Muddied Waters

With an oil-rag in one hand and a wooden countertop in front of him, Tobias was ignoring the rain.

It thudded against the roof, steady as an impatient customer’s drumming fingers. It ran and splattered from the eaves of the inn, audible even through the shuttered windows; and even the thick, cozy scents of warming liquor, hot mash, and woodsmoke could not hide the permeating smell of the drenching, soaking rain thudding so hard and thick into the earth that it left muddy, mushy bruises and deep, wounding gashes.

Tobias knew what he’d see, if he looked out there. The blackened fronts of the battened-down houses. The river that used to be a street, running slowly but steadily out of town to drown the fresh-started crops into uselessness; the sky as dark as lodestone, clouds hanging so low over the town that the surrounding mountains disappeared into them—two halves of a horrendous jaw, about to swallow the known world whole.

Tobias rubbed more oil into the stained wood of the bar, watching the color of the wood bloom to life under his attentions.

He knew what was out there, but he was ignoring it. He’d done what he could to keep his hotel from being swept away; now, they could only wait for the Thunderer’s anger to be worn out—or for the whole town to be demolished by the flood.

It was a madman’s wager, which would come first.

A crack of lightning sounded across the sky, flashing briefly through the shutters before it sizzled away in the space of a second. It shook the earth as it went. Tobias looked up, assuring himself that the roof was holding steady. It was. He frowned at it for a moment, distracted by the cobwebs.

“We know, ya great blowhole!” One of his guests shouted, pausing in his game of checkers. “Hush up and let a man think, would you?”

Tobias chuckled. Garrett was a farmer whose stead had been washed away in the rain. He, along with his wife and children, had found shelter in the hotel for lack of anywhere else to go. He hid his worry well, but if anyone had reason to be yelling at the Thunderer—it was he.

“Hush, Garrett,” the man’s wife hissed, leaning forward over her nervous knitting while Bryce, the second checkers-player, pretended to pour every ounce of his attention into the game. “Do you want to make him even angrier?”

“What’s he gonna do, Bette?” Garrett snapped back. “Rain on us some more?”

Tobias listened with a frown, wondering if he should step in. It had been a long three days, and everyone’s nerves were frayed. His hotel was not full—most everybody had stayed battened down in their homes—but the people that were here were worried and displaced, driven in by the storm as it had hit or by the loss of their home in the first few hours of the Thunderer’s rage.

Tobias had been running the Marquette Hotel for twenty years now, and he was good at his work. He knew how to calm people’s worries and settle them into a semblance of peace.

But it had been three days, and he was tired. He ignored the couple as they huffed and snipped at one another, rubbing the oil-rag in soothing circles.

The whole sky rumbled above them, shaking the earth, and Tobias grabbed the jar of oil to keep it from tipping over. The doors slammed open, and he jumped at the noise, believing for one idiotic moment that the storm itself had put skin and bones on to invade his little den of comparative safety.

It was not a storm. It was a person.

A slim, tall person, grinning the reckless grin of someone who had experienced the full wrath of bad weather, and survived. He took off his hat, sluicing water out onto the floor. It splashed and splattered on the floor, adding to the muddy puddles already made by the stranger’s soaked boots and dripping coat.

Freed from the hat, the stranger’s hair sprung up in a wild red nest on top of his head. It seemed to glow in the lantern-light, and his grin glowed with it as he ignored the questioning glances thrown his way and began to take off his coat.

“Quite the storm!” he remarked cheerily, hanging his coat up on a sturdy hook meant for lanterns.

“That it is,” Tobias agreed, setting an empty glass on the counter. “Local Thunderer, showing his strength. It’s a privilege of living in the sky, I suppose—not having to care ‘bout what happens to us here on the ground.”

He set a bottle down next to the glass as the stranger settled on a stool and planted his elbows on the bar.

“Liquor’s three cents a glass. You got a name?”

The stranger looked at the amber liquid with marked distaste.

“Do you have any cream?”

Tobias raised his head and fixed the stranger with a look that plainly said he was not someone who appreciated being jerked around. Cream, really?

The kid’s expression didn’t have a trace of mockery or sarcasm in it. Just a blank sort of hopefulness that made his mess of hair seem to stand up straighter than before. As Tobias held his gaze, that hope seemed to fade.

“I suppose not,” he said, with a dejected shrug. “That’s all right.”

“No,” Tobias put in, not wanting to lose business. “We’ve got it all right, but it’ll be four cents if you want it in a glass. Not many people want to drink cream, is all.”

The stranger was looking blank and cheerful again. “Many people,” he noted, “Are fools.”

Tobias snorted in agreement, making his way back into the kitchen.

Cream.

He shook his head.

* * *

The stranger got his glass of cream. Tobias went back to the bar, watching the wood soak in the healing oil, glow with the attention. Checkers clacked lightly from the far corner of the room, blending in with the clicking of Bette’s knitting needles in a futile attempt to drown out the sound of pounding rain and howling wind.

The stranger ran his finger around the rim of his glass, taking in the room with wide eyes.

“So,” he said, breaking the silence. “A Thunderer, eh?”

It was an awkward attempt at conversation, but Tobias nodded along, used to fielding all kinds of talk with friendliness, even when he wasn’t feeling particularly friendly.

“Sure thing,” he said, rubbing oil carefully into a deep gouge in the wood where, one interesting evening, a man with a hook for a hand had made an enthusiastic point. “They not have those, where you’re from?”

The stranger shook his head.

“Desert-born,” he explained. “We’ve got the thought-stealers and the jackal packs and the echobirds, but I’ve only ever heard of thunderers in stories.” He shifts in his seat again. “What’s it like?”

Tobias raised his eyebrows at the boy, and made an open gesture meant to indicate the current state of the outside world.

“Ruined crops and rampant hoof-rot is what it’s like,” he said. “You must have seen it, coming in. I’m impressed you even managed to get here, wherever you’re traveling from. Reckoned it’d be about impossible, by now.”

He was hoping that the man would reply with something at least vaguely enlightening—about where he came from, why he was here. But the stranger only shrugged his bony shoulders and said, with a smile scrawled awkward as an illiterate’s signature across his face, “I’ve got a knack for travel, I guess.”

Tobias nodded amiably, and scrubbed a little at a stain in the wood that had been there for years.

There is calm silence, for a few moments. It’s broken only by the click-clack of knitting needles and checkers tiles. The stranger is circling his finger around the rim of his glass—once, twice, three times. The glass begins to send out a soft, eerie hum.

“So,” the stranger said, suddenly, “As it turns out, I don’t have four cents.”

Tobias looked up.

“I don’t do business for free.”

As if to emphasize this point, another crackle and flash of lightning gave way to a deep boom of thunder. The stranger looked towards the window as the white light flashed outside, and for a moment, Tobias thought his eyes looked odd in the light. Too pale, too wide, reflecting the lightning back with a glow like a wolf glaring down a camp-fire.

It was over in a moment. He might not have seen anything at all. As the floor shook under their feet with the receding voice of the storm, the stranger looked back at him and tilted his head towards the shuttered window.

“Three days, and this storm ends.”

Tobias huffed a laugh.

“It’s a Thunderer’s rage,” he said. “No rhyme or reason to it. It’ll end when he’s worn himself out. Or died.”

Neither was likely to happen soon.

The stranger smiled at him, and lifted his finger from the glass. It stopped humming, abruptly, leaving an odd flavor of silence in its wake.

“Maybe,” he said. “Either way. For this glass of cream, I will see this storm ended in three days.”

Tobias frowned. First at the stranger, and then at the dripping overcoat, hanging up on its lantern-peg. For the first time, he caught the warm glint of silver protruding from one side of coat—a sword-hilt, if his eyes weren’t betraying him, wrought up in fancy and decorated with turquoise. It was exactly the kind of sword he’d expect from a young adventurer promising to slay Thunderers.

Tobias looked from the half-hidden sword to the boy’s beardless, hopeful face, and realized that the stranger was serious. He was going to fight the thunderer, and he was going to get himself killed.

In three days.

Another clap of thunder shook the inn, and Tobias sighed.

“Drink all the cream you want, boy,” he said, and dipped his rag in the jar of oil again.

* * *

“Are you really going to fight the Thunderer?”

The question came from a wide-eyed girl who barely brushed three feet. The stranger looked down from his place at the bar, considering her seriously.

“I’m going to talk to him.”

It was morning, though the sky outside was no less black than usual. He had taken Tobias’s invitatation to drink all the cream he liked seriously. He’d been sitting at the bar all night, nursing glass after glass and looking around the open barroom like it was the most fascinating thing he’d seen in his life.

Garrett and Bette’s daughter, whose name Tobias always forgot—he thought it started with an E? Looked even more awestruck.

“What are you going to say?” She asked.

The stranger got up from his stool and smiled at her.

“Things,” he said. The girl—Ellie? Scowled at him.

“What kind of things?”

“You’ll just have to watch and see,” he said. Bette realized where her daughter had gone off to and hustled over, taking her arm to bring her back. The girl let her mother lead her away, but she gazed back at the stranger, utterly ignoring Bette’s stern warning about being cautious of strangers.

Unaware of his admirer, said stranger took his now-dry coat from its peg and shrugged it onto his shoulders. The silver detailing of the sword-belt glowed in the dim light as he buckled it on, and Tobias leaned over the counter from where he was rubbing a set of glasses dry to get a better glance at the weapon. He saw the silverwork a little clearer, got a solid glimpse of the red and yellow leather wrapped in a strange pattern around the hilt, and then the stranger flapped his coat around himself and gave Tobias a smile.

“Wish me luck!” He said. Laughing like he’d said something clever, he exited the hotel, greeted by a low rumble of thunder as he left the double doors swinging in his wake.

He’d forgotten his hat.

With a grumble, Tobias stepped out from behind the bar, grabbing the hat from its hook and jogging to the still-swinging door, hoping to call the boy back so he wouldn’t have to go slogging after him through the mud.

He pushed the doors open, holding the hat up, and paused on the cusp of a shout.

The boy was striding down the road through the middle of the town, water swirling around his feet, the slicing rain plastering his wild, fire-red hair flat to his head. The wind beat his coat around his long, skinny legs, and as the boy walked, he tugged the sword free of his coat and of its sheath, raising it high over his head like a lantern to threaten the darkness of the clouds.

The blade was wide and straight, double-edged, the solid metal etched on either side of the deep tang with a pattern of raised wings, like an eagle’s first wild flap when it took off from its perch in chase of some recently sighted prey.

The boy held it up for a moment, and then lowered it carelessly to one side, squinting up at the clouds and blinking the rain from his face.

“Thunderer!” He bellowed, and Tobias jumped. The boy was almost as loud as the thunder himself. He felt a tiny press against his leg, and saw the brown braided head of the girl, her hand pressed to his thigh as she leaned around him to see.

A moment passed in which the boy got no answer, though the clouds above them swirled and trembled in deep shades of stone-black and steel-grey.

“If you do not stop this storm in three days,” he shouted, and now that Tobias was used to the impressive volume of his voice, it was easier to hear how it was dwarfed by even the lowest rumble from the clouds above, “You will die!”

There was another moment of silence.

Then, mission evidently accomplished, the boy turned on his heel and, sheathing the sword, began stalking back towards the inn.

Tobias stepped aside as he reached the doors.

“Was that it?” The girl asked skeptically. The stranger smiled at her.

“For today, yes. Oh, my hat! Thank you.”

Tobias let the hat be taken from his hand. The stranger replaced it on the lantern-hook, along with the sword-belt and dripping coat. This done, he resumed his seat at the bar and gave Tobias a sparkling smile.

“Do you have any more cream?”

* * *

Tobias spent the rest of the day mopping the floor, settling an argument that broke out over a game of checkers, and starting an account of how many glasses of cream the stranger was consuming. The tally was running high at one hundred and thirty-eight.

By the time the three days were up and the storm was still raging, Tobias was banking on the notion that the stranger’s bill would be high enough to demand his sword in payment. It was good craftsmanship, covered in precious stones and metals. It would be enough to begin rebuilding the town and repairing the damage from the storm.

All in all, it was a good plan. Tobias firmly believed that gaining a hapless adventurer, even one terrible at keeping his promises, was the best thing that had happened to the town in some time.

The next morning, Tobias came down to find the stranger’s coat hanging on the hook, but no stranger. The girl—Emma? And her mother were both huddled by the door, staring out. Tobias adjusted his eyeglasses and walked over to watch with them.

The boy was shouting at the sky again.

“—in three days, you will die!” He roared, holding up the sword.

The sky snapped and crackled in response, clouds swirling and roiling. Tobias thought he caught a glimpse of pale white in the black of the clouds—but in the next moment, it was gone.

The mud was up to the stranger’s calves as he trudged drippingly back, and the rain showed no signs of stopping. The boy offered them all a smile anyway.

“Not much longer now,” he said, and hung up his hat and sword before returning to the bar.

