Chapter 1: Zio
For the first time in a long time, the nightmares stopped.
Instead, I was surrounded by vast blue skies expanding as far as the eye could see; azure silk sheets that disappeared into a stretch of blinding white. Marshmallow clouds sprawled lazily above as the scent of freshly mown grass danced in the warm breeze. Perhaps in my waking hours I'd have found the scenery sickeningly sweet, but intoxicated by the saccharine lull of the dream world I felt at peace.
"Zio!", a strange woman called; a strange name.
Her voice was bright yet soothing, like the flicker of a candle in the darkness. Something inside me ached. She wrapped her arm around mine, soft body pressed against my own as she intertwined our fingers together. I could feel her warmth through the thin material of her nightdress.
"What are you doing out here?" she laughed, "We need to open the shop soon."
I snatched my arm away. Her eyebrows knitted together as she tilted her head ever so slightly to one side. Something strange stirred within my heart. She possessed a kind of beauty that grew on you the more the you looked at it; unassuming at first until you realise you'd forgotten to breathe the entire time. Snow white hair framed delicate, sweet features and blushing pink cheeks. With every movement of the breeze her hair floated behind her, catching the early morning sunlight like shimmering strands of spider silk. Amethyst eyes locked into my own.
She didn't say anything, and instead placed one hand on my shoulder.
"Don't touch me" I slapped her hand away, and she jumped from the sting of the contact.
"Zio, what's wrong?"
"My name is not Zio," I said with gritted teeth, "It's X. I'm not the person you're looking for. Leave me alone."
She paused. "I thought you hated that name", she said, her voice barely a whisper. "Is something wrong? Did you have a bad dream?" She laughed nervously, "Is it because I ate the sandwich you spent the whole day looking forward to yesterday? I said I was sorry…"
Seeing that her banter had no effect, she stopped. In the long silence that ensued, my anger redirected towards myself: to think that even in the dream world, I tended to fuck up my own happiness. I could have just played along, pretended there was a place in the world for me that didn't involve killing the innocent and indulging the sinful. But then again, this was only just. What right did I have, to dream of a normal, peaceful, happy life, when my very role in life was to take it away from others?
"Are you having nightmares again?" she asked, and I didn't even have the heart to acknowledge her, whatever strange figment of my fantasies she embodied. She placed her hands on my shoulders, and then, standing on her tiptoes, planted a light kiss at the base of my jaw.
"Just remember," she whispered, "if you ever need to talk about something, I'll always be here for you."
I remained impassive as she slid her hands into mine and squeezed tight. Feeling the smooth cold of metal, I looked down to see that on our fourth fingers were two, identical, gold rings.
I woke to the sound of deafening rain.
My head throbbed as an uneasy disorientation overcame my senses.
I jolted up, swinging the weight of my body over the bed as I unsheathed the dagger I always kept strapped to my thigh. The intruder groaned as I slammed him into the wall and pressed the blade against his throat.
"Who are you," I hissed. The blade glinted menacingly with each flash of lightning that illuminated the room. Under the unreliable light, I could briefly make out the intruder's features. He was a man of tall stature, with sharp elven features and high cheekbones. His eyes were so deep set within his skull that his brow bone was like a visor that created dark, hollow shadows etched into his face.
He chuckled, but there was bristling hatred within his beady eyes. "I see you're as good as they say."
A lie, I thought. I'd left myself vulnerable in my sleep; a first. "Why are you here?" I put more pressure into the dagger. "You have three seconds to answer."
"I'm in charge of all your assignments from now on." He blurted, clawing at my hand with sharp, grimy fingernails.
"Bullshit," I spat, "I only take orders from Chronos."
Tentatively, he pulled out a crinkled envelope from his coat pocket. "Chronos is dead. I am the new head of the organisation."
It was an envelope I'd come to recognise all too well. The faded yellow parchment was thick and solid, like leather, but rough and crinkled the way only old paper could be. Emblazoned at the top was the ebony seal of the Grim Reapers, a skull above twin crossed scythes. I released the man from my hold and snatched the envelope from his hands. Flecks of bright red blood splattered onto the wooden floorboards. Under the dim light of a newly lit candle, I slowly read the letter. Chronos, dead? It couldn't be: I refused to believe it until I saw his mangled corpse with my very own eyes.
"It must be hard for you," the man cooed, one hand pressed against the shallow wound in his neck. "The man who was like a father to you, dead."
"He was no father figure," I spat, "I'm just disappointed I didn't have the chance to end his life with my own hands. How'd he die?"
The man grinned, thin lips raised to reveal a row of decaying black and yellow teeth. "Organisation secret. I'm sure a smart young man like yourself would know better than to delve any deeper."
I scowled, but I knew he was right.
The man extended one gnarled hand. "It seems we got off to a bad start, X. Nice to meet you, I'm Deus."
"Just get to the point," I said.
He handed me a second envelope, and by its blood red seal I knew exactly what it was for: the meeting time and place for my next client.
"How well does this pay?"
Deus didn't respond, only grinned and rubbed his index and third finger against his thumb.