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Death by Venison
West County Road 38E parking area (Horsetooth Mountain Open Space- Colorado)
Fall of 1967
Lenny checked his rifle again before reloading it. It had already been a cool fall and he hadn’t spent as much time as he would have liked with his small arsenal of weapons. Between work, family and the bum knee he had from his time in the Corps, he had just not found the energy.
Deer hunting season was finally upon them and he was ready. Since getting out of the service he had missed the activity and the comradery that came with being in a Marine unit. Not that hunting was really that similar, but at least there was some commonalities. The hiking with a pack and carrying a rifle, the overnight camping in the middle of nowhere, the shit talking with your buddies.
With almost a dozen people in his hunting party (including two teenagers on their first grownup hunting trip), he wasn’t expecting to get many shots in. The deer would probably be halfway to Canada before his “bull in a china shop” group even got to the spot where he wanted to set up the blind and drop off their supplies. It was to be a 3 day excursion though and he hoped maybe he could sneak out on his own and drop one without the rest of his noisy troop scaring everything off.
“Everyone ready?” he hollered back to the group with their bags and rifles who were gearing up for the hike to old Horsetooth Mountain behind the 3 trucks they had brought. With any luck they would fill them up and have some great dinners in the next few weeks. He tossed the rest of his tarps for the carcasses behind the seat of his truck and locked up to join the men milling around behind his truck.
Lenny looked at all the faces looking expectantly back at him. Andy and his teenage son Theo, Phil and his boy Philly, Jeff, Rick and his cronies Sweeney, Tutt and Jimmy. Most were smiling, clearly anticipating a great trip. Rick and his buddies just looked impatient.
The hike to where they set up their blind would take most of the day from where they parked as it was on the backside of the mountain. There were closer places to park, sure. But Lenny had always enjoyed the march and even though his knee ached on long walks now, he had a little bit of a masochistic streak in him still he reflected wryly. Some things you left in the military and some you brought home with you…
Horsetooth Mountain (outside of Fort Collins, CO)
Counting the stops for rest and lunch, it took a little over 7 hours to reach the area where Lenny always set up his base camp and blind. He always set up in the shadow of a rocky overhang around the back of Horsetooth Mountain that reminded him of a giant stone Olympic diving platform. (Years later the local kids would compare it to Pride Rock from the Lion King) He quickly outlined everyone on where to set up tents, the fire pit and dig their latrine. He received lots of wrinkled noses on that part, but the Hilton this was not.
Theo and Philly wanted to scout out the area, but Phil Sr. had other plans for them and soon they were digging the latrine trench behind a large rock about 40 feet from camp while the others pitched tents and got the fire pit ready. Tonight would likely be their only hot meal with cold meat and hard tack the other two days so they wanted to make the most of it.
After Rick got a good fire going in the pit and Phil Sr. pronounced the latrine trench “good enough to shit in”, Lenny and Andy started setting up the meat to cook and Rick of course dragged out a bottle of Wild Turkey and made a noticeable dent in it before handing it off to Lenny.
Great. It’s going to be another one of those nights Lenny thought to himself while accepting the bottle with a nod. Rick was an asshole sober, but with a fifth of whiskey in him, he was intolerable. Everyone in town called him ‘Rick the dick’ behind his back and it was universally agreed that it was a moniker well earned.
Rick decided to live up to his name and led off with “why are these trips always such a fucking sausage fest? Would it kill us to bring some ass on one of these trips?” This was met with rolled eyes and grunts from the group as Lenny reflected that they HAD brought an ass with them but decided not to share that humorous little tidbit. And never mind that Rick had brought Sweeney, Tutt and Jimmy his friends from work with him making it even more men.
Jeff took the bottle from Lenny and took a strong swig. “Shit Rick, you probably wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway. You haven’t had a woman since a woman had you”. This was met with several chuckles and snorts and Rick’s face darkened visibly.
“Fuck you Jeff! Who invited you anyway? Don’t you have some hoses to go play with?” Rick finished with a harsh laugh and looked at his buddies for appreciation of his limited wit. They merely pretended to be otherwise occupied.
Jeff who was light years ahead of Rick in the wit department responded by pretending to undo his pants and said “why yes I do Rick, wanna see?” This had everyone busting out laughing and Rick’s face looked like it might bleed out if you poked it.
Lenny finally stepped in and said “ok, everyone, less playing and more working. I’d personally like to get this shit done and rest for a while”. Rick grumbled and shouldered past Jeff who just chuckled. “Why do you egg him on Jeff?” Lenny asked of his friend.
“Someone has to” Jeff replied with a wide grin. “May as well be me”. He walked off laughing to help the boys with the tents. Lenny turned back to the mostly set up camp and continued getting the meat ready for the fire.
After dinner while everyone sat around in their food comas passing around a new bottle that Rick had produced from his pack. Holy shit, did this moron actually bring any hunting / camping gear or was it full of cheap whiskey? Lenny was more of a scotch man himself, a habit he had picked up from his Gunny back in Camp Lejeune. How many Sunday mornings had he woke up begging the unit Doc for a couple of IV bags.
Sag was their unit Corpsman, named for his droopy left eye that left him eternally looking like he was about to have a stroke. He was a decent guy even though he was Navy. Lenny smiled to himself thinking of how pissed Sag would get whenever people reminded him he was Navy.
A loud pop from the fire brought his attention back to the present. “Let’s turn in boys, we have a big day tomorrow and the sun is out early here.” A chorus of grunts and nodding heads and people started gathering up their messes and their things and headed for the tents.
3 miles north of base camp Horsetooth Mountain
They had split into 2 groups for the day with Rick taking some of the more impatient men (translation: His buddies that were just as much assholes as he was) in the opposite direction thinking they would bag more kills without the kids along. Judging from Philly and Theo’s solemn demeanors on their first day out, Lenny wouldn’t put money on that. Rick was already passing around yet another bottle as they walked away and Lenny could hear them laughing 10 minutes of walking later. Sound carried out here away from civilization.
With a shrug, Lenny gestured to the group and pointed ahead. “At that small outcropping of rock, we’re going to veer left and then it’s another 20 minutes or so of walking and we can set up the blind. Relax boys, this is supposed to be fun!”
Phil smacked Philly on the shoulder and he visibly relaxed. He looked over at Theo with a sheepish expression. They all looked ahead at the rock formation. Nothing special about it, though it looked like it would be difficult to climb. Lenny led them forward.
After an uneventful walk they reached their spot and started to set up. The sun was already rising fast and it was getting warmer. A couple of them had already removed their outer coats and hung them on branches. After about 20 minutes or so, the blind was ready and the group spaced out facing different directions. They had already went over the hand signals for calling dibs on any stags they wanted to go after, with Philly and Theo working under the guidance of their fathers. Now, they settled in to wait.