* * *

The morning of the third day, the boy seemed to have given up. He sat at the bar all day, drinking glass after glass of cream and seemingly ignorant of the resentful looks being cast his way by everyone in the hotel.

That evening, Tobias ordered his accounts and wrote out a bill for fifteen dollars and fifty-six cents—more than enough to demand the sword as payment.

Armed with the bill, he stalked out into the main room of the hotel, where Garrett’s game of checkers and Bette’s knitting had been joined by old man Harold determinedly trying to play a song on the hopelessly tuneless piano and a pair of young ranchers quietly drinking and playing cards. Bette and Garrett’s youngest two children, flying free of the supervision of their sister, were making a game of stealing cards and checkers on the sly and running across the room gleefully while the game-players were forced to get up and chase after them.

The stranger was watching from his habitual perch at the bar, nursing a glass of cream thoughtfully and smiling whenever the children ran wildly past him.

He turned that smile on Tobias as soon as he came near, and Tobias very pointedly did not smile back. He set the bill decisively on the counter and pushed it forward for the stranger’s observation.

The boy smiled at the bill. Then he smiled at Tobias.

All this smiling was beginning to set a prickling tension up Tobias’s spine.

“And this is?”

The boy’s questioning tone was so blankly innocent that for a moment Tobias entertained the notion that he was asking about the nature of paper and ink itself. In response, Tobias crossed his arms.

“It’s been three days,” he said. “The Thunderer’s still alive. Here’s what I’m owed for the cream.”

He was expecting shamefacedness. Bravado. Possibly protest. The boy, however, didn’t seem flustered at all. His smile did not falter, though it was tinged with a hint of confusion.

“It’s not been three days yet,” he said. “It’s not quite sunset.”

Tobias crosses his arms tighter.

“And you’re going to find and kill him in the next twenty minutes?” He asked. “Kid, that’s not—“

A flash of lightning shone white and blinding through every crack and cranny in the walls of the inn, bright enough to be blinding. The crack of thunder that followed on its heels shook Tobias’s bones and the very foundations of the inn. The bottles lined up behind the bar trembled and cracked against one another, several smashing down on the floor, and Bette let out a small shriek.

The inn was cast in a deeper darkness than before, the sharp ozone scent thick in the air. Tobias blinked, shaken, but the stranger merely set down his half-drunk glass of cream and looked up with a smile.

“Ah,” he said. “Just in time.”

* * *

“Pipsqueak!”

It’s a hollow, deafening voice, sizzling like lightning, rumbling like thunder. The stranger stood up from his stool, snagged his coat off its hook, and swept through the hotel’s double doors, leaving them swinging in his wake.

Tobias looked around the room, where everyone had stopped what they were doing. They were stiff as statues, staring at one another.

“Hello then! You’re almost late!” The boy shouted, his voice slightly muffled by the walls and doors; and as one, everyone in the room—Tobias included—rushed to look out the windows.

The street outside was all but unrecognizable. It had been battered, watered and churned so as to become a veritable sea of mud, running swift as a river. The boy was sunk into it past his knees, but he seemed unflustered by the fact. He stared up, unfazed, at the sky.

The sky had a face.

The sky, more specifically, had a skull.

The clouds had darkened, almost pitch-black, and they thrummed on every side like the beat of heavy wings. In the midst of the deep and wild dark, white bone shone, looking down through empty eyes at the stranger. Lightning snapped and crackled around the Thunderer’s teeth as he spoke, rattling back down the pale structure of his spine, crackling fissures in the oppressive dark.

“It is you who are late,” the hollow voice snapped. “It has been three days, and yet the storm continues, and I still live.”

Under the storm-heart of the Thunderer’s ribs, the rain had ceased, though it swirled around all the harder under the beat of his dark wings. The stranger stood in the relative quiet and set his hands on his hips with an air of petulance.

“Why is everyone in such a hurry?” He asked. “It’s not sunset yet. It won’t have been three days until sunset.”

A blinding flash of lightning threw the thunderer’s skeletal form into sharp relief for a moment, crackling outward, giving his wings and snapping tail brief definition, and Tobias flinched back from it, eyes burning. The world returned to the storm-dark shadows as the rumbling thunder of the creature’s laughter rattled its ribcage.

“It is not fifteen minutes until then, pipsqueak,” it said. “What—have you some concealed dagger? Will you take a mighty swing, and let it glance off my toe?”

He laughed again, and Tobias shut his eyes and ears, cringing from it; but when he opened them again, he saw the boy still standing, hands on his hips, looking up at the Thunderer as though he had never been obliged to look away.

When he spoke, he sounded sad.

“You’ve grown arrogant,” he said. “But there’s still time. You can still stop this storm. You can still live.”

The Thunderer laughed his deafening laugh again, and while the earth still shook with it, there was a heavy thud that Tobias felt trembling up his legs. The Thunderer had come down to earth, his great claws sinking into the mud. He took a prowling step forward, lowering his head to look directly down upon the stranger’s rain-plastered head.

“I? Arrogant?” He asked, blue electricity dancing around his jaws and flashing up through the empty sockets of his eyes. “What is arrogance, that it could apply to me? Have I taken more than is my due—I, who shake the earth with my wings? I, who scorch the sky with my breath?”

“Shake and scorch if you like,” the boy said. “The earth and the sky have been here before you. They will be here after you.”

The lightning flashed up bright and sharp in the Thunderer’s eyes, and with a tremble of air and a rattle of bone, he took a step back.

“Says a creature who sees the beginning and end of neither,” he snapped. “Do not preach to me, pipsqueak. It is you—you, who come threat-making and sinew-flexing—you who is arrogant. There is a price for such presumption.”

The crackling lightning was building, shining through the sockets of the Thunderer’s skull, a clear and present threat, but the boy only shrugged, raising his hands.

His empty hands.

Tobias’s eyes snapped from the boy, minuscule in the face of the Thunderer and his rage, to the sword, hanging sheathed and useless on its lantern-hook.

He needed his sword.

With no more thought than that, Tobias shoved through the small, terrified tangle of people who had gathered at the doors, sprinted the two steps to the lantern-hook, and tore the sword free of its sheath. The blade hummed and trembled like a living thing in his hands, but he had no time to wonder at it . He ran to the door, his guests parting like blown wheat before him, and out into the storm, sinking knee-deep in the mud within his first few steps. He would never be able to get to the boy in time.

“Seventeen seconds until sunset,” the Thunderer crackled, bending threateningly, and Tobias lost what little sense he’d managed to hold until now.

“Stranger! Your sword!” He remembered to roar in warning, and flung the blade in the boy’s general direction, and the Thunderer glanced up, surprised by the shouting.

He realized, as the blade left his hand, just how idiotic of a thing he was doing. The sword was heavy, it would fall. It would stab the boy. It would get lost in the mud.

The sword disagreed. It left his hand. It flew.

The blade rose, spinning, in an elegant arc over the boy’s head. The crackle of lightning flickered against the rain-wet metal as it hung, frozen, for one second in time.

Then it plummeted down, and the Thunderer had no time even to flinch away as the blade sliced into his skull and buried itself deep.

The lightning in the Thunderer’s mouth flickered for a moment. Then, with the shudder of a receding storm, the great frame of bones began to collapse, the swirling meat and matter of the Thunderer dying out and fading away.

He shook the ground one last time as he fell.

* * *

Tobias was knee-deep in mud when the sun reappeared. It set the west on fire, spreading orange and yellow and pink light over the mud-brown world in a way he hadn’t seen since a week past, when the Thunderer had first come down from his mountain.

He blinks at the monolithic skull, sunk to its jawbone in the deep-churned mud of the street and still managing to tower almost as tall as the storefronts. The pale columns of wing-bones arc up and over the buildings, with joints planted somewhere on the outskirts of town.

He’s only vaguely aware that there are people—coming out of his hotel, out of the houses, out of everywhere. They are slow, tentative, not quite managing any greetings just yet—just staring. They blink at one another in the unfamiliar sunlight.

Tobias does not think of the stranger until he catches a glimpse of the sword, shining like a perverted crown jewel in the very center of the dead Thunderer’s forehead. He turns, scanning the familiar faces.

The stranger is gone.

Epilogue

With a tube of polish in one hand and a soft cloth in the other, Tobias was spiting the dim light.

In all fairness, the sunset was being no more inconvenient than usual. The real inconvenience, or rather inconveniences, were the guests that had crowded the Marquette Hotel to bursting. Tourists, wanting to come see the remains of what is—what was—the very last Thunderer in existence. Fifteen years since he’d died, and still, the tourists came. They kept Tobias at the bar long past his usual hours, pushing his current task back until there was barely the light for it.

Squelching out a fresh dollop of polish onto the cloth, Tobias rubbed away at what might be a bit of tarnish, or possibly a shadow, on the silver hilt of the blade.

He can’t complain, really. The tourists pay well, even if they make more mess and noise than they’re worth. Even when they etch patterns into the Thunderer’s bones and climb up on his skeleton and try to tug the silver sword from his skull for a keepsake.

He huffs a laugh at the bent of his own thoughts, and squints at the sword-hilt. He’s getting old, and he should have brought a lantern.

“It’s after sunset, now,” a voice said from over his head. “Long past time to be done.”

Tobias jerked, and looked up.

Against the twilit sky, a sharp-edged, gangling figure is standing on the top of the Thunderer’s head, looking down at Tobias with his head cocked to one side. Tobias stares for a moment, and then settles, looking down at his work.

“Just one more grubby fingerprint, and I will be done,” he says. “And if you’d have remembered all your belongings for once, I’d never have had to come out here at all.”

It was far too dark to see what he was doing anymore. He tucked the rag into his pocket, but didn’t move to get up, looking up at the familiar silhouette.

“You going to take it back?” He asked. “If you don’t, one of these boys might actually get it loose someday and carry it off.”

There was silence for a few moments, as the stranger merely looked down at him. Thinking, Tobias assumed, though he couldn’t see the man’s face.

“Have you ever tried?” He asked, finally. “To pull it loose?”

Tobias huffed. “Why would I?”

The stranger shrugged. “To sell it,” he said. “To use it. Just to see if you could?”

“Can’t say I have.”

The stranger looked up, a profile against the deep blue of the sky, and once again, Tobias thought he caught an odd light in the boy’s eyes—a strangeness, gone as soon as it was seen.

The boy got up, dusting himself off.

“Well then, that’s for the best.” He said. “Whoever can draw that sword, can be assured—they will have need of it.”

Tobias nodded, as if this sort of proclamation was the kind of thing anyone might take their leave with. As the boy turned to walk back down the Thunderer’s spine, Tobias didn’t ask where he’d come from or where he was going. He called out,

“There’s a bottle of cream under the bar. Take it, for the road.”

The boy turned around, flashing a grin at him.

“You’re a true friend!” He shouted, and leapt down and out of sight.

Tobias huffed in response, and began to ready himself to climb back down off the skull.

He thought for a moment, before he did. The glint of silver was no longer quite visible in the dim light, but he knew where it lay.

He remembered the thrum of life in the blade. He remembered the ease with which it had flown from his hand.

It was a silly instinct, he thought, shaking his head at his own foolishness as he reached out, wrapping his hand around the solid hilt.

The metal hummed, trembling like the flank of an overexcited stallion under his hand, and Tobias felt his heart flutter.

He gripped the sword, and tugged.


Enjoy this story?

I’ve got a ton more. Why not take one of these out for a spin?

Bazar-Tek And The Lonely Knight

Of Stolen Gold And Princesses

Dragon-Slayer


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Last Chance and the Missing Knife (Last Chance, #3)

This work is part of a series. The first installment can be read here.

A ship.

A lumpy, ungainly, ugly thing. It hurtles at an enormous speed through the dark fabric of the universe, skirting gravity wells and skimming over swirling pools of matter. It passes the womb of a fetal star, soars under the tomb of a long-forgotten planet.

A ship, accruing a fine grey coat of silt. Raw, powdery stuff, crumbling at a touch. It is the ground upon which living things have walked; it is the dead remains of a star that once lit a long-forgotten System. The remains of so many places, with all their lives and wars and poems and stories; dust now, to be washed off at next planetfall.

A ship, pale and tiny against the all-encompassing black.

Pass inside it, through the thick steel plating of its skin. Pass the tough steel ribs filled with insulating foam. Pass the cords and cables, the veins that carry the ship’s necessary lifeblood—energy and information—throughout its small and hollow body. Pass the inner walls, to the interior—it is as dark as the universe itself, in here.

Here is the great belly of the beast, where reactors and injectors feed fuel into the fiery, closeted engine. Here is the cargo hold, where the dark shapes of boxes containing food and chrome and coffee filters lurk against the light-starved walls. Here is the cockpit, where the dials and screens provide a faint neon glow, tracing out the spare outlines of shapes in shades of blue and orange. Empty, worn chairs. A stack of papers topped by a small book.

