As I slowly opened my eyes, all I saw were leaves fluttering down onto my face. The sun was up and as bright as ever. The sunlight trickled through the branches above me as leaves continuously fell. It was daytime. I turned to my left, but no one and nothing was there except my black cloak. I didn’t process what was going on as I began to slightly bring myself up and turn to my right. The woman from before was just sitting crisscrossed beside me wrapping her left hand with her right.
I asked while still processing what was going on, “What? What happened? Where are we? They got away?”
I brought my hands to my forehead trying to remember. I began to regain the memories of what happened. The woman, who I knew as The Witch, answered my questions.
“We lost. The number escaped. He literally just walked away back to his car with the other two men.”
I looked directly at her as she removed my torn cloak from her hand and finished properly bandaging it.
“You got completely knocked out by the old one, and relax, we’re just in the woods outside the city.”
She opened her now completely bandaged hand over and over until placing it down on her leg. She seemed to be testing the durability of the white bandages.
The lady exclaimed, “Listen. I don’t know what you remember, but I’m gonna be honest with you. I know who you are. Coal Jenie.”
I continued to stare at her silently, not responding.
The lady sighed, “And I can’t lie, I took you to the bounty hunter association to cash you in, but old man Sint told me he made a deal with you. If it’s a deal from Sint, then I have no choice but to respect it.”
I instantly got myself up and reached for my daggers, but they weren’t there. I then reached for my hatchets, my knives, and even my machete. None of them were there. Desperately, I even touched my ear to see if my earring was there. The lady sighed again.
“Witch. What did you do with my weapons?”
Her expression turned into anger.
“My name is Jessica! Jessica Embers! ‘The Witch’ is my bounty hunter nickname, idiot!”
She pointed her thumb at a tree behind her. I looked at the tree just to see all my weapons including my earring stabbed into the tree. Even the weapons I used in the fight at the bank were there. Below all of the stabbed weapons, old man Sugu's book laid there. The Witch sighed.
I shouted, “What the hell!”
I dashed to the tree and began picking the weapons out of it one by one and strapping them back onto where they should be on my body. I sheathed my knives on my waist, my hatchets onto my thighs, and my earring back in the hole in my ear. As I finished gearing up quickly, I snatched the book and the woman spoke.
“I know you want the number too. I can tell you now. You won’t get anywhere trying to kill him alone. He’s a number. We need to work together.”
I didn’t respond as I picked out my last throwing knife and put it in my right boot. After seconds of not responding, she turned around looking at me.
She nagged, “Hello? Are you deaf? I’m talking to you. Do I need to start using sign language?”
I retorted while walking over to my cloak and throwing it over me, “No, no, no. I’m never working with a damn bounty hunter again.”
Fixing the cloak comfortably around my neck, I placed old man Sugu's book in my cloak.
I continued speaking, except this time I shouted, “Especially not a damn witch like you! You tried to turn me in? What the hell!”
I was in a bad mood. She wasn’t angry at all after my shouting. Instead, she responded normally and clearly.
“I know where the number is going.”
My eyes met hers, and I looked at her silently in hatred for some time.
I demanded, “Where?”
She laughed out loud.
I continued, “What witch? What’s funny?”
She shouted while laughing, “Homeless man, you got destroyed last time! The number didn’t even join the fight! You can’t beat them!”
I asked, “Okay, so? What are you saying?”
She replied, “We need to find more people to help, and we need to train. It’s not rocket science homeless man. Are you retarded or something?”
I screamed out of frustration, “Oh my god! Find more people? Train? There’s no time! Are you stupid? You think these numbers just sit in one place?”
She responded while trying to avoid telling me the actual place, “There’s time. While you were passed out, I heard the number saying that he was going to a place for another item. That item is only located in a specific place that I’m aware of.”
I remained quiet, staring at her once more thinking about what to do.
I asked, “Okay, so what would you have us do?”
She slid a knife into her right boot and expressed, “Well. There’s no bounty hunter that would help in killing a number. Not that I know of. So, I guess you could say we need to find someone who shares our interest.”
Jessica packed up her things and began reloading her pistols with bullets from what appeared to be a silver cartridge with “Witch” engraved on it in an old English sort of font.