Rick led his group through the brush like he was late for the train to work. Bulling through branches and bushes, snapping sticks and twigs and just generally looking like an ass. Tutt and Jimmy exchanged glances and just shook their heads. It was going to be one of those days. A typical one for anyone spending any amount of time with Rick, truth be told.
As they rounded a large fir tree, Rick stopped so fast that Sweeney ran into his backpack. “Can I help you with something dumbass?” Rick responded sarcastically. “Over there is where we’ll set up” he said pointing off to the right at a small copse of trees. Sweeney shot him a dirty look as he started walking towards the spot.
After they set up their blind and stowed their gear, Rick passed around the bottle one last time before they settled in to wait. As usual it wasn’t long before one of the knuckleheads started loudly running their mouths. This time it was Sweeney trying to brag about closing the deal with a waitress at their favorite bar over in Loveland. Rick turned to him with a flushed face and yelled “SHUT THE FUCK UP DUMBASS!! WE’RE TRYING TO HUNT HERE!”
Everyone went silent after that and they settled into the cold to wait. About an hour later, Tutt tensed up and raised his gun a little to the left of the group. “Dibs” he whispered. Everyone excitedly looked over to where he was lining up a decent sized stag about 20-30 yards away. It looked to be in the early years of maturity and had a small, but respectable rack of antlers.
It was munching contently on a plant looking around occasionally. It suddenly jerked its head to the right to look at a small copse of trees. It hesitantly started backing up and turning slightly to bolt.
“SHOOT IT NOW DUMBASS BEFORE IT GETS AWAY!!” Rick yelled and that was it for the stag who turned and was about to run when Tutt’s gun belched hot lead and the deer ran a step or two and dropped sideways, still trying to stand. Tutt jumped out of the blind and ran over, huffing and puffing the whole way and regretting drinking so much of Rick’s bourbon.
He got to the poor animal’s side right as it finally rose shakily to its feet and noticed that his panicked shot had only hit the upper rear left hindquarter of the beast. It just stood shaking and wobbly as he approached it slowly drawing his bowie knife out. It tried to run and immediately fell with a squeal. Tutt kicked it in the face and straddled it, slashing its neck quickly. Dark crimson blood splashed out and the wound spurted blood for a few seconds and the buck went still.
By that time he looked up to see the others walking slowly towards him. His adrenaline bled from him and he rose shakily to his feet realizing he had to piss something awful. He caught Sweeney’s eye and pantomimed pissing and pointed off to the side. Sweeney nodded back.
He walked around the small copse of trees and couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. He laughed to himself and unzipped himself and started to piss. He heard uneven steps through the brush and said over his shoulder “You guys really can’t hold your liquor can you? Find another spot, this is mine”. He turned a little more to see which one of his friends was approaching. Too late he remembered the buck being spooked by something off to the side and swung his head around. There was a huge buck standing less than 3 feet away from him. Its head tilted to the side and it stared blankly past Tutt. He heard a strange sound coming from it and realized it was grinding its teeth together really hard. He froze. There was what looked like mold all over its nose and even in the corner of its rheumy eyes. It also had long, thick yellow spittle slowly dropping from the corner of its mouth.
He had been hunting and camping in these mountains for decades and had never seen anything remotely like this. The animal just swayed slightly still grinding its teeth and seemed otherwise completely oblivious of Tutt standing just a few feet away. He pulled out his bowie knife once more and slowly stepped closer. A kill was a kill right? How many people could claim to have killed a huge stag like this with just a knife he pondered?
While he was daydreaming, the buck whipped his head violently clipping him on the temple with one of his antlers. As he staggered back, a searing pain erupted in his right forearm. He tried to pull it away and was yanked backwards. The fucking thing had bit him! Not only that it wouldn’t let go!
He swung with his other fist and caught it square on the side of its moldy looking eye. It squished and popped spraying green, gunky looking mucus everywhere, but it did let go of his arm. He quickly crouched and grabbed his knife out of the pine needles and rose slashing the beast’s throat. Unlike before, barely anything came out. It looked like a mix of dark blood and that thick looking mucousy crap in its nose and eyes.
It was enough though, the beast keeled over sideways and just mildly shook as it lay there. He looked back to see Rick gawking at him from like 5 strides away. “Thanks for the fucking help asshole!” he shouted at him. Rick stared at him dumbfounded and looking more than a little plastered.
“You’re bleeding” he said while pointing at Tutt’s arm”. Tutt looked down and immediately squeezed the wound with his other hand. “Sweeney!” Rick slurred. “Grab the first aid kit from my pack and bring it over here!”
Rick reached Tutt’s side and they both stared at the downed beast. “Sa big fucker” he slurred out. “You got that bitch with just your knife?” Tutt nodded and then Rick turned to the side quickly and vomited all over a nearby bush. Standing straight again and wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he said “two in five minutes isn’t too bad”. As close to a compliment as he ever got really. Tutt turned to the approaching Sweeney who was already approaching with an open bandage and a canteen.
Sweeney handed him the canteen first and said “rinse it out first, then the bandage”. Tutt nodded then yelped as Rick swiped the canteen out of his hand and chugged almost all of it.
“What the fuck man? Tutt yelled as Rick handed him the nearly empty canteen. “What am I supposed to do now? He glared at Rick while pouring the remaining few ounces over his wound. It washed it clear for a second then started bleeding again. Tutt quickly wound the bandage around tightly and gestured to Sweeney to secure it for him.
“Don’t be a little bitch, there’s a stream back by camp.” Rick said lowering his shoulder into Tutt as he walked away. Sweeney at least shrugged apologetically at Tutt before kneeling down to take a look at the diseased looking creature in front of them.
Now that the adrenaline wore off, he realized that the animal must have been infected with something and it emitted a weird sort of stench, much like opening a really moldy bag of bread. Sweeney covered his nose and shook his head. “That’s some disgusting shit man, you alright?”
Tutt nodded his head and pointed back to his first kill where Jimmy was standing silently watching them. “Hey man, do you mind helping me get that one ready to take back to camp?” Sweeney nodded and they headed back over to the first kill.
2 miles southwest of base camp Horsetooth Mountain – Fall of 1967
Lenny started getting the group ready to head back. It had been a fairly productive morning with Jeff and Phil Sr. both bagging good size bucks and Theo just missing on his first one. The group was in good spirits as they headed back to camp. They were usually lucky to pull one a day, but two kills before noon was really good.
As they headed back to camp, Lenny found himself wondering how Rick’s group had done heading the other way. Probably passed out drunk if he had to guess. He just hoped they would show up back to base camp on their own. He didn’t relish the thought of trying to track them down close to dark.