In the upper part of the ship, just beneath the weld-scarred spine of the ship’s outer shell, there is a small room. It is located just above the cargo hold, slant-roofed in an architectural representation of an afterthought, and retrofitted with a small enclosed elevator to carry supplies up from the hold in order to save storage space in the room itself. It has empty counters, a small metal table, and a fold-down stovetop.

In the dark, the slight sound of hanging pots and pans clicking against one another in response to the ship’s shaky rumble is the only thing readily available to any human senses.

Just outside the opaque glass of the sliding kitchen door, a light flickers to life.

Unusual, for this ship. By UR time, the ship is currently experiencing 2400 hours—midnight. All is usually left quiet, undisturbed, for another eight hours at least.

The light from the hallway glows dully against the sharp lines of the table. The softly swinging pots and pans glint with it.

Voices—one bright with excitement, the other rougher and sleep-slurred—filter into the room. As the steady tramp of footsteps brings the two speakers ever closer, the voices grow louder.

The door slides open, sending the hallway light pouring in unchecked. Holding a stack of photographs, Ketzal barges into the room first, flicking the switch by the door as she enters. The room comes to life, bathed in a white glow.

Covering his mouth to stifle a yawn, Eli comes after her, and the door slides shut behind him.

Ketzal flings her photographs on the table, letting them spread out in a haphazard fan over its weathered, age-dented surface. Eli succeeds in beating down his yawn.

“So.” He makes his way fumblingly to the stovetop. “This guy.”

“Ma-Rek,” Ketzal supplies helpfully, as Eli folds the stovetop down and turns the dial to set it to heat. Among the pots and pans swinging idly above his head, he picks out a blackened kettle. Dislodged from its brethren, the kettle clanks and clatters in protest as he opens it, placing it in the small, efficient sink. The water turns on with a burbling rush, filling the kettle with a sound that is somehow both sharp and soft.

“Uh-huh. Let me see if I have this straight. He gets a ton of chrome,” Eli holds up one finger, as though ticking off items from a list, “hides it all, builds a map to where he hid it, and then—abandons his crew and flies into an asteroid belt?”

He keeps his four fingers up, holding them as though for inspection. Ketzal is unperturbed.

“Pretty much. Though the vampirism on Bleachbone might have been a part of his reason for abandoning the crew, if it happened before he left. Or, he could have just been being selfish, not wanting to share. He was a pirate, after all.”

“Share what? And when? He flew himself into an asteroid belt.”

Ketzal shrugs.

“I don’t know what he was thinking. Too many variables to guess, really. It’s wild, right?”

Eli yawns again.

“I’d go for ‘insane’, but sure.”

The kettle is full now. The water jumps up from the small opening at its top, burbling over the sides like a tiny but very energetic waterfall. He reaches back to shut off the water, pouring out the excess before putting the lid back on the kettle and setting it on the stovetop. The kettle hisses, indignant, at the sudden heat. Ketzal pulls out a chair.

“It might not be a treasure map,” he says, readjusting the kettle on the stovetop.

“How do you mean?”

Eli, circling back towards the table, hesitates briefly by the cabinets. Opening one, he pulls out an apple. Setting it on the counter, he begins to open drawers with systematic steadiness. He frowns, briefly, into each one before closing it again.

“I mean,” he says, to one of the open drawers, “It seems like he went into a ‘kill everyone’ stage, right before he died. He could’ve built that map to—I don’t know, a planet like Blue 12. Somewhere deadly enough that whoever dared to go hunting for his treasure wouldn’t make it out alive. A death trap.”

Ketzal sits, running her tongue over her teeth in thought.

“That’s actually really likely. I didn’t even think of it.”

Closing another disappointing drawer, Eli hums slightly in response.

Ketzal is still turning something over in her head.

“That would be so cool,” she says. Eli turns away from his search to direct a squint at her.

“You’d still go, wouldn’t you?”

“To find out the closest existing equivalent of Ma-Rek’s last will and testament? Of course. Whatever else it is, it’s sure to be fascinating.”

The worry lines imprinted around Eli’s pale eyes grow a shade deeper.

“You can’t be fascinated if you’re dead,” he says, slowly, giving weight and meaning to each word. Ketzal looks up, one eyebrow cocked, shoulders straight.

“You’ve got personal proof of that, or something?” She says, a little sharply.

He frowns deeper, and after a moment, she sighs.

“Sorry. It’s just—I’m not built to be cautious, Eli. I’m not made for being prudent or looking before I leap or—any of that. I have to find things out, I have to look, even if it’s dangerous. It’s just who I am.”

On the stove, the water simmers.

Eli is still frowning, but after a moment he nods.

“I guess I can see that,” he says. “I don’t get it. But I can see it.”

He directs his frown at the drawer for a moment, then closes it, and opens another. He frowns into that one too.

“Have you seen our knife?”

She sits up in her chair, squinting at the drawer he has open without actually being able to see into it.

“I put it in there last time I used it.”

“Well, it’s not here now,” Eli says. He shuffles the drawer’s contents a bit, as proof.

“That’s weird. Here.” Ketzal digs something out of her pocket. “Use mine.”

He turns around in time to catch the folded knife that tosses at him.

“Thanks.”

He frowns into the drawer one last time before shutting it again.

“So,” Ketzal says, shuffling her photos again, “It’s a death trap.”

“It might be.”

Opening the knife, Eli returns to the apple. He cuts it into neat quarters, carving out the seedy centers in a neat, precise series of movements.

Ketzal nods.

“Okay. So if you had to go somewhere that might be a death trap, how would you go about it?”

Eli returns to the table with two handfuls of apple slices. He places a small pile of them in front of her, and another in front of the chair just across from hers. Opening the incineration bin in the center of the room, he drops the core scraps into it, frowns at the over-full bin, and closes the lid, jabbing the button on its side. With a muffled rush of flames coming to life, the trash from the last few days is burned away to nothing.

“I’d get a good idea of what I was going into first,” he says, sitting down. “Take some time to assess everything. I’d have a plan to get out quickly, and I wouldn’t go alone.”

She nods thoughtfully, shoving an apple slice into her mouth. The water is boiling. Eli gets up again, going to the stovetop to pour out two cups of tea.

“Okay,” she says. “So, once we get to Red 16, do you know if there’d be anyone who would be interested in a possible treasure hunt/ death trap investigation adventure scenario?”

Eli turns away from the stove, walking back to the table and setting the two steaming cups down. He’s frowning again. Ketzal notices.

“What?”

“We’re still going by Red 16 first?”

She wraps her tea in her palms, soaking in its heat.

“Well. Yeah. You still want to go home, right?”

“Of course.”

“So, yeah. Red 16, then Ma-Rek’s treasure.”

Eli’s mouth is a flat line, and the crease between his brows is a veritable channel.

“I’ll pay you for the ship!” She says suddenly. “It’s mostly yours anyway—or you could keep it and I could buy a new one?”

Another silence.

“They do sell ships on Red 16, right?”

Eli bobs his head to one side, an inconclusive combination of headshake and nod that conveys no useful information about Red 16’s spaceship market.

“I do want to go home,” he says, “But not if it means leaving you to go shooting off alone to some pirate’s death planet.”

“I wouldn’t be alone, I’d—wait,” Ketzal gives him a piercing look. “You want to come with me.”

Eli picks his tea up and rolls his shoulders.

“I want to not leave you alone,” he says, after a pause.

Ketzal’s piercing look becomes sharper. It’s an expression she’s practiced many times in the mirror.

“You don’t have any obligation to keep me safe. Besides, I’d find someone to tag along.”

Eli’s shoulders fall.

“All right,” he says, reluctant. “Maybe I want to see this pirate treasure. If it is pirate treasure. Which I doubt it is.”

“Ha!” Ketzal shouts, snapping her fingers. “You’re curious.”

“I’m—I’m not—“ Eli splutters, which only makes Ketzal bend forward over her tea in a fit of laughter. Putting his tea down, he throws up his hands.

“Fine! I’m curious! You’re infectious.”

Ketzal chokes on her own laughter, and Eli shakes his head.

“It’s not that funny.”

“It is” she insists, face planted firmly on the table. The metal surface makes her sleep-deprived giggles reverberate through the whole room.

Eli shakes his head again and picks up his tea to take a sip.

Behind the mug, it’s impossible to see if he’s smiling.

* * *

Half an hour later, the lights are off. Two empty tea mugs sit, ringed with faint stains, in the sink. The ship has fallen asleep. Two of its inhabitants are asleep as well, tucked comfortably away and given over to dreams of treasure and discovery.

In the kitchen, a cupboard door creaks open.

Cautiously, an arm pokes out of it, then a head. Like an egg cracking open to expel a salamander, the cupboard spills a whole sprawling human figure onto the floor, one limb at a time.

They snap their gaze around the darkened room, gleaning what little they can from its shadows. Padding across the floor, they slide the door open. A knife-sharp wedge of light spills into the room, and they stand, a spindly silhouette, in the light.

Breek has a jacket at least a size too large for him on his shoulders and a paring knife in his hand. Wide-eyed, he looks around the hallway.

When no one jumps out from the bare walls to seize him, he seems to judge it safe enough.

The door slides shut behind him, and the kitchen is bathed in darkness once again.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 12 minutes when Breek reenters the room. Peers inside. Frowns. Risking another backward glance into the hallway, he flicks on the light. He creeps into the kitchen, quietly opening a drawer and pulling out several cans—meat, and fruit, and potatoes. Enough to last a few days. He stuffs the food into his coat, looking around all the while, and silently pads away.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 17 minutes when Eli walks into the kitchen and flicks the lightswitch.

The room, utterly contrary to expectation, goes dark around him. Eli blinks into it in confusion before flicking the switch again. The room flares up in friendly visibility. Eli scowls at the light switch for a moment, and finally shakes his head.

“We don’t need to save the ship’s battery!” He says, voice pitched a little higher than is usual for him. “We can leave all the lights on, all the time. I’ll just buy a new ship! I bathe in chrome and brush my teeth with silk!”

He stumps over to the counter, opening a drawer and frowning when he finds it empty.

“Could’ve sworn I just filled this.”

Grumbling at the delay of his breakfast, he walks to the side of the room, where the outline of a door is set in the wall by a panel of buttons. At one point, buttons had clear indicators of their function painted on them, but the paint has worn away, replaced by oily finger stains. Eli knows them by memory.

He jabs one, and the panel slides open for him. Rubbing his eyes irritably, he steps inside. The panel slides shut behind him, and the elevator descends with a rush of muffled mechanics.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 19 minutes. Ketzal wanders into the kitchen, her hair tied in a messy purple pile on top of her head and a glowing datapad balancing on one hand like a waiter’s tray. She fills the coffeemaker and turns it on without glancing at it. Frowning down at the datapad, she makes her way, arm outstretched, towards a cupboard.

With a sharp crack and an exclamation of pain, her progress is jarred to a halt and she jumps back, rubbing her hip and taking her eyes off the datapad for the first time since her entry into the kitchen. An open drawer, all hard lines and sharp corners, stands in her path.

“Sheesh. How hard is it to close a drawer,” she grumbles, slamming it shut with her bruised hip and wrenching open the cupboard, retrieving a canister of dry milk and a mug. Clutching these awkwardly in her free hand, she makes her way back. The coffeemaker is burbling its last, the reservoir filled to the brim with hot brown liquid. Dumping a good amount of the dry milk into her mug, she returns to gazing at the datapad.

“Loris, colloquially known as Greyscape. Dry, rocky surface.” She reads. Coffee follows the dry milk, and she stirs the lumps in with one finger. “Mostly flat. Not a great place for a death trap.”

She takes a sip of the coffee and wanders back out the kitchen, leaving the canister of dry milk open and forgotten on the counter.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 21 minutes. A slim figure slinks cautiously into the kitchen. Breek, glancing aside every few seconds, has a can of meat in one hand, and a marked lack of can opener in the other. Muttering to himself, he is quietly opening a drawer to search for one when returning footsteps sound in the hallway, and, cursing, he scrambles to duck behind the incinerator in the center of the room, curling his limbs up and out of sight like a startled spider.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 22 minutes. Ketzal’s head pops through the door, and she bumps the light switch off with her half-empty coffee mug.

“You’re welcome, Eli,” she says, to no one in particular.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 23 minutes, and Breek has gathered the courage to move from his hiding place. Gingerly feeling his way to the drawers in the dark, he resumes his search. Metallic shuffling and clinking sounds through the room as he shoves aside everything in the drawer that does not feel like a can opener.

The muffled sound of the rising elevator rumbles and screeches through the wall, and Breek shoves off from the counter with a curse. Something falls, hitting the floor and rolling with a loud clatter. Slipping a little, Breek flees. He is a dark shape in the doorway—and he is gone.

* * *

At 0800 hours and 24 minutes, the elevator door opens.

“Oh, for—,” Eli snaps as he is presented with the lightless room. He stomps meaningfully towards the switch, and the lights flare up again. Eli, arms full of canned food, turns around and stares at the floor.

