Grimdark Story Battle Royale 4: Round 6

The Collective vs. Rag the Grenadier vs. Violence Claimed vs. One Good Turn

The Collective

Exasperated, Vid Kovak rammed his knife under his captive’s fingernail. A weak gasp escaped from Alko’s lips as the tender and last remaining nail on his hands were extracted. Once again, he betrayed nothing but his pain. An uncomfortable blaze of heat emitted from his former friend and Kovak wasn’t sure if it was from this ordeal or if this was a normal temperature for a living person. The voices inside Kovak’s head were hush and still. He was beginning to tire of all the silence.

 The Commander took a step back to examine his work. Alko’s skin, once the hue of fallen forest leaves, had paled and was splotched with dried, garish red. He tossed the fingernail into the growing collection of extricated teeth and skin on the floor. Though his enemy had once stood among the tallest, he now was shrunken and shriveled. Perspiration had wept from his naked body and had partly clung to Kovak. Bound to a wooden chair, Alko endured and there was a concern that his will might outlast his remaining flesh.

It had been many years since Kovak had to conduct an interrogation but his failure at discovering what Alko knew was damning. The dead had no need to rest and so he tended to Alko the last 24 hours, desperate to get any information. He labored in a feverous haze, as though the act of removing each layer of tissue brought his troops closer to safety. The tavern timber walls that had quickly become accustomed to only housing the dead seemed to echo his lament. He could feel the hardwood blanks in the small bedroom caving in as they had become moisturized with blood. Alko’s screams had tainted their entire home in a stale air of wretchedness.

“Alko,” Kovak kneeled down so that they were on equal level. He gripped the back of the man’s head and forced it closer to his. “Does Olsov know where we are?” He spat each word out slowly and carefully so that Alko could register. Every ounce of his will pleaded for Alko to give in.

 “I…”

A choke of breathe followed as Kovak thrust his knife into Alko’s leg and carved out a chunk. He clenched the glob of muscle and yanked it free. Blood spurted out and painted both of them before pooling onto the floor.

Sir, we are running out of time,  a tenor voice suddenly invading into his thoughts; Strarid.

Death is the creator of time, Kovak retorted back but knew it wasn’t Strarid that he was irritated with. As his second, Strarid often kept him grounded. While everyone had access to his memories, Strarid had a personal knowledge of what Alko meant to him. Alko was the one responsible for what happened to Kovak and his troops but even that history ran deeper. Kovak knew what plan of action Strarid was alluding to and felt a burning burst of rage for not being able to avoid that route. The Commander was not a man to be defeated.

Kovak was the core of a hive mind, a result of being sacrificed and mentally fused with his soldiers. During the original trial days he feared his own voice would disappear under the chaos of dozens of individuals echoing inside his head, but he would not be destroyed. He would not permit himself or his troops to be lost within each other. In time, his army had become one and each person was within a thought away of reaching each other.  Kovak and his team were loyal to the King unto death. Much to the King’s dismay, their loyalty did not extend beyond that limit.

Blood or saliva? He advised Alko coldly.

 “Wh-” The enemy gasped through exhaustion and broken teeth, “whaa?”

Kovak ripped the knife out of the leg and casted it onto the ground. Alko’s eyes widened in a sudden spark of hope.  Still cupping his enemy’s head, he used his other hand to keep the left eye open. Alko’s eyes were a charming hazel color. More to pity. Taking a moment to collect enough, he spat a spit wad big enough to coat the entire eyeball.

A sense of disassociation came over Kovak as he impatiently watched Alko. Confusion and horror sang through his eyes as he was starting to realize that he was dying but not from blood loss. He thrashed against his restraints but already his eyes were beginning to darken. The commander reflected on the thirty years he and Alko knew each other and the woman they both had loved. It was surreal to observe and witness that their bond had eventually ended in this mess. Kovak’s murder date was closing in on a decade, but he was better than the shambled man in front of him. He had many lacerations that were crudely stitched together and while the dead did not heal, neither were they physically limited by their impairments. Their mind propelled their limbs, not blood. By remaining covered in his military fashioned garb, he probably could have passed for living. Except for his eyes.

Alko’s eyes bolted open but they were no longer his. Kovak leered intently into the copy of his own. They were no longer the shade of life and earth, instead the Sclera around the man’s pupils were now blotched with tiny irregular clusters of coal-black holes and all color had fallen into abyss.

Kovak felt a paralyzing panic storm inside Alko’s mind, their shared mind. Alko’s internal hysteria was so strong that he feared their hearts might kick start into beating again.

What the fuck? Alko hollered What the fuck did you do to me? With dead energy coursing through his veins, he started straining against his bounds. His new body was in such a frenzied state the chair was bouncing off the ground in spasms.

Saliva, the commander mused.

Searching someone’s mind wasn’t the easiest of tasks. Very rarely did people think in actual imagery or even in complete sentences. Kovak scoured the layers of his victim’s mind with as much commitment as he took to Alko’s skin. He felt the same burning humiliation from Alko as everyone violated his inner thoughts. At the same time, he couldn’t help but personally try to avoid any memory of her. Pain never ceases even after death.

Oh SYLAS, fuck Alko sobbed, cursing his God’s name. Evidently, he found out how to work this new ability back onto his intruders. The town’s people…you killed them all…

You cry but what did your King do? A younger soldier seethed. Klypul’s people were starving and diseased when we found them. Better off now…

Do not let him distract you, Kovak warned

Boss, I found something Piet pressed with alarm.

“He knows we’re here” the commander hissed, feeling his own panic rise. The discussion of the town’s people instantly forgotten. His mind raced as he absorbed this new information and his own dread settled in. Reports about the Venjful Loot tavern from Alko filled everyone’s mind. Already, Oslav and his army was on their way to Klypul.

You were supposed to kill me Alko mourned, breaking up Kovak’s thoughts. He had finally stopped resisting them and had resigned to being still. He starred down at his body in disbelief. The hours he spent being ceaselessly mutilated and not breaking; his efforts had been undone in minutes. ..Fuck did I go through if you were going to do this.

Well you are dead now Someone reflected.

He can still be buried Kovak collected, taking sick pleasure in seeing Alko startled. The state your body is in has no further use for us.

Leaving the knife on the floor, Kovak extracted an iron hook out of the pocket of his leather jerkin. He began jostling it back and forth with greed. He felt the rod striking the back of the skull, breaking up the brain and turning it into pulp. Everyone was now connected to this agony, and shared in the suffering of Alko’s destruction. He honored the truth that pain was more detrimental as a thought than what was felt in the flesh.

Despair threatened the boundaries of his mind as he removed the tool and tilted the man’s head forward, watching as blood and gray chunks came plummeting out onto the damp floor. He had to steel such bleak thoughts before they reached everyone else or perhaps these emotions were from someone new. Having lost several of his team and sharing their deaths, he was accustomed to dying. The act had become almost intimate. There was a time when Alko rivaled his own power and strength…so he gave the skull a few shakes to make sure that all the liquefied entrails and tissue had made it’s way out. Grimacing, he knew Alko’s body would never rise again.

“Tell me, was this all for Mezein?” Kovak grieved. He hoped that if he just said the words out loud they wouldn’t dwell in his mind but flashes of Alko’s wife and her eventual affair with him flittered through. He supposed that he couldn’t blame his former second for betraying them. He sensed a glint madness but ignored the source. By destroying the brain, he had severed the cord between the body and the hive. Alko was still within all of their minds, but with his body gone he was even more lost within the maze of everyone. A voice unheard is dead.

I spotted them, sir A scout urgently pressed.

Kovak closed his eyes and fixated on her, searching as though he was trying to recall a forgotten memory.

He found her.

