The light drizzle assaulted Maccus as he walked along the cobblestone path, through the moss-ridden rock garden in front of the shrine. Compared to the adjacent concrete apartment buildings that were over quadruple its height, it looked like a sad square of undeveloped land.
The orb-shaped wooden shrine once had many visitors, but as the city ate up the surrounding land, and the population density increased, the number of visitors strangely dwindled. The new neighbors didn’t have time to come and pay their respects to the Mist. The few who did were mostly centuries-old star-spawn who spent most of their time reminiscing about “the good old days.” Hardly anyone bought the handmade charms and baubles anymore, and almost no one came looking to get healed - they had the hospital for that.
Inside the shrine, Maccus was immediately greeted by the statue of the Mist, a wingless star-spawn, standing tall with its arms outstretched, protruding from a tall cloud. Many artists have argued over the Mist’s exact appearance, but the one thing that they could agree on was that they were the most beautiful star-spawn to have ever existed, always surrounded by a cloud of mists, wearing a dress made of silk spun from clouds. All who passed under the statue’s gaze were regarded with love, compassion, and acceptance. All were welcome within the arms of the Mist, star-spawn or otherwise.
Maccus stopped to regard the statue as one would an old friend, before walking through the door at the back of the shrine, and up the stairs. He could have flown up to the second floor, but his wings ached from having spent most of the day flying around the city.
His mother was in the kitchen, stirring a cauldron filled with stew. Her baggy white dress was yellowed from nearly a century of use. It had been mended many times over. At some point during Maccus’s teen years, she stopped patching it with matching white fabric, and resorted to whatever she had on hand. Or could afford.
As Maccus entered the kitchen, his mother gave a warm, affectionate smile with her beard of tentacles. “Welcome home, little star,” she said affectionately. She still called him that, despite the fact that he was twenty-six years old, and he towered over her. “Did you pick up some gl’yob’ milk, like I asked?”
Without saying a word, Maccus reached into his bag, and pulled out a mint-green box with a circular white cap on top. Printed on the sides of the box were pictures of a tortoise-like creature covered in spikes, alongside labels that proclaimed that the liquid inside was “100% organic, refined milk, straight from the gl’yob’’s throat”.
Maccus placed the milk on the table. He also pulled out seven gold coins from his jacket, and dropped them next to the milk with a loud thud.
His mother stared at the coins, wide-eyed. She almost dropped her ladle into the pot. “Where did you get that money?” she whispered disbelievingly.
“From work,” Maccus stated. “This should be more than enough to pay for food, water, and electricity for the next five months. And there’ll still be enough for that fancy dress you wanted.”
“I can’t take this. You keep it. You’ve earned it, I’m sure-”
His mother raised her hand to push the stack of coins away, but Maccus shoved it into her grasp. “Five months, and a new dress,” he repeated. “Please, take it.”
Maccus left the kitchen. His mother stared in bewilderment at the stack of money.
Maccus shut his bedroom door behind him. With a snap of his fingers, the room lit up.
Maccus’s room was small, and immaculate. The circular bed in the center of the room was tidy, the floor was spotless, the books on the shelf were organized alphabetically, the mini-shrine in the corner was well-maintained. Maccus kept everything spotless because he didn’t want his mother to come in and clean it for him, and accidentally discover the weapons, gold, and smuggled goods that he kept hidden.
He sat on his bed, his legs crossed. He emptied the contents of his jacket. There were three gold coins (the remainder of his pay), three identity discs, a mobile phone, and a glass bauble that contained a cloud of swirling mists, hanging from a stone chain.
He quickly checked the phone. No new messages. Provided nothing came up, he was free for the evening.
He stashed the gold in a hidden compartment behind the bookshelf.
He examined the identity discs. Each one featured a picture of a star-spawn, as well as their name, and other vital information. There was Yiino (Tall, red, hair shaped like antlers, really packed a punch, W blood), Uuhuq’o (Yellow, fairly short and chubby, but was a good shot, W blood), and Tyywin (Blue, marvelous wings, her skin practically glowed, the kind of star-spawn that Maccus wished he could’ve asked out, G blood).
He clamped on the discs, and carried them over to his mini-shrine. The shrine consisted of a stone tablet that depicted the Mist, propped up on a simple table, along with a single candlestick. The table had a single drawer, which was magically locked - only Maccus could open it.
Maccus carefully propped the discs against the tablet. He lightly tapped the wick of the candle with his claw, and it lit.
He knelt down before the shrine, his head hung low, the mist-filled bauble hanging from his hand, and he began to silently pray:
Mist, tend to these souls. And forgive me for robbing them of the miracle of life.
He opened the locked drawer, pulled out a case that contained several identity discs, and added the new discs to his collection.
“So... how was your day, Maccus?”
Maccus said nothing as he poked at the bowl of rice and stew with his spork.
His mother sat across the table in disheartened silence. Her wings drooped.
“What exactly is it that you do for work? You never talk about it.”
“I do what I’m told. I get paid.” He scooped up a clump of rice, and raised it up to his tentacles, which fed the rice into his mouth. “That’s it.”