He knew if situations were reversed that Rick and his friends would just get drunk and maybe look for the others in the morning if it wasn’t too much trouble. It pissed him off, but what could he really do now? He definitely would try to keep the next trip a little more secretive so Rick and his asshole posse wouldn’t latch on.
Lenny shook his head and picked up the pace, he was ready to stow his gear and relax.
Base camp Horsetooth Mountain
When they got back, Andy had Philly and Theo clean up at the stream and start prepping for dinner. Phil walked up behind Lenny and handed him a cold beer. “Where did you get this from?” he asked bewildered.
“I stashed them in the stream last night to keep them cold. You didn’t think I was coming way up here without some brews did you?” he asked with a light chuckle. Lenny nodded gratefully and popped his can open. He took a large gulp and sighed.
Just then he heard loud voices coming from the woods behind him. “I knew it was too much to hope that Rick and his suckups would get lost in the woods, wasn’t it?” Phil asked with a raised eyebrow and a little grin forming in the corners of his mouth. Lenny chuckled and took some long pulls on the beer. Phil watched him closely and said “good idea. I don’t want to have to share with those assholes”. Phil pounded the rest of his beer and they started back.
At camp, Rick was already stumbling around and yelling incoherently at anyone who looked at him. Lenny noted that Sweeney and Jimmy were wrapping up a decent sized stag while Tutt followed them with a bandaged forearm which appeared to be bleeding through.
“Hey Tutt! What happened?” he hollered by way of greeting. Tutt turned slowly to face him and raised his injured arm to show him, but winced as he did so. Lenny noticed his color looked a little off as well. Lenny walked quickly over and put his arm on the bigger man’s other shoulder and said “are you ok? You look like you’re about to puke man. Come over here and sit down and let me take a look at that.”
Tutt jerked back like Lenny was about to hit him or something and snarled at him. “BACK OFF ASSHOLE!! I’M FINE!!” Lenny slowly put his hands up in front of him to placate the enraged man, but couldn’t get over the strange demeanor of the usually quiet man.
Lenny started backing away and said “fine man, but at least go to the stream and clean and redress it”. He turned around and walked back to Jeff who had watched the whole incident with his lips pursed. “What the fuck is up with that guy?” he said while shaking his head. “I mean, Rick’s whole little crew is a bunch of jackasses, but that guy is usually pretty laid back”.
Jeff nodded in agreement and jerked his head towards the firepit. “Let’s help get dinner ready.” Lenny nodded and they walked over never taking their eyes off of Tutt who still stood in the same spot mildly swaying.
Base camp Horsetooth Mountain – Later that night
After everyone had ate and drank their fill and they all sat around the fire, Lenny looked around the fire and noticed that the injured Tutt was not present and looked over at Rick and said “so hey man, what happened to Tutt?” Rick who had been fairly quiet looked up and shrugged.
“Fucker got the first kill this morning. Shitty shot to the side of the thing’s ass, but he got over there and finished it with that big knife of his”. He punctuated his statement with a swig from his bottle of Jack.
“So that buck kicked him or something?” Lenny looked skeptical.
“Nah. Weren’t that one. Dumbass went into the bushes to piss afterwards and an even bigger one snuck up behind him. Weirdest thing. Just sat there grinding its teeth. Fucker was all moldy looking too like an old tree covered in moss or something”. He shook his head taking another pull from his almost empty bottle. Lenny nodded and gestured for him to continue.
“Tutt went for his knife and the thing clamped his big ole teeth onto his arm! Made him drop his knife and all. He punched that thing in the side of the head and it let go and he grabbed his knife out of the dirt and slashed its neck. Big fuck got 2 kills in like 10 minutes!”
“Speaking of Tutt, where is he right now? I haven’t seen him for a while” Lenny said turning from side to side. Rick and Andy looked around too. Theo and Philly were passed out leaning against a log and Sweeney and Jimmy were well on their way to nodding off as well, although likely more from the fifth of whiskey than actually being tired.
Right then, Jeff walked back into the light from the bushes while zipping himself up. “Tutt? I saw him standing over there” he said jerking his thumb behind him to the left. “Weird dude, just staring into the woods doing nothing”. Rick got up and turned on his flashlight and headed over where Jeff had pointed.
They all watched as Tutt’s large frame materialized when Rick’s light got closer. They could hear Rick saying something but it was too far to make it out. Rick put his hand on Tutt’s shoulder and tried to turn him and he spun around pushing Rick back a couple of steps. Rick put his hands up and backed off while Tutt turned back to the dark still swaying.
Rick rejoined them at the campfire while shutting off his light. “What was that about?” Lenny asked with a look of concern on his face.
“I said his name a few times when I got closer and he didn’t even move. Just making that weird grinding sound. When I put my hand on him he pushed me back and was growling at me.” Rick looked a little scared, which was unusual since his M.O. was typically the tough guy act. “You know the fucking weird part? His arm bandage looked really wet and green.” He shook the thought away and reached down for what was left of his whiskey bottle.
“Green?” Andy replied while standing up and brushing the dirt off of his clothes. “probably just bad lighting. Rick and Lenny both grunted and at some unspoken cue, they all got up and started cleaning around the campfire and stowing their gear.
After everyone else walked off, Lenny extinguished the fire and zipped himself into his tent. His knee was throbbing after all the hiking. Thanks to a couple of drinks and a full belly he would probably sleep very well. He turned over and closed his eyes.
Base camp Horsetooth Mountain – dead of night
Lenny started and sat upright. He had been having some dream about when he and his brother went camping in high school. Well before his brother left home and eventually died in a motorcycle accident. He and his brother had been out hiking, in the dark which was weird, and when he had turned to ask his brother to go back to the tent, his brother wasn’t a teenager, but the older brother that Lenny had identified at the morgue in that shit town in New Mexico. The right rear side of his head squished and peeled back with flecks of gray brain matter visible in spots.
He didn’t seem to notice his brain was hanging out and gave Lenny a sickly grin and said “why are you still sleepin with all that shit going on?” He then shoved Lenny and that’s when he woke up. Lenny lay there a few seconds letting his heart go back to normal and noticed an odd rustling not far away outside his tent. A bear possibly? It wasn’t unheard of this early in the fall and despite them burying their kills, bears were nosy and could still smell the people.
Then he heard rustling in another direction and some mumbling. He strained to make out who it was and what they were saying and suddenly there was a shout and all went quiet. He heard the strange shuffling moving away towards the sound. The guns were all leaned against one of the larger trees which unfortunately for Lenny was about 20 feet away. He slowly reached down for his large machete strapped to his pack. It was too big for him to comfortably carry most times so he didn’t take it out hunting, but he was glad he had it with him now. He slowly unzipped his tent, thankful he always kept the zipper in good working order. He glanced out and shook his head relieved. It looked like it was just a few of the guys heading towards Sweeney’s tent on the end. Rick’s crew could be such children sometimes, probably just playing some sort of prank on them. He remembered doing similar things like stealing shoes or pouring water on his friends while they were sleeping.
