It was mid-day Christmas Eve and Ash Night, assassin extraordinaire, was NOT amused. Standing at the corner of a busy shopping street he wore a stuffed Santa costume and rang a large bell, occasionally calling out to stressed passersby: “Feed the hungry, buy a pretzel!”
Doing questionably efficient charity work was not the usual repertoire for this eighteen year old master killer, but as it happened Ash had lost a bet and now he had to live through the consequences.
“I should have known better than to fall for her bloody tricks,” he muttered to himself as he handed a pretzel to a fat tourist, “Raven never agrees to anything she doesn’t win…”
It had all started four days ago when his fellow assassin, Raven Night – no family relations, the surname came from their assigned group – had coaxed him into betting on who would take out the most targets during their following mission.
Considering the fact that Raven was two years younger than him but still the undisputed number one assassin of their group – soon perhaps of the entire Assassins Union – it was a silly bet to agree to. But, as always, Raven had known exactly which buttons to push and in the end Ash himself had been the one insisting on the bet.
Consequently, here he was, stuck as a “merry” Santa Claus, selling pretzels to the rich, to feed the poor.
A few meters away, a running child suddenly slipped over an ice-patch on the sidewalk and slammed down on his tush. Immediately the boy started crying.
Clenching his teeth in frustration, Ash waddled over in his too big Santa suit. “Here kid,” Ash gave the boy a caramelized pretzel with an insincere smile, “nibble on this and the pain will go away with a poof!” He spread his fingers theatrically to emphasize his point.
At this point Ash thought he heard the sound of muffled laughter in the distance, so he swirled around to see if he could find its source, but the sound was gone as quickly as it had come.
“I just know she’s here somewhere, laughing her ass off!” He swore and made his way back to the stand, ignoring the still sniveling kid.
If all he had to do for the day was stand there and sell pretzels it wouldn’t be so bad – embarrassing no doubt, but mostly boring. No, the annoying part was that Ash had been commanded to be… nice; to help anyone in need that he came across during a twenty-four hour period.
By noon Ash had already, on three occasions, helped elderly ladies carry home their groceries, chased down a blind man’s dog and given away his gloves to a homeless guy.
“What now?” Ash grunted.
The little boy from earlier had regained his footing, walked over to Ash and now stood staring at him in front of the pretzel stand.
“Are you really Santa Claus?” asked the kid.
“No,” answered Ash curtly but a shiver ran down his spine, warning him that he was out on thin ice, so he added, “I’m one of his helpers,” in a softer tone.
“You don’t look like an elf. You look like Santa.” The boy didn’t belive him.
“Santa has many different kinds of helpers.” Ash smiled a strained smile.
“Then what kind are you?”
“I’m a doppelgänger,” the boy was all confusion; “um, I’m like a Santa stuntman.”
The kids eyes lit up. “Does that mean you’re strong?”
‘Uh oh…’ Ash knew that look – the kid wanted something.
“I guess so…”
“Then, can you help me save Sister?”
“Your sister is in trouble?” Ash grew a bit more excited – perhaps today wouldn’t be such a drag after all.
“Yes she’s in a lot of danger!” the boy looked very distressed.
“Lead the way, kid,”Ash didn’t even bother to lock up the food stand as he followed the kid to a nearby park.
Here most people kept to the trodden paths, so much of the snow was left untouched. The little boy picked one of the smaller paths that disappeared in between a cluster of firs and pines.
Inside the already dim daylight struggled to penetrate the dense fir branches, veiling the area with a dusky light. The wailing of a small animal could be heard in the distance, giving it all a very eerie feeling.
As Ash and the boy continued further into the grove the wailing grew louder, but the deep snow muffled the sound, making it hard to specify its origin.
Suddenly the boy stopped under a particularly tall pine tree.
“Sister!” he called as he stared up at the first set of branches, at least three meters off ground.
Ash’s heart dropped; he followed the boy’s gaze and his fears were confirmed. Perched on a thick branch was a fluffy cream-colored cat.
“That’s your sister?” Ash was sure he wasn’t imagining the laughter now.
“Yeah, that’s Sister, my cat” the boy looked up at Ash with worried eyes, “you can help her, right?”
“Look, kid, this kind of thing is a job for the fire department, not Santa.”
