on. Lydell muttered something that sounded incredibly rude, even to Con's untrained ears.
"The kid here was the one who got back first. Why don't you ask HIM?" Hunter Lancaster volunteered, without missing a beat. Con could feel Hunters Lydell and Kimbark's eyes on him. He didn't give them any notice, still watching the door inside the cage, waiting for it to open and to let them back in.
A moment later, Con got his wish. The door in the wall opened up and Con saw the Round Man waddle out, into the cage. Pappa wasn't with him. Nobody was with him. After a moment, he hit the button that opened the cage's gates and Con and the other Hunters filed in.
'We had to wait for him to come out, AND Pappa isn't here? This can't be good.' Con realized, resisting the cold urge to hide behind one of the other Hunters.
"Oh, good... you're all back early..." The Round Man started. It wasn't at all like his normal, pompous, commanding voice. Con had heard this one before, but he hadn't expected to hear it now; it was reserved for more... intimidating occasions.
All of the other Hunters seemed to recognize the strangeness of the moment, as they all gave each other uneasy glances.
"Well, since none of you are missing, I see no reason to delay this news..." The Round Man straightened, looking each of them in the eye in turn, "The House has seen reason to call all of the Wild Hunters into a conference meeting. All of us will be escorted to the House, and they will further explain what the emergency is about."
Con clutched his bag of Mora innards as tightly as his fingers would clench. As if he weren't uneasy enough, the idea of going back to the House – the very place he'd just broken into last night and stolen a dead Wolf's head from – was definitely making him edgy.
'No. Don't do that – don't let them see you sweat, Conall. They'll know something's up if you panic.'
The other Hunters started shifting forward, all three of them seeming completely confused and tense at the prospect of going to the House. Con tried to relax a little, enough to blend in, as he followed at the end of the line. Hunter Kimbark was in front of him, and as Con walked through the doors that led through the City's wall, all Con could focus on was a chunk of awkwardly cut hair on the back of Kimbark's head.
'Think. You don't know why they're calling this meeting – it could be something completely unrelated. It could be about populations that we need to control, or invasive species which have started taking over, or some updates to the bingo book of monsters.'
God, who cut Kimbark's hair, anyway? Con didn't have haircuts that bad, and he only got them when the Other's decided he needed to be made presentable for bids.
'On the other hand, they could be calling this meeting EXACTLY because they know something's been stolen. They'll be watching you to see if you're behaving naturally or if you're faking it. Don't be too cool – pretend you're impressed by some stuff that you've seen before. That'll throw them off.'
And how long was this tunnel, anyway? All the times before, Con had been driven to the cage, either by Pappa or that single time the Spy Hunters dropped him off. He'd never realized how long it was.
'But what if they know, not only what was stolen, but WHO stole it? What if someone saw your face? They'll search you and then you'll be in for it.'
The tunnel came to an end. Inside the walls of the city, the street lights were still lit and the sky was still a dark, almost velvety blue. Con could see as though the sun were out, and he saw very clearly the black van with two well-armed Rookie Hunters standing alongside the doors. Con knew they were Rookies – he could smell them from where he was, and recognized them as two of the guards who had been watching the House gates during the night.
'Unless I get really clever.' Con shuffled after Kimbark, only breaking his gaze at the older Hunter's bad haircut to glance at one of the Rookie Hunters. Up close, Con could see the man had a round face, but his jaw was squared off by thick, bushy mutton chops. The Rookie Hunter looked right back at Con, only nodding in acknowledgment when Con nodded, first. It would have been almost unsettling, except Con knew he looked intimidated by the grown men watching him, 'Yes, act like a kid. Act like a little kid who has no clue what's going on and is just waiting for his daddy to come and take him home.'
Con squeezed and squirmed his way into the very back seats of the van, grateful when the door shut and he found there was little, if any light at all inside.
Moving as little as he could, Con brought his hands up to the collar of his cloak, finding the drawstring on the hood and easing it out to serve as a hook. It took a few minutes, and Kimbark elbowed him more than once, telling him to quit fidgeting, but Con finally secured the bag of Mora's innards to the inside of his cloak.
Barely a second after Con had finished, the van stopped moving. Con couldn't hear anything, save for his own panicked heartbeat and the breathing of the other Hunters in the van. It seemed almost unreal, that there would be no sound coming from outside the vehicle.