Kovak’s whole body staggered as he personally linked in with Ryat. The sun rays penetrated aggressively through her thick cloak and already Kovak felt her begin to cremate. The daylight inflamed and scorched her ruthlessly. He could feel the skin on her face start to cruelly peel back and blister underneath the hood of her attire. She was at the boundary of their town and even though her body was in distress, it did not compare to the affliction at realizing that their nemesis had arrived. Their beautiful town of Klypul had become vulnerable and she felt as compressed as the cramped rough-hewn lodgings that lined the streets.  The horse she rode kicked dust into the air as all three considered the new arrivals.

He didn’t see Oslav but the bastard may have just sent his army to fight without him. Indeed a full army stood just outside the gates and men were already taking axes to the thick, wooden pillars. Their chain mail reflected menacing light and partially blinded Ryat to their faces but she was still able to locate the second in command. The next in charge also took note of the rider in black and leered combatively at them. He signaled for his archers to raise their bows.

Rayt spurred her horse around just as the first  volley of arrows barraged through the gate. A harsh throbbing erupted from her shoulder and she knew she had been grazed by one. There would be no places to hide once they were through the gate and so Rayt desperately needed to get back to the Venjful Loot tavern.

Her horse shrieking was the only warning she collected before she was chucked off and then impacted into the dirt.

She blinked away the dust that were cutting into her eyes. Her insides burned as though her stomach and lungs had tried to heave up into her throat. She spat out the gumbo of mud and growled as her tongue detected a missing tooth. Her corseted jacket was frayed completely and betrayed the damage she took. The whole front of her was littered with road rash and the abrasions blazed with anguish. Pink spattering contrasted jarringly against her tawny copper tone. Injuries that would never heal.

Her horse laid sideways several feet behind her and the arrows continued to come persistently.

Almost exploding from the ground, Ryat hurtled the distance between her and her horse. He whinnied in distress and gazed longingly at the rider to provide help. The animal’s mass acted as a shield for Ryat. The horse dutifully accepted the ongoing arrows into his back and side protecting her.

“Fucking Shit!”  Ryat roared and tried to gather her thoughts.

 That horse will never walk again alive, Kovak cautioned but Ryat had already grasped his idea. He sensed caution and a sense of fondness for the animal, but he needed to get her back to safety. Horses and humans do not share the same connection.

She took her knife and plunged the blade into the animal, gliding her knife downward in a slash. Even as the arrows still bulleted towards her, she mourned over the betrayed look her horse gave her. Minutes extended into eternity as she could only wait for her animal to die horribly. Appalling gargles of sound kept escaping his throat as he struggled to draw air. At last, she felt her horse exhale his last breathe but she was not done. Though her wounds were plentiful, they were not bleeding enough for what she needed to do. She ran her knife deeply along her wrist and allowed the blood to spill out and mix within the horse’s gapping tear.

The animal opened his new eyes that mimicked black honey combs. He rose, stumbling like a newborn foal. Already the sun started to punish the newly undead and blistering bubbles had began to form along its once beautiful coat of Mahogany bay. Ryat encouragingly beamed at him and tore a few arrows from its back. She mounted on and together, they raced towards home.

Kovak almost felt actual air being exhaled from lungs as he sighed in relief. He noted Ryat’s return, but there was no time to waste. Already his troops were boarding up the windows and moving tables in front of all the doors. From what he witnessed through Ryat, the gate was still obstructing their enemy’s passage but not for long. He had ran from the King for 10 years and he was done. No more will he and his troops hide in indignity. They were better than man. Living wrath coursed through their veins bringing life to their dead limbs. A unified energy surged through all of their minds. The air surged with anticipation. They will defend their home to an actual death.

A loud boom that reverberated through the dining hall alerted them to their adversary’s arrival. Kovak watched as a board was wrenched apart from the other side of the window. The offending hand was shattered in moments by Piet’s knife.

A window smashed and blood squelched out as the intruder’s head was decapitated. Kovak did not shout encouraging words or provide a drivel speech. It was not air that they breathed or bread that provided them substance. It was each other. His army were bonded together in unity, a hive of one thought made of many.

The front door catapulted inwards, sending the stack of tables back in a scatter. A storm of men bustled inside but they did not meet a small gathering of men with raised swords. The undead had no need for mortal weapons as exposure to their blood alone was fatal. Upon Kovak’s command, the cellar door burst open and over 100 turned villagers charged out, ready to fight with their hands and teeth. It was not just the undead that the King had caused injustice towards. The people of Klypul were dying of hunger and illness before Kovak arrived. He had offered salvation. As one, they rushed into the heap.

In the center, the commander clenched the first man in front of him and plucked the arms out. Blood sprayed in a sweet release. He ducked in time to avoid a swinging sword and he body slammed into the challenger. He hammered his fist into the young mans face and simpered as the head crumpled into pulp. This exhilaration. This ecstasy. He propelled from body to body, biting flesh off and shredding extremities. The air tasted of iron and salt and he absorbed the essence of  life leaving those around him. His body never tired, never waned. He could kill until the end of time.

A gust of flames cracked near him and he smelled the tinging crisp of burning meat. He was so engrossed with his mission, he had failed to see that the entire hall was already burning down. The boarded windows, tables, and bodies now acted as a barricade for many of the exits. There was a fire conjurer in their midst.

Kovak appraised the room through the eyes of his troops. On the stair case appeared to be a young boy looking as though he was playing dress up in green military garb. The brown in his eyes glinted with the flames as he shot them out of his hands. Soon the whole tavern risked being fully ablaze and both the dead and living would roast within.

The kid locked eyes with the undead surveying him and bolted up the stairs, setting his former position on fire.

The commander propelled his way through the swarm of bodies but the boy had already disappeared by the time he had reached the stairs. He dashed through the curtain of fire, feeling his clothes cook within that miniscule moment. The inferno had blocked his view of which room the child was in so he pushed the hinges off door after door, desperate to find the culprit. He felt his mind teem down with a cascade of wailing voices as the fire consumed their bodies. They will not be the only ones to die today.

He violently bulldozed through the last door, narrowly missing a fire blast exploding above him.

“Why?!” Kovak roared into the burning room, “your team is dying too”.

“We are all meant to die today,” the boy merely dismissed.

For so long Kovak had considered himself a monster, their disposition an unnatural force, but nothing compared to the child standing before him. The kid couldn’t have been more than 10 summers and yet the cruelty that chorused through his eyes held malice beyond those years. He pitched another stream of fire at Kovak.

It was frivolous to duck. The flames had permeated so quickly throughout the room and had already started to engulf his body. He allowed the flames to devour his flesh but continued to advance upon the boy. His nostrils burned with intensity as smoke filled his body. He couldn’t die from drowning, but as more fire was stressed upon him he was melting. He raised his hand in a futile attempt to grab the boy and was daunted to see naked chard bones. There was no more proceeding forward as his legs had liquefied and were now congealed with the floor. He was no longer upright and was forced to squander in his own filth.

All of our voices will die if you do not continue to stand.

The Commander collapsed, his body pooling into a grotesque puddle. Kovak could have wept at hearing Strarid’s voice. Even stronger than the sweltering flames was his guilt over not leading his people to victory. Their lives had been entrusted to him and now they were truly dying. He gazed up at the boy and starred into his own death. The child was still over an arms length away and he was already in position, ready to send him off in a final blaze.

Our voices can override one, Kovak.

Kovak reached near his head and with one fell swoop, peeled it from his body and launched the weapon at his enemy. He sank his teeth into the boy’s shoulder.

                                                ******************

The tavern was a wreck. The rustic inn had been reduced to a smoldering spew of blackened ash. It would be a long time before their home is rebuilt, especially with all of them residing within one small child’s body. It was difficult becoming accustomed to his new frame but he had the mental strength of every single one of his people. Wrath still coursed through his new veins and Kovak appreciated the new rancor that simmered within his being. His hands erupted into flames as he envisioned the death of Oslav and the King but first, his army needed a new supply of bodies.

______________________________________________________________________________

Rag the Grenadier

Rag knew how to hide in a body.