I expressed, “Where are we going and how are we going to find someone that wants to kill a number? Most people don’t even know about the numbers. If it’s not a bounty hunter, then I don’t think there’s anyone else who’s gained enough to be able to help us.”
She stood up and approached me, “Gained huh? What do you gain, Coal Jenie?”
At first, I didn’t think I should respond, but she seemed to be the only lead I had to find Number Twenty-Nine again. The first time I found him, I was ridiculously lucky. I mean, I literally found him right after getting permission to hunt after him. I decided that if I’m going to work with her, then I should just tell her my greed.
I replied, “Weapons.”
She looked around my body curiously inspecting the different weapons around me while I stood still.
She pointed at my nail-shaped earring, “So… for example, that one over there is a weapon too? Interesting. So, you gained that from killing a person?”
I answered, “I guess you can say he was a person. That person doesn’t deserve to be considered human. He was a serial killer in Phoenix Village who chopped up twelve women brutally. I did what I thought was necessary for my village.”
She looked confused but seemed to understand.
I asked, “What do you gain?”
She responded, “Poison.”
I was waiting for an explanation, but she began walking away. I caught up to her.
I asked, “Are you going to explain?”
As she walked forward she explained further.
“The more lives I take, the more poisonous my blood becomes.”
She drew her pistol rapidly and popped out a bullet, handing it to me as we walked.
“That bullet is custom-made out of the iron in my blood. All of my bullets are.”
I answered curiously, handing the bullet back to her.
“I see. Interesting.”
She asked me, “You remember how that man named Caviar back at the bank collapsed?”
I replied, “Yea, I remember.”
She continued, “It was because of the poisonous bullet that I shot at his shoulder.”
Everything was starting to make sense.
As we walked, for about ten minutes, I asked, “So, where are we going?”
She handed me the paper with a bounty on it.
“There is a bounty on a nineteen-year-old boy who supposedly killed a number and his family.”
The face was blank, but the name and amount of money were listed. Characteristics of the boy were also listed. It stated on the paper that the boy had bright pink hair with silver eyes. The amount being offered was astronomical, and the boy’s name was listed as “Cherry”. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the sheer amount of money being offered for the boy's death.
Someone... like me? Did he actually kill his family or was he accused of the act like me?
Jessica proposed while waiting for my response, “If this guy is anything like you, he’ll want to kill the number too. We’ll just have to find and convince him to join us. By the way, why do you want to kill the number? Sint told me it wasn’t for the money.”
I hesitated to respond. I didn’t necessarily want this stranger to know about my past. I made my explanation brief.
“Numbers killed many people that I cared for deeply. It’s really that simple.”
She looked at me for a brief second as we walked. She seemed to understand. I shoved the paper depicting Cherry's bounty in my cloak and asked Jessica a question that I've been wondering about for some time now.
"How old are you anyway Jessica?"
Jessica openly replied, "I'm twenty-one."
Wow. Twenty-one years old? That was close to my age.
Not caring to ask for my age, she started once more like before, “So, we’re going to have to get this Cherry guy to join us somehow.”
I looked at her, truly curious, to really try to understand if she was dense or not. I responded sarcastically.
“Wow. That sounds realistic. We’re going to pull up to a random pink-haired boy, tell him we want to kill some ‘numbers’, and convince him to join us. Did I get that right?”
She turned to me and quickly expressed a legitimate point.
“Seriously, if he’s not a savage, and if he’s anything like you, he will join us the same way you joined me. You’re not the only one who wants numbers dead.”
I replied changing the subject.
“How much time do we have, and do you have a lead?”
She answered promptly.
“Old man Sint told me that there were rumors of him living around Topeka Village outside of Avarice City, and we got one week.”
I raised an eyebrow at her, and she turned her head back toward the way she was walking. I decided to go with the plan. It did sound slightly promising. If this guy we were searching for was truly anything like me, I might be able to convince him to support us. Plus, this Witch was my only source for finding Number Twenty-nine. I can’t lie though. I was slightly motivated to meet this guy.
I asked out of curiosity to see how she would respond, “What if this guy is bad news and tries to kill us?”
She responded promptly, “Well, in that case, we’d simply dispose of him and collect the bounty on him.”