The doors opened. The only difference it made was the bright orange lights of the streetlights and the blue and yellow lamps protruding from the House. Con still recognized the building – straight and completely made of steel and glass, like a cartoon character whose face had been smashed flat and whose head had been sculpted into a perfect cube.
The same two guards who had watched them climb into the van – Con assumed they had been following in another car – escorted all the Hunters up the path. The glass doors were lined by silver-plated steel, two swinging doors on each side of a large, revolving door in the center. This, combined with the large, marble-white foyer they entered almost gave the building the air of a hotel or a resort, not a government building.
'Maybe that's the point – nobody would suspect that it's where they've got all these offices with laboratories and secrets locked up.' Con craned his neck to look as far around as he could – the ceiling alone had to be higher up than most trees in the forest, kept supported by pillars in the corners and trusses of bent metal beams. It was honestly quite amazing to look at, enough that Con fell out of line and the Rookie Hunter escorts shouted at him to keep up, 'Okay, so far, so good. It's not like anyone suspects you at this point – the others even know that you were surprised by what the place looks like. Just keep it up.'
Con had to jog to catch up with the rest of the Hunters, even skip a few steps on the escalator that took them up two floors. At the top, Con found himself in a corridor more like the ones in the building he and Tom had actually broken into. Doors lined the halls with plates for offices labeling them. Con recognized these – whenever Pappa had something to arrange with the Old Man, this was the building he took Con into, through the underground entrance. Con couldn't believe that he'd missed so much, just by always being taken up the staircases.
Outside one office – one with a plaque reading 'P. Washington' at the side – all the Hunters came to a stop. The Rookie Hunter escorts turned to stand at attention, while Con and the other Wild Hunters milled around, waiting for the news, whatever it was.
In just a moment, the door opened and Con saw the Old Man's face poke out. He'd changed since last Con had seen him – and given that it had only been four days ago, that was saying something. He had even less of his stringy white hair, and there were pouches under his eyes like someone had grabbed his lower eyelids and pulled until they'd stretched and now hung limp.
"If you would all come inside, please..." He said, gesturing them in. Con shuddered as he stepped inside – either there was a definite change in temperature, or he was about to be right in thinking he was going to be caught.
All the other Hunters went in first, once again leaving Con as the last to come into the room. It was the exact same one that Con had been inside all the other times before, but somehow, Con felt like something was off. He looked around a little, trying to see exactly what was missing that he hadn't noticed before.
"I'm sure you're all wondering what this meeting is for." The Old Man started, pulling his own chair around from behind his desk and sitting himself down. There were no other chairs in the room, but Con figured that was for the best – all of the Wild Hunters looked as though they were frightened of being offered seats, "Unfortunately, we have had an emergency at the House – one which, I'm afraid, will affect the Hunters and their positions for quite some time."
'Are we going to have budget cuts? More restrictions on hunts? Limited hunting nights?' Con tried to think of any other ideas, but he needn't have bothered – the Old Man continued, answering the question, immediately.
"Last night, around midnight, there was a break-in at the House." The Old Man explained.
Con let his eyes widen, then he glanced at the other Hunters. None of them were looking around the room or at each other, but Con had at least gotten the look of shock dead on – Lydell's single eye socket seemed to have expanded until it was wide enough for two eyeballs, Kimbark actually reached up to push his bangs out of his eyes but they flopped out of his limp fingers as he froze with the shock, and all the skin around Lancaster's mouth seemed to fall away, along with his jaw.
"Naturally, we are all very concerned, but the trouble seems to be in that no suspicious activity was reported at any of the entrances in the building. Some of our security suspect it was either an inside job or a sabotage mission from any of our enemy neighbors. Even worse, several items appear to have been stolen in the course of last night."
Con let himself swallow. Tom had been right about the security – the Old Man hadn't even mentioned the other building, the one which Con and Tom had actually infiltrated. Maybe they weren't even aware of how anyone had gotten in. The Old Man pulled a pair of wiry glasses out of his coat pocket and struggled for a moment before fitting them on, like an electrician fumbling with wires. Out of his pocket, next, came a piece of paper that he unfolded.
"The following is a list of the items stolen, in order of their location: The first, second, and third floors; nothing missing. The fourth floor; minor office supplies, including paper clips, rubber bands, and a staple gun. Fifth and sixth floor; nothing missing."
