Grimdark Story Battle Royale 5, Match 1: The Grey Crypt vs. The Price of Ink vs. The Low God

Please vote in the comments on Grimdark Fiction Readers and Writers. Voting closes on this round on April 25th, 2020.

THE GREY CRYPT

Darkness filled the ancient tomb, pushed back only by flickering flame. Fulse swung his pick against a stone wall, sweat soaking his beard, his broad shoulders tiring from the near constant work. His knees ached and his left elbow felt like it was on fire.

Torches were spread out across the small chamber, the ceiling barely a hand’s width above the grave robber’s head. The tomb was ancient, but relatively undisturbed. The floor, once a mosaic masterpiece of shimmering color, was buried under centuries of dust. The exquisite marble walls had yellowed, but the magnificence remained.

Fulse knew stone. Raised as a mason, even apprenticed for a time, he had an advantage over other the others in their group. He had an eye for spotting slight differences in the pattern, cut, or construction. He knew when something was out of place. And, grunting as he swung his pick, he knew the wall before him was wrong.

Rabbit worked beside Fulse, the small, lanky man wheezing as they chipped away at the stone.

“You better be right about this,” Rabbit said, lowering his pick as he tried to catch his breath.

“I am.”

“Third fucking wall today. And what…tenth in the last week? I’m sick of this shit, and I’m sick of this fucking tomb.”

Fulse grunted as he swung, a chunk of stone falling to the dusty floor.

“Better be worth it,” Rabbit continued. “Warden says there’s treasure here, but so far ain’t no trace of anything but fucking dust.”

“Warden says a lot of shit,” Fulse said. “You ask me, I say she’s-”

His pick smashed through the wall, a piece of marble larger than his fist breaking away to reveal darkness behind. The two stopped and stared. A moment later, they both swung their picks, breaking away more of the wall.

“Pass me one of those torches,” Fulse said.

“Get your own fucking torch.”

Fulse turned and gave his partner a savage sneer. Rabbit stared defiantly for a moment before both men started to laugh. Rabbit, patting Fulse on the shoulder, handed over a torch. Leaning down, Fulse held the flame close enough to peer inside.

“What do you see?”

“We’ve found it,” Fulse said, the torchlight dancing across his battered face. “Son of a bitch, we’ve found it. The treasure room of the Grey Emperor himself. You say you’re sick of this sick? Well, old friend, in a few days we’ll both be living like kings.”

*

Two hours later the two were walking back through the tomb’s catacombs. Fulse limped along beside Rabbit, his knee still stiff from an old injury, the torch in his hand lighting their way. The packs slung over their backs were laden with gold, silver, diamonds, rubies, jewelry, goblets, and all manner of treasure befitting an emperor once worshipped as a god. Rabbit held a gem encrusted scepter in his hand, while Fulse wore a tarnished crown on his head.

“This is it,” Rabbit said as they walked back to the main chamber. “After all the years scrounging around in the mud and shit of the world, this is our chance at something good. Better than that job in Creen. Remember those fucking spiders?”

The two had worked together for years. Struggling. Fighting. Tearing their nails against the indifference and apathy of the world. Jobs came and went, neither man holding back when trouble inevitably arose.

“Better than Creen,” Fulse grunted in agreement. “And better than Una City. Better than all the rat shit hovels we’ve crawled through. Things are finally looking up.”

They carried their packs back through the ancient crypt.

Warden, their leader for this current expedition, would be waiting for their return. They had made camp in a large cave, where a recent earthquake had revealed the entrance to the ancient crypt. Along with Fulse and Rabbit, Warden had hired two others, Pox and Tsarak, to help in loot the emperor’s tomb.

With their help, Fulse thought they could clear out the treasure room in two, maybe three, more loads.

“What’re you gonna buy with your share, once we’re out of here?” Rabbit asked as they walked.

“A brothel,” Fulse said without pause. “Always wanted to own a brothel. You?”

“A tavern. Real respectable place, too. Already got a name picked out and everything.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” Fulse said after a few steps. “What is it?”

“What’s what?”

“The name? Fuck, the name of your fucking tavern.”

“Oh,” Rabbit said, a touch of pride in his voice. “The Dripping Bucket.”

“Fuck,” Fulse said, stopping to turn and stare at the wiry man. “That’s the worst name for a tavern I’ve ever heard. God awful. Fuck. I want to punch you in the face just for saying it.”

“Fuck you! It’s a good name. A great name,” Rabbit said, scratching his forehead with the scepter. He was about to saying something else when he suddenly looked over his shoulder. “You hear that?”

“What?”

“Thought I heard something. Footsteps, maybe…”

Fulse listened, but all he could hear was Rabbit’s wheezing.

“There,” Rabbit said. “That.”

“Can’t hear shit. Hold your breath a second.”

The torch sputtered in his hand. Fulse stared into the darkness, and then, barely audible, he heard a soft scratching. He waited, and a moment later heard it again. An echo? A rat? Or some other denizen of the crypt? He wasn’t sure. Setting down his pack, Fulse pulled out his long knife and waited. Rabbit did the same.

They waited, staring into the darkness, but nothing happened.

No ancient evil, no darkness let loose by their disturbance of the crypt, no shambling undead or abyssal horror.

“Fuck you,” Fulse said, sheathing his blade and picking up his pack. “Fuck you and your fucking imagination. Ain’t nothing there.”

“But that noise-”

“Probably just a rat. Come on. Pick up your shit and let’s go.”

Fulse began limping towards their camp, knowing Rabbit wouldn’t wait in the darkness alone. A moment later the wiry man loped up beside him, his pack on his shoulder and the scepter in his hand.

*

“Where were you?” Warden asked as Fulse stepped out from the corridor. “Find something?”

Fresh air drifted down through cracks in the natural ceiling. The mouth of the cave wasn’t far, opening up to the rocky foothills and the plains below. Their supplies were scattered around a small campfire, while the wagon and horses were on the other side of the cave. Further in, stone floors led down through the corridors, but here the ground was mostly rough stone and dirt.

“More than something,” Fulse answered. “We found it. The treasure room, sealed behind a wall centuries ago. Carried what we could, but there’s lots more back there.”

Broad shouldered and brutal, Warden was the leader of their expedition. It was her coin that funded the expedition, and her contacts that had led them to this cave. She stood by the campfire, waiting for the kettle hanging over the flames to boil.

Pox and Tsarak were off to one side, the pair only just returned from one of the other corridors. Like Fulse, they were covered in dust and slivers of stone.

As far as Fulse could tell, Tsarak was from the eastern mountains. Half her head was shaved, the other dyed deep blue. She spoke little, but when she did they all listened, even Warden. Pox, on the other hand, was a local plainsman with a love for his own voice. Grey haired and balding, Pox bore a ragged scar across his neck where someone had tried, and failed, to shut him up permanently.

They worked well as a team. No one asked about past failures or mistakes. Their histories were their own, and no one, not even Pox, pried into their pasts.

Fulse enjoyed their company, such as it was.

“What is that?” Warden said, striding forward and grabbing the scepter from Rabbit’s hands.

“Hey, back off, that’s mine!”

“Shut up,” Warden said, staring at the artifact. “This is it! The scepter of the Grey Emperor. Shit, you’ve two really did it, didn’t you? Everything we’ve worked so hard for…this scepter is the true prize.”

“I found a crown,” Fulse said, though Warden didn’t even spare him a look.