He looked up realizing they had stopped walking and were all just standing there. He opted not to turn on his flashlight and stealthily walked over to see what they were doing under the light of the half full moon. He recognized Tutt, Jimmy and Phil (What the hell was Phil Sr. doing there) standing around Sweeney’s tent. He smelled urine strongly and also the coppery tang of blood. He crept closer and saw Sweeney’s tent was collapsed and Rick was on top of Sweeney shaking his head back and forth. Was he kissing him? What the fuck?
He then realized that teeth grinding sound was really loud. He looked back and forth at the men standing in front of him and realized they were all doing it. “What the he…” he started and Phil turned slightly towards him. The urine smell intensified and his neck looked dark and shiny. Lenny flicked on his flashlight and pointed it towards Phil Sr. Phil growled and raised his arm to cover his eyes. Lenny noticed then that the shiny spot on his neck was blood. No, not blood, it was greenish looking too.
Lenny backed way and raised his machete. He bumped into something solid and swung around to see Theo standing with his head tilted and grinding his teeth. He raised the flashlight up towards his face and suddenly Theo lurched forward growling and Lenny backpedaled. He once more bumped into something solid and as he swung around he noticed many shadowy shapes around him now. The teeth grinding sound was so loud in the quiet night time forest that it was unnerving him.
“Guys! What the hell? This shit isn’t funny! He gasped out while constantly turning and shining the light around noticing that the circle was closing around him. He raised the machete into an attack position and shouted for help. No response. He heard a scuff on the dirt and as he turned to see, he felt jaws clamp down on his arm and he dropped the flashlight.
He looked down at the top of Rick’s head who was snarling and worrying away at the meat of his wrist and forearm. He screamed and whacked him in the top of the head with the flat of the machete. It had no effect and he could hear the blood spattering the ground beneath his arm. He turned and chopped Rick’s arm lightly. Still no effect and he saw the others creeping closer. Panic set in and he hammered the top of Rick’s head with the handle of the machete. Rick dropped to the ground losing his bitehold on Lenny’s arm.
He wildly whipped his head around brandishing the machete. Then he felt a searing pain on his heel. The crazy fucker was trying to eat his foot now! He looked down though, not to Rick, but the young moldy green face of Philly. Blood coated his teeth and one of his eyes was hanging part out of its socket. He had a jagged wound on his neck that was covered in the strange moldy looking shit too.
He lost it. He buried the machete in Philly’s shoulder screaming his head off. No sound from the teen who continued gnawing on his ankle. Lenny swung the machete down burying it about an inch into the middle of his ear with a loud thunk. Finally Philly stopped and sunk back to the dirt. Lenny yanked his foot away and fell back into another person knocking them down. He rolled off of them looking down as he did so at the bloody face of Andy. He had the blankest expression on his face and he smelled like someone had pissed on his head.
Lenny rolled off and crawled a few feet and stood. The rest of the crew was shuffling towards him so he hobbled off around the extinguished campfire to catch his breath. He had to be dreaming this. He had just killed the kid of one of his best friends! What the fuck was going on here? Why were they acting like this? Right about then his savaged leg chose that time to give out – the ankle alone probably wouldn’t have been that bad, but it had to be the same side as his bum knee.
The noise of him falling seemed to bring the attention of those things – he was already having problems thinking of them as his friends – back in his direction. He stood and swung his machete a little to loosen up his arm. Friends or not, he hadn’t made it through the military just to die alone in the woods.
Lenny hobbled forward and started swinging.
Base camp Horsetooth Mountain – Sunrise
The sun broke the top of the mountain to reveal a scene of utter carnage. Lenny sat barely moving, leaning bloodied against an old tree. He wearily took in the bodies of his friends lying haphazardly around the camp. Blood and that fucking mold everywhere. He was so tired.
He jerked his head up suddenly. What if this was some sort of communicable disease, some form of germ warfare? Could this spread to other people? He pictured his beloved town of Loveland full of moldy, slobbering creatures trying to eat his friends. It had to stop here. No way of knowing how it spread or how far it could spread. He looked at the bodies of his friends and then over at the firepit. Slowly he rose to his feet.
Base camp Horsetooth Mountain
Lenny looked at the roaring fire piled high with the empty shells of what used to be his friends. He allowed himself to mourn a minute for those lives cut short – especially young Phillie and Theo. So many things they would never know or see now. His buddies who were always there for him when he needed them. He glanced down at his green, mossy looking ankle wound, and then his wrist wound dripping thick greenish tinted blood. Not long now.
He slipped his shoe and sock off and tilted the barrel of his rifle up under his chin. He slipped his toe in front of the trigger and looked towards the sun one last time…
Bastards Get What They Deserve
Tarras laughed bitterly as the wooden tavern went up in flames around him, fire racing merrily along the walls and ceiling with a jolly whoosh. He’d wanted a diversion, not fully blown arson, and now his plan was crackling and popping along with his favourite pub. His mother had always warned him that bastards get what they deserve, and that one day he’d get his if he didn’t change his ways. Maybe she’d been right. So many of his chickens had come home to roost at once that it was a miracle he wasn’t up to his arse in eggs. It wasn’t surprising that he was deep in the shit.
He’d made it to the upper balcony before his diversionary fire had become a wildly enthusiastic over achiever and the smoke was thickening fast, choking those around him and tearing their eyes. The Rat’s Nest was a dark, dingy dive of a drinking hole, sprawling its way through a number of decrepit wooden buildings and tenements. From the outside it looked like more ramshackle slum housing spreading over a block. Some of it was, but the rotten core was a corrupt, no-questions-asked boozer where deals could be made and betrayed. The sprawling, confused layout had at least a dozen common rooms over several floors, and enough exits to reassure the most paranoid of fugitives. Even if, in this case, they hadn’t been paranoid enough.
Looking down into the main common room he could see his pursuers, and he certainly had their attention. Thank the gods that there wasn’t a direct staircase from here. The Watch were on the left, them bursting in had been what sparked this little powder keg. Six burly guards in dented breastplates and cheap iron helmets, led by – yes, there he was – Watch Captain Sarath, their prime bloodhound. Big and broad, the man was a solid block of following the rules and doing the right thing. As well as being immune to corruption, the bastard was every bit as boring as he sounded. All Tarras could see of his face was a half grey beard and cold, iron-grey eyes. Every crook in the poor quarter had woken up in a sweat from a dream about the man behind that arctic stare.
