Grimdark Story Battle Royale 5: Block A

Voting will close on May 24th at my discretion or it may be extended. In this round, voting will be decided by a point system. Vote for each of the four stories with your score 1-5. I will calculate the totals and break any ties.

Here are the criteria for scores:

1-Decent story, but some elements pulled down my overall enjoyment of it. I might read more from this author.

2-Solid story with one element particularly stronger than the others so that made me enjoy it more. I would like to read more from this author.

3- Great story with good characters, a strong plot, and interesting setting. I will actively search for more stories from this author.

4-Remarkable story with memorable characters, a stellar plot, and a unique setting. I would happily buy any stories or novels from this author.

5-Fantastic story that I could see in a major anthology or a professional magazine. All elements wowed me and I would consider myself a huge fan of this author.

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.

FROM SAND AND RUIN

Yaris, your infidelity remains untold. I alone must burden the truth- that our pursuit into the sands were not for our preservation, but rather we may expire quietly.

 Accept my lament and instruct me as their Desert Father. By our covenant, the Qojar Trials shall spill half of our children’s Moein blood, and I will lead my remaining sons and daughters towards our destined eradication.

In this, we suffer for you and the world.

                                                -A prayer from the Third Desert Father

After a summer’s span of no rain, the clouds finally opened and indicated favor for this significant night. Yaris’s blessing spewed onto the crowd in unending waves of brisk, penetrating water. Thunder deafened the audience and blended with the striking of ritual drums. Thirsting sand drank in gluttony while dug up and liberated by the dance of the Moeins. At least she’d have the honor of dying in the rain. Rani blinked madly, attempting to shake the droplets clinging to her eyelashes.

Despite the downpour, she didn’t dare look away from the fighting arena. A splash jerked her attention to the other side and she finally caught sight of the two Potentials. Her eyes fluttered and she nearly missed the flash of an arm swinging and then a foot sweeping through the air. A bloated eye appeared midair and burst. The sporadic glimmering made it evident that one of the fighters was swiftly losing. Mud splattered and a soiled outline of a man materialized on the ground.

Her mother sniffed pointedly, “Nadir’s glinting all over the damn place.”

Rani’s stomach churned at her mother’s words. Her round was next. She ached for comfort in prayer but feared she’d reveal her treachery. Who was she to beg salvation from Yaris’s own deific plan?

She glanced over to her sister beside her. Though barely a year older, Amira’s stature already conveyed the Moein warrior their mother fawned over. She stood, impervious to the gale and rain, neither blinking or shivering. The Alasi cloth around her chest and waist absorbed her midnight skin but not rainwater. Those around them stared at the rare fabric with tightened eyes. Alasi material helped perfect Fading and had never been squandered on mere Potentials, another exception gifted to Amira.

Amira was a statue representation of everything Moeins were supposed to be, an unyielding force. Rani mimicked a drowned, overdressed rat in her drenched clothes.

Bones crunched and Nadir’s ruined body visualized.  His head had cracked open; his left eye socket bulged outward. His mouth gaped open and rich red spilled out. While on his knees, he held his head up to the crowd and shook his head side to side. He was then projected sideways by an unseen force. He crumpled onto the ground and didn’t move.

The victor oafishly blended back into view. A lean structure that flowed with muscle. The corner of his eyes crimped upwards while addressing the crowd, taking no further notice of the fallen opponent. Everyone shrieked for the victor, Kehan, son of the Third Desert Father.

 Two Moeins rushed forward to drag the fallen warrior away. Rani grew nauseous watching the body disappear past the crowd. His defeat in the Qojar Battles made him a Soied, an outcast. His name now unspeakable even by his own family. Not even death spared him from his fate.  His body would be dumped deep within the Sadejskyran Desert. Erased.

She fiddled with the star shaped stone on her necklace, the first she ever carved. She fancied herself a Sculptor- far from the fighter her mother and culture demanded. Hobbies were for the weak, her mother loved to say. Despite all her mother’s training, she never mastered the art of Moein combat. Every battle either showcased her inability to camouflage into a proper Fade or became a humiliating spectacle when she glinted like a child.

She’d never became a Moein. Only winning in the Qojar Battles granted that right. Entertaining no delusions, her upcoming battle would be her end.

The crowd’s chatter heightened, eager to see the next Potentials in action. They wanted more blood and her rival would grant their wish. Rani’s fighting lessons faded from memory. Her legs refused to move.

Her sister entered the clearing, her footsteps prancing on top of the mud. She headed directly towards Kehan. He kissed her forehead to the crowd’s applause.

“What are you waiting for?” Her mother hissed, elbowing her second child forward.

She stumbled onto the field. The circle of onlookers appeared to close in around her, gossiping about the shamed second child, an obvious waste of resources. Her eyes burned as she struggled to hold back tears. A quick glance to her hands proved that she was already glinting in and out, her fingers camouflaging with the muck without command. Amateur. She took her place at the opposite end from Amira.

“You’re going to win this, Rani!” Vaida said.

Rani recognized Vaida’s voice amongst the jabber. Her best friend’s encouragement sent goosebumps along her arms. She quickly searched for Vaida, hoping her friend’s thick and ringlet hair would stand out from the crowd. She failed.

She gazed up to her sister. Amira-the one who doesn’t Fade but disappears entirely, never a glint out of place. Heat surged within her throat and burned bitterly.

Amira had blinded herself with white ribbons, entrusting the natural pull of her enemy’s essence.

It was just like the new Amira to boast about her abilities. Her sister was not only going to kill her, she was going to turn their fight into a spectacle. 

Rani tried to recall who Amira imitated. Stories had filled their childhood about historic methods on how to enhance one’s ability. She remembered the figure. Now a reimagined Ysin the Blind stood in her enemy’s spot.

“Fucking showoff,” Rani hollered.

Amira’s lips slit upwards. Her blindfold emphasized her smirk.

Since Kehan was the latest victor and still standing, he would start this round. He stood between the two Potentials and began counting.

“One!”

Rani’s head spun. As if on cue, she started slipping and sloshing within the mud.

“Two!”

Her foot found a lodged rock. She steadied herself and raised her fists.

“Three!”

She refocused on Amira and her sister’s wide smile. This sinister being that would embarrass her in front of everyone.

“Four!”

She lunged into a sprint, nearly plowing Kehan over before he could shout the final count. She managed a spiral flip and Faded before she hit the ground. Her sister nowhere to be seen.

She had to make Amira bleed first. A brutish method but torn skin doesn’t Fade. Leaping forward, she struck blindly.

Pain crushed her throat as she jumped, Amira’s attack knocking her backwards onto the earth. 