“Pox! Tsarak!” she said. “Get over here. We’re all gonna be rich. Richer than any of you fuckers dreamed.”

“What about everything else?” Pox asked. “Fulse, you said there’s more?”

“A king’s ransom,” Fulse said with a nod.

“Oh,” Warden said, “don’t worry, we’re taking it all. Now, let’s get these treasures loaded on the wagon. Night is coming, so rest up and get some sleep. In the morning, we’ll make another trip down to this treasure room of yours and take everything we can carry.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Pox and Fulse said in unison.

“By this time next week,” she said, staring at the scepter in her hands, “we’ll be rich.”

Fulse and Rabbit headed to the wagon. Several crates sat open, and it was into these that they emptied their packs. Ancient coins of gold and silver. Rings inlaid with diamonds, emeralds, and jade. Fulse even threw in the tarnished crown.

Heading back to the others, Fulse dropped his empty pack and grabbed a wine skin.

They had come more than prepared.

The wagon. Empty crates to store their loot. Five horses. Enough food, water, and wine for two weeks. There were a few local villages nearby, but none of them could provide anything useful to small gang of grave robbers. Instead, they would travel to the nearest city, a place called Avunstar. There, Warden’s contacts could deal with the ancient treasure and pay them their coin.

The sunlight was fading fast, dusk falling outside of the cave.

“Can’t believe you found it,” Pox said, sitting next to Fulse. “How many days have we been here? Five? Six? Fuck, I’ve lost count. Knocking down any door, smashing through walls. I was beginning to think there weren’t anything here.”

“Jealous?”

“Yeah,” Pox grinned, revealing rotting, yellow teeth. “I suppose I am. Equal cuts for everyone, but it still hurts, knowing you two found the bloody scepter.”

“Well, if you’re thinking of killing me in my sleep, be sure to make it quick, will you?”

“We’ll see,” Pox chuckled.

Pox, Fulse, and Rabbit sat around the small fire, talking about nothing for a few minutes. Tsarak fed the horses. Warden examined the scepter before setting it down with their supplies.

“You know,” Pox said as Warden sat down at the fire with them. “There are some old myths about the Grey Emperor and his scepter. The villages here, they believe the scepter is a relic of great power. They say it brings the plains fertility and good harvests. Without it…they say these lands will die.”

“Guess they better pick up and fucking move then,” Fulse said.

“You’re from these plains?” Rabbit asked Pox. “Aren’t you?”

“I am. But no, I don’t follow those old ways. I like the comforts of the good life for too much to want to live in a backwater shithole. Just ask Tsarak, I’ve been bitching about the villages for days now. Ain’t that right Tsarak?”

Fulse, Rabbit, Warden, and Pox sat for a moment in silence.

There was no answer from Tsarak.

“Hey, shit for brains! You hear me?”

Nothing.

At once, the grave robbers stood up from the fire, knives in their hands. A shadow moved in the torchlight to the left, a small figure darting between the rocks and debris towards the wagon. Pox gave a shout, and Rabbit darted forward. Warden moved at the same time, cursing as she and Rabbit tripped over each other. Fulse barreled into the darkness, nearly catching the shadow as his knife sent sparks off the rocks.

A hand, a human hand with a small dagger, stabbed at Fulse’s leg.

“Fuck!” he shouted, grabbing his leg. “Over here!”

“Shit!” Rabbit swore, coming around the far side, trying to pin in their attacker.

Neither of them caught the shadow, but Fulse saw a glimpse in the firelight. A young man, barely more than a boy, ran out from the shadows towards the pile of loot and supplies. The thief’s hand closed on the scepter, the priceless artifact, the treasure of an emperor, and holy relic for the villages around the ruin.

The boy turned, darting back to the shadows, when Tsarak burst from the darkness and tackled young thief.

The massive woman threw the boy to the ground. His shoulder cracked against a large rock. She grabbed his wrist, the thief screaming as Tsarak lifted him from the ground.

“Careful,” Warden shouted. “You’ll break his wrist!”

“How’s this for careful,” Tsarak snarled as she squeezed.

If it wasn’t for the poor boy’s screams, Fulse knew he would have heard his bones break under Tsarak’s grip. The thief managed to kick her once before she dropped him to the ground.

“Fuck,” Warden shouted at Tsarak. “I told you not to hurt him.”

“Why?” Fulse said, running forward and planting a foot in the boy’s ribs.

The thief screamed again. Curled up in a ball on the ground, he held his broken wrist tight to his chest and whimpered. Fulse did not stop. Bending down, he rolled the thief over and punched him twice in the face. The second swing broke the boy’s nose.

“Stop!” he cried as Fulse punched him again. “Stop, please…”

“Fulse!” Warden shouted, coming up behind him and grabbing his shoulder. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You want to kill this kid?”

“Not yet,” Fulse growled, pulling away from Warden.

The boy, still on the ground, cried as blood flowed from his mouth and nose.

“Tie him up,” Warden said. “No, not you Fulse. You’re likely to strangle the poor fucker. Pox, you do it. We’re grave robbers, not murderers.”

“Can’t we be both?” Tsarak asked.

Warden stopped and stared at the big woman. She grinned. A moment later, Warden turned and with a shake of her head gave a chuckle.

“Little bastard had it coming,” she said. “Didn’t he?”

“That and more,” Pox asked. He tied a rope around the bloodied thief, leaving him sitting upright against a large bolder. “So who is he?”

“Looks like one of the village kids,” Warden said, grabbing the scepter from the ground.

“Here to make sure we don’t steal their precious relic?” Rabbit asked.

“Well, he failed,” Warden said.

“There could be more,” Fulse grunted, peering into the shadows. The others stopped and turned, each one staring into the darkness, searching for signs of another thief. “And the next one I see gets a knife in the fucking eye.”

“Agreed,” Warden said. “Keep watch on the camp. I’ll keep the scepter close, but we can’t leave anything unguarded. Fulse, you stay here with me. The rest of you, get your packs and follow Rabbit down to this treasure room. We do this now, tonight. I’m not waiting for tomorrow.”

“Um…” Rabbit muttered.

“Why me?” Fulse asked. “Rabbit should stay here with you, I can carry more-”

“Just do what I fucking tell you to do!” Warden shouted. “Fuck, I’m sick of your shit! All of you. Who hired you? Who got this job? Who found out about this place, and who is gonna sell off all this bloody fucking crap once we’re out of here? Me, that’s who, you fuckers! So stop whining, and do as I fucking say!”

“Hey, Warden…” Rabbit said, pointing to the rock where the kid was tied.

Fulse looked, and saw at once that the thief was gone.

“Fuck!” everyone shouted, drawing their weapons again.

Stomping forward, Fulse saw the pile of ropes lying around the rock. The kid still had his dagger. He must’ve cut his bonds. But Fulse saw at once that the ropes were untied. Not cut.

Pox, he thought at once. You fucking-

A shout brought everyone’s attention to Tsarak. Fulse looked up in time to see the big woman stumble. The thief was on her back, his dagger already dragging across her throat. She grabbed at the wound, blood spurted through her fingers as she fell to the ground.

“He’s got the scepter!” Pox shouted.

Somehow, the thief already had the sceptre and was running. Not for the entrance to the cave this time. This time, the boy was heading for the corridors leading deeper into the crypt.

“Fulse!” Warden shouted.”Help me!”

She was next to Tsarak, her jacket bunched up and held to the woman’s throat.

“Fulse, stay here!” Pox shouted. “Rabbit, follow me. We’re going hunting.”