'Wow. I never knew a lecture about things being STOLEN could be so BORING.' Con thought, trying to look concerned instead of bored.
"Seventh floor; a wolf's head. Reward cut, approximately 1.5kg, measured .5m long by .25m wide at the neck. Also missing, products from our experimental lab – half dozen ceramic daggers."
Con had to try to look surprised without being impressed, but not looking bored by the news. He'd known about those – he'd been the one to take them, himself.
"Eighth floor; records and files from the office of Professor Ognam. Designated classified information. Needed by payroll department to process checks."
That was news. Con knew he hadn't taken those – he hadn't even been to more than one floor of this building, let along that room. And what would he want with files from a professor's office? What would anyone want? And why was a professor's office in a government building, anyway?
"Ninth floor; experimental products and designs of Professor Ognam. Designated classified materials. Needed by payroll department to process checks."
What did that mean, anyhow? First the files were needed by the payroll, now some unknown object that they couldn't even be told what it was. Why would payroll need any of these things, especially if they were classified, and therefore, the payroll also wouldn't know their contents?
"Tenth, eleventh, and twelfth floors; nothing missing. And that concludes the list of what was stolen from us during the break-in last night." The Old Man put down his list and pulled his glasses off in such a precarious manner that Con wondered if he'd break the wiry earhooks, "Naturally, I'm sure you're all wondering what this has to do with any of you."
Con only heard Hunter Kimbark grunt. Neither of the others made any noise, but it didn't seem to matter to the Old Man – he continued, anyway. It almost seemed like it was a formality, rather than any concern.
"The first thing this means for all of you is that, until the information and supplies from Professor Ognam's files is recovered, none of you shall receive any payment for the kills you have made."
"WHAT?" It wasn't just Con who shouted that – all of the Hunters had said the exact same thing, at the exact same time, in the exact same tone of voice. The Old Man cringed, as though their words had hit him with barbs.
"I understand that all of you must be frustrated, especially with all the work you undoubtedly put into your jobs. It does, however, bring me to the next point of this meeting." The Old Man took a deep, calming breath – Con hadn't seen an adult do that in a long time, probably years – before he resolved to go on, "Many of our security have reason to believe that this break-in was committed – and, subsequently, the items were stolen – by a Wild Hunter."
Con looked right into the Old Man's tiny eyes before he moved along the line of the other Wild Hunters, undoubtedly giving them all the same look. Con just hoped that the Old Man couldn't see anything.
'Someone else had to have stolen the other things – I know I never touched anything like that. But who, and why is he telling us about these things?'
"The teams patrolling last night reported seeing a figure in a cloak, one not unlike the ones you have all been given, lurking in the alleys before the alarm was sounded. It could be coincidental, or it could be an impostor, looking to use the status of the Hunters to his advantage, or possibly even to discredit you. We really have nothing to go on, save for that." The Old Man concluded, still shifting his gaze amongst all of them. Con felt his feet go cold – like he'd swallowed a gut-full of ice, and then his insides had sunk down to his toes.
"The reason you have been gathered to hear this is because, due to our payroll's need of those supplies, all of you have a chance to reverse this mistake without doing anyone any damage." The Old Man said, slowly and calmly, "In the event that one of you is responsible for the disappearance of Professor Ognam's materials, you will have the opportunity to return them, anonymously, within the next two weeks. No retribution will be taken against you, so long as everything is intact and present. With that, all of your checks will be filled for your kills and hunts, and none of the investigation will affect you in a negative sense."
Con wasn't listening. As long as those items were missing, he wouldn't be PAID? But what about all the work he had done, up until now? What was he supposed to do about that? What was he supposed to tell Pappa?
What would Pappa do, once he found out that he wouldn't be getting any money for renting Con out every night?
It was that last one that really made Con panic.
"Will we get any reward if we catch the thieves and turn them in?" Hunter Lancaster asked this question. Con could have punched him, it was such a stupid thing to ask – he was more worried about getting paid for what he'd done, so far, not about making more money.
The Old Man blinked at the question, then looked down at his bony, suited knees and mumbled something about needing to ask someone else to approve it.