“What is it that you’re told to do?”
“Depends on what?”
“Does it matter?”
“Then why are you asking?”
“Why won’t you just tell me?” his mother pleaded.
“Why do I have to tell you?”
“You don’t. But the amount of money you’ve been bringing in... the fact that you never talk about your work... As your mother, I can’t help but be concerned.”
As if on cue, Maccus felt a buzz in his pocket. He pulled out his phone, and saw a message.
Got another job for you. Gold and a half up front, plus extra if you pull it off. Come in through the back entrance. More details when you get here. -D
Perfect. An excuse to stop talking.
“I have to go,” Maccus said as he abruptly stood up, unfurling his wings.
“Where are you going?”
“But you just got home!”
“Something came up. They want me to take care of it.”
“Who’s they? Maccus, at least finish your dinner!”
Maccus ignored his mother as he went to his room to retrieve his hat and lightgun. He leapt from his window, spread his wings, and flew into the late evening sky.
Drekkh grumbled as he paced the hall. He was a very busy star-spawn. He had papers to sign, things to do, places to be. He did not like waiting, and he constantly made sure that his employees knew that.
Drekkh looked up to see someone rounding the corner of the hall, his pale white skin searing through the darkness. Drekkh’s rust-coloured beard of tentacles twisted into a smile. He recognized Maccus by the way he walked, with the triangular brim of his hat obscuring his face, his wings folded silently behind him. This was a spawn who kept secrets. Someone who had been doing mercenary work for long enough to know that money and steel are the only things you can trust.
“Maccus, my good friend!” Drekkh said jovially, with his arms outstretched. “I am so glad to see you!”
“We are not friends,” Maccus replied. “What’s the issue?”
“Straight to the point. That’s a trait I like to see in my employees.”
They stood underneath the beam of the single hallway light, facing one another.
Drekkh began, “We have been having problems with an activist group. They point at the Star Harvest Company, and spew horrendous lies about us and what we do.”
“If these ‘horrendous lies’ are what I think they are, then I question your choice of words.”
“What would you know?”
“After I assassinated that chieftain on Xiw, your company slaughtered and arrested an entire camp, and claimed that they were all cultists worshipping the Darkness.”
“Do you want to get paid, or not?”
Maccus took a resigned breath. “You were talking about activists.”
“Yes. Every morning, they break in, perform petty sabotage, assault employees, steal important files. They usually bring explosives. They’re terrorists, the lot of them.”
Every morning? That seemed unlikely, but Maccus knew better than to question his employers, and he was already on thin ice.
“How many of these activists should I expect?”
“Three dozen. Usually.”
“That’s close to an army.”
“You’ve fought armies before!”
“I have infiltrated armies, and killed their leaders. Fighting an entire army alone would be suicide for anyone but the most powerful knights.”
“Oh, I never said you’d be alone. I’ve also taken the liberty of hiring some backup.”
Maccus raised his brow in suspicion. “Backup?”
There was a buzzing sound. Maccus looked up towards the ceiling. In the darkness, he made out the shape of a mi-go, its head emitting several pink lights.
Using its hairy insectoid legs, the mi-go crawled down to the floor, and stood upright in the beam of light. It was more than twice Maccus’s height, the glowing spores on its head brushing against the ceiling of the hallway.
The mi-go waved a red, crab-like claw in greeting, and its buzzing shifted and warped until it formed coherent words. “Hello, Maccus. I is Go-iig. I is eager to perform with you.”
Maccus eyed Go-iig from head to foot. “Your company hires mi-go now?” he asked Drekkh.
“As it turns out, mi-go can be quite efficient workers. Their magical ability is garbage, but they can plan and determine the most effective and efficient way to harvest, package, organize... even kill.”
Maccus nodded in approval. “Can’t say that I’ve ever worked with a mi-go before. This’ll be a new experience.” He turned back to Drekkh. “How much are you paying? You said there would be a gold and a half up front.”
“If you accept the job,” the rust-coloured star-spawn confirmed. “For every head you bring me, preferably dead, I’ll pay you and Go-iig each two gold.”
Two gold per kill. Maccus ran some calculations in his head. He hated having to kill, and he knew that Drekkh knew. But if he could single out and kill the most influential of the terrorists - maybe the top five - he could come home the next morning with eleven-and-a-half gold. Then, if he included the payout from his most recent job, he and his mother could live comfortably for almost a year, and they could hire someone to clean and repair the old, rickety shrine that they lived in.
“Alright,” he said. “I’ll do it. Give me the gold.”
“Excellent.” Drekkh reached into his breast pocket, and pulled out two gold coins. He broke one of them in half, like two jigsaw puzzle pieces, and then tossed Maccus precisely one-and-a-half gold.
“And remember,” he added as Maccus caught the gold. “No mercy. No sympathy. No hesitation. They’re terrorists looking for trouble, and you’re going to give them that and more.”
“I swear on the Mist, I will not hesitate.”
“Yes, yes, the Mist. I’m sure they’re smiling on you.”
Maccus didn’t say anything more as he walked past Drekkh, and Go-iig followed.