Before Fulse could stop them, Pox and Rabbit ran off after the thief. Cursing, he rushed over to help Warden. Tsarak was on the ground. Warden pressed her jacket against the wound, but Tsarak was choking, blood coming up from her mouth. Eyes wide, she stared at Fulse as he watched, helpless.

“We have to stitch it shut,” Warden said. “My kit. Get my kit. I can do this.”

Fulse did as she asked, but he knew Tsarak didn’t have a chance. Kneeling next to Warden, he watched as Tsarak’s hands dropped to her sides. The blood stopped spurting, and the life left her eyes.

“Fuck…” Waren said. “Here, help me with-”

“No,” Fulse said. “Tsarak is dead, and that fucking kid did it. But look, Warden, look at the ropes. Untied. Not cut. The kid was able to get out pretty easily, don’t you think?”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying Pox is working with the little bastard. You heard him before. He’s from these villages. He didn’t come here to help us loot the tomb. He came to make sure we didn’t take the scepter.”

“You think Pox is working with the kid?”

“I’m sure of it,” Fulse said.

“Fuck,” Warden said. “Rabbit.”

Fulse didn’t wait any longer. Knife in one hand and a torch in the other, he ran for the corridor and plunged back down into the darkness.

*

The torch sent shadows careening against the walls. Fulse ran through the corridor, not knowing what he would find. He followed the blood splattered on the floor. The passage split several times, and at each one Fulse stopped to look for blood or tracks in the dust. His kneed ached once more, forcing him to limp his way along. Sounds echoed through the tomb, screams of pain and the clash of steel. Twice he realized he had gone the wrong way and had to backtrack.

“Fuck,” he cursed, realizing just how lost he was.

Turning a corner, he saw a shape lying on the floor of the tomb.

“Fuck.”

Closer now, he could make out Rabbit’s face. The wiry man had been stabbed several times in the chest, twice in the face, and once in the back.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” Fulse shouted, kneeling over Rabbit. He lifted his friend’s body, tears rolling down his cheeks, hugging him close as he screamed. Rabbit’s head rolled back, lifeless. “No, no, no, you bastard, you don’t die. You fucking bastard, get up. Shit! Fuck you, Pox! I’m gonna rip your fucking head off you coward! You bastard! You goddamn traitor!”

Snarling, spitting, rage filling his veins and pushing out all rational thought, Fulse lurched to his feet and thundered down the corridor hunting for Pox and the young thief. He shouted malformed words, his thoughts crashing together, anger swelling and driving out all else.

He didn’t know how long he ran. Ignoring his burning knee, he ran. His feet pounded on the ruined floor, the corridors all blending together, the torch in his hand sputtering as the flame began to die. Alone in the near darkness, Fulse continued on.

Torchlight ahead. And sounds of a fight.

Bursting out of the corridor, Fulse found himself back in the main chamber.

There, standing over another body, was Pox.

The man was bloodied, one ear torn away and a blood smeared across his face. His knife was in hand. Fulse didn’t stop. He ran across the chamber, rage contorting him, driving him forward.

Beneath Pox was Warden. Pox had already disarmed the woman and cut her face. Now, he was ready for the kill.

“Fulse!” Warden screamed, seeing the man barrel towards Pox.

Pox turned at once, surprise on his face as he realized Fulse was thundering towards him. He raised his knife, terror in his eyes.

“Wait!”

Fulse crashed into the man, knife sinking deep into his chest. Screaming in rage, Fulse tore the blade out sideways, tearing Pox’s lung. Fulse was on top of the man, driving his knife into his chest. Pox screamed at first, arms raised as he struggled, but Fulse did not stop. He stabbed again and again. He ripped open Pox’s chest, his throat, his head. When he was done, Fulse panted and wailed, trying to catch his breath.

His vision began to clear. Rising, his shook blood from his hands and spat into Pox’s pulped face.

“Fuck,” Warden said from behind Fulse. “That was brutal.”

Fulse grunted a reply.

Looking up he saw the kid, the young thief still with the scepter in his hands, moving towards them.

Confused, Fulse watched.

“I’d say you did well,” Warden snapped at the boy. “But you didn’t. You really fucked up there, you know that? Now get over here and hand me that bloody thing.”

Panting, Fulse turned to see the thief walk up to Warden. He handed Warden the scepter without question or hesitation. It was only then, the two of them standing side by side, that Fulse saw the resemblance.

“What the fuck?” Fulse asked, stepping away from Pox’s shredded corpse. “What..?”

Looking up at Fulse, scepter in hand, Warden grinned.

“You?” he asked, gasping, blood dripping from his knife.

The thief leaned on a rock by Warden’s side. The boy was in agony, wrist and ribs broken, wincing with every breath.

“Yeah,” she said, pulling out her blade. “Me. Wasn’t suppose to go this way, but here we are.”

“What way was it suppose to go?” Fulse growled, keeping an eye on the thief as he stalked around Warden.

“The kid was to sneak in, get the scepter, and get out without any of you pricks noticing.”

“For what? Just so you didn’t have to split the coin?”

“That’s right,” Warden said. “But Tsarak had to break the kid’s fucking wrist, and you had to beat the living shit out of him. I knew then it was going to get ugly. Real ugly. Distracting you while the kid escaped was easy. The rest, well, I wasn’t so sure. But then Tsarak died, and you thought Pox was a traitor all on your own. Who was I to stop you?”

“So what, this little fucker is your son?”

Warden nodded.

“And it was you who killed Rabbit? Snuck down the corridors, found him when I was lost…”

“Right again. Damn, Fulse, you’re smarter than I thought. Pox saw me, of course, chased me back here…I honestly thought he was gonna kill me, but then you come storming in. My hero.”

“Fuck you.”

“You can try,” Warden spat, lunging forward.

Fulse slashed at her with his knife, but she ducked beneath his swing and stabbed him in the side. Falling back, he tried to fend her off. Warden came at him three more times, but each one he managed to knock her blade aside. On the fourth, Warden kneed Fulse in the groin and knocked his knife away. Two more slashes opened up his shoulder, but Fulse charged in then, tackling Warden and sending them both to the ground.

Rolling in the dirt, Fulse managed to edge close to Pox’s corpse. The dead man’s knife lay by his side.

Warden managed to get on top of Fulse, sneering as he she stabbed down with her blade. Grunting, coughing, spitting dust and fury, Fulse grabbed Pox’s knife and sunk it deep into Warden’s chest. Her own blade came down into his shoulder. Fulse kept a hold of Pox’s knife, twisting the blade, dragging it through Warden’s flesh. Blood poured out over his hands. Her face was an inch from his. Eyes wide, her dying breaths came out ragged. Blood frothed on her lips, coating her teeth before dripping out onto Fulse’s face and beard.

“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” Fulse swore, pushing Warden’s body off and scrambling to his feet.

Her dagger was still in his shoulder. Blood flowed from his wounded side. It covered his face, his beard, his chest.

Looking up from Warden’s corpse, Fulse saw her son, the thief, the little bastard that had started it all.

The boy tried to run, but the flight through the crypt had taken too much. Gasping, wheezing, the thief stumbled as Fulse loomed above. He stabbed the kid seven, eight, nine more times before tossing the knife away and continuing on with just his hands. Fists came down first, breaking ribs. Another punch cracked the boy’s sternum. Screaming, crying, wrath coursing through his body and mind, Fulse ripped the boy apart. Skull and brain, blood and bile, Fulse tore the corpse open with his bare hands until there was nothing left.