Hiding next to a body was one thing—in most any applicable state of decay it would stink—and hiding beneath a body was another—fluids found their way down once freed—but hiding in a body was wholly different. To most, an act unfathomable, but Rag could fathom it, so it was no longer grotesque: it was a challenge, and challenges could be mastered.

Rag was a master. He considered the art of it from his hiding spot, still as the twelve decomposing bodies choking the alley with their bloat. Carefully-chosen and murdered just so, their noxious exposé was calculated to precision; three days of rot in the broiling alleys of Crux cooking the juices as surely as the bodies expelled them. Anyone who might object to such wanton pestilence in the streets had long since avoided Crux their entire lives.

Rag remembered his mother burning herself on the oven and waving the injured hand in the air as if to shed the sparks of heat. Such callused skin ignored such rudimentary pain. Do anything long enough and it becomes commonplace to the senses. Rag was wholly attuned to the distinct and pungent odor of a cadaver—his smell receptors waving it away with the disinterested huff of a tired labourer. Being next to a rotting body principally required this one skill: handle the smell—and, he supposed, the child’s-level discomfort with dead things—and the body became far less distressing, far less disgusting. Depending on the wounds, mind you. But still, any man who sticks his penis into the living without batting an eye can’t go on complaining about those.

Lying next to a body also left one in the open. The human brain was far likelier to identify a threat from what was, visibly, a whole human whose eyes were shut than from a pile of guts, and Rag knew it was little use to carve up one’s own anatomy—he’d tried. His arms and legs were needed whole.

An itch chafed the bridge of his nose, but Rag ignored it with practiced restraint. The time was coming soon and stillness was paramount.

Hiding under a body, or pile of bodies as the situation called for it, was an altogether greater challenge, one mastered as a teenager. If the corpses were fresh they would leak on you; thick, wet slop all manner of garish colour, or thin rivulets of watery blood or urine that, given half a chance, soaked your garments. They would attract bugs and rodents. Bloating corpses, such as the ones currently keeping him company, had their own putrid biles, usually soupier and uncontrollable. These were heavier to maneuver in and out from and attracted scavengers. Both obstacles could be overcome with simple determination.

Insects were an inevitability of the trade, and rodents knew their dead flesh from their live meat, but scavengers were the biggest threat. The scavengers grew angry when a live human spoiled their feast, and then they made noise. Noise drew attention. Attention drew failure. As a result, a three-day job, such as this one, was the greater set-up, the greater risk, the greater challenge.

The greater reward. Oh, what I will do with two-hundred and fifty gen. He wiggled the finger on his cramped hand, rubbing along the top of his clip pouch.

He was only half under a pile at the moment. Six of the bodies were splayed about the mouth of the alley, murdered and draped on top of each other to create a genuinely upsetting clog, prompting a sensible person to head deeper into the alley as opposed to wedging themselves through such gross confines. These were also carefully placed to best disgust the uninitiated, one with heart-slick guts and a full set of ribs forced open, another with half a face lopped off. People react best to threats to the face and heart. The face in their vanity, and the heart because it has been forever safe within its cage of bones. Both are good to dissuade, or better, induce vomit.

Three more cadavers were piled near the other end, beyond the door he watched. These were lumped aside to allow for narrow passage, their faces and guts ‘mercifully’ hidden from human eye, and they rounded out the scene as if yet another street brawl turned ugly. The others were part of his hiding spot.

First, the woman. A tougher looking sort, she sat upright next to him, her head caved in and her shoulders slumped in accordance. She created a vertical screen and drew the eye with her warrior’s garb. Then it was Rag, and the corpse he occupied.

Hiding in a body took time, focus, skill, and dedication, plus about two nights of uninterrupted work best done at the site of the death. Once his chosen six clogged the alley mouth from the rest of the skin district, and the door was bolted from without, he was free to work away at his corpse in relative peace. The vermin always gave him a wide berth.

Rag chose the gentleman he chose because he was the biggest of the bodies, and thus easier to hollow out. First he had to remove some ribs and tissue and bore a hole from back to front that could fit his torso with a little work. These could then be scattered across the alley. Extracting the femur came next, but this bone was better disposed of. Then he dug into a limb of choice, the leg working best, to leave it as hollow as possible without losing its exterior consistency. Once it was capable of being a sleeve for his arm, he got to work on the rest of the body, ensuring it outdid the others. The sight should turn heads in immediate disgust, but leave a picture vivid enough no right-minded person would imagine what it concealed.

Placement was key. The woman next to him gave a narrow slab of wall against which to cram his legs. The butchered leg of the gentleman provided a cavity for him to hide a good arm, one whose shoulder was decorated in a bloody mess but was otherwise hale enough to hoist him up. Being face down allowed him to cram his other arm beneath, wedging it within his coat so as to not be visible to the layman. One of the fellows from the clog provided the blood pooled beneath his face.

Rag opened an eye a slit. It was best to let his ears pick up the approach of his mark, or the squeal of the door hinges, but he could not help admiring the bloody pool that sucked on his half-exposed face. The smooth puddle of brownish red still reflected the dusty Cruxan air above, but it was much dimmer with each passing day. Now he could barely make out the sun. Beyond the pool, the alley remained, iron-barred door tight to the wall and the rest of the corpses as they were when last he risked a peak.

A rat was wrinkling its nose in the middle of the stone passage between buildings, and as Rag watched, brethren skittered out from the folds of the woman next to him, chittering over something edible. All was set. The corpse encompassing him was warm as mother’s hug. The alchemical solution stoppered in its custom-built jar waited at the end of a fuse for a flick of the finger.

He closed his eye. Not long now.

*   *   *

“A room. And a lady.”

“Don’t have any ladies available, sir, I… oh.”

“Of course you don’t, Dena. Of course you don’t.”

The proprietress of the admittedly reputable and pristinely clean establishment still looked herself a whore, no matter how tarted up, but her savvy, haggling side did not show up today, as Recurrent knew it would not. Instead her eyes glazed over with the fondest of fondnesses and she leaned in a fraction to bring cleavage to the game. She has dealt with this princeling before.

“M’lord,” she murmured, sweeping out from behind the counter. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” And she curled pleasure around her tongue like a cat curled around an owner’s foot.

“For little old me?” the princeling postured, carefully handing his coat off to one of the six men waiting on him and stretching his fingers, aching as they were under such an assortment of rings. “You owe no pleasure. It is mine to give. And I’m always prepared to do so… have you not heard of my famous pleasure?”

Recurrent imagined the boy pleasured himself more often than not, but as always kept words to himself. Instead he surveyed the room, as his role was supposedly that of a body guard and anyone with sharp eyes would tell he knew nothing of his employ if he could not even act the part. The front parlour of whatever this place was called was utterly empty—a stark contrast compared to most such establishments. But a princeling would never give his pleasure to just any old hole in the wall, and in the skin sector, most any old hole would be sure to take it.

‘Dena’ cooed her way through a series of the princeling’s jostling sexual advances, both knowing the age gap was enough to nip such an act at the bud, but only one knowing whose bud would be nipped. A loose arm around the boy’s shoulder brought the octet deeper into the building through a winding corridor. A moment later it opened into a wider room with more doors than walls. A variety of n’er-do-wells paraded around here, drunk, lascivious, both—or in one sad sack’s case, neither. The rent paraded with them, fawning their way into contention with Ms. Dena for being the most supplicating.

Recurrent could not abide the sight and turned away, leaning against the wall and tucking his hat down over his face while the other six guards or yes-men or whoever roamed about enjoyed the fruits of the princeling’s good graces. In short order the lad was ushered away by an ambitious girl closer to his age while only two of the six members of his entourage refrained from spending his clips in order to do their jobs. Recurrent did not care. He rested, as close to sleep as he ever seemed to get.

For a long time nothing happened. Girls and boys and patrons came and went and Recurrent waited with the best company of the bunch: his own thoughts. This detail will be over soon. It has to be. Remember: the best are the best because they endure the worst.