We walked for hours and took countless breaks. I’ve never been so far away from Phoenix Village and Dividend City ever in my life. We didn’t say a word to each other while walking. There was nothing else to say to each other. We only took breaks when we found water sources. Whether they were rivers, ponds, streams, or lakes, we always stopped to take a sip. I can tell she was experienced. She knew what she was doing. Once we arrived at the main road and exited the endless forest, she handed me a white scarf and told me to wrap it on my face. The scarf was clearly generic and store-bought, perhaps from the Bounty Hunter Association. I tied it onto my face, she tied one onto hers, and we waited for a passing vehicle to stop for us. Waving our hands for hours, no one was willing to stop. I told her we had to take our scarves off or else no one would trust us, but she insisted we keep them on. After a few more hours, nighttime arrived. I was about to explode in anger until a car finally stopped for us. It was a bright yellow illuminated taxi that stood out in the darkness. Uniquely, it had the driver’s name stickered all over it. “Dhruv Kabal” was the name that all the stickers held.
The car pulled around away from the main street and pulled down his windows. The man inside turned on his interior lights as we walked to the vehicle. Jessica put a hand on my shoulder signaling that she would handle the conversation. I stood behind her, and the taxi driver began speaking in a hard foreign accent as Jessica bent her head down towards the window.
“Hello! How do you do? My name is Dhruv Kabal as you may have noticed!”
He pointed at the windows holding the stickers and giggled proudly.
“You need a ride for two my dear?”
Jessica replied politely and gratefully.
“Yes. Thank you so much for stopping. We need a ride to Topeka Village right outside of Avarice City quickly. Can you make that work Dhruv?”
Dhruv replied with his incredible foreign accent.
“Ohhhhhhh! Anything for you sweetheart! As long as the money is right!”
Jessica replied quickly.
“Of course. How much?”
Dhruv’s face remained happy as he answered.
“That would be five-hundred dollars, miss.”
I couldn’t help but spurt out as both Jessica and Dhruv turned to look at me, “What the hell? Five-hundred dollars?”
Jessica leered at me once more signaling me to keep quiet. I turned my head away and just allowed her to finish. She reached into her pocket and grabbed a stack of bills handing it to Dhruv. The man couldn’t believe his eyes. He held the money like he was holding a newborn baby. Dhruv responded instantly.
“Yes madam. This is very good. You guys can jump in the back. It will be about an eight-hour drive, and I’ll let you know when we get there.”
We jumped in the back seat, and Dhruv drove off. Making sure to keep the scarf over my mouth and nose, I fell asleep against the car’s side window beside me while Jessica occupied herself with her touch-screen phone.
After sleeping, I calmly woke up, lifting my head off the glass. The sun was now out and shining on us through the windows. I turned to the other back seat of the car just to see Jessica now sleeping. Dhruv Kabal howled.
“Okay, everybody! We are here!”
Jessica woke up, and in confusion, both Jessica and I looked at the surrounding area around us through the windows. We were in a huge plain wasteland completely off the road. It was so plain and brown that it was like a dessert. I needed clarification for where we were at exactly.
“What is this place?”
Dhruv Kabal responded in his strong Indian accent.
“Oh, my friend! The village you are looking for is right down that way!”
Dhruv pointed straight toward his front window, and while continuing his pointing, he continued speaking.
“There is no direct road to villages like these, so we must improvise! I once made that walk a few years ago. It’s not too bad. Only a few hours through the region that way! I would keep driving and drop you off there, but for my own safety, this is the farthest I can take you.”
I looked at Jessica to confirm the legitness of Dhruv’s statement, and Jessica simply and quickly nodded. Dhruv threw us a few bottles of water and some granola bars, and we both exited the vehicle giving our goodbyes to the odd taxi man as he slowly drove off the other way through the bumpy terrain. We took off our scarves from our faces as we began stepping through the wasteland while eating and drinking. The sun was glaring at us brutally, but the temperature of the area was surprisingly not too hot. After we got close to what appeared to be two giant wooden gates with huge wooden walls on each side in the middle of nowhere, we tied our scarves back on and approached the entrance. No one was guarding the gates except an old woman sitting on a wooden chair cutting potatoes with a knife near a modern-styled steel lamp. The old lady also wore a scarf around her head with a long and simple grey dress. Her hair was short, smooth, and white, and the lady’s eyes were barely open.