Ash turned around to leave but a whistling noise caused him to freeze in his steps; lodged in the tree next to him was a sharp knife and stinging sensation at the top of his right ear told him he’d actually been hit.
‘Crazy bitch!’ Ash cursed silently as he outwardly plastered on a happy smile and turned back to the kid, “but I guess I can make an exception for you!”
Ash glared up at the cat as he approached the pine. The trunk of the tree was to thick for his arms to wrap around it but his belt would do the trick. Flinging the belt buckle around the trunk Ash used it as a leverage to easily reach the branch cat sat on.
“Here, kitty kitty,” he cooed but that cat didn’t budge.
Eventually Ash had no choice but to crawl out on the limb in pursuit of the feline. Once he had a hold of the little creature, Ash didn’t bother climbing down the way he’d come, simply dropping down into the deep snow below the tree. It might be a three meter drop, but even without the snow Ash would have no problem dealing with it.
“Here kid,” Ash held out the struggling cat.
“Wow!” the boy’s eyes were filled with worship as he accepted his pet, “you really are Santa’s helper!”
“Right… Now run along and make sure the cat doesn’t climb anymore trees, okay?”
After a few more moments of adoration, the boy thanked Ash and ran off with his creamy fur ball in his arms.
The fake smile faded from Ash’s face.
“Happy now?” he glared of towards the darkest area of the grove.
At first there was no reply but suddenly a soft female voice rang out next to his ear; “This is why you will always remain as number two – you’re not imaginative enough.”
Ash spun around, almost losing his balance in the thick snow. Hanging, upside-down, behind him was a familiar figure, whose well toned body was emphasized by the slick leather suit she was wearing.
“Raven,” Ash suddenly felt dry in his mouth.
With cat-like grace, Raven slowly turned around on the rope she had been hanging from and soundlessly placed her feet on the ground. Ash would perhaps not call her stunning, but Raven had a sort of primal beauty about her that made her hard to ignore.
The girl smiled at him and Ash swallowed by reflex.
“Why the long face, Ash? I thought you would enjoy a little break from your duties.”
Ash snorted, “I would have been, if not for this silly bet of yours.”
“My bet? I could have sworn that you were the one who insisted. . . .” Raven put on a face of pure innocence, “besides isn’t this . . . Christmas-thing supposed to be about being kind to others?” she stretched out a hand and snatched the red Santa hat Ash had been wearing, putting it on her own head instead – it was a quite odd combination, a tactical suit and a Santa hat.
Ash opened his mouth to give a reply when shrill shriek pierced the air. The two assassins didn’t even glance at each other before the dashed towards the edge of the grove they were in on silent feet.
There, roughly a hundred meters away, they saw a black SUV that had plowed its way into the snowy park. Two men were currently forcing a young woman into the back seat while two more were wrestling with a bulky man not far off.
“An abduction,” stated Ash, “of someone with a bodyguard, by the looks of it.”
“Indeed, but why are you still here?”
“You’re supposed to help people in need today, remember? If you let them drive off, helping that girl will get a lot harder…” Ash noticed that Raven couldn’t hide the amusement from her voice.
Ash grunted, “you can’t be serious? I’m not a bloody savior!”
Raven ignored him and said, “Oh, look, they are getting away,” with a theatrical voice. “How bothersome…” she locked eyes with Ash, daring him to do nothing.
Ash cursed and dashed out from the grove at full speed. The car was already in motion and he knew he wouldn’t catch it by foot – fortunately catching it was not his intention.
Utilizing a shortcut in the terrain, Ash managed to get within thirty meters of the SUV and instantly flicked his wrist, causing a small dart to fly out and hit the vehicle’s back door. Satisfied that the dart had stuck to its mark, Ash slowed to a stop and looked down on his watch; a small white light was blinking next to the number twelve.
Barely audible footsteps from behind told him that Raven was approaching him.
“Looks like you’ll have your work cut out for you with this one,” She paused next to him and handed over a bloody ID-card. Ash’s face fell as he looked at it.
“Do I have to?” he pleaded.
“All in need, Ash, that was the deal.” Raven smirked as she strolled off, calling over her shoulder, “and remember, no killing while off duty.”
Ash swore yet again before he flicked away the ID-card and headed of in the opposite direction. The little plastic tag landed face up in the snow, revealing the owner’s occupation: personal bodyguard to close relatives of the current Head of State.