Swishing robes and rushing footsteps from the corridor snapped Recurrent to attention, but he remained still beneath his wide-brimmed hat, waiting and listening. Whoever came was wheezing hard, as if having run all six sectors full circle. A slight peak at the man as he passed showed an older gentleman of Crux—which was to say a gnarled and feckless brute—out of shape and showing it. Across three sectors, then. Just poorly.

“Where is the whelp of Cold Buulrian?” he barked at no one in particular. Recurrent flinched at the name. There were too many reputations in this city.

“The boy? Where’s the boy?”

Lifting a finger, he pointed out a door. Not my problem the kid is busy groping or crying.

The pampered thug rushed off and barged into the room, yelling all the while, but his presence was enough to get the others moving about banging on doors and shouting into rooms. All of the entourage were assembled before the princeling showed himself, though Recurrent yet waited by the entry. It took a moment to pull away vertical because his expansive coat momentarily stuck to the wall.

Finally, the boy appeared—to his credit, wearing pants. Gone was the jovial fun of puberty mischief, shaken by fear as the season Nagna shakes leaves from the trees. I know that look. Daddy’s coming.

Sure enough, the boy’s rotund handler confirmed his suspicions.

“You lot! Get him out of here! The oligarch is coming herenow—and your charge cannot be here. Out the back! Go! Go!”

As the princeling threw his shirt on and Dena lamented the fortclip owed her, Recurrent swept into the lead, keeping his steps light and his eyes sharp. Partway down the corridor he branched off, guessed, and then found a non-descript side door no doubt used for just such a purpose. A quick glance back showed the others bumbling in his wake like he the coin and they a gaggle of beggars.

Out into the light of day, Recurrent hesitated a moment as the alley was littered with dead bodies. His eyes sharpened to each, unmoving, before ushering the princeling and his handler through into just another alleyway in Crux.

*   *   *

The moment his mark reached the trio of far-end bodies, Rag yanked on the cord in his buried hand. He imagined the beautiful hiss of the fuse crackling in his ear way down at the other end and then he opened his eyes when the alley exploded.

The roar was deafening and perfect as billows of orange flame rapidly enveloped the living, pluming outward and upward and sheering lacquered paint from the walls. Bodies, both old and new, hurtled through the air in shreds, their limbs bursting loose or burning raw as they flopped into walls or sizzled to a crisp. A welcome inferno seared Rag’s face, his own rash of puckered flesh running hot to remember a sensation so familiar. Though his eyes suffered in blistering pain, he only squinted a bit so as to best see the beauty of his handiwork.

As the roar reached its climax and the pluming flames billowed their heat up into a thick funnel of smoke, Rag listened to the pitter patter of body bits as they speckled his end of the alley. Instinctually, he hoisted himself up. It never served to wait once the damage was delivered.

Halfway to his feet he glanced down the alley to find one man of eight hoisting himself up to find footing at the center of the blast radius. His coat smoked, but did not burn.

*   *   *

“Rag!” Recurrent called through the haze. Or he tried. His mouth was yet covered by the hook-around collar of his coat, and even through that it was thick to catch a breath. He could see the murderer at the other end of the alley, rolling his way out from another husk.

“Rag!” Recurrent tried again anyway, waving at the smoke as he stepped forward. The one they called The Grenadier stared at him, eyes wide as an owl, shock written on his face. He was covered in filth from head to foot, his right arm stained a deep crimson. Reaching fresher air, Recurrent ripped the collar away to face his adversary.

“You— You d-didn’t burn!” the wretch exclaimed, befuddled and pathetic, lip always twitching.

“No,” he replied. “I did not.” Sloughing off the coat with a flex of his shoulders, Recurrent heard it crack and shed char as it hit the stones. The coating administered by the lady at the apothecary had fused with the bonded leather, creating a thick crust he was eager to be rid of. Some of this coating remained around his neck and wrists, a sticky, viscous glop carefully chosen for its potency as a flame retardant. Coat cast away, he also tossed aside his ruined hat before drawing Vindictive in a decisive motion. The three-groove scimitar’s metallic ring echoed up the alley walls.

“Which olig—? Which oligarch d-do you work for?”

The deplorable spat his words, backing away though the alley mouth was clogged with bodies. Recurrent advanced at a confident pace. The man appeared unarmed, but a gruesome reputation preceded him.

“No oligarch, murderer. The oligarchs are scum. A good man needs no reason to kill one such as you.”

And he bolted, one moment stammering and backpedaling at a stagger, the next darting for the bodies piled at the end of the alley. Smirking, and prepared for such desperation, Recurrent sprinted five long strides before Rag reached the clumped bodies—but before the sixth his smirk dried up as the killer slipped through an unperceived gap.

“Damn it!”

He reached the corpses with bile rising in his throat. One’s ribcage was pried open to an unnatural uniform, each bone a near image of its neighbor, and all bespattered in congealed blood. The gap the Grenadier fled through was narrow but doable. All of his senses screamed at him to reconsider, but instinct insisted him through. And a hunter always listens to instinct.

Wedging himself into the gap, he sidestepped through a tight confines of limbs and bloat. Then he got a face full of flies furious at Rag’s interruption but taking it out on him. With a choking cough, a moment later he popped out into the street, furious he let his mark escape such a carefully-conceived plan.

He started running before his eyes found him.

Rag was halfway to an adjacent alley, his gaunt legs and dragging rags kicking up dust as he shoved Cruxans from his path. Recurrent set off low, scimitar held wide and obvious to help deter him a hole through the crowd, but drawn steel was as common as bartering in Crux and he ended up forced to shove and jostle no less than his mark. Blessed with long legs and a predator’s determination, his pressed his advantage, gaining on the scoundrel before the Grenadier banged his way around a corner and disappeared into another alley.

Reaching its lip, Recurrent could not afford to slow, so he swung a cut at head level as he leapt around the corner. It met air, but what he saw calmed the beating drive of his heart. His boots sent a waft of dust up as they found purchase on the cobbles, and he straightened, a narrow smile cresting his lips at the sight of three of four sides looming a dead end.

Still spineless, the killer backed toward the far wall—a messy pile of barrels and wrought iron. Recurrent strode forward. He thought of saying something snide, something to provide closure for his days spent preparing for the Grenadier’s heinous methods and his time spent clomping around with an obvious target like the Buulrian princeling, but an overwhelming urge to finish the job and get the hell out of Crux—with its shit and its whoring and its haphazard knifings in the street—took control. An overwhelming urge to rid the world of such a foul specimen of humanity. Words could never provide the justice delivered by steel.

Five steps. Four.

A palsied hand reached into a ragged coat.

Three.

It came out throwing. A glass vial, glinting in the light of midday.

 With an easy grace, Recurrent sliced the projectile neatly in half.

Two.

*   *   *

The vial shattered into a thousand pieces, the mixture within splashing across the assassin’s face and shoulders. A typical adversary would simply feel uncomfortable and wet, but one recently immersed in an explosion laced with torteraphzin—well, they instantly ignited wherever the latent chemical coating met the volatile liquid.

The scimitar fell to the cobbles with a clatter as the assassin’s wrists and neck foamed a bubbling fire. It burned sheer through the bones of his wrists, which dropped limp hands, and boiled into his neck with a ferocity that ate away at the throat and clavicle until burrowing down into the belly of the corpse as it fell to its knees. A moment later the rapid hissing of boiling skin dissipated and the body hit the alley with a hollow thud.

Rag the Grenadier eyed the dead with disfavor, his sniveling no longer necessary. It was a risk that this ‘Recurrent’ would have the Lady Masah’s retardant gel about his person and not just his coat, but Rag well-knew the Lady’s habit for ensuring her patrons’ safety. Gaps between skin and clothing would burn if not protected. Rag knew himself. He was her chief patron. Close enough to know the comings and goings about her business.