Rani wrapped her arms around her head and tried to roll away but found herself completely submerged in sludge. She had to calm down, her life teetering on this single, fragile moment. She frantically tried to pull in any color, but only felt murk that clung to her. Weighed down and immobilized, the ground began digesting her. She couldn’t Fade.

“Hel-” she tried screaming but as soon as her mouth opened, muddy water came surging in. She inhaled muddy ooze and her lungs ignited.

 Pain exploded from the middle of her face and expanded along her cheeks. Amira continued stomping on her face. She tasted stone throughout her mouth and her nose gushed bloody snot. Everything blurred through darts of light and tears. She gave in to the Earth enclosing around her and waited for the end.

She opened her eyes to see Amira being lifted onto Kehan’s shoulders. The battle already over. This must have been the shortest fight in history. Rani thought about Fading into the mud but couldn’t even bring forth the effort. She deserved to be ridiculed.

“Get up, you fucking flop!” Her mother said.

Hands seized her hair and jerked her onto her feet. She flailed her arms to stop the assault, but her mom easily swatted her attempts away.

“Please!” Rani whimpered, her hair threatening to rip out from the violent treatment. She struggled to keep pace as she was forced past the gawkers and towards the unknown. Their march seemed to have no end and the celebratory cheers of Amira’s victory grew faint. “Mom, stop!” Being dazed and concussed, she could only endure.

Their journey came to a sudden halt and Rani bit the ground upon impact, sobbing between wheezes. This time she embraced the land, grateful that she could finally rest. “Please just stop.” Drool dribbled past her lips in slivers. Pounding echoed in her ears and she didn’t know whether it came from her heart or head. The little relief she had fled as she peered up and beheld the alien architecture in front of her.

Jets of serrated crystals penetrated from the earth in menacing spikes. The larger spikes formed a ring and blocked its contents from view. She worked with all varieties of rocks, but nothing compared to the monstrosity before her. The crystals defied nature by rotating different shades and hues. How did such a massive structure exist without her ever knowing?

“Can you feel its power?” Her mother said, her voice disturbingly soft.

There was no need to lie. The crystals’ colors extended past their physical form and invaded through her skin. It transformed into a hostile energy that swelled within her. She was a mockery, a pathetic imitation of the power before her. Still several feet away, her skin contracted in retaliation. The energy forced her to Fade.

“You haven’t felt anything yet.” With that warning, her mom grasped Rani’s arm and hauled her towards the horror.

They stopped in front of the barrier that concealed a bottomless abyss, filled with water and encased with crystals. Her heart swelled into her throat. Insanity reigned control, promising death by her mother’s hand. Rani clawed at her mother’s arm and dragged her heels into the ground.  

Her mother pulled her into an embrace.

A hug was the last thing Rani expected. They stood clutching each other in the sands. The rain had stopped, and the humidity produced an uncomfortable heat between them. They pressed their dirty cheeks against each other, their tears and grime mixing as one. Her mother patted her hair. Rani didn’t resist. It was safer within her mother’s arms than in her hands.

Her mother released a soft breath, “I tried my best. I did everything I could for you and Amira.”

“You did.”

Rani’s lie slipped past so easily. How long had she craved this? For her mother to simply hold her? She wanted to etch her mother’s words into her memory forever, but her mother lied just as effortlessly. Lies are too dangerous to remain with you.

Rani was too broken for confrontation. Her own emotions already battled each other, over-lapping, colliding. Frantic thoughts lost within a maze. She was a Soied. What will happen to her now?

“I will save you, Rani,” her mom promised.

Rani managed to gulp one last breath before her mom hurled her into the well.

A rush of freezing, biting water smacked her broken nose and constricted around. She flailed her limbs, the surface lost to her. Crystals blinded her from all directions. Their haze tormented her skin and coerced her to Fade with ever-changing patterns. Exhausted and enclosed in a prison of fluorescent colors, she sank.

“You need to breathe, Rani!” her mother screeched.

Rani foolishly shifted her focus from her opponent to her family along the sidelines. A younger Amira sat by her mother’s feet, born too ill to participate in the battles. Despite this indignity, Amira watched her with rapt attention. Rani thought she saw hope in her sister’s gaze. Though she was over fatigued, she had to continue. She had to improve so that she could protect her sister- to fight for them both. This was her purpose in life.

She never saw the next blow. She fumbled onto the floor, suffering defeat once again.

Rani’s eyes fluttered but her sister’s mirage lingered. She reached out and held Amira’s hand. All the suffering she experienced as the second child, and all this fighting had been endured for lies. Her childhood naivety taunted her now, fueled from years of being her only source of pride. She marveled on how strong her sister had suddenly become. Amira proved to be everything her parents needed this entire time.

How foolish to believe that her and Amira would both become Moeins when life only ever offered room for one.

Black wisps crept along the edges of her vision and danced a tale of death. She closed her eyes and allowed darkness to gently caress her, stealing her life away. You need to breath, her mom’s words echoed on repeat. She smiled, allowing some water to pass her lips. Nothing left for her but to drown. At last, she would finally accomplish what her mother demanded. Yaris would see her soon.

Water seeped into Rani’s mouth and jerked her awake. She gasped but not for air. She was still in the well, but her lungs no longer felt the need for oxygen. The crystals continued to project that weird energy. It bruised into her, violently providing nourishment. A sensation that contorted throughout her body, intensifying her muscles.

She glanced down at her body and saw nothing. Startled, she sucked in a mouthful of water before realizing her mistake. Her heart soared, even as she coughed the water out. She was completely camouflaged. For the first time in her life, she had perfected a Fade.

Sunlight seeped through the water’s surface, clouding the opening of the well. She stretched her arms up, straining to pull herself towards the light. Her legs kicked vigorously, but the water pressure suspended her in place. She eyed one of the longer crystals sticking out. The crystal was right there, just over a body length away. She concentrated all her weight into her left shoulder and lunged in the crystal’s direction, only moving a fingerbreadth closer.

She thrust her right shoulder in the same manner. She edged gradually. Each small pivot a victory that brought her closer to freedom. She extended her hand out and gripped the crystal, wincing as sharp edges sliced into her palm. Blood and torn skin spawned into view. Her perfect Fade ruined.

 Rows and rows of piercing crystals marked her passage way to the top. All of them sneered, taunting her with jagged teeth. There was no other way out.

She climbed.

By some foul craft, the water provided no buoyancy. Her arms throbbed from lifting her full weight and flared when crystals flayed skin. The crystals violated her, carving deep into her hands and stomach. They bit into her feet. Tattered flesh marked her progress. Her blood darkened the water and stained the crystals black.