For nearly two hours, Ash tracked the escaping SUV and by the time the signal stopped moving, the metropolitan city had been left far behind – Ash had no choice but to “borrow” a motorcycle to keep up the pursuit of the kidnappers.
The final destination was an old, rundown mansion – built in the image of European 18th century palaces. The grounds were vast and by seemingly deserted – had not the tracker Ash placed on the SUV lead him here, he would have assumed the place abandoned.
Ash crouched down behind a large hedge of poorly trimmed holly – despite the lack of daylight, bright red berries shone through the thick snow. He was observing the mansion with all-seeing eyes and was a bit impressed by what he discovered.
Regardless of the desolate impression the place portrayed, there were actually quite a few people guarding it; ten people were hidden at strategic locations around the mansion and every once in a while Ash managed to notice movement behind the numerous windows.
‘They seem to know their stuff…’ Ash admitted as he counted slowly in his head; ‘judging by the movement patterns, the are at least five people patrolling inside.’
Ash considered his options for a moment; although there were a couple of unguarded paths he could use as entryways, he had no knowledge of were the girl was being kept so either way he would have to spend some time searching for her. If he had been allowed to use deadly force things would have been so much simpler…
Ash looked down at his red Santa costume that he’d yet had time to change out of and suddenly smiled.
‘I guess I’ll stick to traditions then.’
Careful not to move into view of any the guards Ash made his way closer to the house. Progress was fairly slow and he had to alternately run and drop to the ground in hiding to avoid detection. It took him nearly ten minutes to reach a slightly more secluded side of the mansion, where the facade was covered in sturdy evergreens and also faced the massive stone wall surrounding the grounds.
Making quick work of the ascend, Ash needed mere seconds before he was dashing over the roof with silent footsteps. Finally, he paused in front of a small square structure at the center of the roof – it was the main chimney of the house and fortunately it was currently not in use.
‘I hope Raven isn’t around to see this,’ Ash momentarily regretted his choice of entry, but nonetheless, effortlessly swung up to the top of the chimney and started his descent.
Although no fire was lit at the moment, there was still plenty of soot covering the inside of the chimney so by the time Ash reached the open fireplace his previously red and white costume was rather brown and grey. He paused for a second to listen for any activity before silently lowering himself the last bit.
The room he’d entered seemed to stretch on forever – the furthest end barely visible in the dark. The previous grandeur of this hall was not hard to imagine, but now every piece of furniture was draped in white cloths and no surface had avoided gathering a thick layer of grey dust. Clearly this room had not been used in a while and the only traces of more recent human activity was a set of footprints passing through the hall.
Without hesitating, Ash chose to back-track the footprints to their origin in a hope of finding the kidnapped girl. It didn’t take long before he ran into the first kidnappers but houses such as this one had no shortage of hiding places so Ash easily slipped past them.
Just as he was considering whether he had picked the wrong direction in the grand hall, Ash heard angry voices coming from behind a large wooden door that, judging by its location, led down to the cellar.
“I won’t do it!” shouted a female voice, “I don’t care what you do to me, I will not do it!”
“Yes you will, missy, and you do care – women always care.”
The sound of shuffling furniture escaped even up to where Ash was standing, followed by a panicked scream and the sharp *WHAM!* of a punch.
There was a moment’s silence and then, “feisty one, are ya?” the male voice spoke again, “well, that’ll change over time.”
“Go fuck yourself, nimbwit!” shouted the girl.
Ash backed away from the door; he had found where the kidnapped girl was and now all he had to do was wait for an opportunity to get her out.
He didn’t have to wait long before two men came up through the cellar door. Just like the other kidnappers Ash had seen, these two wore military clothes and were armed to the teeth with every thing from knives to automatic rifles. They also wore masks.
“Why are we leaving her alone?” asked one of the men as the other placed a bar over the door to the cellar, “I thought we went down there to make her give us the info we need.”
“Let her fester for a while – she thinks they’ve noticed that she’s gone by now and are about to send in the cavalry,” the second man laughed, “naive girl. Let’s get something to eat, I’m starving.”
The two men walked off, presumably towards the kitchen, and after listening for more activity from the kidnappers, Ash moved to the sealed the door and went in. He closed the door behind him but blocked the locking mechanism first.