When the rage had passed, Fulse stood.

A monster. A murderer. A torn remnant of a man, broken and betrayed.

He looked at Warden and then her son and felt nothing. He looked over at Pox’s corpses, the sting of guilt rising up from his body and into his throat. Tsarak still lay where Warden left her.

Falling over, Fulse wretched and coughed up a mouthful of bloody vomit.

*

Later that day, Fulse finished loading the wagon with the treasure from the crypt. His shoulder was crusted with blood. Makeshift bandages were wrapped around his wounds. Carrying the final sack of coin and jewelry, Fulse placed it in the wagon with the rest. Pox, Tsarak, Warden, and the young thief remained where they had fallen. Scavengers would come, soon enough. In addition to the treasure, Fulse had gone back for Rabbit, wrapping his friend’s body as best he could to be buried far from here.

Climbing onto the wagon’s raised bench, Fulse grabbed the reins and flicked the switch, driving out from the cave and down to the open plains.

He wasn’t sure where he would go, but he had more than enough loot to make a few mistakes.

Maybe, he thought as he rode off into the sunset, he’d open a brothel after all.

THE PRICE OF INK

The people on the higher levels of New-Munich never understood what it meant to walk on the ground level. They never saw the people living on the streets, the people who used everything until it was broken and beyond. Wulf on the other hand saw them everyday. Whenever he was on his way to a new or old client he had to use the streets on the ground level until he would walk up one of the few staircases – no tattoo artist had a business any more so they had no business being inside of the lifts for the hard working people. Nearly every centimetre of his body, except of his face, was covered by tattoos, most of them wolves and runes. Everyone was able too see them, his upper body was only covered by a leather jacket. Now he and every other tattoo artist not employed by the state were out of work. He sighed and kicked over one of the bins in his way, not caring that all of the trash fell on the pavement. One of the homeless people sitting in front of the decayed ground level of one of the skyscrapers called him a Deadcell. Deadcell was the new slur of the day for people with a lot of tattoos, for people with a lot of nanotechnology beneath their skin.

“Fuck off,” Wulf told the man and spat out, before walking on. When he had still been part of the military, the men had admired him for taking the risk of getting tattoos, with nano technology in the ink, that could be accessed by the new smart watches. Times had changed and Wulf didn’t like it. He growled when another homeless approached him.

“Please Big Bad Wolf,” she said and smiled a toothless smile, “a small donation?”

He looked her over – she wore nothing but old military style clothing and didn’t seem to have a coat or something else against the cold of night. Wulf tossed her a small coin and her eyes widened. He gave her a small smile before walking away. Even if she was not a former military she would have enough money to eat for about two weeks.

The streets turned a little lighter, not all of the places on the ground level were dark and dirty. This one was one of the former market squares of the old Munich and no squares or streets from higher city levels blocked out the light. Instead he saw people looking down at the square from the higher levels. Six months before he had stood there every Sunday, watching the market and the people shuffling from one small booth to another. There were no markets on the upper levels. Everyone either did their shopping online or in the big malls. Now the square was empty right down to two men standing in front of a small house. When he first came here he had asked himself how this house could still exist, for every other house that was less than 40 levels high had been destroyed in favour of the modern skyscrapers.

“The Big Bad Wolf,” one of the men said when Wulf approached them, “here on the boss’s orders?”

“Here because I have to talk to an old friend,” Wulf answered.

“Good enough!” It looked like the man was patting him on the shoulder but Wulf felt the familiar sting of a needle and rolled his eyes. And here he thought knowing the boss would give him some privileges.

“You’re clean,” the other man said while staring at the nearly white wall on the opposite end of the square. Wulf nodded, passed the man and entered the small house. He was greeted by the familiar screeching and howling. The first time he had been a lot more jumpy because of the unnatural sounds the house made until one reaches the boss’s door. He knocked three times and another two times after a short pause. The door swung open and revealed a smiling man in a wheelchair. Wulf,  too, smiled and entered the office, the door closing behind him.

“Janus,” he greeted the man, “you told me you had work for me?”

“Not I,” Janus said and gesticulated Wulf to sit in the empty chair right beside him, “but the community as a whole.”

Wulf raised an eyebrow while sitting down and ran his hand through his long, blond hair. Looking at his friend he took out a cigarette from the depths of his leather jacket and lit it. “What do you fucking mean… from the community?”

“Don’t play dumb Wulf, it doesn’t suit you,” Janus said and leaned back in his wheelchair, pushing one of the buttons on it, “you know how the people hate that the government took away the freelance working technicians first and now the tattooists are gone too.”

“Doesn’t seem like it to me,” Wulf thought about the man who called him a Deadcell earlier, “I think the people are happy there is no longer a possibility for others to be better than them. Now they all share the same misery, religious fanatic against augmentation and the nano-tattoos or not. Poor people can no longer pay for what they need so they won’t be any better off than the people without it.”

Janus sighed, then the door opened. One of his girls walked in, bringing Janus and Wulf a cup of tea each. Janus kissed her on the cheek and thanked her, before she left the room again. Wulf took a sip of the tea and then smiled. “This is real tea, not the chemical stuff they serve you on the ground level. How did you get it?”

“I will tell you when you stop playing dumb,” Janus smiled and took a sip himself.

 “Okay, I’ll bite,” Wulf said and put his cup back on the desk in the room, “what is it that the community wants? And why am I the one who has to do it and not one of your henchmen?”

“You mean those people who are not even able to tell when the augmentations in their eyes begin to fail? Really Wulf?” Then Wulf remembered one of the guards staring at the white wall and he huffed. Janus might be right, if the guard did not think it was a problem that the only way he could see the information presented was by looking at a neutral coloured wall then he certainly was not a man to trust with important business.

“Okay. I see your point. Why aren’t you firing him?”

Janus simply showed a toothy grin and licked his lips.

“Okay. What does the community want me to do?”

“We want you search for the ink, to get it back and reopen your shop – well not really your shop, but one here, on the ground-level.”

Wulf laughed and stood up. “You’re fucking mad Janus. Get the ink back? How? The government does not really broadcast the place of their latest warehouse. Reopen my shop? And risking my life in the process?” Wulf shook his head and opened the door. “Thank you for the offer but I have to decline.”

He was nearly out of the room when Janus said, “How are your legs?”

Wulf froze and turned back to his friend. “How do you know?”

“Your last adventure made a fuss. I know you fought with Snowman when you tried to rescue Mira from the cops and we both know he goes for the augmentations first. He did this back then too.”

Wulf sighed, went back into the room, closed the door and sat down in the chair again.

“I did not know that he still works for the government,” Wulf said, “but I know now. And yes, I can walk. But that’s it.”

“I will pay for any parts you need and my fixer will repair them.”

Wulf sighed again before he hold out his hand. “We have a deal Janus. But if you fuck me over I will end you and your small empire.”

“Sure thing, Big Bad Wolf. I will ring you if I have any new information.”