After that, the only thing left was to the track the man’s false detail protecting the oligarch’s rash of a son—and ensure they fled the back exit, of course. But nothing scared a lecherous lad like the ire of their betters. The lie was a sure bet to smoke his would-be killer out, and gladly paid for. Two-hundred and fifty gen goes a long way out here. Perhaps longer than anywhere else.

He allowed himself a chuckle, recognizing how very husk-like the corpse was before him. Barely have to carve this one out at all. And such curdled insides!

He considered dragging the body with him.

But no. Not now. Now it was time to go.

It never served to wait once the damage was delivered.

__________________________________________________________________________

Violence Claimed

T’thargo couldn’t help but sneer from his hiding place among the boulders. On the trail below rode three heavy men in piecemeal armor, each wearing rusted swords or carrying spears, the strips of black hide tied around their foreheads showing them as soldiers for Okalthu, the regional warlord. Worse yet a fourth rider appeared dressed in dingy gray robes and bearing crimson tattoos of chains and snakes running up and down his arms, pure evidence he came from the clan of Koltish mages.

Everyone hated mages, especially T’thargo. Magic had destroyed the world, after all, and the wizards had been at fault. Or at least most believed such. T’thargo didn’t know what to believe. Other than it had been Koltish mages who had burned his birth city, using their magic to keep the gates sealed so none could escape as a storm of flame swept along the streets and through the neighborhoods, leaving nothing behind but stone walls to surround a sea of ash.

Vengeance would not fill one’s belly, however. But the packs tied to the back of those four horses might. The mage and the three soldiers were days away from the nearest encampment, which meant they had to be carrying food and drink. T’thargo found himself in dire need of food and drink. Outnumbered and facing a sorcerer he might be, but he would have surprise and the high ground on his side, plus his massive size and strength and spear. Regardless, desperation drew him on, kill or die being his options. Considering who rode below him, T’thargo chose to kill.

He waited until the riders were past him so they could not easily fall back through the ravine, then T’thargo sprang down, a javelin flying from his right hand while his left brought forward his spear. He fell a distance twice his height and landed in a crouch as the stone head of his spear darted forward to catch one of the horses in the rear. The animal bucked high, sending a surprised warrior rolling from the saddle to crash onto the dirt road at T’thargo’s feet. T’thargo’s spear snapped forward again, this time catching the downed man in the throat and ripping to one side, spraying scarlet.

By then the others had spun their animals about. Still crouched with his spear ready for further action, T’thargo felt disappointment to discover his javelin had missed its mark, the tattooed wizard, but no small amount of pride welled within his stomach to see the remaining riders fearing to make a move towards their enemy. T’thargo could not help but chuckle as he shuffled forward to squat next to the man he had slain, that fellow’s horse now rampaging away and through the others, soon past those three to find its freedom.

One of the warriors pointed a long straight sword at T’thargo. “Lushinite!” the man shouted, then spurred his horse.

If the man had meant calling out T’thargo’s race to be an insult, T’thargo did not take it that way. Instead, pride filled the Lushinite as the rider sped forward, that lengthy sword now swinging down for the crouched figure.

At the last moment, with horse and rider practically on top of him, T’thargo rolled to one side, lashing out wish his spear as the sword stabbed where he had been hunched but a moment earlier. While the sword hit only air, the head of T’thargo’s weapon scraped across the front of the horse, not causing the beast any real harm but bringing it surprise as flint and wood smacked its nose and left behind a thin line of red.

T’thargo then rolled again, this time further away, as another ride came forward, this one with a spear of his own, the weapon tipped with black iron.

“Damned ebon!” the rider shouted, stabbing at the dark-skinned man rolling about.

The words brought a smile to T’thargo’s lips. Let these pale villains of Okalthu curse the inky devils. T’thargo did not care, him being one of the inky devils. Let them fear him and his kind.

He improved upon that fear by bounding to his feet and vaulting to one side, avoiding altogether the jabbed spear of his enemy. But T’thargo’s own spear found purchase as he pressed it forward into the thigh of the attacking rider, the flint blade striking beneath hanging straps of armor while piercing cloth and flesh and muscle. The rider let out a great cry, but before he could steer his animal away or make any kind of defense, the spear of T’thargo found him again, this time slipping between iron plates at the rider’s waist and jabbing through into skin, sending scarlet to pour out and glisten down one side of the horse.

The rider let out another scream, throwing his head back to the sky. He never got to scream again. T’thargo sprang up, stabbing with his spear yet again. This time his lengthy weapon sank into a throat beneath a leather chin strap, silencing a warrior forever as the man’s body jerked. Blood then splashed and a corpse slid from the saddle.

“Do something, worthless mage!” the last warrior in a saddle shouted to the Koltish wizard.

The wizard had been busy, however, his steed nervous and obviously not familiar with the din of battle, the animal jerking about left and right. Now frowning at his last surviving companion, the mage pointed to the dark-skinned enemy in their midst. “Keep him busy another moment!”

The final warrior nodded and swung his animal back around to face his opponent.

But T’thargo had not wasted those precious moments while his foes had communicated. He had swept in low so that when the last man in armor swung about his horse for attack, T’thargo was already directly beneath the animal’s snout, the Lushinite’s spear flashing upward.

Stone can only stand against metal so long, however, and the flint tip of T’thargo’s spear cracked and exploded into splinters as it struck against the chest plate of the saddled warrior. At this the man of Okalthu laughed and brought up his sword to strike at the Lushinite.

T’thargo would not give him the chance. Not deterred by the destruction of his weapon, T’thargo grabbed the rider’s horse by all those leather straps around the animal’s head. T’thargo put all his strength into pulling with his arms and hands and, despite the muscles within the horse’s neck, the animal still found itself yanked downward. Not only did this surprise the horse, but it surprised the swordsman as well, a swordsman who suddenly found himself pulled down nearly face to face with a mad enemy who had the eyes of a savage.

Yet before T’thargo could take his assault further, and before that last warrior of Okalthu could do anything about his own situation, and even before the horse could snort and right itself, a blast of cold fire sprang from one side, slamming into the Lushinite and throwing him across the dirt road and into a massive tree.

As he fell into the dirt, the wind knocked from him, T’thargo thanked his gods he had suffered no further damage, no broken ribs or limbs, no burning from that magical flame. He knew only blackness for a moment, or he thought it but a moment, then he felt the outside world rush back in upon him. He felt sore all over and his head rang, his vision blurred, but as he climbed to his knees and then to his feet, he knew he would be strong enough to continue the fight. Surrender could not be an option, nor could curling up and playing dead, for his foes would surely trounce upon him. No, whether it meant his death or not, T’thargo would do his ancestors and himself proud and he would stand and fight. Blinking away the last of the dizziness, he clenched his hands into fists and stood tall, lifting his head to look at his opponents.

Who were already dead.

The last of the warriors slumped in his saddle, a pair of pale arrow shafts protruding from him, one from the neck and the other from a shoulder between armored plates, the dead man’s horse now ambling about and nipping at what little scrub it could find. As for the wizard, he lay upon his back in the middle of the road, his horse long gone, an arrow planted directly between his eyes.

T’thargo glanced about, his eyes working to find whomever had launched those arrows, but he saw nothing other than the dead men and some of their steeds. He crouched lower to the ground once more and backed towards the tree for what little shelter it provided, and all the while he stretched his other senses, hoping to hear or smell anything untoward.

Yet nothing came to him, no scent of sweat, only that of the drying blood of the dead. No sounds other than the whistle of the sky’s wind reaching down into the ravine to scour across the surface of the road, of the land, of the faces of the living and dead alike.

T’thargo remained motionless, hunched beneath the limbs of the tree for the longest time, for hours. He watched in silence as the last of Okalthu’s warriors slid from a saddle to crash upon the road next to the dead mage. The sun then began to dip lower beneath crags to the west, and a half dozen black scavenging birds began to circle the sky overhead, only T’thargo’s presence keeping them at bay since the horses meandered off to their own fates.