It is covered with dry milk powder. An open canister lies innocently, apparently having been hurled at the tile and then left there.

“Why,” Eli asks the empty room, dumping his armful of cans on the table.

“Why.” as he sweeps up the mess and dumps the contaminated powder in the incineration bin.

“Why.” as he finds the lost knife also on the floor, lying on the drifts of dry milk like a sunbather on a beach.

And finally, “Why,” as his valiant search for the can opener is fruitlessly disappointed.

Having arranged the canned food in its proper place and scrounged a plastic meal packet that does not require a can opener from a cupboard, Eli leaves the room, shutting the lights off behind him with a decisive click.

* * *

At 1100 hours and 48 minutes, the door opens once more, and the lights come on. Ketzal and Eli both walk into the kitchen.

“Coffee is not breakfast,” Eli insists, shutting the door as Ketzal places her datapad on the table.

“I wasn’t hungry.”

Eli’s mouth flattens, but he doesn’t argue.

“I was thinking maybe soup for lunch?”

Eli nods, bending low to retrieve dry broth base from a lower cupboard while Ketzal reaches up for freeze-dried vegetables, meat, and spices.

“That’ll work. I still don’t know where the can opener went.”

“I didn’t do anything with it.” Ketzal says, holding up the meat packets in a gesture of innocence.

“I didn’t say you did. Things just keep disappearing. It’s unsettling.”

“Weird,” Ketzal agrees, pulling down the stovetop. The soup form a promising pile on the counter, and Eli goes over to snatch down the saucepan.

“So,” Ketzal says, “I’ve been taking a look at Loris, the planet that Ma-Rek’s map points to. If the surveys taken a decade or so ago are still accurate, it’s a sparsely populated planet. Carbon-heavy rock, mostly, with some caves and old mine shafts.”

Eli, filling the saucepan with water, turns toward Ketzal.

“Can I see?”

“Sure!” She says, tripping over to the table and tapping at her datapad. When it fails to light up at her touch, she frowns and makes a disappointed noise.

“It’s out of power.” She says. “I can show you on the cockpit computer”

Eli sets the pan on the stovetop, brushing his hands on his shirt.

“Sure.”

It is 1100 hours and 50 minutes when the door slides shut behind them both.

* * *

It is 1100 hours and 58 minutes when that same door opens again.

Breek stands in the doorway. He glances around the room, takes in the abandoned cooking, and hesitates—but only for a moment. Looking back over his shoulder and finding no one in the hallway, he enters the room.

He digs the can opener from his pocket, treading softly to the drawer where he found it and replacing it where it was—or, at least, somewhere close enough.

He glances at the door again—still silent—and bites his lip. Finally, he goes to the sink, turning on the water and ducking his head under the faucet, gulping down greedy mouthfuls. He stands up, wiping his mouth.

Another glance at the door.

Gaining courage, Breek begins to look through the drawers, shuffling through the utensils. Losing that knife has left him all but defenseless, and he’s eager to get it back. He’s gone through two drawers without finding what he’s looking for when voices sound in the hallway—close, and coming closer.

Breek jumps at the noise, casting about the room for somewhere to hide. Fingers outsplayed as though to grasp any hiding place that presents itself, he takes the room in with wide eyes, silently mouthing every curse he knows.

Footsteps, just outside the door. No time. Breek’s eyes settle on the incineration bin, large and shiny and completely enclosed, sitting in the very middle of the floor.

Without hesitation, he leaps inside. A cloud of white milk-dust puffs up around his head for a split second, and then—

The lid is closed, and the door is opening.

“So, I’m hoping that there will be some clue once we reach the surface about exactly where the treasure—“

Eli, a mere step behind Ketzal, shoots her a look.

“—or the death trap, whatever he left behind to be remembered by, is, because I can’t find a single thing from up here. At least, not unless we orbit Loris until our fuel reserves run out.”

“Going in blind,” Eli says dryly. “fun.”

Ketzal either fails to notice the sarcasm, or intentionally ignores it. Her eyes are alight with adventure, and nothing will dim them now.

“I know! It’s gonna be so amazing!” She spins in the center of the room, and Eli steps around her overexcited figure on his way towards the stovetop. This time, he doesn’t bother to hide his smile. It’s only a small one.

“Right! Soup!” Ketzal says, once she sees what he’s doing. She comes over to the counter, prying the lid from the canister of broth while Eli rips open a packet of meat to reconstitute in the the simmering water.

He’s busy pouring it when a sharp, muffled sound makes him stop.

“Did you say something?”

Ketzal looks at him, questioning.

“No?”

Eli frowns and goes perfectly still, straining his ears.

“Ahhhpssshhttt!”

That is not the noise the incineration bin usually makes. Ketzal hears it too, this time, and she gives the canister raised eyebrows.

“Psssshhhttt,” the bin declares.

They look at each other.

“Oh no,” Eli declares, loudly, while opening the drawer and pulling the knife free of it. He holds it loosely in one hand, at the ready. “It looks like the bin is full again.”

Ketzal catches on, reaching up to take a heavy cooking pan from its hook.

“We should probably clear it out!” She says, holding her pan at the ready.

Eli takes a step towards the silent canister. “I’ll just press the button,” he announces, in the exact manner that any right-minded person about to press a button wouldn’t.

At this, the bin pops open, and a spring-coiled figure leaps free of it with a yowl and a cloud of dust.

With a terrifying yell of her own, Ketzal starts running towards the figure with her saucepan raised. Startled by the noise and searching for an escape route, the coughing stowaway spins in a confused circle, standing right in her path.

Even draped over shoulders too narrow for it and covered in milk powder, Eli knows that jacket.

He reaches out and snags a handful of familiar material, tugging the kid out of Ketzal’s warpath just in time to save him from another concussion. Ketzal flies past them both, skidding to a halt just in time to keep from slamming into the wall.

“Kid, I thought I told you not to be stupid,” Eli says.

Ketzal spins around. “Wait, we know him?”

“Ketzal, meet Breek,” Eli says. “The thief.”

“Oh!” Ketzal says, “The vampire kid!”

In response to this introduction, Breek tugs himself out of Eli’s grip and goes for the door. Eli, not particularly feeling like chasing the kid all over the ship, steps forward and grabs him again. Breek tries and fails to pull himself free, twisting around like a caught warp-rat until he’s facing Eli and shoving him away with both arms. The kid’s eyes are red-rimmed and wild, snapping from the knife in Eli’s hand to his face and back again.

He’s afraid, Eli realizes. Of Eli, of the knife, and more specifically, of Eli holding the knife. His grip on the kid releases of its own accord.

Breek staggers back, but doesn’t run. Ketzal and her pan are in front of the door, cutting off his escape. He squares his shoulders and raises his chin, going for a stolid, stubborn look. It’s ruined, a little, by the fact that he’s still covered in dust and coughing miserably with every other breath.

“M’not a vampire,” he mumbles, through dust-choked lungs.

“No, I mean—you know what I mean.” Ketzal lets he pan drop harmlessly to her side in favor of making a vague explanatory gesture.

“Kid,” Eli starts, “What are you doing? Stowing away on a ship that belongs to strangers? For all you know, we could’ve been the types who’d really have turned that thing on with you inside. Are you really that desperate to get off of—“

Breek glares at Eli with red, accusatory eyes.

“I’d do it again,” he snaps. “And—and you can’t kill me. Not unless you wanna never find Malek’s treasure. I know where it is, there’s—it’s impossible to find, unless you know.”

Eli is unimpressed.

“Do you.”

“Yeah. Malek’s treasure, I’ll lead you right to it.”

“It’s Ma-Rek,” Eli says.

Breek takes a step back, eyes darting between Ketzal and Eli with painful wariness. “That’s what I said.”

Eli shakes his head.

“Stop digging while you can still climb out, kid. We’re not gonna kill you.”

“I’m not—“ he starts, defending his honor, but falters as Eli’s words sink in. He keeps his shoulders straight and his head up, thin and brittle as a dry sapling. “I’m not going back,” he says, instead. “I won’t.”

For a moment, Eli is ready to point out that, as a point of fact, Breek has very little ability to direct where he will or will not go; that, by stowing away and then letting himself be found before they made planetfall, he’d put himself almost entirely at Eli and Ketzal’s disposal.

But something stops him before he’s even drawn breath to speak. He looks the kid over.

Breek already knows all of that, he realizes. He’d already known he was powerless here; judging from the raw rage that has filled his every movement since the moment Eli’s first met him, Breek has been aware of his own helplessness for some time now.

Suddenly, Eli doesn’t want to be the one to remind him.

Instead, he turns to Ketzal, who is scrutinizing them both with the same thoughtful, curious expression that she turns on old manuscripts and artifacts.

“Well,” he says. “How do you feel about another member of this adventure party?”

She shook away the scholarly solemnity in the space of a second and grinned at him.

“Great.”

“I can stay?” Breek asks, surprise leaking past his bravado, if only for a moment.

“Sure thing!” Ketzal says. “Sit down, there’s soup. Want some tea?”

Watching the kid’s eyes grow a little wider with each word, Eli wonders when it was, exactly, that Ketzal’s easy friendliness had stopped surprising him.

Ketzal breezes past them both, hanging her pan back on its hook and turning down the now-boiling soup water.

Breek watches her, then glances at Eli, looking a little lost.

“You’ll get used to it,” Eli promises.

* * *

“I will be needing my jacket back.” Eli says, once Breek has gingerly sat on a chair. He looks for all the world like he expects it to be snatched out from underneath him.

“No.”

“No?”

“It’s not your jacket anymore.”

“It shouldn’t be anybody’s jacket, with all those holes,” Ketzal interjects, and is immediately met with two indignant sets of protests and a detailed outline of exactly why it was a perfectly good jacket, thank you, and how dare she suggest otherwise.

“Alright, all right,” she says, waving a set of bowls at them placatingly. “There’s some perfectly good soup ready, so hush.”

Epilogue:

A ship.

A small, fragile, unimportant thing, in the grand scheme of things. Soaring through such a small patch of space, locked tight in such a tiny swatch of time.

A ship, her walls built of iron ore dug up from deep below the surface of some distant planet—smelted and purified and hardened with carbon, cast and ground and riveted together to keep a few fragile lives safe, just a little longer, from the cold and the drift of the dark universe.

A ship, engineered over lifetime after brief lifetime by hundreds of thousands of thinkers, creatures with minds that could barely grasp what sort of thing a star might be, but who wanted to sail among those unfathomable giants all the same.

A ship that will be rust, and dust, and gone in just a few short centuries. A planet’s workday, a star’s lunch break. Inside it, an adventurer laughs away her fear of the unknown. A brittle boy slurps a spoonful of warm, salty soup. A man wonders, quietly, at a foreign feeling rising in his chest.

A ship.

The stars look on, and do not comprehend.

The Last Chance will return.


Enjoy this story?

You’re in luck, my friend! There are many more. Why not delve into one of these?

The Wolf Of Oboro-Teh

Brevian And The Star Dragon, Part I: Stowaway

Bazar-Tek And The Lonely Knight


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This Screaming Earth

Day 5

The sun was a hard-edged yellow disc in the sky, providing little light and less warmth, when Hamish looked up through frozen lashes and saw the temple.

It was huge, a great monolith of solid stone, rising out of the flat plains with the brutal grandeur of all large things. The pale sunlight made mirrors and abysses of its sharp-edged planes.

He stood for a moment, staring at it. The wind shoved at him, making him stumble a little—shaking the grasses, stirring the fallen snow up into fresh whirlwinds. Struggling over snow that slid out unhelpfully from underfoot, Hamish began to run.

He reached the doors and shoved at them, half-expecting them not to budge under his weak assault. They swung open easily, opening upon a dark cavern of space. He entered, boots clattering oddly against the smooth floor, scattering snow and bits of dead grass with every step.

The doors swung slowly shut behind him, and Hamish slumped against them with a hollow thump, raking greedy breath after greedy breath into his frozen lungs.

There were no more wailing people.

No crunching snow. No howling wind.

Just silence.

Day 1

Hamish sat in the straw of the prison cell, entertaining himself by fiddling with his chains. They were worn and slightly rusted, a testament to the prison’s long life.

“You have two options before you,” the scribe said. He stood outside the prison bars, holding a flat wax tablet and a sharp copper stylus. Hamish did not look up at him.

“Your first option is to appeal to municipal law, and consent to be tried before the county judge. This would likely result in a punitive amputation.”

Hamish did glance up at that. His fingers stilled over a link in the chain, prickling in protest.

“A what?”

The scribe cocked an eyebrow at him. “Your hand,” he said. “They’d cut it off.”

Hamish knew what an amputation was, damn it, but he hadn’t thought—he hadn’t thought what he’d done was that serious. Was it?

“What’s option two?” He asked, throat dry.

“Since it was a temple you stole from,” the scribe continued, looking back at his tablet, “You may apply to be tried by theocratic law, instead of a municipal judge. The priests would assign you a fitting penance. I’m told the most likely one is a temporary exile to the Wailing Plains.”