Wulf left the small house through the front door. Surprised, he noticed both guards were now missing and the house looked as deserted as it probably should be. He looked up, a few drones were flying around but none of them were police ones, but more than likely private drones. Wulf wasn’t even sure if the police still had enough money to repair or buy new drones. The private ones were more dangerous in any case, equipped with all the things people were able to pay for – anything from better cameras to weaponry. Then the big wolf tattoo on his back began to tingle and Wulf knew someone was watching him with the help of technology. Either one of the drones he could see was focusing on him or…

He straightened his body and looked one last time at the house – if anyone else had asked him he would have told them to fuck themselves and he that he was able to pay for his own parts but Janus had always wanted what was best for the majority. Even when they still had done dirty work for the government. Wulf turned and went into the direction he came from – the much darker parts of the ground level. It was not impossible that people in the lighter or upper parts of the city would talk to him, they would talk to him just fine – and before he knew it the government was on his tail. The government’s reach in the darker parts of the ground level was limited to the few cameras that still worked and most drones trying to get into those parts of New-Munich would sooner or later land in the hands of some fixer who needed parts of them. But he had no illusions, the role of the government was played there by different mob bosses, his friend Janus being one of the more popular and benevolent ones.

He still felt that someone was observing him but at the moment he couldn’t do shit about it – not as long as he couldn’t see who it was. When he noticed the man who insulted him earlier, still sitting in the same place, he decided this man would be first to help him, if he wanted or not. Before the man could so much as notice that he was assaulted, Wulf grabbed him by the collar, lifted him up and pressed him against the barred door he had been sitting in front of.

“You will tell me where I find the current boss of you beggars and I should better like your answer, scum.”

The man tried to get free of Wulf’s grip and began to fight back. But Wulf simply pressed him harder against the door, not caring if he injured the man.

“I won’t tell you a thing Deadcell. People like you are as guilty as the government. The ground level is as it is because the likes of you. If you all hadn’t decided to take a stupid risk, selling your body to whoever paid for the technology in your body, all of us would be better off!”

Wulf had to concede the man had balls, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“Listen here fucker,” Wulf said and pressed his right arm against the man’s throat, “I won’t ask again. I doubt you’re the only one knowing and I could simply cripple you more than you already are. Tell me!”

The man’s face colour began to change so Wulf had to lower the pressure to the man’s throat. As soon the man could breathe easier he began coughing and tried to fight back again. Wulf shook his head, let go of the man and took a step back. Then he simply punched him in the stomach and the man went down.

“Was that really necessary,” a voice behind Wulf growled and he turned around. A woman was standing there and looked not to happy. She was wearing the same clothing as the female homeless person he tossed a coin to earlier but was a lot bigger than her. He nodded.

“Obviously it was,” he said and took a quick glance at the man – he was still lying on the ground, holding his stomach.

“It wasn’t. Why do you want to talk to the boss.”

“None of your business.”

“Oh,” she said and took another step in Wulf’s direction, “but I think it is my business. I choose to make it my business when Deadcells go around harassing the poor.”

“Ah fuck,” Wulf said when she charged at him.

Wulf stepped to the side and she nearly crashed into the barred door. But she managed to stop her charge beforehand and turned around. Wulf ground his teeth and when she came at him again he punched her in the face, but she connected with him and both of them crushed onto the ground. Wulf pushed her from his body and remained on the ground for a moment. When he had calmed down he sat up and looked at the woman lying beside him. She was breathing hard and Wulf decided it was not worth it, got up and limped away. His leg augmentation now made even walking a chore – he hoped it would simply like be waking up and go back to normal sooner than later. The tattoo still tingled and he looked around and now he was able to see something. A drone was sitting under one of the streets on an upper level of the city and he was sure it tracked him. Fucking wonderful.

He limped to one of the few staircases that would lead him to a higher level – no use trying to talk to one of the mob bosses with the possibility that the the women would want to continue their little fight. Wulf doubted he would be able to defend himself a second time against someone probably used to street fights. He was not used to this shit any more.

When he went up the stairs he knew his legs wouldn’t get better sooner but later. He sighed and walked out of the house in which the staircase was located. In contrast to the ground level, a lot of people filled the streets. Neon signs flashed from the buildings and it was a lot brighter on this level, both because of the lights actually working and less streets above them blocking out the natural light. The people looked cleaner and all of them wore intact clothing. The shops were not closed down and actual police patrolled the streets – instead of the street thugs below. Drones were a lot more common here, both as a security device and the TV channels collected footage for the news with them.

Once Wulf’s own shop had been on this level, before the government closed all the tattoo shops in the city. The only way for someone to get the nano technology beneath their skin now was paying the government for it – a horrendous sum, only available to the rich and the famous. A fact that benefited Wulf in the company of people who weren’t religious fanatics damning all technology intervening with god’s work. With only his face having no ink on it, he was one of the most tattooed people in New-Munich and corporations always wanted to know what kind of nano technology his tattoos housed. He was working as a mobile data storage from time to time – having gotten all the tattoos before the government imposed the new regulations meant he was not registered and definitely not monitored. In the past anyone without an otherwise viable skill was able to get tattoos or augmentations to become a viable worker. The government came first for the augmentations and technicians around two years ago, then around six months ago for the tattoo artists and the ink.

Some people greeted Wulf on the street while he marched in the direction of the local police station and he nodded in acknowledgement. The people still remembered him and his shop, and some people at the police station owed him. Time to collect the debts. When he reached the police station he was reminded of how long he had not been in this area. The building had completely been taken over by one of the mega corporations with the exception of a set of rooms looking more like a small shop than a police station.

“State your name and reason for the visit,” were the first words Wulf heard when he entered the first room of the police station. He remembered it being full with tables and chairs for people to sit and wait. Now there was only a reception desk with a male officer standing behind it.

“My name is Wulf and I am looking for Adrian.”

“Full name and reason why you want to see an Adrian,” the officer said and Wulf began to doubt he was even human. Robots were a thing but Wulf did not know that even the the police was using them now.

“Are you deaf? My name is Wulf and I want to see Adrian. The one who is always stressing you guys out because of your gambling?”

“Wulf is not a full name,” the officer said and looked at Wulf with a neutral expression, “and Adrian is no longer part of the police force.”

“Shit… Do you know where to find him?”

“I am not allowed to disclose this kind of information to a stranger.”

“Listen here boy…”

“Sir,” another police officer came out of the door leading deeper into what was now the police station of this district in New-Munich, “I must ask you to leave. No need to call anyone names here.”

Wulf blinked. The man looked like Adrian, he sounded like Adrian but something about him was very different When he looked into the man’s eyes he knew in an instant. He had gotten new eye augmentations. And it seemed like they screwed up his brain in the process. Wulf sighed. Another dead end.

“I must have went to the wrong station,” he said, “my apologies.”

And he left the station. At least he no longer felt like being watched. But he had no idea where to go for the information he sought. He could wait a day and hope his leg got better and try the ground level again. But who knew if they wouldn’t wait for him after he beat up not only one but two people in their area. Wulf wanted to punch the next wall but what might be acceptable below was certainly not acceptable on a higher level.

After standing some time in front of the police station he decided to call Janus. If he wanted him to do the deed so he better helped him finding a way to do it.

“Wulf, what can I do for you?”

“I have no way of finding the warehouse they keep it in.”

“You mean after beating up two people on the ground level you have no desire to come back in the near future to ask questions?”

Of course Janus knew, how could it be any different.

“Yes,” Wulf said, “I am certain you know someone who might know someone… Better tell me know about them so I can go looking for what you… the community wants.”

“I don’t know anybody, if I knew I had no reason to involve you, my friend. Why not try and go to one of the facilities and sniff around? Isn’t that what you are supposed to be good at?”