Still the Lushinite remained motionless. He had not seen from where the arrows had come, thus he had no idea where danger from an enemy might lay. He also could not trust that the archer had meant to save T’thargo, for he knew the enemy of his enemy was not necessarily his friend. Many hated Okalthu and his men and many hated the Koltish wizards, but T’thargo’s own people had not been loved by everyone before they had been reduced to nothing more than a few stragglers, those lucky enough not to have been at home when disaster had struck.

Day turned to night, and only then beneath the shadows of a moonless sky did T’thargo dare move. He remained low, scooting forward slowly upon his bare feet, heading towards the dead men. Regardless of the threat which might still face the Lushinite, he had waited his patience. Besides, he needed food and drink and weapons.

T’thargo made it to the nearest dead, the soldier with the two arrows in him. Pausing to listen and sensing nothing, T’thargo went to work, soon acquiring dagger and spear for himself as well as a shoulder bag filled with dried meats and a skin full of water.

Barely able to see within the dark, the Lushinite made his way to the dead mage, hoping to discover more food and perhaps some valuables he could trade.

As he reached for the wizard, he thought he heard something behind him, action of a sort, perhaps the soft shifting of a foot upon ground or the gentle rustle of garb as a person moved.

Remaining crouched, T’thargo spun about, his spear extended to ward off an attacker.

Thunk!

The arrow caught the Lushinite in his right thigh, the head sinking deep into muscle, the shaft bouncing as the projectile came to rest. T’thargo cried out his surprise and anguish, but being an experienced warrior he did not allow this to take all fight out of him. He slapped down a strong hand, breaking the shaft of the arrow so it would not so impede his movement, then he rolled away from his original position, circling back to the tree.

Thunk.

An arrow hammered into the ground just inches from him, fortunately his assailant no better at seeing in the dark than T’thargo himself. Soon the Lushinite made it back to the relative shelter of the hanging limbs of the tree, knowing the archer must be behind him and further up the hillside, otherwise more arrows would have targeted T’thargo long before.

Hunkered there in the night, the pain in his thigh shooting up through his body like lightning dipped in fire, the warrior gritted back his pain and waited. As long as he remained against the tree and had its few arms hanging above, he thought he would be safe. The archer might eventually try to move down the hillside and around its wounded prey, but T’thargo thought that unlikely at least until morning.

There in the dark, alone and pained, T’thargo realized he might be an experienced warrior, but he had proven foolish enough to attack a sorcerer and three men armed with metal while he had only had his flint spear. He had not even had armor of any sort, only the barest of garb, a wrap made from the skin of a great cat he had hunted and slain in his youth. At least now he had weapons, though that would do him little good if he could not find many days of rest for his leg, possibly with the addition of a poultice of some sort to assist in his healing.

He glanced out into the darkness once more, the stars just allowing him to make out the still forms of the dead men in the road. Perhaps the wizard would have healing herbs, at least some wrappings.

T’thargo sighed. He could not go out there again, not in his condition, not with a deadly enemy waiting for him.

But he could be patient. He could wait. He had done so many times before and could do so again. He had been hit and his enemy must know that, so if T’thargo remained motionless a good long while, perhaps his foe would think T’thargo dead. Then perhaps the archer would come down from the hill, and perhaps then T’thargo could kill the person. At least he might get a chance to throw one of his new weapons.

Perhaps.

If he lived through the night. If he didn’t go into shock, or early infection. If his assailant didn’t decide to move before the breaking of the sun many, many hours in the future.

Another sigh escaped the Lushinite, then he leaned back against the tree, gritted through his pain, and allowed himself to close his eyes. His body needed rest. He feared what condition his leg might be in when he woke, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He would have to wait until some opportunity presented itself, then he would attack or find aid of a sort.

Being a warrior experienced at the slightest noise waking him, he slept.

For a good while.

When he woke, the sun’s brightness filtered down through the tree limbs over his head, shedding splinters of warmth and light upon him. Movement ahead stirred him to action.

Wincing at the pain and stiffness in his leg, T’thargo still managed to push himself back further beneath the tree, all the while knowing it did him little good, there being no way the woman standing in the middle of the road did not see him.

In fact she did see him, her eyes locked upon his, her bronzed skin glinting beneath the sun and garb of spotted animal hides, her arms pulling on the might of a massive curved bow, an arrow aimed directly at the Lushinite stretched upon the ground and against the tree. The copper bands circling her forearms told T’thargo right away the woman belonged to the priesthood of Fealthites, distant cousins to this own people.

Why she did not immediately kill T’thargo, he could not know. She had spent so many other arrows seeking his life, but now she did not kill. Her eyes remained hard, but she seemed unsure as she stood there over the bodies of dead, her weapon upon the downed figure beneath the tree.

Slowly T’thargo lifted a hand flat towards her to show he meant no harm, that he proposed nothing deadly between the two. Her eyes darted to the spear in the man’s other hand. He shrugged back at her. Why should he let lose his weapon when she presented the stronger danger, her bow back and arrow aimed. Seeming to sense this, she eased back on the bow and shifted the arrow so it pointed off to one side.

A mistake.

Even with his wounded leg, T’thargo moved like a flash. His spear came up and his arm slung out, shooting the iron-tipped weapon across the short distance. The black head sank into the woman’s stomach just as she brought her arrow around, but by then the pain and the long shaft sticking out of her midriff stole any chance of her making the shot. The arrow tumbled uselessly from her bow as the bow itself dropped from her hands and she fell back, hands at the spear in her stomach, her head thrown back as she screamed and hit the ground.

Just as her back landed in the dust, T’thargo drew forth the dagger he had taken and he scrambled across the way to her. Seeing him coming, she briefly tried to raise her hands in a fight, but she had been too wounded, found herself too weakened. T’thargo bit back his own pain tearing at his leg, yet he had the strength to brush aside her flailing fingers and then thrust his blade forward, the metal sinking into the flesh beneath the woman’s neck and up into her skull.

She shuddered, convulsing, then dropped back motionless, one hand wrapped around the shaft of the spear within her and the other hand falling at her side. Not fully trusting her, T’thargo thrust the dagger one more time, and only then did he withdraw the weapon and stare at the carnage he had wrought.

Why did he slay her? Because she had deserved it. Because she had shown a moment of foolishness, of weakness, and in the world that could not be abided.

A weakness overcame him then. His head spun and he watched as the knife dropped from suddenly clumsy fingers. For a moment he did not realize what had come over him, but then pain lanced through him once more and his eyes were drawn to the wound in his leg. He stared down at the bloated, reddened flesh surrounding the broken arrow still protruding from his leg. Infection had set in there overnight, and perhaps something worse than infection, it not being impossible those arrows had been coated with poison.

The morning sun’s brightness now wailing down upon his shoulders and he suddenly more tired and thirsty than he had ever been in his life, T’thargo tried to turn to crawl back to the shade of the tree. But his body would not cooperate. He could budge an arm and shift a leg, but he could not find the strength in him to move about, to put one hand or knee in front of the other to crawl.

Heat nearly destroyed him then, his head swooning, his eyes rolling within their sockets. A small part of him recognized he should not feel this, that he was a strong warrior who should be able to withstand more than a little warmth from the sun, but the festering and the pollutants now coursing through him told otherwise.

T’thargo wanted a drink. He wanted a drink more than at any point in his life. His eyes growing more and more blurry looked around for anything to drink but found nothing. Hadn’t he had a water skin at some point? That would be nice.

Then he fell over dead, there in the road next to the woman who had killed him, next to the men he had slain.

And there he lay.

Until the vultures grew more bold.