That strange sensation steadily withdrew from her body as if the crystals were reclaiming it back. Black wisps seeped out with her blood, leaving her feeling hollow. Empty. She didn’t know what they were. Maybe they powered Fading? She focused her Fade to her heart and lungs, protecting them while she could.

She wouldn’t give up now. Instinct seized control and compelled her to ascend one crystal at a time. Crystals that swelled in size the farther up she went. The full strength of the two suns beamed down now, creating a fog of green opal. Her ears popped from receding water pressure.

Still, she climbed.

The well’s edge was within her grasp. Freedom that promised soft sand and unfiltered sunlight. She hesitated. She never dared to travel across Sadejskyran alone. She had no supplies. Nothing to carry water in. She was a Soied now and Soieds were destined to die.

She accepted her fate, but not passively. The stone on her necklace was sharp but she needed a real weapon to survive in Sadejskyran. She had to go back to the Moein Village. Her knives were there, as well as her water pouch. Yaris owed her a faith death.

She leaped at the edge and slammed against the wall, compacting between two barbed crystals. They pierced into her sides. They threatened to trap her. Her hands scrambled over the top of the well, searching for leverage. Sand embedded into her torn wounds and she screamed.

She heaved herself out, sucking in her first real breath of air.

She tumbled past the crystal barrier and fell. Sand dried to her, creating a crusty seal over her wounds. She started counting to ten, wanting only a brief moment to catch her breath. She lost count. A lukewarm breeze scurried along the desert. It wouldn’t be long before the first sun went down and invited Katayun dogs to begin their hunt. She had to reach the village before halflight.

Pressing her hands and feet firmly into the ground, she readied herself. She did not escape the well to be eaten alive. “I will make it.”

 She pushed off the ground and onto her feet. The desert stood vacant but crystals and footprints left in the sand. Remnants from her and her mother’s journey to the well. A sharp ache flared in her chest. This trail led straight back to the village and no effort had been made to conceal them. Her mother intended for her to die.

Each step she took shot darts of pain through her feet and up her legs. Halflight settled in, mocking her progress. Even with the departure of the first sun, her skin burned and peeled. Fading entirely was no longer possible. She raged. It was all her mother’s fault. Her mother had said “I’ll save you, Rani.” Ha.

Drumbeats echoed across the sands. That horrible deep sound of Qojar Battle drums. Rani quickened her pace and soon, clusters of mud buildings came into view. Her forbidden home.

She stalked along the row of mud buildings, cautiously eyeing the alleyways. She risked immediate death by walking on Moein soil, but she needed a proper weapon. Everyone should be at the Qojar battles right now. That gave her plenty of time to sneak into her home, gather supplies, and escape.

She stopped at a building with cratered walls. Walls that desperately needed a new plaster of mud. The sole building still left neglected by the previous storm. She recognized Vaida’s stitched blanket hanging from its window. Filth crusted its threads.

She yanked Vaida’s blanket from the window and clutched it to her chest. She imagined Vaida hugging her back. Why did Vaida leave her blanket like this? Rani shut her eyes but tears leaked out anyway. Vaida might have already fought her round. How could she have forgotten about her own friend’s battle?

Not caring who saw her, she peeked inside the window. Inside Vaida’s home didn’t look any better. Rain had created divots on the floor. Clothes were scattered everywhere. Apart from clothes, the room was empty. No sign of Vaida.

“I don’t see why we had to come back,” A man said. His voice carried from the entry point, but it didn’t belong to Vaida’s father. It was too young and brittle.

Rani ducked under the window and compressed her arms under her body. That voice was so familiar but his name escaped her. She crammed her ear to the wall, her pulse rushing.

Footsteps stomped inside Vaida’s room. A woman said, “Yaris bury you. Her round isn’t up yet! No one will be coming home until sunsdown.”

“And as I said, I changed my mind about the clothes,” the woman continued. “She won’t be needing them.”

 The man sniggered.

Rani’s nails dug into her palms, aggravating her wounds. She recognized Farid’s high pitch chuckle. The woman with him had to be Shirin. They used to pelt small sandbags at her and Vaida. How dare they fucking steal from Vaida now.

Walking on her toes, she crept around the side of Vaida’s home and peeked from the corner. Their voices were muffled from this angle. Pressing her back against the wall, she scooted her way towards the entrance. She should be fleeing in the opposite direction, but she couldn’t allow these Moein jackholes to getaway.

 “I wouldn’t mind seeing their fight,” Farid said. “It’s always fun to watch Amira destroy weak Potential ass.”

All the air in Rani’s lungs fled out at once. She stood locked to the wall, subjected to Farid’s taunts as he prattled on. Their fight just didn’t make sense. Amira already won Moein status. What reason would Amira have except for spite? Something malicious occurred for Amira to fight in the Qojar Battles again.

Fighting her urge to scream, Rani pressed her fists into her legs. For Amira’s second battle, Moeins would demand someone’s death. She couldn’t allow that bitch to kill her best friend.

 She was a Soied. Someone sacrificed for Moeins’ survival. If death was all that awaited her, she’d rather die trying to save Vaida. By interfering their fight, she could distract Amira and give Vaida the chance to run.

That strange energy from the well struck Rani again and crippled her to the ground. She clutched her chest, her heart pounding rapidly with the sensation. Her skin pulsated from the intoxicating force.  

She took this opportunity and Faded. Every part of her disappeared except for her wounds. How is this possible? The crystals were nowhere close.  Her scabs and burns shined clearly. This hindrance wouldn’t stop her. She felt powerful. Awakened.

She bounced to her feet and sprinted in the direction of the center plaza, towards the drumbeats. If Farid or Shirin noticed, she dared them to chase after her. She’d fight them too. She’d fight them all and win. She dashed down the alleyway, the Qojar drums growing louder.

She reached the crowd and elbowed her way through. Confused Moeins stumbled back from the floating fragments of scarred skin. She didn’t worry about them. All that mattered was reaching Amira and Vaida before it was too late. She shoved into the front row.

Vaida appeared first. She spun through the air, contorting her body in absurd angles and twists. Rani froze in awe, unsettled by her own ignorance of Vaida’s ability to fight.

Despite this, Vaida appeared inept against Amira’s skill. Her sister’s movements graced in flight, her feet never touching the ground. She whirled around her victim, coolly forcing Vaida to dodge interspersing kicks and punches. Their battle soon became a clinical demonstration on how to trifle with and exhaust opponents.

Why were they not Fading? Rani eyed a young boy across the arena. His eyes drooped as he faced the complete opposite direction of the battle. She recognized his expression from all her past experiences; he couldn’t sense their Fade.

