Sammy D taught us that there are three distinct ways to kill someone. The first is a murder of opportunity: the victim is alone on a dark night, or is blackout drunk, or some other circumstantial convenience which makes it the right time to act. Then there is the assassination: the calculated and premeditated kill which we will be training for. Finally there is the murder of passion: when the blood boils too hot and we allow rage or hatred to force our hand. This is the most risky way to kill someone, both physically in the moment and regarding future forensic investigations, and it is strictly forbidden to us.

I don’t think there exists a term to describe exactly how Mr. Daken died. The premeditation was inherent, as was the opportunity of his distraction, but neither compares with the utter brutality of his execution. I noticed when we were burying the body that the knife wounds in his back were surprisingly superficial. I think it was shock more than anything which toppled him over. The actual cause of death? The lacerations of a dozen children skinning him alive with fists, nails, teeth, kitchen utensils, and anything else we could get our hands on. And of all of us who shredded him like a pack of wild dogs, none did so with more ferociousness, more glee, or more hunger than a small boy named Maker.

I’d barely even noticed Maker during my first few days at the house. He was only ten years old, seeming even younger because of his diminutive, almost emaciated frame. He never spoke without prompting and his rare answers would be muttered with the volume and assurance of a self-conscious mouse. I hadn’t counted on his help during the actual killing, but the moment Mr. Daken had dropped to the ground Maker had transformed into something new altogether. Even long after the man was dead, it took three of us to pry open the Maker’s jaw from around the assassin’s throat and drag the boy into the living room so he wouldn’t disturb the burial.

“Hope I’m not paired off with that little Demon,” Greg had said during our first physical training session. “I swear he just licked his lips when Sammy D was talking about safe words.”

“Shut up, you have no idea what he must have gone through to act like that,” Alexa scolded him.

“What are you even doing here?” Greg shot back. “I figured you’d be ratting us all out to the police by now.”

I nudged Greg hard. Sammy D was waiting for us to be quiet with her arms crossed. She may look like a babushka with her short gray hair tied back in a handkerchief, but she made disarming and pinning someone look like a ballet. Sammy D let the silence drag out for a few more excruciating seconds before she turned back to the chalkboard with its grotesquely detailed drawing of the human anatomy.

“Trust me, if I had somewhere else to go, I’d be there,” Alexa couldn’t resist whispering back.

“Bullshit,” Greg mumbled. “Weren’t your parents hotshot musicians or something? You’re probably loaded.”

Alexa didn’t need to answer. The angle of her glare from under her brow spoke volumes.

“Greg and Simon,” Sammy D barked. “You’re up first. Let’s see those stances.”

We didn’t get to the actual combat training until after dinner. Sammy D says that if your victim is fighting back then you’ve already failed. Her teachings focused more on concealment, tracking, the preparation of poisons, and accuracy with projectiles. As long as she was teaching the theoretical stuff it just felt like the coolest class I’ve ever taken in my life. The illusion couldn’t last though. Once the fighting started, it was impossible to ignore the deadly purpose that we were approaching every day.

I was paired off against Maker. I asked to switch since he’s over five years younger than me, but Sammy D just said: “The most difficult blows to strike are against those weaker than us.” I think she was just placating my ego though, because there was nothing weak about going up against Maker.

“How am I supposed to hit him? He’s not even in the right stance!” I protested.

“Then teach him why he’s wrong,” she said.

“But what if he goes psycho and makes up all his own stuff?”

“Then he’ll teach you why you’re wrong.”

Maker didn’t exactly jump at me. Jumping would imply pushing off from something, and I’m not positive his feet ever touched the ground. Before I knew what was happening he was crawling all over me, raking my face with his fingers, grabbing my hair, digging his knee into my back — I don’t understand how Sammy D thought this was okay. She talked a big game about calculating approaches and precise controlled motions, but she just stared and smiled while that wild thing pummeled me from all sides.

The safe word? Completely ignored. One of his nails dug a deep trench above my eye and I couldn’t see a thing through the blood. I tried just protecting my face with my arms, but he was relentless. He had lots of openings, but I couldn’t let my guard down for a moment without getting absolutely savaged. When I’d finally had enough I just ran through the hail of blows to tackle him to the ground. I straddled him with my superior body weight and pinned him tight, and that should have been the end of it.

“This is your chance to teach him!” Sammy D shouted.

“I give, I give!” Maker wailed, struggling feverishly against my grip. I started to stand, but powerful hands clamped onto my shoulders and pushed me back down on top of the boy.

“He’s not going to learn like that. Hurt him bad.”

“What? I’m not going to —”

The vice of Sammy D’s hands closed. “You let him just walk away from this and he’s going to think it’s okay to lose. That’s not how this game is played. You lose once in the real world and you’re dead. Now make him feel it!”

The blood was flowing freely into my eyes and the whole world had gone red. My face was on fire from a dozen scratches that greedily drank in the blood.

“Do it now!” Sammy D shouted in my ear. Maker clenched his eyes shut underneath me, his face tormented into a mask of sheer terror. I wanted to slam my fist into the little bastard’s mouth so hard that all those sharp teeth rained down his throat. I wanted to hurt him so damn bad my whole body was an ocean of pressure begging release.

Maker wasn’t a criminal mastermind or a killer though. He was a frightened little boy who only knew one way to survive. And overflowing with how badly I wanted to hurt him just because I could — that scared the shit out of me.

I slapped Sammy D’s hands away and scrambled off of Maker. Everyone in the yard was staring at me. I turned a slow circle, then looked down at the boy on the ground. His eyes were still shut and he was trembling all over. I don’t know how much of the blood was mine and how much was his. Then at Sammy D, her hands on her hips, scowling at me like she’d just caught me breaking a promise to her. This isn’t who I am. This isn’t who any of these kids are, but it’s what they’ll become if they stay.

I turned and ran, half-expecting a bullet or a tripwire or something to spin me to the ground before I’d taken a dozen steps. Not a word or a sound behind me. Not even the footfalls of a pursuer. I was free.

I waited about ten minutes to catch my breath and let my head clear, then I circled around to the front of the house. I heard the shouts from other people still in the yard, so I guess the rest of them were still training. I slipped up to the dormitory to take my share of the 20,000 dollars I had stuffed under my mattress. That’s all I needed to start a new life. I sure as hell didn’t need this.

“She gave us our first mission.”

I practically jumped out of my skin at the voice. It was Alexa, sitting on her bed in the dark. I ignored her and moved to retrieve my money.

“Maker took it. He volunteered,” Alexa added.

“You can just leave with me,” I said.

Alexa shook her head. “I volunteered too.”

“Why?”

“Because Maker’s staying, and I have to keep my little brother safe.”

“That little monster is —”

“I know how he gets when there’s a fight. I kept trying to avoid fights with Mr. Daken because I knew Maker would go crazy and get himself killed. But I promise it’s not his fault. He’s only like that because —”

“I don’t care!” I shouted. I had my money and wasn’t going to waste any more time here. “I’m never coming back, and I’m never going to see any of you again.”

“Yes you will,” she called after me. “Our first mission is you.”

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