Contrary to the rest of the house, the path to the cellar was lit by dim lamps. At the bottom of the staircase there was a second door but this one stood open.
Ash hurried into the cellar room but to his surprise he found it empty. He was just about to start searching the room when he heard soft movement at his flank. Unguarded he turned towards the girl only to glimpse something reminiscent of a tire iron swung towards him before the world turned black.
Sharp pain at the back of the neck was the first Ash registered as he regained consciousness. He tried to move his hands but they wouldn’t budge. Blinking, he opened his eyes; at first the world around him was hazy but soon it cleared.
He was still in the basement but he had been tied to one of the supporting pillars – across from him a young blonde girl was bound to one of the other pillars. She looked at him with a mixed expression of worry and regret.
“Awake, are you?” A masked man bent down in front of Ash, blocking his view of the girl. Ash recognized the voice from one of the men earlier.
“Obviously,” retorted Ash with a grunt.
“Good, I thought the girl might have killed ya,” the man came closer; “not that I really care, but it would have made questioning you a bit tricky.”
Ash said nothing.
“Who sent you, kid?” the man asked.
The man clenched his right fist and punched Ash in the face.
“Who sent you!” he bellowed.
Ash spit out a mouth of blood.
That reply earned him another punch.
“We’re not playing games here – who sent you!”
Ash once more remained silent.
“Fine, we’ll see what you have to say after a bit of coaxing,” the man nodded his companion who had been standing silently by the door.
The second man nodded back and moved over to a small table stranding close to Ash, picking up an oddly shaped knife.
‘Here we go. . . ,’ thought Ash and glanced over at the now panic-stricken girl; clearly they would use him as an example for her.
What followed was nearly thirty minutes of well placed cutting, stabbing and plying. The torturer did his best to force Ash to the limit but Ash was used to pain – his own teachers a had used even more inhumane techniques on him before he even turned ten years old – the girl, however, was not and she turned ever more pale as the minutes passed.
Eventually the two kidnappers grew tired and left the cellar with the final message, “we’ll be back!”
Ash groaned for the first time as he sifted his weight in hopes of relaxing the pressure on his now bloody arms.
“I… I’m sorry,” stuttered the girl, “I… I thought you were one of them. I only wanted to escape…”
“I take it you failed,” muttered Ash.
“They returned just as I was on my way up the stairs. They’ve kept me chained up since then,” the regret in her face grew stronger.
“Haven’t they taught you to stay put and do as you’re told in situations like this?”
The girl’s silence told Ash he was right. He sighed as he started fiddling with his restrains. “So, what do they want with you?” Ash asked as he worked.
She girl looked at Ash add if he was stupid; “Don’t you know who my father is?” she asked.
“Of course I know,” Ash retorted. How could he not know, the man’s face was plastered over half the city! “But they don’t seem to be after any ransom; as far as I can tell, they have made no contact with anyone since they brought you here.”
The girl’s brows furrowed, “they keep asking me to tell them about Operation Midnight,” she stared straight at Ash, as if wanting to read his reaction, before she continued; “but I don’t know anything about that!”
‘Really?’ Ash raised an eyebrow, ‘then why say ‘won’t’ rather than ‘can’t’?’ he mused but said nothing. He just had to save the girl.
Ash cursed; his restraints were well made and he couldn’t get them off. Suddenly he heard footsteps coming down the stairs, but they were different from before, lighter.
‘Could it be?’ he looked up towards the cellar door just in time to see a small figure enter the room. The clothes were the same military uniform the kidnappers wore but above the black mask was a bright red Santa hat.
“Seriously Ash, this is embarrassing,” chuckled Raven with poorly hidden amusement. “To get caught during a private mission…” she clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Let me guess, the girl thought you were the enemy and attacked you?”
Ash felt his face heat up with shame; he said nothing but he could guess that his face now resembled a tomato.
“You know this person?” asked the slightly confused girl.
“Unfortunately, yes,” grunted Ash, while Raven walked over to deal with his restraints, “she’s the reason I’m here at all.”
The girl looked even more confused. “You mean you’re not sent by my father?”
“No dear,” answered Raven deridingly before Ash had a chance, “and no one else is coming either, by the looks of it.”
“What do you mean?” the girl asked but Raven ignored her.
“It’s a quarter to midnight, Ash, get her out before then.”
There was a light click behind Ash and he felt his hands being released.