It was not really a choice.

Day 2

Hamish shifted from foot to foot, half in the temple courtyard and half in a dusty store-room, watching an equally dusty priest rummage through piles of liturgical necessities like animal pelts and brass censers.

“What are the Wailing Plains?”

The priest looked up from his search of the storeroom. The temple was evidently supposed to provide its exiles with supplies appropriate to their destination. Those supplies, he’d learned, included a coat, a scarf, boots, mittens, and whatever it was the the priest was currently searching for. No food. He was told he wouldn’t need it.

He hoped that meant it would be short penance. Somehow, he doubted it.

“It is a physical location,” The priest said, turning back to shuffle for the last of Hamish’s ‘supplies.’ “Though we have so far only reached it through mystic arts, so where it would lie on a map is unknown. Very few have been there, and returned.”

Which sounded less than encouraging, really. Hamish wondered how bad it could really be, life without one of his hands. He could get a hook, right? He could probably live with a hook.

‘Probably’ was not enough certainty to try and change his fate now.

“The few who have been there describe it as— not properly of this world,” the priest went on, finally finding what he was looking for. A flattish ebony box, inscribed with swirling, unreadable letters. “One grows hungry, but never starves. Grows cold, but never freezes.” He blew the dust from the box, and then turned, handing it to Hamish. “They say the true temple of the Silent God is somewhere on the plains,” he said, looking Hamish in the eye. “You will look for it. Should you find it, you may return.”

Day 5

Inside the temple, the air was close-knit and still. It was a balm on Hamish’s wind-worn skin and aching lungs.

He couldn’t stay here forever.

In just a moment, he would get up. Leave. Go back.

There were so many who wandered on these plains, so many whose ears bled under the weight of the eternal screeching. This place, whatever it was—he had to bring them here. He had to show them.

So he would get up, he would.

In just a moment.

Day 2

Hamish held his mysterious box, and again wondered if a hook would be so bad, after all.

“Open that,” the priest said, nodding at the box. Hamish did. Inside, lying on a bed of velvet, were two perfect spheres of black wax.

“You’ll need those,” he said. “There are…creatures, on the Plains. They will not harm you, but you cannot listen to them, not for one second.”

Hamish had never liked priests, or people telling him what to do. The combination of the two now was enough to loosen his tongue.

“What happens if I do?” He asked. If he was going to starve to death on an otherworldly hellscape, he would rather not do it with wax in his ears.

The priest’s gaze was soft, almost compassionate, but it allowed for no argument.

“You would become one of them.”

Day 3

The first thing he noticed was the wind.

It cut through his every outer layer, biting at his skin with no regard for his thick coat and stabbing itself into his finger-bones as though the mittens on his hands were mere prayers for warmth. Under the thick grey sky, thinly streaked with yellow by an indifferent sun, it whipped the brittle brown grasses and made intermittent whirlwinds of the icy snow—the refuse from the last blizzard, reliving its glory days by snapping hard icy pellets against Hamish’s face.

The third thing he noticed was that the priests had managed to give him a scarf of exactly the wrong size.

It was wide. It was long. But it was not quite wide enough to cover both his mouth and his neck and the awkward triangle of space where his coat didn’t quite button, and not quite long enough wrap around twice to make up for its deficiencies in wideness. He pulled it up to cover his mouth and keep the cold from entering his lungs, but that only let the cold in to slice, knife-sharp, at his throat. He shoved it back down to cover his throat, breathing through his nose; but he had already breathed on the knit wool and now it was wet and cold. His nostril hairs were frosting up and sticking together.

He growled, feeling the sound low and deep in his chest without hearing it. It was strange, not hearing his own voice.

The balls of wax in his ears were cold and itchy. His attempts to ignore them were failing.

Even with the ready distraction of his many annoyances, his attempts to ignore the second thing he had noticed was failing too.

They were everywhere.

Pale, ghost-grey things, with wide open mouths and cavernous eyes, solid as stones and—if their wild stumbling at every gust of wind was any clue—light as feathers. Milling around aimlessly, they didn’t seem to notice Hamish. He was glad of it.

More than once, Hamish caught himself being drawn in to look at their faces—the wide, pale eyes, the gaping mouths. Every time, he tore his gaze away again. The shivers that ran down his spine had nothing to do with the wind.

Look at them too long, and they might well look back. The wax in his ears itched, but he didn’t dare touch it.

Look for the temple, Hamish thought. It was a simple enough task. Or, it should have been. But the plains were flat as a skipstone, wide and wild, with a barely perceptible line for a horizon; and nowhere did Hamish see a temple. Not even the ghostly outline of one.

He squinted, wondering briefly if it was possible to build a temple underground. He looked down at his boots, half-buried in some dormant snow, and kicked experimentally. He took a step forward, still squinting at the ground.

Something solid collided with him, sending him sprawling on his back. Hamish caught a glimpse of wide, dull eyes and outstretched hands as the creature trampled over him, seemingly unaware of his existence; and then he blinked, and found that he was staring up at the sky.

That was when he heard the screaming.

Hamish sat up with a panicked jerk, turning to scrabble in the powdery snow in a vain search for the gobs of wax. He succeeded only in getting snow wedged into the gaps between his mittens and the ends of his sleeves. The snow was soft, and cold, and unhelpful. The wax was gone.

While Hamish was still on the ground, another of the stumbling creatures tripped over him. It did a sort of one-legged dance, trying to regain its balance, and then finally seemed to gather itself. It moved on, mouth open and face lifted as though it intended to drink the sky, letting out a wild animal wail as Hamish got up and brushed himself off.

Their cries were piercing, high and sharp enough to carve the moon into a harvest scythe. Remembering the priest’s warning, Hamish hastily stuffed his fingers into his ears. Another of the creatures brushed by his back, screaming almost directly in his ear, and Hamish flinched away, wondering if his skin was already turning gray, if he was going to start wandering aimlessly and screaming at the sky. He clenched his teeth shut to ward off that possibility as long as possible.

This wasn’t worth it, he decided. Not all all. He turned back—but when he swung around, he couldn’t tell if he was facing back the way he’d come or not. It all looked the same.

There was no way home.

His beating heart throbbed against his fingertips, doing little to dull the endless screaming, and Hamish swallowed the dull lump that clogged his throat.

The only way back was to find the temple. Wherever it was. If it even existed.

He wasn’t going to find anything by standing here. He started walking, dodging away from the grey bodies that wandered about so carelessly of his own and trying to ignore the spike of fear every time he tripped over the uneven ground.

Day 4

After one night without sleep, Hamish stopped stuffing his fingers in his ears. His arms were too tired, and the priests had probably lied about him turning into one of those creatures anyway. Lying, just to scare people, was what priests did.

His legs were jelly-soft, wobbling as he walked, and his whole body was aching under the oppressive weight of the wind.

It was shortly into this second day of exile that he began to recognize words in the screaming. Jumbled, garbled words, all being screamed over one another; but words.

He checked his hands frantically, wondering if he was beginning to go grey, if something about him was changing that he could understand the inhuman screams; but no, red-blooded flesh still laid beneath his mittens.

It was only a matter of time before the words became sentences in Hamish’s ears.

“Fire! There is fire, everywhere there is fire!” One cried, spinning almost into Hamish before spinning away again.

“Where do I go? Where am I supposed to go?”

“Floods! The rains are coming! The rain will kill us all!”

“I am beautiful! I am new! I am young and lovely!”

Hamish could have sworn it was enough to make his ears bleed. He walked as fast as he could, squinting against the flakes of snow that pelted his eyelids, trying to block out the noise.

Intent upon his feet, he didn’t see the figure until it collided with him. The solid body knocked him flat on his back, and he found himself looking up into a pair of pale, wide eyes, set into a long, sagging face. Irritably, Hamish got up, expecting it to wander off again.

The watery eyes followed his motion as he rose, and the keening, wordless cry died down a fraction. Hamish, occupied with brushing himself off, stilled. A spark of fear flared up bright in his belly as he realized that the creature was actually looking at him.

“Swords!” the creature bellowed, a hollow sound from hollow lungs. He watched Hamish without blinking, as though in expectation of a response.

“Swords, really?” Hamish said, trying to shake the snow out of his mittens.

“Swords! The grass is made of swords!” A gust of wind blew up, and the creature stumbled a step, but held his ground. The watery eyes stayed fixed on Hamish.

Hamish had spent so long carefully not looking at the creatures or their faces, only catching glimpses of the wide-wailing mouths. The thing’s face is strange, disturbingly solid and fleshy despite its ghost-gray color.

“The grass,” Hamish said, “is swords.”

“Old swords! Ancient swords,” the creature said, volume decreasing slightly as it spoke. It was as though the simple act of listening had created a thin shield around them both, blocking out the incessant screaming, if only for a few moments. The thing bent over, careless of the wind that nearly tipped him flat on his face, and plucked a bit of brown grass out from its bed of snow. It lifted it up, waving it in front of Hamish’s face.

“Blade!” It said, and then let out a wild whoop of laughter. “Blade! See? The grass is made of swords!”

Hamish blinked. He was cold. He was hungry. He was tired. He did not want to listen to a theory about the origin of grass, much less a theory based entirely upon a pun.

“Fascinating,” he said, even though it wasn’t. “I’m on my way to the temple, though, so—“

The man’s gaze snapped suddenly to his.

“The temple is empty!”

“It’s—you’ve been there?” Hamish asked. “Wait! Where—where is it?”

But the creature’s gaze had already slipped away from him, and when another snap of the wild wind made the thing stumble away, it began stumbling off aimlessly, once again screaming to the sky about swords—and grass—and swords. Once again just another dull figure in a horde of dull figures, all ears made deaf by their own shouting.

Hamish watched it go, heart pounding.

The temple is empty. That was what the creature had said. Not it’s gone, not there is no temple.

It’s empty.

There was a temple, then. There had to be. For something to be empty, it had to exist. And if that thing had found it, then Hamish could too.

The thought did not settle a sense of determination in his stomach. It did not invigorate his body with fresh energy.

Instead, his feet felt frozen to the earth.

The only thing that stirred them was desperation—desperation at the thought of an eternity of life like this, frozen to the bone, surrounded by the careless, screaming creatures with their blank eyes and drunken steps. He had to find a way out of this. He had to find a way home.

He took a step, hardly knowing where he went. At least he was going somewhere. Maybe, if we wandered long enough, he would stumble across the temple by accident.

He told himself that it was hope.

The sun slunk lower on the horizon, rebelling against the worldwide grey with a stripe of faded red.

Hamish’s limbs had stopped feeling the cold. He knew enough about cold to know that this was not a good thing, but all the same, he couldn’t help but be relieved at the lack of pain.

He could hear the words better now. When he listened to them, it made the screaming both easier and harder to bear. Parsing out the individual words distracted him from the fact that the cries made the very bones of his ears shake until they seemed about to shatter, but the words themselves were difficult to listen to.

The creatures, it seemed, were masters of truly terrible ideas. They screamed that the sun didn’t exist. They screamed about how unbearably hot the Plains were. They screamed that it was too quiet. They screamed so many inimitably stupid, false things that Hamish had to keep an iron vice on his tongue to keep from screaming back at them.

He clenched his teeth closed and stepped out of the way as one of the things spun past him, wailing that clouds were secretly made of bees.

“Curse the earth,” Someone said softly from right beside Hamish’s ear, and he jumped. He spun aside, turning to stare at the thing who had spoken.

No, not a thing. A girl.

She was small, fine-boned, with eyes set so wide apart that they seemed to be trying to make room for a third. Her flesh had not yet gone gray, and her fingers clutched at her arms, knuckles pale, as though trying vainly to keep warm. Her eyes flicked briefly over Hamish, seeming to take him in, before sliding away again.

“Curse the earth!” She said again. Not a scream. Not a wail, but a small-voiced, mourning plea. “There is blood in it. Curse me, for I have shed it!”

There were tears in her voice, and anger too. It was such a human voice that it caught at Hamish’s heart. He took a step towards her, and her eyes slipped towards him again. Instead of sliding past him, though, this time she fixed on him, her eyes suddenly intent. Hamish went very still.

“I have shed blood,” she told him. “Too much blood. It’s seeping from my feet. It fills my eyes. They sent me here to be whipped clean by the wind; but the wind is no cleaner than I am.”

Hamish could not tell if it was sorrow, or triumph, in her tone; whatever it was, it leaked out of her in the next moment. Her shoulders slumped, and her voice cracked with tears.

“Oh, curse the earth!”

“Why should I?” Hamish asked.

“Because it’s full of blood,” she said. “Can’t you feel it—surging beneath your feet? See, it’s starting to leak into the sky.”

Hamish looked at the sunset. It did look like blood, now that she mentioned it.

“That’s not—“ he began, turning back towards the girl, and his words caught in his throat. There was a living fire in her eyes, directed at the sunset; a wild, raging red; but the rest of her—

The rest of her was gray as a stone.

