This story is by Rachel E. Meyer and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alina opened the heavy door to Masque’s office and slipped inside. Dark and mysterious, the room fit the leader of the Shadows perfectly. Shelves along the walls held a variety of books and ledgers containing all the information about the Shadows and their marks. Behind a desk in the middle of the room, Masque himself sat with a ledger in hand. The leather of his chair creaked as he turned to face the desk.
“Please sit,” Masque said. He wore a black silk mask, his namesake. All you could see of his face were his mouth and his bright, searching eyes.
Alina sat in the indicated chair. It was hard, wood, and not meant for long conversations. She kept her head bowed and placed her hands in her lap.
“I hear you want to leave the Shadows, Shade.” Masque didn’t look up from studying his ledger.
“It’s a pity. You’re our best assassin. How long have you been with us? Ten years?”
“Yes. You were such a small thing when you came to us. It will be a pity to see you go.” At last Masque put the ledger on the desk. “But before you go, I have one last job I’d like you to do.”
“What is it?” she said.
“A mark of great importance to the Shadows. Someone has been spreading dissent among our ranks and we need them eliminated. We would pay double your usual rate to do the job.”
Alina kept her face still, but her mind raced. Whoever they wanted eliminated must be important to offer such an amount. The money would make it possible for her to run far away from this city of death.
“Who’s the mark?”
“This is a discreet job. We’d need your consent before we could tell you. Are you in?”
Masque’s eyes bored into her, gleaming extra bright. Alina didn’t want to agree without more information, but what could she do? She’d been recruited by the Shadows at five and raised to be one of their best assassins. Her abilities earned her the nickname Shade. She didn’t know anything else.
What harm could one more job do? “I’ll do it.”
Masque slid a piece of paper across the desk to her. Alina picked it up to see her target. She read the words on the page once, twice, three times. The name refused to change.
She struggled to keep her face impassive as her heart pounded in her ears. How could she kill him? Masque kept his eyes fixed on her.
“You know what we do to those who fail their missions,” he said in a low tone.
They became target practice. She’d killed fellow assassins with her own hands. Their pleas for mercy still filled her ears.
Alina nodded. Looked up at the man across the desk from her.
“I’ll do it,” she repeated.
He gave a small, heartless smile. “I hope so.”
As night fell, Alina slipped out her window and ran sure-footed along the rooftops. Everything jumped out at her. The light of the moon, the angle of the shadows, the sounds of someone following her through the city.
Masque took no chances. Others moved in the shadows. If she knew Masque, he had sent out other assassins to ensure the job’s completion. If they reached the mark first, he would suffer.
Why would Masque do this to her? She’d always been loyal to the Shadows. Done everything they asked. Dedicated her life to death. Alina jumped to the next roof.
Why had she agreed to this last job? She could have said no. She would have found the money to leave through more legal means.
If she didn’t kill her mark, she would be hunted and eliminated. If she killed him, she would lose something more important.
Assassination had never been her choice. Alina’s skill was undeniable. But every kill she made, every life she brought to an end, she could feel chipping away at her soul.
She’d seen the older assassins. Their cold, hard eyes and indifference to life. She didn’t want to become like them.
If she completed this job, she would.
You could walk away. You could be free, her mind whispered. A line of dead faces, killed by her hand, drowned out the small voice. They spoke in unison. No, you can’t. You’re a killer. You bring death wherever you go. Leave and there will be no one to protect you from the wrath of judgment.
She could see no way out. Masque had planned it this way. She would go, kill her target, and return to the Shadows, because what other choice did she have? Her soul belonged to the darkness.
Alina paused on the roof across from the target’s apartment. A lantern burned inside, giving the window a warm glow. The sight didn’t spark the same warm feeling in her.
She crept through the window, drawing her knife. Micha sat by the fire, reading a book. He looked up and smiled when he saw her, but it faded as he took in her face and the knife in her hand.
Her impossible task. Killing Micha, the only friend and closest thing to a father she had.
When she’d been taken by the Shadows, he had welcomed her. He’d bandaged her scrapes from sparring. After she made her first kill, he had held her as she cried. Now she had to end his life.
“Masque sent you to kill me,” he said in the same tone used to talk about weather.
“I didn’t know it would be you,” Alina said. “I wanted the money so I could leave. I’m sorry.”
“It’s a brilliant move on Masque’s part. Get rid of me and make sure you, his best assassin in years, stays firmly in his grasp.” He shut his book. “Do you remember when he killed Jakob?”
She did. She had been sixteen. Masque had called a meeting of all the Shadows, a rare occurrence.
Masque had paraded Jakob on the stairs in front of all of them, calling him a traitor. Alina had known Jakob since they both struggled to survive on the streets as children. The Shadows took them in around the same time. He would never betray them.
Masque slit Jakob’s throat in front of everyone. But his eyes stayed on Alina the whole time. She could still see his blood spraying, hear her own muffled cry as Micha held her back.
“He did it to show you there is no escape. But it’s not true. You don’t have to go back to him.”
“Where else can I go? There’s no place in this world for a girl like me.”
Micha jumped up. Alina raised her knife, but he didn’t come towards her.
“That’s what Masque wants you to think. He wants you to feel broken, unwanted, and alone so you’ll always come back to him. He may offer safety, but is that what you want?”
“What I want is freedom, but we don’t always get what we want. It’s too late for me.”
“It’s never too late unless you let it be. Freedom is waiting for you out there. You may have to fight for it, work harder than you ever have, but it can be yours.”
Alina looked out the window, at the sea and the round moon rising above it. The other assassins would be here soon. If she wanted Micha to have a quick and painless death, she should act now, before they arrived.
And yet, Micha’s words rang in her head. She always worked hard. Why not now?
Because Masque wanted it, wanted her. From her childhood, she’d been taught people like her were unwanted. Outcast from society. That her hands dripped with blood, unable to be cleaned.
But because that’s what she been taught didn’t make it true. She could decide what to do with her life, and she would. Masque had kept control over her long enough.
In a quick movement, she sheathed her knife. “There are others coming,” she said to Micha. “I could hear them on the way here. Masque wants you dead.”
“I can handle myself. Masque will soon have bigger things to worry about than me. Things are happening in this city. Change is coming.”
“He’ll send Shadows after me too, if I leave.” As she spoke, Alina stepped up on the windowsill.
“You can take on anyone he’ll send for you. Leave now and I can give you a chance.”
Alina glanced back. “Can I really do this?”
“I know you can. Go.”
Out in the darkness, shadows moved toward Micha’s apartment. Alina ignored them and climbed to the roof, standing tall in the moonlight.
She might have to fight for a long time. Masque’s ties to her would be hard to escape. But she would find her freedom.
Alina ran across the rooftops toward her future, no longer in the dark.