Behind the city’s finest a more rag-tag group had stood up and stayed behind when the punters legged it. Eight hard bastards, no two dressed or looking alike, but all with that dark hint of menace that speaks of a truly violent man who enjoys it. Standing your ground in a burning building took either duty or a special kind of nerve, and Tarras reckoned these bastards had both in spades. One had stepped to the front, almost shoulder to shoulder with Sarath. Smoothly bald and immaculately dressed, he stood head and shoulders over the blocky watchman. He wasn’t big, not in the same, solid way as the Captain, but there was just so damned much of him. He looked normally proportioned until you realised that with his height, normal meant his bicep was as big as a decent sized toddler. His size and dark woollen suit marked him out as Knuckles, a lieutenant in the Rogue’s Gallery, the underground bosses of the city. If he was sent out, you knew you hadn’t so much fucked up as started a bloody orgy.
The last group, on the right, were elite hired muscle – you could always spot veterans from the border wars. Hard, uncompromising men who couldn’t go back to small, peaceful lives. Their war would never end, but they’d damned sure get paid for it now. They’d drifted in on the heels of the watch, closing the front door behind them. As intimidating as all the others were, these four would likely kill them all easily. Border war vets were a different breed. They were led by a slim, greying man of about forty, his hair tied back in a formal tail. He looked fit, dressed rich, and seemed to fit in with his men. Where they were clad in chain with broadswords and shields (the unofficial uniform of all the vets from the border) he wore a green and silver duelling jacket and had a rapier belted to waist. So, despite being noble he’d served. A surprising number did – surprising until you remembered that only those who’d served could sit on the council, of course. It neatly divided the nobles into the indolently lazy, plump, happy-to-drink-away-grandaddy’s-fortune wastrels and absolute slavering-with-ambition fucking wolves. Those particular house colours were uncomfortably familiar and led straight back to the matter at hand – what had started this whole bloody mess.
The smoke was thicker up here than in the common room, and Tarras waved it away before tucking his muddy brown hair back behind his ears and frowning down at his failed disguise – a set of slightly ripe labourers’ clothes he’d stolen. It had been worth a go. At least the clothes had fit – everyone born in the slums tended to be slight and skinny. Malnutrition from birth can do that. He tried on his best smile, he’d been blessed with a set of white, even teeth that he’d somehow managed to keep, despite definitely deserving many more than the large number of beatings he’d received over the years. He didn’t reckon his looks would get him out of this, but everything’s worth a try when you’re holding no cards.
“Gentlemen! Surely you aren’t all here for me? I’m flattered, but I don’t think I deserve all this attention. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll be leaving…” Tarras smiled broadly and held up his hands “it seems to be a bit… heated in here, so maybe we should all call it quits, eh?”
Before he could slope away, Captain Sarath held up his hand and three of his guards aimed their crossbows.
“Stay where you are. You’re under arrest, and you’ll be coming with us. There was an… incident… at the Garcia townhouse last night. You’ll be coming with us, one way or another. Make it easy, eh?” The big captain’s parade ground voice filled the room, and the crossbows were hard to argue with, even if the smoke did give him a chance. The watchmen were starting to cough and squint their eyes.
Tarras widened his grin and pointed at the giant crime lieutenant “it’s not me you want then, I was just following orders. It was a Gallery job start to finish. If I didn’t do it, it would’ve meant my hide. I didn’t have any choice, I’m as much a victim here as anyone.” The watchmen’s crossbows started to stray towards the collection of enforcers as their attention split to the men they hadn’t noticed behind them. “Knuckles gave me the job. He’s here to pay me for it.”
The huge enforcer turned to the watch captain, holding his hands out wide. They gleamed redly in the rising flames, the heavy brass weapons that gave him his name catching the bloody glow of the fire. “We both know there’s no truth in what he says Captain.”
He was softly spoken, and his slums accent was almost slushy, washing away all the hard consonants in his words. “We’re here for the same reason as you – a crime has been committed, and this crime, we don’t want to have associated with us.”
Bowing his head slightly, he murmured “if you leave this one to us, an example will be made that you never could, Captain. We’ll clean up what’s trying to look like our mess.”
Sarath squared up, as much as he could, tilting to meet the giant’s eyes “justice can’t be loaned out, friend. And I don’t make deals with your association. He comes with us. He answers our questions. He tells us what he knows. And if it is called for, he dies a clean death, in the light, where he can be seen. No whispers or rumours. There is no shadow justice, he comes with us.”
“Pity” Knuckles said softly “because I don’t want him, I need him. Our reputation is worth your lives, if you make it come to that. Besides” he looked down at the captain and half-smiled “we can have this chat once he’s caught. We don’t have to fall for the twat’s distraction.” Both men turned their heads to the balcony.
The damage was done though, and the whole squad had turned to face the rogues behind them, and Tarras’s smile grew a fraction wider and more genuine. Until, that is, the noble in the duelling jacket spoke up.
“You killed my mum, you fucking prick.” Each word was enunciated with crystalline precision. “You bastards better stay out of my way. He is mine.” A man could shave on how sharply clipped his t’s were clipped. “Get him.” At that, the veterans split into pairs and dashed into different parts of the burning tavern.
“Shit.” Tarras breathed, as the Watch and the Rogues split up and followed on their heels. The race was on. It was a bad sign that neither the captain nor the enforcer had been willing to challenge or contradict him. The way Tarras’ luck had been running the man was probably a damned Councillor. The nobleman stood his ground, staring up as Tarras stepped back into the smoke and flame to find a way out. Things had gone so far to the shit that the whole world was looking brown.
As soon as he was out of sight, Tarras changed direction, jogging up a staircase and along a corridor. The reason he loved this pub so much was that it was a bloody maze, a web of randomly connected rooms and passages. It was easy to avoid someone if you wanted to, you’d need an army and a hell of a lot of organisation to conduct a thorough search. There were still plenty of people stumbling through the smoke, which seemed to be spreading through the building faster than the flames. Drinkers, dealers, daft bastards, barmen, bouncers and bawds all barging and barrelling into each other. The chaos, screaming and coughing could only help him.
He had one small, slight edge in all of this that might get him through, and this was the perfect situation for it. Hell, it was why he’d lit the fire to begin with. The thinnest touch, little more than a single drop, of mageblood ran in his veins. Any more and he’d have been taken and forced into the slavery of a lifetime of service in the Citadel, locked away to only be let out in the event of war or disaster. But a drop could be hidden from the testing. He’d never work real magic of course. No fireballs, summonings or earthshapings for him. But he had just enough of a touch that his eyes were clear and he could breathe. The slightest and most primitive of wards, but in the right circumstances it was a sharp edge. Provided your go-to response to conflict was to set things on fire and run away, that is.
He took advantage, weaving through the panicked throng like a slippery fish while they coughed and spluttered, making his way down two separate flights of stairs. In a place like the Rat’s Nest the kitchen never slept and deliveries came in through the night. The door was never closed, and no-one would expect him to have doubled back this close to the main common room. Of course, the smoke was thicker here and the flames were well established, but he’d manage. As he got closer to where the fire had started there were fewer people and he was able to break into a full sprint, bursting through the batwing doors and into the huge, filthy kitchen.