 Rani sprinted ahead, shattering the line between observers and the arena. She hurtled towards her final moment without breaking stride. Interposing between the two fighters, she shoved her confused friend out of the way. She ripped her necklace from her throat, holding the stone as a knife, and turned to face Amira.

 Her sister jumped on her. She tried to push her but Amira’s legs choked around her throat. Unable to support both of their weight, she stumbled. She clawed her pendant across Amira’s back, blood smearing over them. The pendant slipped from her hands.

Rani’s legs folded and sent them both crashing down.

Amira spat and her face wrenched in fury. She sprang back onto her feet, but she staggered. She picked up the pendant from the ground and swung.

Rani batted Amira’s arm away. Something was wrong. That energy revitalized inside her again, this time without restraint. Her body started disintegrating into vivid light, releasing the energy onto the field. The transformation ignited her nerves. She forgot her entire purpose for battling Amira and knew only pain.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Amira cried.

Rani never heard a cry like that. She caught sight of Amira’s now visible and ruined body. The mutated light that came from her enfolded around Amira and burned flesh. Amira thrashed helplessly as her skin crisped and blistered.

Vaida abandoned her fight and ran after the rest of the crowd. No one wanted that light to touch them.

Rani’s body continued to dissolve. She tried warding the light away from her sister and stopped only when she no longer had arms. Yaris, renounce her soul. She couldn’t save them.

Amira quieted. She stood unmoving and allowed the light to swirl around her. Ruptured red eyes appeared through the shroud. She offered the pendant up. “I’m sorry.”

Rani understood. As long as she was alive, her body would continue to transform into this hostile light. Her sister offered her mercy. This was the only chance to save them both.

Rani didn’t block her sister’s final attack.

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.

Soul Eater

Warrick’s boots punched through the snow. He was used to the cold, but this was nearly intolerable. The wind felt like a promiscuous woman, reaching past his furs and leather vest, touching his skin with icy fingers. Frost clung to his long blonde hair and beard. His hair was elaborately braided, in the traditional way of his people. He frowned, sure icicles were forming along the strands.

He trudged on, tightening the strap on his shield. It hung from his left arm, a circular mass of thick wood and steel. Warrick also carried a large double-sided axe, strapped to his back. The combination of the two were a comforting weight, something familiar in an unfamiliar country.

The incline of the land began to elevate. He and his party carefully trekked uphill, forging through the thick snow. The surrounding forest was unnervingly silent. No birds. No rustle of creatures within the brush. Warrick wondered what kind of place had no living creatures within it. He studied the four people walking in a single file line in front of him. They were a fucking odd group, if he ever did see one.

Gwendolyn, the leader, was wrapped in a green cloak, her leather boots poking through the thick folds in regular intervals as she led the party on. Her hair was black but shaved to the scalp on one side. The rest of the ebony mass was braided tightly to her head. Her brown eyes were lined in kohl, giving her beauty an edge of fierceness.

Behind her was Mpho. He was well over six feet, with skin the color of cinnamon. His black hair fell like silk to his shoulders, the elaborate golden tattoos on his muscled body marking him as a clansman from Kara-Ordos. It was a place far from here, a country of desserts and tropical jungles. Warrick knew little about the people from that region of the world, but great tales have a way of travelling no matter the distance. The clansman of Kara-Ordos were rumored to be great fighters, some of the best in the known world.

The other two, Aiguo and Lin, were an absolute mystery to Warrick. Neither of them had uttered a word in his presence. They both remained huddled deep within in their hooded black cloaks. All Warrick could see of them were thin lips, caramel skin, and the hint of gold eyes. Strange letters were threaded along the hems of their robes in yellow, characters that made Warrick wary. He recognized them as symbols of magic. It marked the two silent figures as mages, but from where? If Gwendolyn had taken the trouble to acquire a soldier all the way from Kara-Ordos, where the hell had she dredged up these two?

“I thought this was an assassination attempt on your queen,” Warrick asked, his breath billowing on the frigid air.

Gwendolyn stopped, halting the group. She turned, anger crackling in her eyes. “She is not our queen.”

Warrick nodded, “Aye. A technicality. She has in fact taken over your land, and the Northern stronghold of Akranes.”

“Do you have a question, soldier?” Gwendolyn asked.

“More of an observation,” Warrick said.

Mpho laughed, his voice a thunderous boom in the still forest. “The Dunedin savage has an observation.”

“We are approaching the castle head on,” Warrick continued, ignoring the slight. “Are you trying to get us killed?”

Gwendolyn bristled. “I am not paying you to question my decisions. I am paying you to kill a target.”

Warrick held his ground. “You posed this mission as an assassination. You either misrepresented the objective or you have zero tactile skills.”

Her nostrils flared. “Keep going,” she barked at the other three. “I need to have a word with our Dunedin savage.”

Mpho chuckled, “My lady. Come on you two.” Mpho continued up the snowy hill, with Aiguo and Lin trailing behind.

Gwendolyn quickly made her way down the incline, stopping mere inches in front of Warrick.

“Don’t ever question my decisions in front of my team again,” she said through bared teeth.

“Gladly,” Warrick said. His voice was a gravelly rumble, as if the stones of the earth were being rubbed together. “First, cut the bullshit and tell me what we’re really doing on this mountain. I can’t be effective if you aren’t straight with me.”

Gwendolyn exploded out of the snow like a leopard. She threw her arm across his neck and shoved Warrick back, slamming him into a tree. “What do you know about Komi-Okrug, foreigner? Your people hide in the forests of your tiny green isle, oblivious to the troubles of the world.”

Warrick held still, letting her talk.

“I pegged you for a Dunedin savage as soon as you stepped onto our docks,” Gwendolyn went on. “Your axe and embroidered leather tunic told me all I needed to know about you. A King’s guard, a member of his elite Munin. You spent your life fighting for him, defending his borders. And he exiled you, shipped you off like cattle. Let me guess, the King finally asked for something you weren’t willing to give?” Gwendolyn smiled. “Was she pretty? Do you think she wept in his chambers, when he finally took her?”

Warrick growled, the truth of her words hitting his heart like a flamed arrow. He grabbed a fistful of her cloak and yanked Gwendolyn forward. He shifted his weight, twisting as he pulled, so that he came around her. He roughly shoved her into the tree, wrenching her arm behind her back. Gwendolyn struggled, but Warrick increased the pressure on her arm. She sucked in a breath through her teeth.

“And what about you?” Warrick said. “Your rage. I’ve seen it before. It’s fueled by a need for justice, for retribution. It has made you irrational. Who did the queen take from you? Your brother? A sister? Or did she kill your whole goddamn family?”