Wulf ground his teeth and ended the call. It would be probably a good idea to get a look at one of the facilities. He had never been to one before and tried to avoid government facilities in general. So he made his way to one of the level plans and checked for the nearest facility. It was only a few streets away and Wulf began walking there. A lot of the people in this part of the city-level avoided meeting his eyes and walked with their heads bowed down. Wulf himself avoided looking other people in the eye, one never knew who was part of the military and he knew back from his own time there that people feared them. Nowadays the government made sure the media did not report on any attacks on people by the military, that was different back then.

The building was one of the highest skyscrapers in New-Munich and on every level was a different government facility. The one on this level was the facility where the people had to go if they wanted augmentations or tattoos. Wulf stood in front of one of the information screens where the facility informed about their services and corresponding prices. Then his tattoo on the back tingled again. But this time it was no drone he saw when he turned around. But on the other side of the populated street stood Snowman. He was still dressed in the white uniform Wulf had seen him wearing the last time they had seen each other – no longer fighting for the same side. Snowman crossed the street and stopped right beside Wulf.

“Fancy seeing you here Wulf, dear. After the government got intelligence on someone wanting to spy out the facility to plan a break in, stealing all the ink in the process.”

“Fancy seeing you here Snowman,” Wulf retorted, “shouldn’t you be somewhere and sniff some coke?”

“Careful there Big Bad Wolf. You wouldn’t want to find yourself in a precarious situation with a knife in your stomach. I won’t focus on your augmentations this time. So tell my dear, why are you here?”

“I wanted to look into getting another tattoo – this time across my face.”

“Liar,” Snowman grabbed him and tossed him to the ground, “why do you think I am here?”

“No idea” Wulf coughed and wanted to sit up but Snowman placed his heavy boot on his torso and breathing became a lot harder.

“I am very sad that you would be lying to me, my dear. And Janus will be sad too.”

The pressure vanished and Snowman helped Wulf on his feet. Snowman hugged him and Wulf was reminded of the time when they had still been friends. Wulf had always appreciated the more intimate contact he had with his friends, mostly after another task. After another kill. But this hug had nothing of the warm intimacy Wulf remembered.

“I promised Janus a lot of ink and parts if he gave you to me,” Snowman whispered, “And he did. I am very happy about this deal. The best one I made since we all left the military together. I will finish my business with you and he gets what he wants and can help all those people on the ground-level he likes so much.”

“Fuck you both.”

Wulf never considered Janus one of those backstabbing bastards he had to deal with all the time. Janus tried to help people as much as he could… and it was probably easier handing Wulf over to Snowman than having him trying to steal all the ink. Wulf would have done it – he would have worked for free, but now Janus was one of those backstabbing arseholes too.

“I will kill you Snowman. I will fucking kill you. And Janus. And all of his people.”

“You can certainly try my dear Big Bad Wolf.”

Wulf felt a strong sting of pain in his stomach.. He looked down, seeing the blood pouring out of the knife wound in his stomach. The blood not only defiling his leather jacket but also Snowman’s completely white clothing. When Snowman pulled the knife out of his stomach, Wulf instantly began pressing his hand on the wound.

“Don’t fret my dear Wolf, the wound is not deep enough to kill you. At least I hope so,” Snowman said and gently laid him down on the street. “Someone will come and help you. Probably.”

THE LOW GOD

Mud clung to Lira’s shins, a grasping thickness that pawed at her like a clumsy lover. Leeches sucked at her ankles and calves, threatened to creep past the boundary of her torn leggings for every misstep that sent her splashing into the rank water. They pulsated against her thighs like seeking fingers, sending waves of revulsion into her guts.

Had it been a normal day, she would have stopped and took the time to pinch them from her skin with a bit of salt from her pouch, or to singe them with a burning twig. Instead, she did her best not to think of the hungry mouths with their serrated teeth, of the way they fattened themselves on her lifesblood.

She stumbled for a moment, plunged forward, and on instinct thrust her arms out to stop her fall. They crashed past green algae that clung to the surface like parasitic clouds in a black sky, her palms finding the silty bottom. Behind her, the sounds of pursuit continued, the barking of dogs echoing between cypress and black willow, the shouts of men spurring them on. Fear gripped her chest, and she pushed herself up, forced herself onward, pretended to not see the glistening bodies making a feast of her brown arms.

Something fat and black buzzed past her ear, lighting for a moment at her hairline. A pinch, and she felt a warm trickle of blood slip down the nape of her neck. The barking of dogs changed direction, and a flight of blue heron burst from the canopy just to the south of her in a cacophony of wing and call.

Lira took advantage of the distraction and charged toward a nearby stand of towering black willow, their drooping branches forming a curtain. Gnats swarmed in her vision at the sudden disturbance in the still waters, and something thick and scaly plunged into the water from a muddy bank, its tail cutting through the swamp and propelling it forward with terrifying speed. She caught a glimpse of yellowed eyes with slit pupils.

Again, the sound of braying dogs, closer, and Lira changed direction, both the alligator and her pursuers driving her deeper into the swamp. She stumbled and splashed, sure the noise would draw more predators, but could find only fear in her breast, so she moved as fast as she dared.

The thick mud and slick silt made it a struggle to run. For a time, all Lira knew was burning in her legs, a stitch in her side, breath coming in ragged gasps. Those things in the swamp—frog and alligator and stinging insect—registered only on periphery of her growing fear. Each moment that passed, she was sure she could move no further, and yet somehow, she moved onward, one foot in front of the other, because stopping meant death.

 The sun had moved higher in the sky by the time exhaustion and pain forced her to halt. She no longer heard the dogs or the men shouting. The heat of the swamp had reached its peak, and sweat beaded on her, the sour smell joining that of the dank stench of the waters on her skin.

She found herself on a small island, the hillocks that formed it covered with stunted grass. The footing was soft but held her weight. Reed and cattail surrounded the whole, black willow and cypress standing in a haphazard ring on the interior. Still moving forward, half-delirious and aching all over, she stumbled into that ring, thinking that if she could rest, maybe sleep for even a short while, she might regain her strength, maybe even find her way free and to the roads that led to the Free Cities.

She passed through a curtain of willow branches, the supple limbs leaving light scratches against her cheek. On the other side, a building stood, its stones covered in creeper and lichen, the whole half-tilted and nearly sunken in the soft soil. Tumble-down pillars dotted the bed of moss before it, like a carpeted plaza, and she stumbled toward the dark maw of its entrance. Here was shelter, her addled mind argued. Here was rest.

She paused only a moment at the doorway, her hand sinking into a patch of mushroom and lichen clinging to the stone. The small part of her that was still rational argued that she shun this place, that anything could be bedded down inside. She ignored it and stepped inside.

The interior was cool after the baking heat of the sun and the thick humidity of the day. It was more of the same inside, lichen and moss and creeper crawling up walls, carpeting the floor. What stone showed was carved in elaborate and enigmatic glyphs, and at the far end of the small room, a simple dais with a bowl stood. This was a temple, then. Long forgotten and unused, but surely consecrated to some god or another.

She staggered to the dais and sank down. Her body had decided without her consent that this was where she would rest. For a moment, she thought she heard the dogs again, but could find no energy to care. This seemed as good a place as any. And should her blood spill here, perhaps the god of this place would take its price from those men. She closed her eyes and slept, fatigue crashing into her like a black wave.

A dream borne of exhaustion rode the waters of sleep and pooled around her mind like the sea licking at shoals. In it, she relived the last day. Pela was there, still smiling and whole.