It was a big room, scattered countertops, cupboards, drying racks and an actual stone fireplace instead of a stove, still industriously flaming away. There were knives everywhere, of all descriptions, none of them what Tarras would have called clean. He carefully avoided thinking about how often he ate here, especially as not all the knives were the kind you usually find in a kitchen to start with. There about seven different doorways leading off from the room Only one of those doors interested him right now, the big, solid kitchen door, the ancient hardwood stained and peeling with the detritus of a million cookfires. And zero washes. The door was propped open, cutting down on the smoke and letting in blessedly fresh air. Speaking of big and solid, Watch Captain Sarath was leaning against the doorframe casually, the room large enough that it didn’t seem crowded even with a pack of guards in it.
“You see Tarras, it’s not that I am especially clever – that’s not why I’m so good at my job. I know, I know; they call me supernatural, say I’m some kind of genius and all that. It isn’t true. You want to know the secret to catching little crooks like you? It’s not that you’re stupid. It’s not even that you aren’t as clever as you think you are. Your problem – and the problem with everyone like you – is that your version of thinking you’re clever involves thinking that everyone around you is a bit thick. Some part of the criminal mindset can’t believe it can be smart without making other people dumb. It makes you predictable in your arrogance.” The bricklike captain folded his arms, still leaning on the doorframe. “You have a choice to make Tarras, and it’s time you started being honest with yourself, even if no-one else. You’re down to two choices here. Come with me. You’ll be well treated, and you’ll get a clean, quick death. Or, take your chances in the flames, but between Knuckles and Councillor Garcia, pray that the flames take you. Burning is bad, one of the hardest ways a man can go. But better that than let them get you. You won’t get around them. There’s no hiding from men like that. Even if you got out – and you won’t – they will find you. They will never stop looking and there is nowhere you could hide from them. Not after what you’ve done.” He levered himself up with a shoulder, holding out an arm to invite him through the doorway. “I am the best play you have left to make.”
Tarras licked his lips. “look, I just wanted to rob the place. It was meant to be empty. All I was going to do was sneak in, grab a few things and leave. A few servants maybe, otherwise empty. No one was meant to get hurt!” he pushed his hair out of his eyes again, sweat from the heat and running slicking it back.
“I don’t deserve to die for an accident. None of this was meant to happen, and I won’t swing for it.” He grinned recklessly, nerves fizzing “None of you will catch me. It ain’t justice to kill a man over a mistake – a mistake anyone could have made! You and Knuckles have bigger fish to fry than me, and the knobber will get over it in a week or two. Things will be back to normal within a month.” He started to edge towards a door, but the watchmen had stepped around the room to block the various exits off. Looking around, he didn’t have a clear run in any direction, they’d trapped him neatly. He had no chance at the door leading outside.
“It’s time to get real” Sarath stepped forward, those legendary cold eyes fixed on the thief “you broke into a Councillor’s townhouse in the noble district. You robbed him, assaulted his staff and killed his mother. Short of an invading army nothing is going to distract anyone from what you’ve done.”
“It was an accident” whispered Tarras, but they both knew that that didn’t matter.
“You’re out of time. If those goddam mercs find you here I can’t keep you safe – and your bloody thief friends aren’t a sure bet either. It might not feel like it right now, but this is a kindness.” The big man’s eyes were like chips of ice, and whatever kindness he thought he was showing was hidden behind that steel beard. “Take him. Gentle if he lets you, but take him.”
The six guards were converging on Tarras, and it took a lot for him to force himself to stand still and keep his eyes down. He had to wait until the last moment if this was going to work. They kept their swords and cudgels at their belts, and as long as he didn’t pose a threat that’d stay true. So, he waited until they’d reached out to grab him before he pulled his knives, grinning and cutting. He stabbed at anywhere soft – watchman’s breastplates and armour left you with faces, hands, upper arms and upper thighs as the only targets not cased in metal.
He mostly went for faces, and he managed to cut a line across one unlucky guard’s eyes, sending him reeling back, screaming. Another caught a knife through her cheek, grinding off her teeth before slicing through to the other side of her mouth. Poor lass would have a memorable smile after tonight, but that’s the price you paid. Everyone know that cornered rats were dangerous, and they’d cornered him deliberately. Her fucked up face wasn’t his fault. The sudden blood and screaming were enough to give him an opening. There was a gap in their ranks, and the remaining guards were caught in that frozen moment either wanting to help their friends, or stopping trying to grab him so that they could draw their weapons to cut him down.
He took his chance and gapped it for one of the side doors before Sarath could cross the room and get involved. He managed a fleeting smirk for the captain as he went, kicking the door open and letting in a billow of black smoke and red flame. Pausing for a moment, he ran in, confident that the mess he’d left and the inferno would keep them from following him. It still left him short of one way out of a burning building filled with killers hungry for his blood, but that was a new and different problem.
The corridors were empty, the smoke choking and flames lapping everywhere. He passed a couple of bodies lying still in one of the small common rooms he cut through. What type of stupid bastard doesn’t leg it at the first sniff of smoke? If they’d had better instincts they’d still be alive and Tarras had bigger priorities than the fate of fools. At least this stupid bastard had been trying to leg it since the first sniff of smoke!
By now, he was really hoping that the advancing fire had driven out his other pursuers. He could stand the smoke better than others, but it still affected him and the flames would kill him as easily as anyone else. A collapsing building would also put a very emphatic end to him, which was starting to look like a likely scenario. He nearly felt bad about that – he bloody loved the place – but in the end it was a den for a gang of cutthroats so he’d probably performed one of his rare good deeds when he torched it. He needed another exit now, and if it was one that didn’t put him on the street at the front of a burning building then all the better. He was heading for the basement, where in the dark and cool they stored barrels of ale and had a loading bay to bring the fresh casks and food stuffs in.
Of course, being the wonderful den of iniquity that it was, the Rat’s Nest was a hotspot for smuggling and trading in illicit goods. And that meant that as well as the big cargo hatch there was a hidden tunnel from the loading bay to a warehouse a street over. Without a quick exit from the kitchen, this was his best bet.
The final flight of stairs was wide, stone and right next to the kitchens again. He’d run all that way to end up almost exactly where he started, but this way he wouldn’t be followed in by the Watch. As he jogged down the heat and smoke diminished rapidly – it was almost clear down here. The basement was huge, sprawling around on all sides with scattered support columns and partial structural walls not planned by any architect, sober or otherwise. In fact, it looked like there had been crews with hammers down here, widening and tunneling to create a huge illicit depot out of the foundations and abandoned basements of the whole neighbourhood, extending randomly in all directions.