Gwendolyn kicked off from the tree with a snarl and then threw her head back. Her skull connected with his nose with a loud crack. Warrick released her arm as blood gushed from his nostrils. Gwendolyn elbowed him in the gut.

“Omph!” he grunted, staggering back.

She spun, facing him. “You’re a bastard.”

He wiped the blood from his face, smiling. “And you’re a crazy bitch.”

Gwendolyn regarded him silently for several moments, debating. She had wanted to tell the foreigner as little as possible about the mission. Unfortunately, the savage was smarter than he looked. She couldn’t risk him backing out. Gwendolyn needed him. She needed all of them if she was to stand a chance against Rosamond.

“It is an assassination. I did not lie to you. But instead of quiet infiltration, we are approaching the front gate,” she said.

Warrick gripped his leather vest, the blood drying on his beard like crystalized cherries. “Why?”

“It’s the only way we can gain an audience within her chambers.”

“And how will you be granted audience?” Warrick asked. “If what you say about Rosamond is true, she will kill all of us on sight.”

“We have something she wants,” Gwendolyn answered reluctantly.

“Go on.”

Gwendolyn sighed. “I’ve said too much already.”

“You’re just getting to the good part. Spit it out woman, or I walk.”

“What about your gold?”

“Walking into danger without all the facts isn’t worth any amount of gold. Sorry,” Warrick said.

She gritted her teeth, furious that this Dunedin savage was forcing her to spill her one and only advantage. “We have the Orb of Tchogha. It is a magical artifact. One that will allow her sisters to enter this realm.”

Warrick digested that for a long moment. Rumors had reached Dunedin, tales of a demon that had descended on Komi-Okrug, taking the throne and eating the souls of the people. Warrick was a logical man. He knew that descriptions of rulers were always embellished, especially the ones with brutal tendencies. However, he also had knowledge of the magics, the existence of other realms. The ‘unseen’ as he called it.

“What is she?” he asked.

Fear crept into Gwendolyn’s face, her self-assurance wavering. “I don’t know.”

“It sounds like bad things will happen if she gets her hands on this orb,” Warrick said.

“She won’t. That’s why I need you. Mpho. Aiguo and Lin. The orb is just our way in.”

“That’s risky.”

“It’s all we have,” Gwendolyn said. “She is nearly untouchable. It’s the only way.”

Warrick studied her, recognizing the things he saw in her kohl lined eyes. Loss. Anger. The call to protect loved ones from evil. Warrick knew what it felt like to fail. He hadn’t been able to save Kara, his soul, his reason for breathing. Her hair like newly sprouted wheat, eyes the color of a clear sky. The pain of being separated from her was a thorn in his heart, a constant torment.

“Fine,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Warrick turned and started trekking back up the hill.

Gwendolyn jogged after him, soon coming abreast of him.

“That’s it? Fine, lets go?” she asked.

Warrick shrugged. “Like you said, I’ve been exiled. I’m a savage, in a foreign land. Seems silly to turn away a good paying job. Despite how ass backwards it seems. Although I would appreciate you being upfront with me from here on out.”

“Agreed. But there are some things that you must see to believe,” Gwendolyn said.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” Gwendolyn said.

Warrick and Gwendolyn walked side by side, soon catching up to the others. The sun crawled slowly towards the horizon as the team hiked through the snow. The shadows lengthened. A light snow began to fall as darkness crept into the sky, like an outstretched hand snuffing out the light.

*

Castle Akranes rose in the distance, flanked by jagged mountains. The castle was composed of black stone, with numerous windows and twisted spires. Moonlight fell across the castle, bathing it in silver light. But instead of illuminating the dark edifice, the moonlight created more shadows, as if the light itself wanted to crawl away from the evil lurking inside.

Warrick whispered a silent prayer to his gods, wishing he hadn’t thrown away the wooden totem’s that normally rested in his breast pocket. He had tossed them into the sea after being exiled from Dunedin. Surely, the gods despised him. They had taken the one person he loved. Warrick had fought to protect Kara, openly defying his King. To what end? She had still slipped through his fingers and he had been whipped in the public square and thrown onto the next ship sailing to Komi-Okrug. He had lost everything. His woman. His country. His very place in the world.

Still, he couldn’t stop the prayer resting on his lips. Warrick could feel the evil emanating from the castle. It was like thick oil seeping into the air. Gwendolyn had filled him in on a few details. A tempest of disbelief, fear, and anticipation thundered inside his chest. His fingers twitched, yearning for the cool steel of his axe.

Gwendolyn raised her fist, halting the group. “Here.”

She motioned to an outcropping of rock that was surrounded by a cluster of rowan trees. They gathered behind the trees, forming a semi-circle around Gwendolyn.

“Remember,” Gwendolyn said. “Do not let the appearance of her soldiers fool you. They are strong and inhumanly fast. When we approach the gate, they will surround us immediately. Remain still and silent. Under no circumstances are you to draw your weapons. Her first in command, Gael, will most likely accompany her forces. No one speak to him. Either I or Aiguo are to answer his questions. Understood?”

The group nodded their agreement.

“Our only prayer of survival is that she wants the orb more than she wants us dead,” Gwendolyn continued. “As soon as she has it in her hands, that is your cue Mpho. I want you and Warrick to attack, without hesitation. Dismember her and burn the body. We will retreat through one of the rear windows. I have repelling equipment attached to my waist. If I go down, someone will need to take it to get the others out.”

“Is it really necessary to dismember her?” Warrick asked.

 “Yes, it’s necessary,” Gwendolyn said.

“Well shit. Alright then,” Warrick said. “Let’s add dismemberment to this evening’s events. And how do you expect us to get through the gates armed?”

“Aiguo and Lin, go ahead,” Gwendolyn said.

The mages moved forward, simultaneously lowering their hoods. Aiguo placed himself in front of Gwendolyn, and Lin stood before Mpho. It was the first time Warrick had seen their faces. They were male and female twins, with hair whiter than the snow. Intricate turquoise tattoos arched above their delicate eyebrows, framing their golden eyes.

Aiguo and Lin reached into their robes, their movements perfectly in sync. They pulled out two small wooden bowls, removing the lids. Inside lay a fine crystalized powder. It sparkled in the moonlight. Aiguo and Lin began chanting, dipping their fingers into the powder.

Warrick felt the air around him change. It became heavier, dense, crackling with magic.

 “What the hell is this?” Warrick said.

 “Shut it savage,” Gwendolyn said. Her eyes were closed, her body still. “You want to take your weapons inside, don’t you?”

Warrick shifted in the snow, uncomfortable. He knew enough about magic to know that he didn’t want it done on himself. Warrick grunted as a response.