Lira had to creep across the wide yard the Senator kept in order to visit her lover. It had taken her nearly every penny she had smuggled in from market day, but she’d managed to bribe the old soldier set to guard her bunkhouse as dusk fell. She liked Marcus some. He was slow to anger, and reticent with the whip.

Still, he’d looked at her sideways for a moment, as if considering the implications should they both be found out. It wasn’t the first time she’d asked for a favor from the old campaigner, as he seemed sympathetic to the plight of the women here, but each time she feared he would refuse, or worse, punish her. She stood, hand out, cold coins pressed into her palm, teeth worrying her lip. Fear took her for a moment, that perhaps this night he wanted more—it wasn’t unheard of for the men who ran the estate to press for flesh. Offer a hand, and they’d gladly take an arm. But he’d wanted neither punishment nor to fuck, and she’d breathed a sigh of relief when he took her coin with a nod and listened to her request.

She turned her head and saw the pole where they chained slaves who disobeyed, the ground around it the only flaw in an otherwise perfect lawn, the grass outside the dirt ring a little richer for all the blood spilled. The sun sank, turning the grass first yellow, then orange, then crimson, before the deep black and purple of night washed the color from the day.

When the sun set, and cool air began to waft into the bunks, Lira began to count. First to a hundred, then ten hundreds. She heard Marcus move outside and held her breath as the sound of another’s footsteps carried on the night.

“Titus,” Marcus said. “Making the rounds?”

“Aye. You know how it is, the old man can’t sleep without knowing his chattel are in their stables.”

Marcus grunted.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” Titus asked.

“Nunvian wine. Fancy a taste?”

Lira heard the younger guard shift from foot to foot. “No, thanks. Maybe after.”

She held her breath, wondering if the younger man would replace Marcus, or linger for too long and ruin her chance to see Pela. Marcus broke the silence.

“Fair. Come see me in the barracks when your shift is over. I’ve got another bottle, and six gold staves that say you can’t best me in dice.”

Titus laughed. “Deal. You’d better hope Fortuna favors you tonight.”

Marcus snorted in reply, and Lira heard Titus move on, his boots clacking on the wooden porch. She counted another ten hundreds, and finally, a knock on the wall of the bunkhouse, soft but clear. She let out a breath and climbed from her bed, careful not to disturb the woman beneath her.

Lira padded carefully, threading her way through the bunkhouse. The smell of unwashed flesh and dirty laundry wafted from several corners, and honeypots buzzed with flies. She passed a bed with a woman who had several sores on her lips—gifts from the Senator, no doubt—and paused as the woman snorted and rolled in her sleep.

Lira held her breath until the woman slipped back into deep slumber, then crossed the remainder of the building quickly. She didn’t know how much longer she had, but Marcus wouldn’t wait forever, and she had no idea when Titus or another guard might return.

Reaching the door, she eased it open and peered out. The grounds were empty. Wherever Marcus had gone, he’d given her a clear path to Pela. Lira slipped out and closed the door gently, then ran lightly across the yard. She thanked Mother Moon for keeping Her face hidden, her bare feet soft and soundless on the manicured grass.

She reached Pela’s bunkhouse and eased the door open, careful not to let the wood bang into the side of the building, then slipped inside. Her lover lay half-covered by a threadbare sheet. The moon freed itself from the clouds, and Lira traced Pela’s form with her eyes in the dim light. Long legs and arms, strong wrists and ankles, slender fingers. High breasts, the nipples outlined against the fabric covering her. A slender neck and nose, heart-shaped face and full lips.

For a moment she only admired the woman she’d known most of her life, the two having come up in the same tribe on the outskirts of the swamps. They’d attended countless gatherings and celebrations together, worshipped at the altars of the same gods, blooded the same enemies, shared bread and laughter. That was before the Empire came though. Before the men with their dogs and their steel.

She shook her head, trying to dislodge dark thoughts that clung like fat brown ticks, and took in Pela again. Her brown skin glowed in the light of the moon, and Lira’s lust rose as she straddled her lover and leaned in, planting a kiss on the woman’s lips.

Pela’s eyes fluttered open, and Lira placed her mouth over the other woman’s, kissing her deeply, tongue seeking and tasting. For a moment, Pela threatened to resist, but then her hands came up and found the back of Lira’s head. Pela pulled her deeper into the kiss.

At last, they separated.

“Sneak,” Pela whispered, lips curving up in a smile.

“Harlot,” Lira winked back.

Pela laughed at their private joke, the sound throaty and musical in the near-silence. The Senator and his men would ever understand the deep mockery those words held for them, or the way the women wielded them like a personal talisman against the hurt of life.

Pela ran one hand through Lira’s hair, fingers entangling in the black locks. She smiled again. “You remind me of a poem,” she said.

Lira arched an eyebrow. “Your hips, my lips?” She asked through a wicked grin.

Pela’s expression softened as she recited, “Like glass, I am jagged when broken, and blood may flow. Like ice, I yearn to be broken so water may flow. Break me, then, and we shall both flow.”

Lira leaned in and kissed her, felt heat in her belly.

The snap of a twig, and they both froze. The space of an indrawn breath, and the door was flung open, lantern light throwing the room into stark relief, casting looming shadows on the walls.

Lira screamed as rough hands entangled themselves in her hair, yanked her to her feet, dragged her from the bunkhouse. Men stood in a semicircle at the entrance, pale skin and harsh mouths set as Pela was pulled free as well, stark-naked. A detached part of Lira watched Pela’s skin goosepimple in the chill night air. The woman bucked to be free, screaming and spitting, but was soon cowed by a cuff to the back of the head.

Marcus held the lantern, and brief flare of fury spiked in Lira’s guts. The bastard didn’t even have the good sense to look ashamed. She kicked out at him, but the men’s hands held her fast, and instead she only managed a strangled cry of rage.

Her heart hammered as the men forced them to march to the pole in the center of the yard. They bound a weeping Pela to it with a leather thong about her wrists. The captain, a stout man, his face all hard angles, wielded a whip.

“This is how you repay me?” Spittle sprayed from his mouth in his fury, flecked Pela’s back. “We clothe and house and bring civilization to you, and this is how you act?”

He stepped back, raised the whip.

“No!” Lira shouted, but the whip was already descending.

She heard the harsh crack, saw the end open the other woman’s back, the flesh parting like a ripped seam. Inside was pink meat and red blood, running from the wound as if it too meant to flee in fear. Pela screamed, tears flowing from those perfect brown eyes, spittle stretching between her lips like a spiderweb.

The whip came down again and Lira struggled, fought with her captors as another of Pela’s screams split the night air and sent the dogs barking in their kennels. One of the guards turned.

“Shut those thrice-damned dogs up!” He ordered someone in the dark. Lira recognized his voice as the guard from earlier—Titus.

She saw the opening, and running in instinct, pulled the knife from his belt. She’d only meant to threaten him with it. Instead, he turned at the movement at his shoulder and drove himself onto the blade with a grunt.

For a moment, the world froze. Then he collapsed, and the other guards took notice. They drew short blades, intending to spit her on them there, and without another thought, Lira bolted for the tree line at the edge of the property.

It was dark, and Mother Moon had hidden Her face again. Lira was still young, still strong from the backbreaking work the Senator demanded. She fled, outpacing her pursuers in moments, and entered the swamp. Somewhere along the way, the knife fell into those dark waters.

The cypress and willow and deep waters beckoned her, and she ran as far as she dared in the dark. And as she ran, the night embraced her.