“I’m looking for the temple,” he said, mouth dry.

She looked back at him, unblinking. Her eyes had gone ghost-pale and watery.

“There is only the earth, and the earth is full of blood,” she said, unshakably certain. “Curse the earth!”

A strong gust of wind made her stumble backwards, almost falling. She wandered away, and as she walked, she began to wail. The wind caught at her words and tore them away, so that they reached Hamish’s ears as though it was the very air that screamed them.

“Curse the earth!” The earth itself reverberated, as Hamish looked down at his shaking hands and wondered when the color would leach out of them, when he himself would begin to wander, forgetting what he’d come here for. When he would stumble and scream his lungs raw at a sky that would never listen.

“Curse the earth!”

Day 5

It was early morning, the grey world made hazy by the new light, when his foot caught on something. There was a sharp pain, a sudden snag, and Hamish found himself splayed flat on the ground, taking panicked breaths through a faceful of snow.

After a night of sleepless wandering, every moment afraid of losing himself to the gray wailing plains, Hamish had to fight down the insane urge to start laughing. It was all so ridiculous. Sleepless and sore and starving, wandering to someplace that might not even exist, and he just had to trip. Fall flat on his face in a perfect farce, an excellent summation of his entire life up till now.

He wanted to lie where he’d fallen and just not bother to get up again. What would be the use?

Frightened by his own thoughts, he struggled to his feet and turned back to scowl vengefully at the thing that had probably left a throbbing bruise on his left big toe.

It was a stone. Low and square, half-hidden in the grasses. Hamish felt a jolt of rage for his still-throbbing foot and the snow that had been dumped down the front of his coat; who would set a stone like that out in the middle of nowhere, just for people to trip over?

Then, as sharp as the wind that cut into his skin: someone had set that stone there. It was too square, too clean-lined to be there by accident.

His head snapped up, and he studied the surrounding ground with renewed energy. There. Another stone, hidden by the grass, and another, just a bit farther from it.

It was a path. He set off, following it, and began to laugh. It was hysterical, his laughter; something that bubbled out of his lungs like vinegar fizz, sharp and sour, the product of sleeplessness and desperation and a wonderful, horrible relief that ran, soft and clean as soapy water, through his veins. He had a path. He’d had nothing, and now he had a path.

Just ahead , one of the screamers was stumbling under the force of the wind, a wild, unstrung dance. One of the pathway-stones caught at their feet, tipping them over in a sudden sprawl that looked like something out of a comedy play. Hamish hurried towards the fallen figure, laughing all the harder.

“It’s a path!” He shouted, even though the wind swept his voice away. The sprawled figure in the grass was still lying there, probably without the motivation to get up. “Follow it, don’t trip over it!” Hamish shouted, voice unsteady with the hilarity that bubbled up in his lungs. He knelt by the figure, tapping them on the shoulder, offering his hand to help them up.

They made no move to reach for it.

He touched their shoulder again, gingerly pulling, turning them over.

Their eyes were blank, mouth frozen open. On the grey skin of the heavy-boned face, a thin line of bright red marked where their skull had cracked against the frozen ground.

Hamish was still laughing, lungs seizing with it as though they had forgotten how to stop. His hand, where it rested on the human creature’s shoulder, was a cold and stony gray.

He slapped a hand over his mouth, trying to force himself to be quiet. He felt sick inside.

Laughing at this forgotten someone, someone who had been wandering just as he wandered, tripped just as he’d tripped, but—had not been given the chance to get back up again.

Even though all hilarity had left him, even though he had no desire to laugh any more, his clutching lungs and shaking throat too far too long to settle, seeming to have gained a will of their own. He got up and stumbled away, hand still covering his mouth, ribs trembling with his efforts to keep them still.

Hamish hated the path. He followed it, clutching his hand to his chest as though whatever warmth still thrummed through his heart could return the color to the changed limb, but he hated it. The sharp, stubby ridges of rock. The way they hid in the grasses and the snow, almost malicious as they lay in wait for someone to trip on them, careless of their deadly power.

And yet—if the screamers would just stop shouting, and look—they could find their way, they could get free of this place.

Thinking that, he almost hated them.

In the end, hatred was useless. He let it slip through his fingers. He followed the line of rocks again, keeping an eye on the stumbling men and women. He ran ahead to pull the them back whenever they seemed likely to trip. They yowled at him in response, never listening when he tried to explain, but they also didn’t die.

He didn’t laugh at them, or himself, again.

Day 1

“Well then. I’ll alert the court of your decision, and you’ll be remanded into the custody of the priests by tomorrow, if all goes well.”

The scribe tucked his stylus into his sleeve, clapping the wax tablet closed. He looked up at Hamish, his eyes unclouded for the first time, and gave a single nod.

“I’ll offer a prayer for your well-being,” he said, with a sincerity that made Hamish stop fiddling with the shackle that was beginning to gall his wrist.

“What have you to gain from that?” He snapped.

The scribe shrugged.

“Peace of mind, I suppose.”

Hamish shook his head. “Silent god,” he said, scornful. “With all that silence, how are you supposed to know if he’s answered your prayers or not?”

“I won’t.” The scribe said, simply. “But I hope you will.”

Day 5

The doors of the temple were solid and smooth against Hamish’s back. The warmth was making a slow but determined foray into his ice-numbed bones, sparking stabbing pains that ran up his arms and sliced through his joints. It was excruciating, but good. A living pain instead of a dying one.

As the shivers began to subside, one deep breath caught in his throat, making a hitching, soft sound that sounded like blasphemy in the stillness. His face was wet. His hands were shaking.

How many wanderers were there, he wondered? How many lost?

He could go home now, if he wanted. The priests would take him back. He’d found the temple, completed his penance.

But how many had been left unfulfilled?

He could go home.

But he wouldn’t.

He would drag every last one of them here, by force if he had to. No one was going to be lost on those lonely plains again if he could help it.

So yes, he would get up. He would get up, and go out, and start bringing every last screaming human thing here until the only wailing on these plains was the lonely wind.

The silence, the stillness, was like a healing balm on his skin.

He would get up.

In just a moment.


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Last Chance and the Lonely Planet (Last Chance, #1)

Eliazer Bronn hated the color blue.

His hatred for the unfortunate color was as acute and all-encompassing as it was pointless, as deeply felt as any love he’d harbored in his life, and, at the moment, it had so overshadowed every other aspect of his soul’s convictions as to become the whole of his personality. He was not hating so much as he was hate, a small, weak and useless unit of that feeling, primed and loaded like the laser cannons of a warship, aimed against the color blue and all its compatriots.

The forest that surrounded him just so happened to be blue.

The broken limbs of the looming trees bled blue, a visceral shade of indigo that cut a deep swathe in the teal-tinted jungle. The ground was midnight blue, almost black where it was torn up in thick clawing ruts, still smoking from the recent screaming heat, and littered with torn metal plates and scraps of red-hot machinery.

And at the end of that long gash ripped into the careless blue forest, sat a heap of twisted metal that, only minutes past, had been Eliazer Bronn’s spaceship.

The Last Chance was making small settling noises as the heat of the planet’s atmosphere began to siphon off its sides, making the surrounding air wobble like a watery reflection. Eli, standing back on unsteady legs and clutching a dripping arm, watched the red-edged bits of his ship curl in upon themselves.

He would have screamed, but the blunt-edged impact and terror of the crash had driven all the air from his lungs. He wanted to kick the bits of broken engine at his feet, but his legs were trembling and distrustful of themselves. He wanted, very much, to fight something–anything–but the only things around were trees, and he felt foolish enough already without trying to punch a tree.

There was a deep groan as the Last Chance sank lower into the soft blue earth. Shards of shattered glass fell free, tinkling to the ground with unnecessary cheer.

Eli let out a rage-filled roar and kicked the nearest bit of machinery. The compression box flew satisfyingly far into the jungle, but the roar stuck in his throat, catching at something which had been sitting there ever since he’d felt the sickly jerk as his ship had been pulled out of his control.Bending over to retch on the blue dirt and choking on burning acid, he felt the idiocy of his little tantrum like a brand between his eyebrows.

The ship eased itself another centimeter into the dirt.

* * *

By the time the sky began to darken with evening, Eli felt as empty as an abandoned mine shaft.He’d run out of energy to feel sorry for himself. It was a strange feeling. He was no stranger to exhaustion; Colony 9 had worked its inmates to the bone, and it had been rare that he’d had sleep or food enough to truly shake the persistent tiredness. He’d been able to work through it, though; dreaming of the day he’d buy his ship and be free, never stuck with his feet in the dirt of an alien planet again.Pieces of that ship were now scattered over the ground, as trapped here as he was; and for once in his life, Eli could not stir himself to work through the apathetic laziness that made his limbs feel as though they’d been made of clay.

He kept moving as well as he could. He picked the shards of glass and rust out of his wounded arm and bandaged it. Ate one of the thin plastic-wrapped meal packs he was able to scrounge from the ship’s only partially-wrecked hold. Cramped as it was inside the ship, it was better than facing the disgusting blue of the jungle. He rolled a spare blanket onto the floor of the hold and fell asleep.

* * *

He awoke to the sound of something banging against the side of the ship. He listened without emotion for a moment, dream-hazy and blinking until the sound brought him to attention with a start. Something was hurting his ship. The varied possibilities of robbers, aggressive wildlife, and automated wrecking crews sped through his mind. The hold was stupidly lacking in weapons–why had he never bought a gun, damn how expensive they were, he should have been able to guess he’d need one–and he tore through it, frantic for something he could use instead. After a brief search, he tore a loose board from one of the meal crates. It was short and broad and over-light, but there was a half-rusted nail sticking from the end of it, so it wasn’t utterly useless. Eli gripped it tight and hoped that whatever was attacking his ship was small and easily frightened.

From the hold, he made his way carefully through the twisted hallway into the cockpit, and crawled through the shattered windshield, landing softly on the moist forest floor. The action brought back unpleasant memories of being flung free of the ship as it tore through the trees, but Eli swallowed them back. There were worse things than memories afoot.

The sound had changed. It was more hissing than clanging now, and a screech of tearing metal whenever the hissing stopped.

Hiss. Bang. Screech. Hiss. Bang. Screech.

With growing apprehension, Eli slow-stepped toward the sound, raising his board as he did, until there was only one corner of ship between him and it. He paused for amoment, stomped a heavy boot over the pounding of his heart, and took a breath.

He swung around the corner with a wild leap and a war-cry, board readied to bash in some unknown monster’s head.

The monster leapt away from the side of the ship, recognizable at first only as a mass of blood-red hair and a body that was small enough to stop Eli in his tracks. The war-cry died in his throat, and he stared down at the thing which stared back at him.

It was a girl.

Her eyes flicked silently to the board in his hands, and he in turn frowned at the ion laser in hers. It was alive and buzzing, blue light-beam active and deadly, and the metal sides of the Last Chance bore a perfect square cut-out, still glowing with heat.

“You’re scrapping my ship?” He shouted.

The girl, evidently judging that he and his board were no great threat, shut off her laser and scowled at him.

“It’s not your ship. Crashes are fair game.”

Eli’s knuckles went white around his board. Not his ship. No, he had only sweat and bled and starved to earn it. He had only given up twenty years of his life working for it. Not his ship, indeed.

“Not while there’s someone still alive inside!” he shouted.

The girl’s scowl disappeared in a flash, and she stared at the Last Chance with an air of surprise.

“There’s someone inside?”

“Me!” Eli snapped, waving his board. “I was inside. And asleep. I thought you were some kind of forest monster.”

The girl snorted, putting her laser back into a pouch at her hip.

“Well. I’m not a forest monster. I thought this was an abandoned ship.” she gave the Last Chance a regretful look. “Sorry,” she added, and as insincere as the apology sounded, it cut the feet out from under Eli’s rage.

“That aside, then, hello!” she said brightly, extending a hand. “The name’s Ketzal. What’s yours?”

He found himself shaking her hand, drawn into an assumption of friendship that he’d never agreed to, with no notion of how to go back to wherever the mistake had been and correct it.

“Um. Bronn. Eliazer Bronn.”

“Eliazer, huh? There’s a name. Where are you from?”

“From? Oh, ah–”

He stopped, distracted, when Ketzal turned away from him and knitted her fingers into a tenuous grip on the ship’s seams. She hefted herself up by it, scrambling a little as she climbed, and for a moment, all thought was driven from Eli’s mind as he stepped forward, ready to catch her in case she fell. She didn’t, though; she made it on top of the ship, sitting cross-legged on the uneven surface and grinning down at him. Her ropy red hair looked like an illustration from the days when mankind had yet to map the galaxies, and still thought that there were creatures besides themselves out there, in the stars.

She was looking at him, expectant, and he stopped thinking about aliens and galaxies.

“Colony Nine,” he said, and cursed himself as soon as he did. He wasn’t from Colony 9, even if he’d spent more than half his life there. He was from Red 16, and had spent every hellish year in Colony 9’s mines trying to return there, though he barely remembered what Red 16 was like. He remembered that it was home, and that had been enough.