Con didn't listen – all he was thinking about was how he was going to explain this to Pappa. And what else was he supposed to do? If there was any evidence – any at all – that he'd been to the House last night, he'd be blamed for both thefts, even if they couldn't find out where he'd taken the items.
'Why did I DO that? Stupid, stupid, STUPID thing to do! Why didn't I think about the consequences? I just HAD to go and get myself in trouble!' Con thought, not listening to the other details that the Old Man related to them, 'Wait, calm down – there isn't any real proof that points to me. Nobody really saw me – at least, everyone that says they saw something says it was outside the building. The only people who really could have spotted me were the guards inside the building, and they never caught even more than a glimpse. And it was dark, AND I kept my face covered. There is no solid evidence.'
And, of course, if worst came to worst, Con would prove that it wasn't him – it would really suck, and it would be a last resort, but he could turn to proving who the real thief was. It would irritate Pappa, but Pappa wouldn't be able to complain when his most valuable asset was given freedom to keep bringing him in money.
'And, of course, security could come to the conclusion that it wasn't a Hunter at all – they might just decide it was an enemy spy or whatever.' Con thought as they were dismissed, thinking over all that he could, 'Either way, Hunter Kimbark would be the one I'd guess – he would be the easiest for any guards to spot, while myself, Lancaster, or Lydell would be easy to hide behind something.'
"Hey, kiddo." Con jumped when Lancaster nudged him. He hadn't even realized they'd gotten outside. It was starting to get steadily lighter in the sky, more of a steely blue than dark, and parked right behind the black van was Pappa's sleek, blue car, already waiting for him.
"What?" Con managed. Lancaster made a vague gesture towards Con's feet.
"What happened to your boots? Lose 'em?" It was a question asked in a low voice that nobody else could have heard, but Con felt like it must have been shouted as he looked to his feet.
His boots. He'd kicked them off to climb the wall outside the House. Con had totally forgotten that he'd kicked them off. All night, they'd been sitting on the side of the building – in a dumpster or behind a fence or something – just waiting to be found.
And the minute someone found those boots, they'd know who they belonged to, and Con would be trapped.
"I had to climb a rock to check one of my traps and I kicked them somewhere to get purchase on the rock. When I climbed back down, I couldn't find them." Con lied, easily.
Hunter Lancaster gave him a dubious frown, but shrugged and turned away, accepting it easily enough. Con slouched off towards Pappa's car, but one thought was stuck, resolutely, on his mind:
He had to get those boots back.
Con woke up, finding himself face-down on the floor in the room he shared with Mike. Nothing had changed, save the two of them. The light was nothing but a pathetic, red emergency bulb in the corner, and the floor was a bare mat with only a blanket that Mike would hide under whenever Con got a customer. Their walls were gray and blank, like the insides of a shipping container, and so thin that Con and Mike could both hear the occupants of the other rooms whenever those other children got customers. The door locked from the outside, and there was only a slot at the bottom, where the Others poked a tray of food through when mealtimes came.
And, now of course, Con looked up and saw Mike in the corner, peeking out from under the blanket and watching Con as though he were a boogeyman of some kind.
"Con?" Mike's quiet voice asked. Con blinked a few times, then decided he was uncomfortable enough that he had energy to move. He managed to at least get onto his side and curl up, the cloak he wore serving well as a blanket.
Mike pushed himself upright, shrugging the blanket back enough that his whole head came out.
"Con, are you okay?" Con continued to blink into the darkness, too exhausted to really move, but not sleepy. It had been such a long day – well, technically, Con guessed it had been two days, but they'd felt so intertwined that he couldn't tell them apart.
'At least Mike's talking to me, again.' Con thought. It was cold comfort, but he wasn't about to complain when no other comfort was forthcoming.
"Con, they didn't really hurt you this time, did they?"
Con sighed a little, knowing he'd have to answer, sometime.
"No. I'm just really exhausted." He mumbled, his flat cheek against the mat slurring his words for him.
Con heard Mike slide back down on the mat until he was back under the blanket again.
"I saw them bring you in like that. None of them said anything, and you weren't even moving... I thought that they might have broken your back or something... I couldn't even ask you if you were okay, or shake you awake."