We approached the old lady, and Jessica asked promptly, “Is this Topeka Village?”
The old woman responded without even looking up to see who we were, “Yes, dear. Go right in.”
We walked past the woman going through the wooden entrance and were instantly surprised. The small town was filled with fixed and precise concrete roads and sidewalks, sharply organized and mixed wooden concrete houses, and steel lamps at every corner. There was a wide marble water fountain in the middle of the town streaming water in every direction with a small circular wall holding the water within it. There were all kinds of people doing all kinds of things as the glaring sun shone upon all of them. I saw countless people conversing standing up and sitting at tables, kids alongside their parents holding their hands strolling on the sidewalks, loners sitting around the fountain tossing coins into it, and merchants pushing rustling carts filled with fruits and vegetables. The village had absolutely no wildlife or vegetation anywhere within. It was like Dividend City and Phoenix Village combined. I looked at Jessica as she looked at me.
I asked, “Okay so, what’s next? Where can we find this guy?”
She responded, “Well, he could be anywhere here. Where were you hiding when you hid within Phoenix Village?”
I thought for a minute while looking around. This place was much different than it was back home.
“Back at Phoenix, I kept myself hidden in both the Voiceless Forest and Forest of Offerings for years. I knew the forest in and out though. There’s nothing like that here.”
We continued to look around as people passed us and as we stood still. I started walking to the fountain.
“He’s probably blending in with everyone else. There’s no way he’s in the wasteland.”
I pulled out the bounty paper that Jessica handed me before and that I had stuffed in a pocket inside my cloak. I tried to engrave the appearance of Cherry into my head. As many people began passing by, I folded the paper bounty and set it back within my cloak. Right when I was about to take a step, Jessica stopped me by placing her right hand on my back left shoulder. I turned around as she began speaking.
“Listen. Let’s just ask some people. Someone’s got to know something about him.”
I agreed, and we began making our way towards a few men sitting on the water fountain’s marble wall laughing and talking to each other. We took off our scarves and packed them into our pockets to look more normal and civilized. Once we reached the men, they both looked at us suspiciously, dropping their smiles.
I began while Jessica watched, “Hey, uh, I just had a question for you guys if you don’t mind. I’m looking for a guy with light pink hair that goes by the name Cherry. Would you guys know him?”
The men continued to look at me plainly saying nothing, but slowly and surely their expression became more serious. They were both relatively muscular men with blonde hair wearing basic un-branded t-shirts and shorts.
One of the men stutteringly answered, “No. We don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jessica and I glanced at each other. The stutter gave it away. This guy’s a bad liar. I replied with more firmness.
“Listen, we’re from out of town. He’s a friend of ours, and I just need his help with something.”
The men looked at each other and once more stated that they didn’t know who I was talking about. It was almost like they were covering for Cherry or trying to protect him. As soon as Jessica was about to get involved, we heard the old lady from the gate who was cutting potatoes scream out from the entrance. I turned around alongside Jessica to hear what the old lady was saying.
“Cherry! Where are you, my boy? I got your lunch ready!”
The lady held her bowl of potatoes in the air, now cooked and steaming. I turned back to the men who were now sweating and looking away from us in what appeared to be nervousness. I talked clearly and calmly.
“You all know Cherry don’t you?”
A ton of people were mumbling asking each other where Cherry was when I heard the rapid draw of Jessica’s gun behind me. The next thing I knew, I heard something drop and clutter on the concrete ground as I turned my shoulder back toward where the old lady was. A knife was now on the floor and Jessica was clutching a guy’s left wrist with her left hand while jamming her unholstered gun into the guy’s right abdomen. Every person around us screeched while the two men at the water fountain ran away in fright. The old lady dropped her bowl of potatoes against her stomach while watching the scene.
While many people ran away from the fountain we were at, many others crowded around the scene. The guy didn’t move a muscle as he looked down at the threatening gun dug into his abdomen. He had pink hair and silver eyes. He was definitely who we were looking for. I slowly approached the situation expressing a greeting as my eyes connected to the restrained boy's.
“So, you’re Cherry.”