Aiguo and Lin touched their powdered fingers to Gwendolyn and Mpho’s collarbones, drawing the powder across their skin. Their chanting increased, filling with authority. Warrick couldn’t understand the words, but he could feel them. They swirled around his body, and invisible force of power, making the hair on his arms stand on end. Gwendolyn’s sword that was poking out of her cloak began to glow. Warrick’s eyes widened. Mpho’s scythe did the same, the sharp metal becoming bright like a star in the night sky. And then, both weapons disappeared with a pop.

Gwendolyn opened her eyes and looked to where her sword had been just a moment ago. She grinned. “Well done.”

Aiguo inclined his head. Lin stepped away from Mpho and moved towards Warrick.

He backed up. “Hang on a minute.”

“Relax Warrick,” Gwendolyn said. “Nothing will happen to your precious axe. It’s an illusion. One that will wear off by morning.”

Lin looked up at him, her golden eyes mesmerizing. She said something in another language and slowly raised her hands, stopping inches from his chest.

 “Let her do it, Warrick,” Gwendolyn demanded.

Warrick looked down at Lin. She was incredibly attractive, with a delicate beauty that was almost too fragile for this world. Warrick instinctively wanted to protect her.

He sighed. “Go on then.”

Lin moved his vest aside, resting her fingers along his skin.

“Wait, Wait,” Warrick said. He placed his hands in-between his legs, covering himself. “Alright, now I’m ready.”

Gwendolyn rolled her eyes. “She’s not going to make your dick disappear you idiot.”

Warrick shrugged. “Better safe than sorry.”

Lin began chanting. Her words spun around Warrick, warming the air. He closed his eyes, praying once more to his forgotten gods. Lin’s voice increased in volume, the spell rising on the air. Warrick felt the slightest movement on his back and left arm, and then he heard a distinct snap.

He opened his eyes and sucked in a breath. “Holy fuck.”

His shield was nowhere in sight, but he could still feel the weight of it on his arm. Warrick glanced over his shoulder. His axe had also disappeared yet the solid form of it pressed against his back.

“Let’s move out,” Gwendolyn said.

Lin smiled and then pulled her hood over her eyes. She returned to her place beside Aiguo. The twin mages followed Gwendolyn, their footsteps punching into the snow in perfect unison.

Mpho glanced over his shoulder and said, “Come on savage. We’ve got an evil bitch to kill.”

Warrick adjusted the position of his now invisible shield and followed Mpho. The powder along his collarbones prickled, like insects crawling across his skin. He shook his head a little. Missions and magic, he mused. It was either brilliant or incredibly stupid. The magics were unpredictable. Forces that held a will of their own. Warrick hoped the two mages had control of their skill.

He picked up his pace, eager to get this over with. The sooner he killed whatever needed killing, he could travel South. Far from the obvious madness going on in the North. Start over. Maybe buy an inn. Warrick could brew a decent ale. A little bitter maybe, but hearty all the same.

The castle was now directly in front of them. Warrick watched as movement erupted on the battlements. They had been spotted.

                                                   *

As predicted, Rosamond’s forces rushed through the front gate and surrounded the small group. Warrick stared into the opaque eyes of her soldiers, astonished. The men and women in front of him were very obviously dead and in varying levels of decay. Some simply had gray skin, removed of all color. Others were rotting, strips of flesh hanging from lopsided jaws, their bones and muscles exposed. Warrick had seen plenty of corpses on the battlefield. This was different. This was a twisted mockery of the dead. Unnatural. Evil. Warrick swallowed against the bite of acid under his tongue.

Rosamond’s army of the dead wore no armor, only tattered clothing. They held weapons, which were all pointed at Gwendolyn and her small band of warriors. The sensation of evil Warrick had felt earlier returned, but now it was incredibly potent. The presence of dark magic clung to the air, the scent like burning sulfur. It wafted from the dead army, so strong his nostrils burned. Warrick balled his hands into fists, the urge to grab his axe overwhelming.

“Stay still and calm,” Gwendolyn whispered to Warrick.

“Fucking easier said than done,” Warrick shot back, also whispering.

“I told you about them Warrick,” Gwendolyn said quietly.

“People say a lot of things,” Warrick responded. “Your queen eating the souls of the living and then reanimating the bodies is not something a man can easily digest. No pun intended.”

“Shut up, he’s coming,” she said.

A man strode forward from the castle, his dark robes billowing. He was deathly pale, with clear blue eyes and long black hair. One word entered Warrick’s mind at the sight of him—snake.

The man extended his hands in a welcoming gesture. “Friends, loyal subjects of Queen Rosamond, the immortal, the inexorable, the goddess of darkness. Are you here to serve her? Brave tributes! Offering yourselves so willingly. To join her army is to have a taste of her power, of her immortality.” He smiled. “Come in from the cold, we will prepare you as a worthy offering!”

Gwendolyn dipped her head in a sign of respect. “We are not here as offerings, Gael. We seek audience with the Queen.”

The smile disappeared from his face. “To not offer yourself to the Queen is a most egregious act of treason.”

The army of dead took several steps forward, their sharpened weapons held at the ready.

Gwendolyn lifted her hands. “Hear us Gael. We mean no ill will. Please listen-“

Gael cut her off, his eyes hardening. “No ill will! You approach with a warrior from Kara-Ordos and expect me to believe you?” His voice raised, becoming nearly hysterical, his face twisted with rage. “Do you think I am a fool? Do you think I cannot see through your lies? Two mages are in your party! And a Dunedin Munin! Foul beasts! You will pay! You will burn!”

The army of the dead advanced, their weapons mere inches from the band of warriors. Warrick steadied himself, ready to fight, eager to see the blade of his axe hack through decaying flesh.

“We have the Orb of Tchogha!” Gwendolyn shouted.

Gael held up a hand, halting the army. “The Orb?”

“Yes,” she said. “Just as her majesty wanted. When she demanded-“

“Graciously asked,” Gael corrected.

“When she graciously asked,” Gwendolyn continued. “That her subjects find it and bring it to her, I took it upon myself to accept the mission. The mages have great knowledge of the orb. I needed them to obtain it. And the two Warriors accompanied me on the journey, for my own protection. The orb was in a distant land, and the road was dangerous.”

Gael studied Gwendolyn for several moments. Finally, he said, “Give me the Orb. I will deliver it to our Queen and the five of you will offer yourselves to her. My lady is hungry.”

“That is not possible,” Aiguo said. His voice was calm, holding the thick accent of his country. “The five of us were present when we plucked the orb from its resting place. It is bound to us. I must perform a ritual, in order to untangle it from our essence. These magics run deep my friend. From a time that has long since passed. It is the only way.”