Lira woke with a start. Small black shapes littered the stone around her. It seemed the leeches had drunk their fill and now lay in a sated torpor. She ached from an abundance of cuts and scrapes and bites. Her muscles creaked with every movement. The dream had faded but left with it the guilt of leaving Pela behind, the pain of her own weakness.

Lira spent long moments staring about the temple, the glyphs there teasing thought and memory. Nothing here was familiar to her, and yet nothing here was utterly foreign. It reminded her somewhat of the temples her own people had worshipped at no so long ago. Gods various and sundry, small and great. A god for each season, a god for each reason.

Until the Empire had come with its bright shining God and declared theirs dead. Declared them savages in need of penance. She thought of the estates, and of the Senators assigned to the task. Call it what they wanted, but Lira knew her gods would never countenance slavery, no matter the guise.

Thinking on that led her back down the path of fear, and she forced her thoughts to still, listening intently to the world outside. The whisper of the wind through bulrushes. The gentle clatter of cattails against one another. The deep burp and creak of bullfrogs in the water, followed by the occasional gentle splash.

Harder, she thought, harder. Concentrate. She tuned those noises out. Heard the cry of a loon somewhere distant. And then, rhythmic, the splish-splash of booted feet in the water. The harsh breathing of the mastiffs. Her heart sped, her pulse throbbing beneath her jawline. She swallowed, and realized how thirsty she was, the action sending a prickle of dryness down her throat. They hadn’t given up the pursuit. But they were being quieter about it, which meant they either had some inkling of where she was, or they hoped to lull her into a sense of security.

Lira cast about the temple, looking for anything she might use as a weapon—a broken shard of bone, a sharp piece of rock. What she found was more moss and skeletons too small to bother with; toad and snake and sparrow.

She slapped the stone basin in frustration. A sharp edge, where the stone had become brittle and shattered, cut into her palm, and she watched as blood trickled down a groove in the side, dripping into the hole at its base.

A deep buzzing stirred up there, and she took a tentative step back, afraid she’d woken some slumbering nest of wasp or hornet. It went on for only a few seconds, then died again. Curiosity won over fear, and Lira stepped closer. Pinched her hand at the cut until fat drops of blood rolled from the wound. They hung from the base of her palm for a moment, then plunged downward.

The buzzing came again, clearer, and she paused to listen, the men outside forgotten for a moment.

We are the Frog, Reptile, Scorpion, Grasshopper, Ant, Snake.

From the depths of love.

If wish our aid,

Reply to Us.

Let Us.

The words unnerved her, sent a tremor through her guts that threatened to shake her bones. Her grandmother had spoken of these places. Places now abandoned, once worshipped by her ancestors. Blood gods. Dark gods. Gods that demanded sacrifice to slake their thirst. To pact with them was to damn one’s soul. She stepped back, then forward. Admonished herself.

“If you flee from everything that frightens you, Lira, you will never find anything but the road and fear,” she said. Though those words rang hollow to her. Fear had already driven her here. Fear would guide her next steps. Steps that threatened her soul, but if she were fortunate, preserved her life.

The bark of a dog, closer.

She hesitated only a moment longer. She had no choice, and though the ache of Pela’s loss dug into her guts like a hook, she was not ready to join her lover yet in the ancestral lands beyond.

“Yes,” she said. Then, louder. “Yes, help, please.”

No answer came. Outside, the sound of water splashing had grown in volume, and she imagined the men, tall and strong, carrying bright steel, tromping and trampling down rushes and grass, single-minded in their purpose. She leaned over the basin and whispered desperately.

“Help, I need your help.”

The buzzing replied, wordless and faint. Again, Lira cast about. Her gaze settled on the leeches littering the floor. She scooped them up in handfuls, pressed them against the stone of the bowl, her blood and theirs running in thick rivulets below. The buzzing grew stronger, the men outside louder. Shouts now, and the barking of dogs.

Desperate, Lira smashed more of the leeches, and when they were gone, opened both palms on the jagged edge, the pain that came from the ragged flaps of skin like a heartbeat. Blood flowed in a stream, the buzzing reaching a crescendo.

The dark of the temple was shattered by a man thrusting a lantern inside.

“I have her!” He shouted to his party.

It was his last shout as the floor erupted. Beetles the size of Lira’s thumb burst from the moss, scrabbled up his legs. In moments, they covered him like a carpet, and where they found exposed skin, they bored. The field of his flesh crawled like roving hills as they stripped him bare from the inside. He collapsed inward as meat and organ were devoured by the scrabbling horde.

He died drowning in his own blood, a sound like a drowning child gurgling from his ruined throat.

Outside, more screams, the dogs yowling. Lira stepped over the soldier’s writhing body as curiosity seized her. The mastiffs had slipped their leashes, most already barreling through the swamp, away from the horror assaulting them.

Bones, long dead, enough to form an ossuary, had come to life. They were bound together with snake and millipede. Bright dragonflies perched in the eyesockets of skulls, and maggots formed their flesh. They pulled the living down, a crawling slithering mass of living unlife and fetid putrescence.

As the soldiers went down, new horrors awaited them. Frogs painted in bright iridescence forced their way between parted lips, whole colonies of ants chewed their way into men’s ear canals. The living did so only for so long, then they were subsumed, devoured from the inside. And as each died in twitching shuddering spasms, the swamp rose up to claim them. Clover burst from insect bites in green profusion. Where snake and spider had devoured their eyes, purple clusters of violets. Kudzu and ivy wrapped their bones.

And then, silence. It was over.

Lira picked her way through the bodies. Most were ruins of meat and gore. She searched for any identifying marks, or a badge of office or insignia. Finally, at the edge of the waters, she found it. A thick cluster of muscle and exposed bone. She reached into the mass of vines clutching the skinned man, pushing aside the beetles and centipede there, a small lizard that scurried away on stubby legs.

Her fingers met thick leather, and she tugged, pulling it from the mass of greenery. The bag slipped free from the swamp’s grasp, and she cradled it to her chest, then loosened the drawstrings. Inside were the coins she’d paid Marcus. She found it little comfort to reclaim such a small thing among all others the man had stolen from her, but even small victories were better than none in this war.

War?

She supposed it was that, now. She supposed it should have been sooner. These men, they had come, and they had bled Adair like a pig for slaughter. But the past can never be wholly mended. Only stitched from broken parts. Scars are simply souvenirs of mistakes. But each tells a story. Each is a roadmap of the past so we never forget those errors.

Lira turned back to the temple, saw it sat a little straighter. A little taller. She stepped back inside. Something shaped like a man, but not yet a man, stood before the dais with its back turned. It ran a finger along the inside of the basin, lifted it to its lips.

“Sweet,” it said.

It was silent for a long moment. Lira didn’t know what to feel in that space between words. Fear? She was past fear. Only a cold pit of steel and rage remained. She saw Pela’s face in the shadows, the litheness of the way the thing moved. And why wouldn’t she? What was a god but a construct of man? What was a god without worshippers? And oh, how she’d worshipped Pela.

“You will bring more,” it said, not waiting for confirmation from Lira.

She did not answer. She thought of Pela, of the raw pink of her open back against that perfect smooth black skin. Of the horrors of the Empire, the cruelty of the Senators. Lira nodded.

“So many more,” she whispered.

The thing in men’s clothing collapsed, scurrying away on a thousand spindly legs, and Lira busied herself with the beginnings of her task.

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