‘I was out that long?’ Ash wondered but all he said was “sure.”
“I’ll by waiting by the lake,” said Raven and disappeared up the stairs once more.
Ash stood up from the floor with little difficulty, completely ignoring the various wounds on his body, and moved over to the girl.
“Why did she leave?” she asked as Ash ben t down to deal with her restraints.
“Because she has no reason to stay,” Ash stood one more, “we’re running out of time, let’s go.”
Without waiting for the girl to get up, Ash hurried up the staircase, pausing next to the door at the top of the stairs. Straining his ears he first listened and the carefully opened the door to glance out into the room outside. There was no one there.
“Come on,” he hissed to the girl who was making her way up the stairs with the grace of a hedgehog; “civilians,” he muttered – he could never understand why normal people put so little effort into how they moved.
“Huh?” asked the girl.
“Nevermind,” he answered while rolling his eyes, “what is your name, by the way?”
The girl stared at him in shock; “you don’t know?” Ash’s glare indicated that he clearly didn’t so she quickly added, “Claire.”
“Ok, Claire, follow me as quietly as you can and stop whenever I tell you to.”
Claire nodded and Ash moved out into the room. Clearly he couldn’t leave the way he had arrived so Ash made his way towards what had looked like an orangery from the outside. The first guard they came across was sprawled naked and unconscious in the very next room, the work of Raven no doubt, but the second time they weren’t as lucky.
Ash raised his hand to indicated for Claire to stop as he peered into a long hallway. Half way down, perhaps five meters from the door, patrolled a well armed man. Every once in a while, he would stop and gaze out a window.
“What now?” asked Claire in a low whisper, only to be quickly hushed by Ash. His eyes had grown cold with concentration and blood lust so the moment Claire saw them she shuddered and almost yelped, but she remained silent from then on.
Turning back to observe the armed man, Ash remained still for a few more seconds before he suddenly dashed out into the hallway on silent feet. Barely a second had passed before his arms were around the guards neck in a firm choke-hold. Moments later Ash slowly lowered the unconscious man to the ground.
In this manner Ash and his rescuee made their way through the house, quietly disarming one kidnapper after the other as they went. Ten minutes later Ash peeked into the empty orangery at the southern end of the mansion. Outside the night was unusually bright, thanks to a full moon lighting up the white snow. The lake Raven had mentioned was visible outside the windows.
‘The guards between here and the lake are gone… Raven I presume?’ Ash mused with a smirk, ‘show off.’ The guards had been well placed, getting rid of them without the others noticing was not easily done.
“The path is cleared, let’s go.” Ash started of towards the glass doors facing the lake.
“Out there?” protested Claire, “I will freeze to death!”
Ash paused and looked the girl over – she was only wearing a flimsy white dress, her original coat was gone. He glanced down at his wrist, two minutes to midnight; still on friendly duty.
Grunting, Ash removed his red Santa coat and handed it to the girl. She wrinkled her nose at the dirty clothing but accepted it nonetheless. With the girl covered, Ash and Claire ran out of the orangery and ran towards the lake in the knee-high snow.
The full moon caused the snow crystals covering the ground to sparkle softly and the clear moon was perfectly reflected on the smooth ice that sealed the lake in a wintry tomb. Leaning against the trunk of a silvery willow waited a lean black figure with a seemingly black Santa hat.
As they reached the tree, Raven leaned off the trunk and approached them. In the distance the hollow sound of church belles marked the stroke of midnight.
Raven looked from Ash’s almost bare upper body to the oversize coat covering the girl next to him and sneered.
“Not a word,” said Ash grudgingly before Raven had a chance to comment.
“I said nothing,” Raven shrugged but her smile widened.
“Not to bother you two but can we get out of here?” asked Claire through shaking teeth as the church bells chimed their last ring.
“The time is up, Ash,” she handed him a brown folder with intricate symbols on- a new mission.
Ignoring further pleas from Claire, Ash opened the folder and read its context. His eyes widened in surprise and he looked up at Raven.
“Did you know?”
She shrugged but Ash couldn’t but help feel that she had indeed known.
“Know what?” asked a glowingly annoyed Clarie, “what are you talking about?”
“My vacation is over,” explained Ash and picked up a picture from within the folder showing it to Claire, “and I’ve just been hired to kill you.”