The cavernous room was poorly lit, scattered lanterns not doing a lot more than create a trail to follow rather than giving a clear view – and that probably wasn’t an accident. It made for a chaotic jumble of half-seen shapes, piles and corridors of goods everywhere – kegs, bales of cloth, crates of vegetables… made sense that the stuff you could see would be related to the ‘legitimate’ tavern above. Tarras wound his way through the jumble hoping that the Watch had taken their injured and left when he legged it back through the fire. If someone wanted to ambush him, there were enough hiding places for an army down here. The cargo hatch and the tunnel were just ahead. He had no intention of using the hatch, he would rather slip out away from the fuss, and the warehouse was right on the canal too – he could get anywhere in the city from there. He started to speed up as he got closer, impatience and nerves egging each other on in a discordant harmony.
Enough hiding places for an army, or just a pack of hard bastards, ghosting out of the gloom around him. The only thing they had in common were their eyes. Some had knives, some clubs, there were hooks and one honest-to-the-gods spiked flail. And from out the secret smuggling tunnel stepped their leader, the hardest bastard of them all, dipping to fit through the door. There were enough torches here that Tarras could see the men ringing him clearly. He knew none of them, and none of them looked concerned by what was going to happen to him. There was no pity down here.
Knuckles chuckled softly in his quiet voice, understated malevolent laughter clearly being a skill set required to rise through the ranks of the Rogue’s Gallery. “How predictable that your first thought would be the smuggler’s route. You make it too easy Tarras. You know we’re going to make you famous, right?” His accent slushed over the t’s. “Everyone, everyone, is going to know every detail of how you died. You looking forward to being a legend, mate?” He stopped a few paces away, his pack of bastards his amphitheatre.
Tarras forced himself to stay calm and keep smiling. “Let’s not get premature, friend. You want your cut of the job and that’s only fair. I wasn’t holding out on you, I was laying low.”
“There’s no ‘laying low’ on this Tarras.” The giant frowned down at him. “You broke every rule we hold to, pal. We don’t do no jobs in the crested district. We don’t do no jobs on people that hold contracts with us – and the Garcia’s do. But most of all – most of fucking all – we most fucking certainly don’t murder old ladies in their godsdamned beds.” His brows drew down even further, a dark line drawn across the pale balloon of his head.
“Mistakes were made, I admit” Tarras held his hands up “but let’s not pretend that we’re pilgrims, buddy. Sure, rules were broken. But in case it escaped you” he flashed his cockiest smile “breaking rules is pretty much our vocation.” He stepped to the side and sat on a heap of goods like he didn’t have a care in the world. “Let’s not get bent out of shape here. I’ll pay extra, of course, no need to squeeze.”
“I’m not fucking negotiating here” Knuckles was starting to look angry and it was probably more intimidating than the idea of burning in the fire. “If that flash whose darling mother you killed takes it into his head he can end us.” He spat at Tarras “the good Councillor is on the goddam Civil Obedience forum. He can order a crackdown. He can call up the troops and send them into the slums. He can do what the fuck he likes, and you made him want to put us in the dirt.”
He stepped forward, towering over the seated thief. “Our best hope – the best hope for everyone without a Citizen’s Licence or estate – is to bring you to such a horror show of an end that the bloody gods themselves shudder. You’ll be immortal, chum. We need to prove, extremely publicly, that we police our own. That having a deal with us means something.” He held up a fist the size of a ham, the brass rings on his fingers shining in the torchlight. “Much as I’d love to pound your thick head flat, it won’t be me that does it. The cutters are waiting. We’ve set a post on Docker’s Square. You’re going to be a spectacle. And you. You!” He grabbed Tarras’s face with one giant hand and shook him like a cat with a mouse “You don’t seem to fucking get it. This is real. This is happening. And it’s happening now.” Knuckles threw him back into the stacked goods, shaking his hand with disgust. “Take him boys” he waved his bastards on as he walked away “he has an appointment to keep.”
Tarras sat up. He managed to keep his smile, although it was a twisted, feral thing. “Real?” He spat after Knuckles, a white gobbet arcing into the dirt. “All your blabbing about rules and you say real? You’re robbers you bloody idiot! Crooks like me! All this ‘honour among thieves’ crap is stupid, can’t you see that?” He scrabbled to sit up, backing away from the approaching men “You’re playing at crime. Rules? You can fuck right off.”
Desperately hoping the small wooden cask next to him was in fact lamp oil, Tarras thumbed the bung out and lobbed it at the nearest torch, set on a stone pillar a few steps away. As soon as he noticed that there was a set of casks in the pile he’d sat on it – a man always needed options. Or last hopes in this case. What else came in small casks only big enough for a couple of pints?
Turns out, judging by the smell and the way flame erupted, that premium brandy also came in small casks. He had no idea why it would get left out here, but Tarras wasn’t about to question it. This was better – so much better. He hadn’t been sure that lamp oil would catch, but extra strength spirits could always be relied on, even if he died a little inside at the waste. The enforcers flinched away from the gout of flame and he took advantage, standing up to throw another cask for an answering cough of flame. The third cask he threw at their feet, the spilled liquor catching with a woof worthy of a particularly satisfied dog.
There’s something mesmerising about watching serious, ruthless men dance because someone set their shoes on fire. The menace and presence disappear, leaving them prancing like small children stepping in a cold puddle. He didn’t have time to enjoy the show though – spirits don’t burn for long and the basement was plenty big enough to just walk around the fire. Tarras tore his eyes away and started running. He found extra resolve by noticing that Knuckles had turned and was sprinting to cut around the fire and head him off. The massive killer didn’t shout or say a word, silently charging after him. Tarras ran like a giant, murderous criminal with very long legs was chasing him through a burning building. This wasn’t the first time he’d run for his life and he didn’t waste time looking to see how close Knuckles was, he put all his effort into speed and when he got to the stairs he took them two at a time, hardly breaking stride. The heat and smoke hit him like a wall, he could feel his skin crisping and he didn’t slow down, dropping a shoulder and hitting the door into the kitchen at top speed. It flew open and he fell through, dropping to scrabble on all fours. The watchmen were long gone, just bloodstains left behind.
He skittered to the kitchen door, tugging frantically, but it was barred from the outside. That bastard Sarath. It was a heavy, hardwood door and the walls would burn through before it did – and they were busy doing exactly that. The room was an inferno, he couldn’t stay here. He looked back at last, but there was no sign of Knuckles. Gods willing the smoke and heat had been too much for him, but he had no chance of getting out through the basement. The closest exit was straight across the main common room and out the front door. It would be bad in there – worse than the kitchen – but it was close and he wasn’t sure he’d make it to any of the further ways out. At least it would be clear, and he’d have to find a way to slip into the crowd that had doubtless formed – free entertainment was a rare thing in these parts.