______________________________________________________________________________

One Good Turn

A sprawling system of camps lay just to the west of the city of Betele. Home to an unfortunate few, it had been hurriedly erected by a mass exodus of criminals who had been forcibly vacated from the city’s overcrowded prison system several years earlier. They clung to the outer walls of the city, a gray sea of tents made from patched and tattered tarps, tied with twine. While most had stood up well over time, a few looked fit to fall apart at any moment. The builders had managed to put up several hundred of them. They huddled together in a half-circle that ran roughly around the side of the city like the expulsions from a cell. The level of poverty was astounding. The intermittent bathing pools that the denizens used looked markedly similar to the pigs’ feeding troughs, with profuse bundles of muddy hay, and torn sacks of refuse littering the sides of the streets, which were mere smatterings of cobbles that had formed between the tents. They crossed each other at seemingly random angles to create a mass of complicated intersections like a wreath, which must have greatly confused non-residents wherever they met.

     One such visitor was walking down the street against the backdrop of the dark blue evening sky. There was a steady drizzle of rain that night, as well as a slight mist hanging a few feet above the ground, possibly due to the often humid conditions on the continent of Mestes. The man’s name was Nathan Gregory, and there was a spring in his step and he was happy to be alive for once. He had no real profession other than that of the common thief, although he was a truly exceptional one. He cared for virtually no one except his significant other, who was the person he had come there to see; they were quite smitten with each other, and hated to leave each other’s company, having exchanged many a vow of love. He was also set to meet with a friend of his later that night; so, brimming with an unbridled enthusiasm that was highly uncharacteristic of him, he found himself walking down a barely lit street, having left her to her favorite hobby, knitting. The deep depression shared by the majority of Betele’s populace hadn’t settled upon him yet that evening, but in all probability, it would soon.

     He turned a corner and onto another street. A couple of kids were hanging about a stoop on his right as he walked by. His tunic hood was down, his cowlick was standing up; he was a small man, his hair an unusual blond and gray mix since he was very young. He had only made it a couple of broken blocks when, before he knew it, the boys had formed a rough ring around him like a pack of wolves. They were very young, anywhere between twelve and fourteen years old, by the looks of it. The biggest one, who was still shorter than Nathan, sidled up closer to him and said, “Why are you shaking, old man?” Nathan allowed his face to petrify into its familiar mask of stoicism, the glint of life itself almost leaving his eyes. “I’m not old. I’m just a few years older than you are. Now, back away, I don’t want to hurt you.”

     A smaller one flanked his other side, the right; this one was blond and had a very round face, with color high on the cheeks and a strange, almost mad look in his eyes. His voice was both lilting and croaking somehow. “Ooooh. Are you scared of us? Are you terrified?” Nathan grimaced at him. “If you’re thinking of robbing me, it’s not my first time at the dance, little man. I have no money, anyhow. Look for yourselves.” It was no sooner than Nathan had said this that the blow came, much faster than he could have expected. Through the process of simple bait and switch, he was still looking from one to the other of the first two boys in turn, and was completely blindsided when one of the others on his left side doubled back and cold-cocked him with a left hook.

     Nathan fell backwards onto the stones of the road. No sooner had he fallen, when a man in a black cloak with his head uncovered, shadowed by the nearby tents, rode up past the sidewalk behind him towards the little assailants. The man drew a short, dark gray blade from a scabbard tied to the saddle at his side, and without a word spurred his horse forward. Just as the first boy turned at the sound to see whom was coming, the mysterious stranger slashed his throat from about three feet away, a crimson geyser erupting from the wound itself and his mouth as he nodded his head forward and then pitched to the now muddy cobbles of the road. The first horseman didn’t even stop; as the rest of the boys scattered, he made as if to ride them down as he continued on an uneven path down the street. Yet as they cowered, with a deep, booming laugh he narrowly avoided the small round one with his charger’s hooves at the last moment and rode off around a right corner, presumably headed deeper into the city.

A ranger came riding his mare charger down the road from another point on the compass. His person was wrapped in a long dark cloak, to keep out the night’s chill. When he espied Nathan, lying dazed and bloodied, he stopped the horse and dismounted. Producing a hankerchief from one of the inner folds of his cloak, he crouched by the smaller man and offered it, miming holding it to the back of his head. Nathan sat up and did as he was bid, then looked at the brown cloth, which was saturated with blood.  He grimaced and looked at the ranger, who said “Here. Let me have it back.” The horseman re-folded the kerchief and produced a flask from yet another pocket, opened it and then doused the kerchief in one quick motion. He used to wash Nathan’s wound, turning him to look it over. “It’s not bad. Just a scrape from the walk. My name is Markus. I have to be off … but keep it.” He quickly eyed the boy’s corpse, almost visibly shuddering, then faced Nathan again. “Listen … do you feel that you can walk?”

     “I … believe so.” Nathan sat up and began to rub at his jaw where the blow had fell, but he was just scared more than anything else; nothing was broken, and he hadn’t bled terribly from the scrape on the back of his head. For all the delinquents’ malevolent enthusiasm, the assailant had sorely lacked in strength. The spatter from the boy-killer’s blade lay not a foot and a half from the soles of his boots, however; the youth had been less fortunate, his corpse lying in the gutter, its life’s blood long gone, his eyes glassy and still. As Markus straightened his saddle, mounted up again, and then made to ride off into the night, Nathan couldn’t help but stare at it, wondering at how quickly fortunes could change, even there outside of Betele. Maybe it’s time to take her and ditch this place, he thought as he picked himself up and began to dust himself off with his free hand, the kerchief mottled with blood dangling from the other. Markus, looking down at him, said “I don’t think you are able.” He freed his right foot from the stirrup and extended his gauntleted hand to the man.

     Markus rode up to the next block at a slow trot. He knew the place that he was looking for would be larger than most of the others, and would have some form of first aid supplies. He had asked for directions more than once on the long trip; so he had some idea of where he was going. If this man were a local, he would probably have known where not to go for a walk at night, he thought to himself. But his horse was dead tired and he was live wired, as the boy’s killer must still have been somewhere in the immediate vicinity. He could almost feel the beast’s hesitation to pick up its shod feet every single time it took another step. He gave it an affectionate pat on the neck and took in his surroundings, checking first to one side then the other as he passed through yet another of the confusing intersections. There’s no one here. He narrowed his eyes then and scanned as far ahead as he could make out, given the lack of visibility in the weather conditions; he espied someone standing outside one of the tents, but as he drew closer, he saw that it was actually an inanimate object. It appeared to be an archer’s dummy, with a few shafts still sticking from it; someone had left their practice target against the south side of one of the buildings and it had since been rained on, the sackcloth soaked and the sawdust falling out of it in several places.

     The tent to his left seemed intact, however; sturdy and strong, its dimensions were closer to a true rectangle than the others that surrounded it. He patted his side-bag; it was full of his blades, and made a dull clanking noise which he found oddly reassuring. Most such places were well guarded in the outskirts, and aside from the dummy, he saw no one. They must be inside, he thought to himself. Or on a break … there has to be someone here. He jerked the reins, signaling for the mare to slow. There wasn’t really anywhere to tether her, but Markus stopped anyway and got off the white mare.     

Thankfully the rain itself hadn’t begun yet; he found a large rock at the top of another partial wall, wrenched it out at an angle and hitched the reins to it, then pushed it partially back into place. He waited to support Nathan, who also dismounted onto unsteady feet, then began to walk down the first side-street on his right. There were torches about, and if so, someone had to light them. The ranger turned to Nathan and said, “Listen … my name’s Markus. Maybe you should wait here while I go inside to have a look. I’ll find something to bandage you up with.” Nathan leaned upon a grain-filled barrel that was to the left of the tent’s front doorframe, then slid down its side to sit upon the sandy ground, oblivious of any splinters. “Okay, stranger. And thank you.”