He’d been more than halfway there. If he hadn’t crashed into this damned planet–

“Colony 9…that’s a mining planet, isn’t it? That’s cool.”

Cool? Eli scowled up at her. No, it was not cool. It was the opposite of cool. Men and women alike had died there, crushed by collapsing tunnels or poisoned by bad air or trapped in shafts too narrow to turn around in and there was never enough to eat and the wages had been a pittance.

He was too tired to argue.

“What about you?” he asked.

“Oh. Everywhere, I guess. I was born on a floating intergalactic base and I’ve been traveling ever since I can remember. Kind of an adventure thing. Where were you headed, when you crashed?”

“Red 16,” Eli found himself saying automatically, and cursed himself again. He didn’t have to answer. It wasn’t an interrogation. He could hold as much of himself secret as he liked, if he could only keep his mouth shut. He asked a question of his own in a spirit of vengeance.

“Where are we now?”

Ketzal looked around, her expression taking on a mischievous glint that had him cringing in expectation of some inane answer like ‘in the middle of a forest, hadn’t you noticed,’ but she seemed to think better of it.

“Blue 12 is what it’s called now,” she said. “The original settlers called it P’Rau-Migal.”

Eli didn’t care what the original settlers called it. He just wanted to get off of it as soon as possible.

“Is there a city nearby? Some sort of settlement?”

If the girl was collecting scrap, there must be someone she was collecting it for, which meant there must be civilization of some kind nearby, and that would be better than nothing. He was tired of blue trees. But the girl shook her head.

“There aren’t any settlements on Blue 12.” she said, with such grave certainty that Eli snorted a laugh.

“Really?” he asked. “Searched the whole planet yourself, have you?”

Sheraised her eyebrows at him.

No. That’s just common knowledge. Popular knowledge, even. Every time humans try to settle here, they’re never heard from again. General consensus is that there’s a monster who eats them. The Beast of Blue Twelve. There’s even a film series about it.”

She was looking at him like he was stupid, and he resented it.

“Why are you here, then?” he asked sharply. “And why were you scrapping my ship? What are you going to do with scrap on a planet with no settlements–sell it to the monster?”

She grinned at him.

“I’m here because it’s dangerous, stranger Bronn. Not that it’s any of your business, but I was traveling here to find out about the Beast. The movies are awful, and I want to smash them with facts. My ship crashed the way in. It’s been a week, my rations are low, I haven’t seen a beast anywhere, and it’s boring here. I need to repair my ship, and I was hoping to do it with the parts from yours.” her tone was easy, but she cocked her head at him with an expression sharp enough to slice him in two, and added amiably, “Now, are you going to stop shouting at me any time soon?”

He had been shouting, he realized. And holding a board with a nail in it. He took a breath, trying to tamp down the anger that was still struggling to claw its way up his throat.

“Sorry,” he said. If not a completely sincere apology, it was as least as sincere as hers had been. Perhaps they were even.

“It’s all right.” Ketzal said. “I wouldn’t be cheerful either, if I woke up to someone taking an ion laser to my ship.”

There was a short silence, in which Eli stared out into the blue trees–still waving softly in an unsatisfying breeze. He still hated them. But there was no reason to hate anything else, however much his bitter heart felt like it.

Eli set down his board, sticking the protruding nail into the blue soil and looking back up at the girl on top of his ship.

“Hungry?” he asked.

* * *

“It doesn’t look so bad, up here,” Eli said, half an hour later. Ketzal had given him a hand up, and between that and some lucky scrambling, they were both sitting on top of the Last Chance. There was something about being even that short distance closer to the sky that made everything easier to bear, somehow. After spending years stuck in the innards of the earth, Eli had learned to love the sky.

Even when it happened to be orange.

“Yeah, I get depressed when the trees tower over me for too long,” Ketzal said, licking the remains of her second packaged meal off her fingers. She had been hungry.

Eli nodded. Belly full, his mind was a great deal calmer. Easier to manage.

“Why’d you hate them?” He asked, sudden-curious.

“Hate what?”

“The Beast movies,” he clarified. “Why’d you hate them?”

She looked at him oddly, opened her mouth, and then closed it again. With a slight frown on her face, she started again, seeming to think while she talked.

“I dunno. They were just…there’s this big old monster, right, that’s been around forever. And in the first movie, it just…kills people. No real reason, it just roars and rages and they die off one by one. And it’s so popular! I just…” she shrugged. In her sharp-edged, wire-thin body, the gesture looked like she was trying to stab the sky with her shoulders. “I don’t get it. It annoys me,” She finished, looking down to swipe some leftover mealresidue from the inside of the packet. Eli felt a smile tugging at his lips.

“Ah,” he said. “And clearly, the best way to respond to things that annoy you is to crash a spaceship on an abandoned planet to prove them wrong.”

Hey,” she protested. “I have theories. This is research that will benefit posterity!”

“What theories?”

“Oh! Where to start…okay, so. I looked for the original settlers of this place, and it turns out that the farthest back we can trace is to some race of mystery inhabitants–all they left behind were some outgoing radio signals in a language that no one speaks anymore. It sounds a little like old-style star pidgin, a mix of Russian and Hindi and English, but no linguist can really get heads or tails of it.”

Eli’s eyebrows flicked up. “Foreign species?” he asked.

“Eh,” Ketzal replied, screwing up her nose and waving a hand dismissively. “Doubtful. Probably just some of the old empire-builders and one of their lost societies. Anyway, they can’t send anything to the surface of Blue 12, but from the outer atmosphere, there’s no sign of any building projects, and there should be. If, that is,” she held up a finger, “The planet was ever occupied at all. I think that this entire planet is a conservation forest, or maybe private hunting grounds, for some person or society long dead. The garbled radio signals are probably ‘no trespassing’ signs, and the so-called Beast is probably just a security system of some kind, still operational.”

She sat back as thoughshe was anticipating applause; but Eli was staring over her shoulder.

Around Ketzal’s second mention of radio signals, something had rustled in the trees. He’d kept listening, even as he squinted to try and make out what it was; but when it stepped free of the trees, the whole of Eli’s interest had fallen away from trespassing signs and security systems to focus in its entirety on the creature at the edge of the forest.

It somehow managed to look like a cobbled-together mass of parts, even while it moved with a kind of easy grace that Eli had hitherto associated with snakes and dancing women. It had the legs and body of a deer, but a humanoid torso where the neck ought to have been. Its head was perfectly round; two dull, dead eyes and no mouth, and it was crowned with a set of perfectly curved, deadly-sharp antlers. He thought it was alive at first, until a step made it glint sharply in the sunlight. It was metal, though rusted and old. Moss and weeds were growing on it; some kind of floweringvine had wound itself through the antlers, drifting around the creature’s head like a veil.

Its head turned slowly towards them, camera-lens eyes staring blankly into Eli’s own. It seemed dangerous to look away.

“Ketzal,” he said softly. “I think you’ve got your Beast.”

Ketzal turned to look. The machine was a bright speck of red and silver at the edge of the blue forest, and though he couldn’t see Ketzal’s expression, he saw her back stiffen as she locked eyes with it. Then she relaxed.

“That doesn’t look like a security enforcement bot,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll bother with us.”

Eli, still haunted by the emptiness in those not-quite eyes, gave her a look that she missed.

“Are you sure?”

“Completely. Look at it. It’s built for agility and blending in with the wildlife, not terror and destruction. I bet he’s some kind of ancient mobile security camera.”

She turned around again, grinning at him as though he was child frightened by a warp-rat.

“We’re in no danger from that thing.”

“Um,” Eli said, eyes still fixed on the thing at the edge of the woods. It was studying the deep ruts in the earth, the broken and still-bleeding trees, following the path they cut to the Last Chance. Expressionless though its face might have been, something in the way it raised its head to watch them once again seemed anything but friendly.

“Are you really sure about–” he began. The machine tossed its head, a flash of knife-sharp prongs in the sun, and charged.

Eli only had time to yelp an incoherent warning before the beast collided with the ship’s side, rocking it out of its earthen grave and throwing Ketzal and Eli free. Eli had a brief impression of seeing the world perfectly upside-down, the branches or the trees reaching root-like to drink from the sky, before the ground knocked the air from his lungs. His head felt as loose as an unscrewed lug nut, and there was dirt in his mouth, but he was on his feet again before he was able to properly think.

Ketzal was struggling to get herself upright, looking as dazed as he felt, and he took a few stumbling steps towards her to help her up.

“What the…” she whispered, staring.

The beast was attacking the ship. There was a terrible, grinding screaming as its antlers tore the metal like paper; delicate hooves trampled the remains flat. There was a fury in the way the thing worked, as though the existence of the Last Chance was a personal insult.

Every blow to the ship was a blow to Eli’s heart, and he watched with shaking limbs.

“We have to run,” Ketzal was saying. “If that’s the beast, we’re gonna be next.”

She had a hand on his arm, oddly warm against his skin, trying to pull him away; but the impact of being thrown from the ship had taken all the strength from her, and all the mobility out of him.

“Come on,” she said. “We have to get out of here, come on–”

Eli read the panic in her voice, but it meant nothing to him. The dark-eyed, soulless thing was methodically ripping apart his ship. His ship. The ship he had worked for, twenty years wearing away the skin of his fingers and the bones of his back in the stone-shafted mines. The ship that had seemed like freedom when he stepped into it for the first time. The ship that had been taking him home. All being shredded and stamped into the blue unworthy earth of an abandoned planet.

He felt like doing a great many things with that creature. Running away from it was not one of them.

Ketzal was still tugging on his arm, and Eli wondered briefly why she hadn’t just left him behind yet. She could have run whenever she wanted, if she hadn’t been so hell-bent on dragging him with her.

Something was glinting in the torn-up earth, catching his eye, and he bent to pick it up.

“Leave the stupid ion laser!” Ketzal shouted at him. “We have to go!”

A laser, Eli thought. He switched it on, and it have him two and a half inches of deadly blue light.

Maybe, he didn’t hate the color blue so much, after all.

And without a thought beyond how dare that thing rip up my ship, he shrugged free of Ketzal’s hold on his arm and strode forward.

“Hey, you!” he roared, as the beast tore another swathe into the ship’s engine. It stopped, looking up at him with dead eyes. The flowering vines were bruised and torn, dripping with thick yellow fuel, but they still swung lazily from its antlers as the beast cocked its head. It turned to focus on him, its deerlike legs high-stepping through the wreckage, and Eli tightened his grip on the ion laser.

“Get away from my ship,” he growled. “Now.”

His heart was pounding. The beast looked a great deal bigger now than it had a moment ago, but the rushing in Eli’s ears had drowned out fear and common sense alike.

When it charged him, Eli was anything but ready.

He’d planned the initial slash of the laser from the moment he’d switched it on. As the beast charged, Eli made a desperate slash at its face, across the twin lenses of its eyes. If it was blind, it was helpless, he remembers thinking.

After that, the great sharp-edged weight of the metal monster was on top of him, and Eli had no plans whatsoever. He stabbed and slashed the laser at whatever he could reach. Hot fuel splashed over his face and arms, burning his skin, and for a moment he was utterly certain he’d just done something monumentally stupid. He was going to die.

Then the metal limbs stopped struggling, and the heavy torso fell still. Eli choked on his own breath. As the pounding of his heart faded, the only sounds to greet it was the dull clicking of a recently disabled machine, and the sharp fizzle of temperamental electricity. Filled with a sudden panic at being trapped under the weight of the dead thing, he struggled, trying to shove it away. Hands were helping him, tugging the corpse away as he pushed it, and he was finally able to breathe. Bruised, certainly, but very much alive.

Ketzal was also alive. Eli stood on shaking legs. Between them lay the shell of the beast, clicking out its last.

“That,” Ketzal panted at him, “Was incredibly idiotic.”

The laser in his hand was still buzzing. Eli clicked it off, still staring at the corpse. He felt a sickly bruise forming on his stomach where one of the beast’s hooves had nearly punctured the skin, and remembered the moment of blinding terror when the thing’s antlers were coming at him and he almost forgot how to duck. A few seconds of forgetfulness more, and it would have been his body on the ground, reduced to meat.

‘idiotic’ seemed like a perfect description.

“Should we have run off and let it kill us both later?” he asked, instead of voicing his thoughts. “It was gonna come for us, either way. Might as well…” He wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. Words were jumbled, half meaningless, in his brain.

“This is yours,” he said instead, handing the laser back.

The forest was towering again, feeling heavy as the ceiling of a mine shaft above him. Half of his ship had been torn and trampled into the dirt, and the gaping hole left in its side was trailing fuel lines and gears like innards. He was alive, and the thing at his feet was not, but he felt anything but victorious.

“Well then,” Ketzal said beside him. “Looks like we’ve got two broken ships and one ancient, dead…machine thing.” she kicked at it, then looked up at him with a grin. “Between ‘em all, think we can cobble together a working way off this place?”