The fire in the main common room had reached that point where it was so hot it looked almost liquid. Pushing through the heat was almost physical, and the contents of the room were just heaps of coals. The walls were showing holes and bits of the ceiling were dropping. Tarras braced himself and made a dash of it, hand up to try and protect his eyes. He felt a budding kinship with boiled eggs.
This was the biggest serving room in the pub and it could comfortably fit a hundred drinkers when it wasn’t on fire and collapsing into rubble. The door outside was incongruously small for it – a single, narrow door, blessedly open. From the outside, if you didn’t know about The Rat’s Nest you’d never find it. He staggered to a stop as a slim figure stepped through the door, blocking his path. If the heat was bothering Councillor Erek Garcia he wasn’t showing it. He still looked neat, and stood with perfect posture.
“Somehow” he said, standing side-on to draw his rapier “I knew you’d end up coming out the front door Master Tarras. You seem to have avoided my men, and I can’t say that I’m sorry about that. Some things one should do for oneself, and vengeance is definitely one of those things.”
Tarras had never heard his name sound like that. The noble’s clipped accent and precise diction made him want to look around for someone else. There was going to be no talking his way out of this one, the man wanted him dead. He held up his hands and took a few steps back. The heat was more intense and breathing was harder, but he had to try and get an edge. He stood no chance against a border veteran in a fair fight. He held his hands up, palms open and smiled “look friend, this is all a misunderstanding. You’re angry, and that’s fair. I would be too. But you’re angry at the wrong man. Let me explain -”
“Enough, Master Tarras. Enough.” Erek took two steps closer, holding his rapier in a low guard “You killed my mother. Murdered her in her own bed while robbing my property. There’s not a lot left to say to someone once you’ve gutted their mother.”
Tarras kept backing away “She had a crossbow. I didn’t have a lot of choice. I’m not a bad man my lord, things just went a bit wrong.” The heat was agony over his shoulders and he hoped he was going the right way and not directly into the flames or a pile of coals. A single weak drop of sorcerer’s blood only did so much, being in this room was killing him.
“If murdering my mother is things going a bit wrong I never want to see what you consider to be an actual fuckup.” Erek conceded to the heat by wiping a forearm over his face. “And you keep thinking I’m stupid. I’m really not, little man.” There – his temper coming through – and the noble took three measured steps to keep Tarras in range of his lunge “Mother’s crossbow was empty, and the bolt in a wall. She’d tried to shoot you, and quite rightly too, but had the miserable luck of missing.” He kept coming closer, and his skin was reddening from the heat. The lack of air had his breaths quick and tight “She was unarmed and no threat to you – she’d never be – have been – able to reload that cursed thing.” His eyes may have been red and streaming, but they were the hardest Tarras had ever seen. “You killed my mum you fucking prick.” Now you could tell he had served. When his blood was up, you could hear it in his voice. Officer or rank, they had a sound. The border wars changed a man.
“I’m not going to kill you outright, that’s too easy.” Erek panted slightly “just going to wound you enough to incapacitate you. You’re going to live a long time, fucker, a very long time and you’re going to wish you could die. You’ll beg me for it.” He tried to spit, but nothing came out and he coughed instead, a raw, violent sound that spoke of more smoke and heat than a man could really handle. “She was kind. She was strong. Had to raise me alone because of the war. She never complained, gave more than she should and helped those she could. And you ended that.”
Tarras’s smile grew sharp. The heat had gotten to the man, and now he was ready. “If she was that bloody great you’d think she’d know how to listen. I warned the bitch not to pull the trigger.” He shrugged “what did she think was going to happen? Brought it on herself, really. It’s not a threat if it don’t have teeth.”
The councillor lunged, faster than Tarras expected and even waiting for it he was hard pressed to sidestep, a red line of pain flashing across his stomach. Just a scrape. He danced away with a little chuckle, circling to keep the nobleman in the heat. The veteran snarled at him, and angrily swiped at the sweat running into his eyes. That was what the thief had been waiting for, and he darted in as he drew two short, thick bladed daggers. One cut high to make Erek flinch, and Tarras dropped and speared the other into his thigh, in and out before the man could bring his rapier to bear. The slim man cursed, and started to circle, leg dragging slightly.
He didn’t wait long, the wounded man tried a sequence of cuts and jabs, but his footwork was compromised and Tarras kept backing away to disengage. He waited, and when Erek coughed he took advantage, darting in and tagging his ribs and forearm before skipping back again. The heat was acting fast, and he was starting to flag, but his opponent couldn’t catch his breath and was starting to stagger. It was starting to become a matter of time, and time played into his hands.
The councillor knew it too, gasping “fucker” as he tried to rush, flailing his blade in an all-out attack, digging deep to try and overwhelm the murderer’s guard. He couldn’t keep it up though, and as he fought to breathe Tarras rammed a dagger into his ribs through the duelling jacket, leaving the blade in place and palming another from his back. The noble grunted, and the slight thief stabbed him again, driving one dagger into his gut, and as the stricken man folded he hammered the other into his back, again leaving the blades in.
Erek Garcia fell to his knees as Tarras skipped back again. The man fought for breath that didn’t come, and his eyes held all the hate in the world. He couldn’t get back to his feet, he was done. Tarras drew his last knife and stepped close, pulling his head back by that stupid tail and made the man meet his eyes. “You miss your fucking mum that much you can go and meet her” he snarled and cut his throat, blood flooding out.
He threw the corpse facedown and fought to breathe. That had been way too close, and it was well past time he got out of here. He crouched to check the dead man’s pockets, snatch his wallet from his belt and pull two rather fine rings from his fingers. Not a bad haul at all, and he grabbed the rapier too. Any weapon chosen by a serious swordsman with a deep purse would fetch a fine price. He staggered to the door and slipped out warily. The crowd looked local, he couldn’t see any of the various men who’d been hunting him, but that was unlikely to stay true for long.
Most of these poor saps were going to have find themselves new homes after this, with the whole block in flame. It was a shame, but when you leave a man few choices bad things happen. There was a lesson in there, for both the Watch and the Rogue’s Gallery. Tarras slipped around the edge of the crowd and took the first corner he could.
He’d need somewhere to lay low for a while, but this would blow over soon enough. The Watch would find new people to chase, Knuckles and the rest would find other things to distract them. The loyalty of the hired muscle would evaporate with the death of their employer. Two weeks or so, and he’d be back in the game. Checking what he’d looted from the councillor, Tarras whistled happily to himself. He was set for a while.
His mother had always warned him that bastards got what they deserved. With newfound wealth burning a hole in his pockets, he reckoned this particular bastard deserved a cold drink, a bath, a backrub and a happy ending.