scent and sound



The scent always led from one building to another, and in between would be a corpse. Sometimes there’d be several, all stinking of death and fennel. They never could find his trail, and so they ascribed super-powers to him. He materialized and vanished. He flew. They called him the Fennel Ninja, but Resham himself knew he possessed only the most crucial superpower: he could shift his odor.

Inside the now-deserted store, the fragrances were sandalwood, aniseed, fennel and blood. Strong enough to mask Resham’s odor while he changed, strong enough to confuse hunters on his trail. He sniffed the air outside. Under the scent of day-warmed stone, pine, grass, a mix of wildflowers. He could match that easily.

A few seconds later, he was ready. He slipped past the corpse lying still on the floor. It smelled of stale blood, feces and urine from the dying victim, and Resham’s old scent, the masking scent of fennel.

From the waning daywarmth outside, he knew the day was half over; in a few hours, the nightcool would return. He crossed the smooth stone flags of the square to the chime-beacons marking the plaza wall, and climbed over. They’d never find him now. By tomorrow’s warming, he’d have moved on to another town, another job.

In the distance, he heard footsteps. Surprisingly, the wind carried the scent of a woman, hunting. Who did she pursue? Not him, anyway. His changed smell made him impossible to track. He hurried on. The stone paving changed to the more forgiving surface of the earthen path. With caution born of professionalism, he doubled back to see if she followed.

She didn’t. Instead, she cut straight across his hairpin track, might have caught him except that he sprinted ahead onto another path. Who was she chasing? The field-fragrance grew stronger: wildflowers, grass, pine, matching his new scent. Resham could smell her still, and headed downwind for open meadow.

“It’s no good, Assassin,” she called. “Surrender now. Save your breath. You’re dead.”

Resham ran, choosing the scent of a little-used path that dipped into an overgrown hollow. Birds whistled from the reeds near the stream, where an ordinary fugitive might wash away his smell. But confident of his perfect scent-camouflage, Resham continued on the lonely path that was weedy and tangled beneath his feet.

Yet each time he slowed, thinking he had escaped, he could smell his pursuer on the breeze, hear the rustle of her passing. The unhesitating footsteps still followed, as though the woman knew—as she could not—that he was there.

He was winded, gasping. Something was wrong, something had failed in his scent-transition from fennel to pine meadow. Despairing, he flung himself deep among the tall reeds and awaited capture. The rushes poked his skin, the footsteps came closer, the hunter-smell grew stronger…

And then, as by magic, passed him by. “Damn! I can’t see him anywhere! Where the hell did the bastard go?” She swore again, loudly, and ran on.

A cold chill ran through him. See. There were rumors of this woman, this avenger of the dead, this ninja-bane. The One with No Nose. She was scent-blind, but they said she had super-powers. They said the warmth of the day revealed things to her, distant things with no smell or sound. Philosophers spoke of electromagnetic rays. The superstitious called it “seeing.”

Resham waited for the One’s scent and sounds to fade into the distance, then emerged. She’d return to where she lost the trail, and he needed to be gone. He prepared to double back to higher ground and the confounding sea-wind.

Wait. If she could detect at a distance with electromagnetic rays, that might be exactly the wrong thing to do. Though the hours were passing, the day-warmth still fell on his skin. How far could she gauge objects? He needed to hide from the day.

There was a place: Underground, a hole in a hillside, the roost of a million bats whose high squeaks filled the air at night-fall as they flew out of it. Resham ran through tall brush, where scent-hunters might easily have trailed a normal man whose scent would cling to the bushes as he passed. Resham’s scent clung, too, but it was only pine, grass, wildflowers in bloom.

Again she was behind him. How far did her magical powers extend? Or was she relying on the rustle of disturbed grasses? She shouted in triumph.

“I see you, Hitman. You’re dead, dead, dead.”

See. That word again, that superstitious word. She was claiming her power, taunting him. He avoided the temptation to zig-zag, to make her lose the trail. She would “see” right across it. Instead, he took the shortest path.

The cave’s distinctive smell wafted toward him, droppings and urine of a hundred years of bats. Not far now. His scent was slightly off for this place; he stopped, caught his breath, adjusted it. The trail underfoot was uneven with roots. Careful, now. In the distance, the sound of her pursuit. Nearly there. The scent of urushiol from the poison plants guarding its entrance, with the promise of a hot painful rash on his skin. He would have to endure that.

But she was headed for him and closing, the rustle of grass, the snapping of twigs, loud as she ran. She wasn’t even on the path. She was bounding straight across the meadow.

And then he heard the wondrous squeaks and wings of a thousand bats, erupting from the cave. The day was done, its warmth no longer supplying her magic. He ducked into bushes off the trail, and froze, no rustle betraying his place. He could hear her stumbling around, lost in the rapidly cooling night, cursing. “No, no, no! I can’t lose him, not now, at nightfall. Damn!”

He crawled silently through the small nettle-guarded entrance she couldn’t smell, into the cold and stench of the cave, thinking, In a different circumstance, she would have made an excellent assassin.

Scent and Sound: The Assassin
originally published online July 12, 2009

Keyan Bowes is frequently ambushed by stories, and took the 2007 Clarion Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers in self defense. Keyan’s work has been accepted by several magazines, including Strange Horizons, Cabinet des Fees, and Expanded Horizons, and is included in the anthologies, Eight Against RealityThe Book of TentaclesArt From Art (forthcoming). Her story “The Rumpelstiltskin Retellings” was made into a short film by Justin Whitney (Sea Urchin Productions). She is currently working on two young adult fantasy novels.