Gael clapped his hands and began laughing. “How delightful! I love magic. You shall perform the ritual immediately, in the throne room. The Queen will be ecstatic!” He rubbed his hands together, grinning wildly. “Come along. I will bring you to her. The Orb of TchoghaFinally. I hope its shiny.”

Warrick worked to keep his expression blank. This man was fucking insane. He would need to be put down quickly.

The army of the dead formed two organized lines, and marched back into the castle. Gael led them through the gates, chatting amicably with Aiguo about the nature of magic.

Warrick came up behind Gwendolyn.

“I thought you said we needed to be in her chambers,” he whispered.

“As long as there is a window, we will be fine. Now shut it, savage,” she whispered back.

Warrick grunted, studying the surrounding castle. As they walked through dimly lit stone corridors, Warrick memorized the layout, taking note of the exits. By the time they reached the doors leading to the throne room, he had already planned out several exit strategies, prioritizing them in his mind as most likely to survive to we are going to fucking die.

The doors leading to the throne room were composed of dark wood and metal spikes. Two massive guards stood in front of them. The guards were also reanimated corpses, with opaque eyes, but their skin looked almost normal. Warrick guessed they were recently killed.  

Gael paused in front of the guards.

“Please open your robes and lift your arms,” Gael instructed. “No weapons are permitted within the throne room.”

Gwendolyn and her small band of warriors did what they were told. Warrick raised his left arm above his head, ensuring his shield was well out of the way. The two guards inspected each member of their party. Satisfied, the animated corpses nodded and opened the doors.

Gael eagerly stepped across the threshold. Gwendolyn walked behind him, followed by the two mages, and then Mpho. Warrick brought up the rear. The throne room was dark and cold, the walls comprised of smooth stone. Nothing hung on the walls. It was an empty place, hollow. It reminded Warrick of a tomb. Torches hung on the walls, the light weak. The flames flickered, sputtering, as if they couldn’t bare to exist in a place so bereft of life.

Gael sank into a dramatic bow. “My Queen. I present to you the Lady Gwendolyn and her band of noble warriors! They have travelled far and wide to deliver the Orb of TchoghaIt is my greatest honor to bring them before you, Queen Rosamond, the immortal, the inexorable, goddess of darkness!”

Gwendolyn and the others fanned out in a line before the throne.

Warrick immediately noticed two things and he had to grit his teeth to stop himself from cursing aloud. One, there were no windows anywhere within the room. And two, the person sitting on the throne was a small child.

*

Warrick wished he was standing beside Gwendolyn. He wanted to grab her and shake her until an explanation fell out of her mouth. Queen Rosamond couldn’t be older than eight years old. She sat upon the throne, a perfectly crafted porcelain doll. The child was dressed in a long gown of fine black silk, overlaid with white lace. Her auburn hair tumbled to her waist in a precious display of soft curls. Her eyes were a vibrant green that sparkled with innocence, her lips pink, the color of fresh strawberries.

Queen Rosamond smiled, her voice a delicate bell. “Can it be? Has the Orb finally found its way home?”

Gael straightened, and approached the throne. “Yes, my Queen.” He knelt, gazing up at her like a dog begging for praise.

Queen Rosamond trailed a finger along the side of his face. “Do you know what this means Gael? My sisters can finally be free. We shall bring them to us, and this world will be ours.”

Gael’s pupils dilated and his breath hitched.

“When they are here, I will no longer have need of you,” Rosamond said. “I shall make you immortal. You will join my army. You would like that wouldn’t you, Gael?”

Gael nodded. “Very much so, my Queen.”

Warrick’s stomach turned. Dark magic surrounded the child like a shroud. It emanated from her in hot waves, as if Warrick were standing before a raging fire. Rosamond was evil. That was clear. But did Gwendolyn expect him to sink his axe into a child? Warrick balled his hands into fists, furious.

Rosamond turned her gaze to the five warriors. She examined each of them individually, silently assessing them. When her eyes fell on Warrick, he felt a thin trail of heat streak down his face and neck, as if a hot tongue were licking his skin.

Her eyes went back down the line, finally stopping on Aiguo. Her expression flattened, and her voice changed, becoming wider, amplifying until it filled the chamber and echoed off the walls. “Give it to me, warlock.”

Aiguo lowered his hood and raised his chin. “Yes, your highness.”

Warrick glanced at Gwendolyn, trying to get her attention. But Gwendolyn’s eyes were trained ahead, her jaw set in a firm line.

Aiguo drew a piece of chalk from his robes. “May I?”

Rosamond nodded her consent.

Aiguo knelt and began drawing upon the stone floor. The white chalk scraped across the stone. He drew a perfectly crafted circle and then filled it with symbols. Aiguo started chanting. The language was harsh, the syllables short and abrupt. An ancient tongue. Gael stood and placed himself beside the throne, his eyes wide with excitement.

Magic exploded on the air, producing a gust of wind that swirled through the room. The wind churned in wide circles, gradually tightening until it funneled around Aiguo. His hair flew wildly around his face, his voice rising in a powerful boom of authority as the spell reached its peak. The wind converged, slamming into the circle of chalk. The wind snapped out, leaving behind a small shining ball of light within the circle. The Orb of Tchogha was the color of water, a deep blue, with shafts of light shimmering inside.

Rosamond leaned forward, her face filling with desire. “Bring it to me.”

Aiguo gathered the orb into his hands and walked forward.

Warrick shifted, again trying to catch Gwendolyn’s eye. She was still looking forward, but now her hand was resting on her hip, on the hilt of her invisible sword. Warrick looked to Mpho. His hand was also on his waist, gripping his scythe.

Warrick could feel the tension of battle approaching, the promise of violence. He had only moments to decide. His gaze returned to the child on the throne.  

Aiguo stood before Rosamond. Aiguo extended his hands, offering her the Orb. Queen Rosamond rose from the throne, her small delicate fingers reaching for it. And then, two things happened at the same time. Mpho shot forward without warning, like a spring that had been released. He rushed towards Rosamond, his arm raised. In the same moment, Aiguo uttered a series of words and the orb disappeared form his hands with a snap.

Rosamond screamed. Her green eyes flicked to Mpho. His arm was coming down in an arch, the scythe aimed for her neck. Before his weapon could connect, he was thrown back by an invisible force. Mpho slammed into the far wall and remained there. He growled, struggling. Rosamond held him in place against the wall.