Con shuddered a little – more because he was trying to warm up the air he'd trapped under his cloak than because he was actually cold, himself. Mike's voice was making him feel sleepy, and he wasn't even sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
"I'm sorry I got so mad at you, yesterday." Mike kept talking, "I was just so scared by what you were doing... and I didn't know why you were being so strange... So, when I thought that they might have really hurt you this time, I just sort of panicked and..."
'Oh, great, now Mike's WORRIED about me.' It was a strange thing when Mike actually worried about Con instead of the other way around. Con never knew what to do, nor did he particularly like it. When they were younger, it was because Con had always thought it was his job to worry about Mike and he didn't want Mike doing it. Now, it was more because Con didn't like being worried over. When Mike did do it, it really irritated Con.
"I'm fine, Mike. I just need to sleep it off and when I wake up, I'll be just fine."
Mike was quiet. Con wondered if he was thinking about it, or if Mike had just accepted the answer and was now drifting off to sleep.
Personally, Con wondered if he wanted Mike to be asleep so he could get some rest, himself; or if he wished Mike was still awake. Con even wondered if he wanted Mike to keep pushing him or not; if he wanted Mike to ask more questions; if he wanted Mike to confront him or just leave him alone. Which would be more cruel; silence and falsehood or openness and honesty?
What disturbed Con the most was that he really didn't know.
'Yes, please keep bugging me when I'd really like to sleep. No, ignore the only companion I have who actually gives a rat's hindquarters for my well-being.' Con clenched his eyes shut to silence the two voices going through his head before he finally sat up. Mike was still hiding under the blanket, still cowering as though he were afraid that Con might attack him like a crazed dog, still trying to appear to be non-existent as he always managed to be whenever a customer unlocked the door and Con served them.
'We might even have customers any moment now – I should be resting, just in case. Why am I still doing this?' He crawled over and put a hand on the bulge in the blanket.
"Mike..." Even though he was whispering, Con still felt Mike flinch away as Con spoke, "...I'm sorry."
Mike didn't relax. Really, though, Con was fairly certain he'd expected that. He probably wouldn't have relaxed if he was a paraplegic, trapped in the same room as someone who'd been acting a little psycho for the last week.
"...This job is just..." Con fumbled for a word that would at least sum up even half of what he'd been through, "...It's not what I expected. And... sometimes, things happen that I have no idea what to think about it..."
Con felt the lump shift, just a little. He wouldn't say Mike was relaxing – Con could still smell a very thick, potent scent of fear and distrust. But Mike wasn't outright terrified, like he was last night.
"Sometimes, I'm going to come back tired and sore and confused... and there are going to be some nights that, while I'm out there, I start thinking about things... really strange stuff that I wouldn't be thinking about while I'm in here... so... I might act a little off. But, I swear, I'm trying to stay the same, old me. No matter what happens, I still want to come back, the same Con that I was when I left."
The corner of the blanket lifted, just enough for Con to see two fingers poking out from under it.
Mike's face peered out from the shadows under the blanket.
Con didn't hear anything from Mike for several moments, nor did he see any acknowledgement that Mike was even listening anymore. Each moment felt like Mike had simply lost the ability to speak, and those seconds made Con's anxiety worsen. It made him desperate; desperate until he wasn't even sure what he was desperate for.
Mike's hand slunk out from under the cover and extended up until Con could see the wrinkles on Mike's fingertips.
Con hadn't realized that Mike's fingers had wrinkles on them – he hadn't seen them so closely for years. They were so close that Mike would just have to twitch, and Con would feel his hand on his face. Con hadn't even realized how much he missed actual, physical contact until he found himself contemplating 'accidentally' loosing his balance and falling on top of Mike's hand.
"When you touch somebody, you soak up pretty much everything about them; that means their energy, their features, their traits, their abilities... everything."
"...So... if someone was sick with something, I'd take on the illness they had?"
Whether he was remembering the exact reason Doctor Riki had given them two years ago, or some other reason, Mike let his hand drop.
"Why can't things go back to how they USED to be?" Mike asked, quietly.
Con sighed, deeply, and leaned back against the wall. He had been wondering the same thing, probably for just as long. It must have seemed even longer for Mike, though – Con had at least been at work, while Mike had been silent and immobile for all two years of their captivity and debt.
"I'll get us out of here. Sooner or later."
Mike sighed, again, but didn't say anything.
In the silence that followed, though, Con wondered if Mike was thinking that he had never asked to be promised.