Somewhat winded, Markus walked into the tent. A makeshift bar was set against the far east wall, in front of some slightly dusty bottles of liquor that were currently not being drunk by the many no ones that were mysteriously absent. The tent was much bigger than it had looked from the outside, with various small stores along its periphery, most since probably gone out of business but some stocked with grain or feed. The floor was hard-pack with some clumps of sickly looking white-green grass, many of which had come loose. Markus had to avoid them so as not to dirty his brown leather boots with black embroidery and soles. Suddenly, he began to feel the instinctual sensation that meant that he was being watched. He looked over one the pitiful storefronts, then turned back to the bar, and sure enough, there was someone standing behind the scarred red pine wood counter.

It was a balding man with dark brown hair and eyes and heavy but straight eyebrows; he was dressed all in pitch black clothing, including a cloak, vest and blazer. There was a two-faced gray dirk visible in a short scabbard about his waist, its hilt bound in woven red fabric that had worn to a fray in a few places over time. His voice was oddly strong and deep and sonorous as he greeted Mark; the sound of it didn’t match his less than stocky frame.

      “Well, well. Welcome to Betele, the darkest pit on the face of the world. Well, as close to it as you’ll find, at least.” The dark man punctuated his observation by downing a quick shot of whiskey. On his left lapel was a badge of some sort; it appeared to be a sigil portraying two crossed halberds; Markus glanced at it for a moment before meeting his dark eyes again. “You’re in the city guard? Well if so, then why are you here outside the city? And where the hell is everyone?” But the dark man just grinned over at him and held up a pausing hand. “Tell you what, friend. Let me ask the questions … because you are the newcomer, after all. Here, have a seat. Would you like a drink …? We’ve got it all to ourselves, as you can see.”

     “I sure can. And yes, please …” The dark man turned, grabbed a black-labeled bottle. Markus watched as it flowed into the glass with a soft glugging sound. “Good. Yer business here is …?” Markus unconsciously tapped his blade bag. “I’m looking for one Shonn Archer.” The dark man eyed him somewhat dubiously, one of his thick eyebrows raised. “Huh. Well, let me think for a moment …” the man scratched his chin carefully, so as to avoid a rather large wart. “The name does sound vaguely familiar.”

     “It should. He would be considered pretty new here. He was one of the people … that the king drove out of the city last month.”

     “The criminals, you mean? I find that it’s best to just call things by their true names sometimes.”  The man gave him a curt little smile. “You a mercenary? Is that what brings you to our little county?

     “Something like that,” Markus said as he gave the man a wide smile. “It’s a right long trip up here through those stony hills, let me tell you … but, here I am. The new problem is that these damned tents all look the same.”

     “Well, if that’s it, then. No, you’re in the completely wrong sector. You’ll want to go north around the city for at least half a mile, my friend.”

     “Ah, I see. Dammit. Wasn’t paying enough attention to the directions that I was given, maybe.”

     “I reckon not.”

     “I’m Markus. So, now it’s my turn to ask a question of you. Tell me, where the hell are all the people …?”

     The dark man’s eyes clouded over a bit. “Yep. I’ve been the watchman here for months, and I haven’t seen anyone over there … or even here, for that matter.” Markus mentally noted the manner in which the man had sidestepped having to identify himself in turn. But he continued, “So, you haven’t seen anyone, either? How long has it been, would you say …?”

     “Oh, a good two months now. And I gotta tell ya, they’d sure as hell be right welcome … it gets more than a bit lonely at times, it does.” The man frowned and his eyebrows drew inward toward the bridge of his cauliflower nose. Markus threw back the whiskey shot in a draught and clacked the glass down on the scarred counter of the bar; it was very loud in the silence that had ensued the man’s last statement. He caught the man’s gaze and gave him what he hoped would seem an earnest look. “Whelp. Guess I best be off. Wet as hell out tonight, too …”

     “Sure is. Well, have fun here in the outskirts. But not too much.” The man began to guffaw harshly his face contorting in some odd way that Markus couldn’t put his finger on; the crow’s feet ran right around the side of his bony face. Markus smiled just to be polite, then said “Listen, that liquor was great. But again, it was a real long trip. Do you have some water?”  But the guardsman just smirked. “No water. Not in this tent, at least. You can grab some at one of the other tents once you’re back on your way. Sorry about that …”

     “No problem, I guess.” Markus got up to go. For some reason, the hackles on the back of his neck began to perk up, and he found that he didn’t want to turn his back on the strange man. But he forced himself to do so anyways, passing through the short passage between the tent proper and the front doorframe, olive green with beige twine at the walls. Once the hardwood door had shut tightly behind him, its peephole also closed, Markus stood for but a few moments in the misty dusk before making a snap decision. Without even going to see if the mare was alright, he began to walk around the side of the tent, his right hand resting on his blade pack.

     Markus made to leave, putting his hat back on his head, but froze in place before he went through the doorway back into the station proper. On a lark, he walked back over to the well and looked over the circle of stones that surrounded it; he studied the mossy darkness that lay within for several moments before seeing anything. As his eyes adjusted, he saw no passage, heard no sloshing of water. But at the top left of his visual field, he realized that he could just make out a light object; upon closer inspection, it was the splayed fingers of a human hand sticking up beneath a layer of large, flat stones. No sooner had he realized what it was that he was looking at, when he felt the cold, sharp point of something stick into the armpit juncture of his tunic, between the flaps of his tanned leather armor. “Well … hello again.” The voice was that of the guardsman, but it sounded strained.

     “So, is this what you do, just wait for newcomers here and rob them? You didn’t have to kill the real guardsmen …?”

     “Oh, but I did. When I said that I’d been here for months, I wasn’t kidding. They were terribly strong men. They could have gotten loose and done for me instead … so I just … cut to the chase. Damned stones are heavy, though.” Markus said nothing to that. “And all of the others who have stopped to inquire here?” He heard a dark chuckle. “It’s a slow business.” He pointed to his lapel. “They usually have little of value. But sigil helps, it really does. They see it, well … they tend to think that I’m here to help.”

     “And?”

     The man’s bloodshot eyes narrowed for a few instants shrewdly, then widened again. “And … I’m not. Turn around.” Once he had, Markus looked down slowly at the long-sword’s point, which now lay just over the leather armor protecting his heart. “Yeah, I think I can see that just fine.”

     “Great. Empty your pockets, right here. The man motioned towards the widest stone in the ring; it lay a few yards to Markus’ left. “Everything, now. But first …”

     “Yes?”

     “Your weapons. I know you have a blade.”

     “A blade? I have several. A whole bagful, actually.” Markus’ voice remained steady, but he could feel himself soaked through with sweat. The dark man hadn’t liked his response; his voice grew suddenly cold. “Well then?!  Throw them rusty shits on the table before I cut you.” Markus sighed loudly, then took a theatrically long look down at the dusty floorboards before looking back up and meeting the man’s eye. But he had visibly begun to sweat from the temples. “If I lay down my arms, what’s to stop you from just killing me?”

     “I’ve got the drop on you already. Don’t make much difference, now does it.”

     “Is that so?  Did you even kill the women and children?”

     “Again, it don’t matter. Most of the population is already dead. Another bloody disease. We’re all already dead here.”

     “That’s no excuse. They were people …” Markus removed a blade from the fuzzy leather bag and carefully dropped it at their feet lengthwise, being sure to miss them. But the dark man grabbed his shoulder roughly, almost maniacally. “Never you mind … you’re next. Go on, hop in the well.”

     “And if I don’t?”

     “If you don’t, I stab you and you die.”

“Sounds almost preferable to being crushed into the well by big rocks, while I’m still breathing.”

     “Do it? Do you aim to find out?!” But then, without warning after this utterance, the man simply pitched forward on to Markus’ back, then fell to the cobbles. His tunic was wet, and he raised his right hand to look at it in the moonlight; it was flecked with blood. He leaped forward and then whipped around; Nathan Gregory stood there, one arm bearing the dagger Marcus had dropped and blackly blooded up to the elbow. The smaller man looked up at Markus, wild-eyed, then back down to the false guardsman who lay at his feet. Several moments passed as he took in his first kill, and his voice was barely audible when he whispered, “They say one good turn deserves another …”

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