Gwendolyn snarled, rushing towards the Queen. Rosamond turned her gaze on her. With one look, Gwendolyn was yanked upwards, her back smacking into the ceiling. Gwendolyn thrashed, but her body was pinned to the ceiling, like a butterfly pegged onto a tray.

Rosamond stretched a hand towards Aiguo, her fingers curled. The warlock fell to his knees and screamed, his back bowing.   

“Bring it back!” Rosamond demanded.

Lin raised her hands and started chanting, fast and quick. Warrick’s eyes caught movement next to the throne. Gael held a dagger, his eyes centered on Lin.

“Oh, fuck it all,” Warrick mumbled. He ran to Lin, managing to step in front of her just in time. He threw his left arm up, the dagger glancing off his shield.

Warrick followed through with a front kick to Gael’s chest. Gael grunted, stumbling back. Warrick yanked his axe free, in a movement that was as familiar to him as breathing. Warrick swung, slamming the axe into the center of Gael’s chest. The unseen weapon sunk deep, biting into bone. Blood erupted from the wound. Gael gurgled, his eyes wide. Warrick ripped his weapon out of the man’s chest, not bothering to watch his enemy sink to the floor.

Warrick turned. Aiguo was now standing. He and Lin were holding hands, both chanting loudly and in unison. Powerful magic rose on the air, producing quick gusts of wind. Rosamond hissed. Her mouth opened, her jaw elongating. Thick purple tentacles tumbled out of her mouth, black ink dripping from the slimy, writhing appendages.

“Holy shit!” Warrick shouted.

Aiguo and Lin both stretched a hand forward, and then closed their fingers into a fist. Rosamond went rigid. A choking noise escaped from her throat, mingling with the sound of flaying tentacles. Her arms and legs were pulled outwards, as if she was being lynched by invisible rope.   

Mpho and Gwendolyn both fell, landing hard on the stone floor. The doors to the throne room flew open. Rosamond’s dead army rushed in.

Gwendolyn got up. “Warrick, kill her! Do it now, we will hold them off!”

Gwendolyn and Mpho threw themselves at the armed corpses. They collided into the decayed mass, hacking off heads and limbs.

“Barricade the doors!” Gwendolyn shouted.

Mpho carved his way through, fighting his way to the doors. Gwendolyn was a wild thing let loose on the army of dead. She erupted in bursts of violence, taking on three or four at a time. Mpho managed to force the doors closed, jamming a sword through the handles. The doors shuttered, the wood groining as more forces tried to get in. Mpho jumped into the fray, his massive body moving with an incredible amount of grace, his movements precise and well-practiced. A dance of death.

“Dammit savage, do it now!” Gwendolyn growled as she stabbed a corpse in the chest.

Warrick turned, facing Rosamond. Lin and Aiguo still had her held, but the mages were not going to last much longer. Aiguo’s entire body was shaking. Lin was drained of color, her face deathly pale. She looked like she was going to pass out.

Rosamond’s eyes had changed. Her pupils were now narrowed into slits. Something slithered beneath the folds of her gown. Warrick swallowed hard. She is not a child, he thought as he stepped forward. She is evil. She is not human.

He raised his axe and swung, a Munin battle cry erupting from his throat. Warrick lopped her head off in one clean stroke. Her auburn curls spun and then fell, her head smacking onto the floor with a sickening squish. Lin and Aiguo continued chanting, keeping the remainder of her body in place. Warrick made short work of her, quickly slicing off both of her arms and legs. He could hear the tentacles still moving.

Warrick ran to the wall, grabbing a torch. He drew the fire along her torso and limbs first, and then located her head. It was laying in a pool of black ink. The tentacles slapped against the stone, slowly pulling her severed head forward. Warrick hurriedly lit it on fire. A scream pierced the air, one that did not sound remotely human. The flames spread, engulfing the mangled corpse. The tentacles finally stopped flaying, now blackened and charred.

Suddenly, the army of the dead collapsed, their weapons clattering to the floor. The doors stopped shuddering, and silence fell on the throne room. Her army became still, unmoving, nothing more than lifeless corpses.

Warrick was breathing heavily. He threw the torch down, sickened.

Lin collapsed. Aiguo caught her. He scooped her into his arms, cradling her to his chest.

Gwendolyn and Mpho stepped around the bodies that surrounded them, making their way to the throne.

“Well done, savage,” Gwendolyn said.

Warrick glared at her, but his anger was gone. “What the hell was she?”

“Something ancient that made its way into our world. I would have told you, but you wouldn’t have believed me. You had to see,” Gwendolyn answered.

Warrick examined the burning corpse. “What now?” he asked.

“I give you the money that I promised you, and you can go on your way,” Gwendolyn said. “Or, you can join us. There are rumors, that another Soul Eater is in the South, occupying castle Hulgade.”

“Shit woman, how many of them got into this realm?” Warrick asked.

“Two. We think,” Gwendolyn answered.

“Did anything else get in?” Warrick said.

“A horde of infant chimera’s,” Gwendolyn said. “They are occupying a forest to the East. We need to exterminate them before they grow large enough to make the journey across the sea.”

Warrick shook his head. “You’ve got a hell of a problem.”

“Yes, we do.” Gwendolyn agreed. “But it is none of your concern. Unless you want it to be.”

Warrick fell silent, studying the group in front of him. Lin was now awake, and looking at him, her golden eyes soft. His gaze returned to Rosamond’s corpse. A thick purple tail had fallen out of the bottom of her dress, the flames eating away at the scales.

Warrick would never be allowed to return to Dunedin. He was a man without a country, without a home. If he was to remain in Komi-Okrug, these creatures had to be dealt with. For one thing, Warrick didn’t want them making their way to the green shores of Dunedin. And also, if he bought an inn, the last thing he needed was a chimera igniting it on fire.

Warrick sighed. “Let’s go. So glad you brought repelling equipment, that really came in handy.”

He walked passed Gwendolyn, towards the doors. The others followed, stepping over the dead.

Gwendolyn pulled the sword out of the handles and wrenched the doors open. “How was I supposed to know they would stop moving once she died?”

“We can use it to our advantage, in the South,” Mpho said. “It will be beneficial.”

“You know what is beneficial?” Warrick said. “Being correctly prepared for a mission.”

“Shut it, savage,” Gwendolyn said.

The castle was now still and quiet, reduced to a graveyard. Piles of corpses lined the hallways, limbs motionless, opaque eyes open, forever frozen in an unseeing stare. Warrick uttered a final prayer, this time for Rosamond’s victims. He hoped their souls would be carried to the halls of the afterlife and find peace.

Dawn broke across the sky as Gwendolyn and her small band of warriors headed downhill and began the journey South. Rays of sunlight broke through the clouds, illuminating the path ahead.

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