Eli blinked. The dull hopelessness that had been sneaking up on him stopped in its tracks. He looked at the ground again, trying to see past what was unsalvageable to what was. He saw…parts. A lot of parts.

On the ship’s side, the scrolling script of the painted-on Last had been torn away; it now read, in bold, unaplogetic letters: Chance.

Eli found himself almost grinning back.

“You know,” he said, “I think we can.”

This work is part of a series. The next installment can be read here.


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Bazar-Tek and the Lonely Knight

Death Wish

Brevian and the Star Dragon, Part I: Stowaway

Dragon-Slayer

There had been rain that morning. It had pounded and penetrated the earth, going straight to the lush green of the trees, followed by a golden afternoon. Now the sky was clear and the moon was lighting the new blossoms on the almond and cherry trees outside the tiny teahouse, painting them white as ghosts and making spun cotton of the drifting mist.

It was out of that mist that the stranger came.

Arukoru owned the teahouse, and carried with him a mild but constant caution on its behalf. Serving cups of warming liquor, wakeful tea, and the occasional meal, talking with a few of the men in the low and businesslike tone that the evening seemed to merit, he was the first to hear the approaching footsteps, and he glanced up with a slight frown, pausing in the midst of setting down a steaming bowl of rice and vegetables with no acknowledgment for the look of confusion from the man he’d been handing it to.

A few of the house patrons noticed his sudden stillness and followed Arukoru’s gaze, and a few more looked up when a slight thud and a low curse announced that someone had attempted to duck through the teahouse’s low door wearing a sword-belt. There was another, lighter thud from the wall as the sword was laid against the side of the house, and a few moments later, the man’s head appeared in the doorway. He had to kneel to get in, and he rose into the lamplight brushing splinters from his shoulders. Dark-clothed, he seemed to absorb rather than reflect the warm light from the paper lanterns, and carried the scent of rain and mist in with him. There was a kind of shadow in his eyes as he looked around the room, and one by one the patrons realized that they were all staring, rather rudely, at a man who owned a sword. The room fell back into a stilted resemblance of its former ease, and Arukoru, frown still on his brow, finally set down the bowl he was holding. It was requisitioned rather peevishly by the man for whom it was intended.

“Honor on your house,” the stranger rasped, bowing lightly as Arukoru came near. He was young, Arukoru realized, beneath the hard-set lines of his face.

“Fortune to your steps.” He offered his own bow, just as slight, in return. “How may I serve you, sir?”

“One cup of tea, if you please.”

Arukoru did his best to hide his displeasure. Tea was the cheapest thing he offered. The only thing cheaper was water, and that was free.

“Of course. If I may suggest, tea is a wonderful complement to a meal.”

The stranger huffed an amused breath. “Just the tea.”

Arukoru silently bade good-bye to the notion of earning a few more coppers, and bowed again to go and prepare one single solitary cup of tea while the stranger seated himself on the farthest side of the room, statue-still and eyes shaded so that he could have been watching everyone in the room–or no one–and it would be impossible to guess which. A faint shiver went down Arukoru’s spine, and he disappeared gratefully, offering up the dim hope that the stranger would pay his copper and be gone.

* * *

It is difficult to remember anything, even a mysterious spirit of mist and moonlight, when it hides in a corner of the room and says nothing. So, ever so slowly, the teahouse came alive again. The conversation swept to and fro like a lazy broom, stirring up more than it made clear, going from the recent rains (good for the crops, bad for the livestock, would there be more and when) to whether Gaiken would go through with building his well (of course he would, and the whole village was welcome to draw from it, the slightly tipsy man declared) to whether or not they would be able to grow enough this season.

“If I had only myself and my wife to feed, I’d know the answer to that easy enough,” one of the younger men said, shrugging as he looked down into his steaming cup. “But with the…other one, it’s no certainty for any one of us.”

“Don’t speak of him,” someone else hissed. “You never know who’s listening.”

But, however wise that statement might have been, the subject of the Other One was not dropped. The opportunity to complain had presented itself, and no one was going to turn down their chance at it.

“Ah, I’m with you, boy,” another man said, clapping the young man on the shoulder. “And it only grows harder the more mouths there are to feed. The snake cares little whether our children be fed or no.”

The stranger was bent savoringly over his cup of tea, having yet to take a sip. At this last, his head came up, the first hint that the conversation held any interest for him; but no one noted it.

“I tell you, no good can come of talking about it,” the same man who had hushed the boy before said, eyes strained. “The Clever One has better ears than any man. Do none of you remember–”

What it was that everyone was supposed to remember was never said. The man’s warning was once again brushed aside.

“Clever One!” someone snapped. “What has that dragon done to earn the name, I ask you? Does it take cleverness to steal and terrify?”

They had all forgotten the stranger in the corner. Thus, when a rain-rasped voice asked, “What dragon?” every eye turned toward it. Arukoru straightened, frowning. He didn’t like the intruder, and liked less that he’d forgotten the man.

“What’s your name, stranger?”

A question for a question; that was fair enough.

Though the young man had been inside long enough to shake off the strange smell of the mist, he had a face that seemed to belong to the night it had come from. Expressionless, as a beast might be, save for one small and unsettling turn of feeling–in the line of his lips, perhaps, or the darks of his eyes–that teased, not allowing itself to be read.

Arukoru waited. The man shrugged, the ley line of emotion in his face seeming to turn to levity for a moment.

“Sutoro.”

Stranger. Arukoru raised one eyebrow. A sense of humor, then.

Sitting motionless at his table, half-wrapped in darkness in spite of the lantern light, Sutoro’s silence demanded an answer of its own.

“The Clever One is the lord of this valley, and of the mountain over it.” He watched the stranger’s expression for any hint of approval or disapproval. The old snake had never used human servants before, but Arukoru knew well enough that the Clever One was not above spying. The last person caught speaking ill of the dragon had been found the next morning, impaled on a pole in the middle of the town and charred to a crisp.

He was careful with his words.

“He offers us protection, and asks for a percentage of all we earn in return,” he went on, and heard a few grumblings from the men behind him at that. (percentage? More like all he can squeeze) (protection from what, anyway?)

Sutoro’s gaze flicked over the speakers, and Arukoru stiffened, trying to will the men behind him into silence. He didn’t want to lose another friend to a loose tongue.

The stranger seemed to be considering the information. He looked down, swirling the tea in a lazy circle in its cup, then drinking it down in a single gulp. He set the cup down so that it barely made a sound against the solid wood of the table. Rising, he pulled loose a single copper coin and dropped it beside the cup.

“My thanks for your hospitality,” he said, bowing again. Arukoru, still wary of the man, did not take his eyes from the stranger’s face even as he offered a bow in return.

“I have no more coin to pay for a meal,” Sutoro said, gaze drifting back to the empty cup of tea, and Arukoru’s jaw set. So he was a spy after all, here to bully and demand and blackmail–

Sutoro looked up, expression as night-dull as ever, betraying nothing.

“Would the head of your dragon suffice, in place of coin?”

Arukoru’s thoughts tripped over themselves in an attempt to halt on the unpleasant path they’d been speeding down, and wavered with newfound uncertainty. The man was a stranger. He could be a spy. He had a sword sitting outside the door and he had appeared out of the mists like a demon clothed in flesh and bone.

He remembered Youjo’s fire-blackened body, hanging death-stiff on its pole like a roasted chicken on a stick, and his caution–always since held over his words like a shield–dropped for a single instant.

“For the head of that dragon, you may have the whole of my household and myself as your servant.”

* * *

Halfway up the mountain, the teahouse and its warmth were nothing but a memory. Sutoro did not mind. The night with its cold mists and brisk breezes fit his mood, and the now-clear sky was filled with a billion shining stars. There was a cautious whisper in the branches of the trees as he climbed, and whirls of sharp-scented pine needles were blown up, pelting weakly at him as the waving boughs hissed go back. He ignored them, fixing his eyes on the stars above his head. The mountain was a steep but gradual slope, and from the bottom it seemed that one would have reached the stars before one found the peak.

Sutoro–it was a name the man used often, and after years of wandering as true to him as any other–contemplated as he walked.

The villagers in the teahouse had been full of warnings as he prepared to leave: the Clever One had a hide tough as diamonds, a mind sharp as a razor, eyes that could read his soul and claws that could shatter stone. One warning was as often repeated as any well-wishes and just as useless: he was a fool, and would surely die.

Sutoro did not plan on dying.

The slow, grassy slope stuttered and ended, giving way to a harder climb, clefts of jagged stone and shifting rock. He halted a moment, studying the rock with a practiced eye in preparation to climb it, when he realized that the wind’s warning whispers had finally quieted, leaving the night as still and clear as the sky itself. He took a step back, one foot on shifting rock and the other on tough-grown grass, and set a cautious hand to the hilt of his sword, scanning the moonlight rocks again.

“Come out of hiding, Ancient One,” he said, in a voice that would not have been heard over the relatively mild clamor of the teahouse, but which rang between the rocks like the clanging of a time-bell. “Someone has come to challenge you.”

A dull rattle of laughter answered him, echoing off the sharp and shifting rocks on every side.

“Truly.”

Sutoro’s gaze darted from rock to rock, hoping to catch some glimpse of it–or, no, he thought, the melodious voice traipsing through his memory. Of her.

There was a rattle and a slither to his right, and he jumped to face it.

The Clever One was sliding over the rocks, her golden scales making a kind of music against them. She cocked her head, looking at the sword on his hip, then back to his face, bemusement sparkling in age-old eyes.

“Are you going to slice my head off with that toothpick? It’s quite ambitious of you. I applaud your confidence.”

With a grin that was all teeth, she raised herself, long body coiling as she clacked her foreclaws together ironically. Sutoro rubbed his thumb along the sword-hilt, looking down at the weapon. It seemed an ill match for the creature that lay on the rocks before him.

“You are wise, Ancient One,” he began.

“My pride takes to stroking as well as that sword would take to my hide, little thing.”

The sword was a comfortable weight at Sutoro’s side, a pleasant solidness for his knuckles to go white upon. It would shatter the second he tried to use it against her, surely, but it was not quite useless. It was all that kept his voice steady, his feet planted, as he met the dragon’s gaze.

“Forgive me. I meant no flattery,” he said, slow and even as he could. “I mention your wisdom only to ask why you are currently acting the fool.”

The dragon blinked at him. Then she raised her head up and laughed. It was a terrible sound–sharp as her claws on the rock, clear as a midnight moon, shimmering as her scales; but, in spite of shaking the dragon’s sides until they threatened to split, there was no trace of humor in it.

“Ah, little one,” she said, when the last shudderings of it left her. “What do you know of wisdom?”

“Enough to know that it doesn’t lend itself to tyranny.”

“Oh, is that what they call me now? A tyrant?”

Sutoro was silent. It was answer enough. The dragon laughed again, low and dull, a stagnant pool with something rotting in the waters.

“I was born into this world when the world itself was new. I watched your kind, naked and mewling, and I took pity on you. It was I who plucked the words from your mouths and set them into lines of ink so that they could never be lost. It was I who wrapped furs around your shivering bodies and kindled fire in your greedy eyes. It was I who dug gold and silver ore from the earth and showed you how they sparkled. I have raised kings up to their thrones–and taken them off again, when they became cruel with their power. I have watched more born than you will ever meet, and I have seen as many die. Still, your kind learns nothing. You live, you eat, and then you die. Your kind always dies, and you always forget that you die, and you make mistake after mistake, generation after generation. I am done trying to save you. That is wisdom, little one.”

“We don’t forget.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“About death,” Sutoro explained. “We never forget.”

“Is that why you have come to meet me? Do you tempt the inevitable?”

“No. I’d rather not die, to honest.”

“You will.”

“It’s all hopeless, then?” Sutoro asked, ignoring this last. “From the beginning of time, you’ve seen nothing–nothing different?

She huffed a ring of smoke, chuckling again, and Sutoro shifted his feet. The rocks shifted with him.

“So it’s different you’re looking for,” she said. “Funny. I could have sworn, from the look on your face, that you meant better. The answer’s the same, either way; nothing is new. Nothing is good. Not then, not now, not ever. One might as well do as one likes.” She grinned. “I happen to like being feared.”

Sutoro gripped the hilt of his sword tighter, staring down at his feet.

“There must be something,” he said. “There has to be.”

She had settled on the rocks as if on a sleeping-mat, but at that last she gave a snort and gathered her legs beneath her.

“It is folly, caring about things like that. It all ends the same, whatever you do; for what do you fight? For what do you struggle? In a hundred years all you fight for will be dust. Nothing more.”

Sutoro considered this. Then he shrugged.

“I suppose I should be glad that I won’t be here to see that, then,” he said, offering the dragon a smile as he began to untie the sword from his belt. She watched as he laid it down on the ground, her eyes mere slits of suspicion. He smiled at her again. “No sense in breaking a perfectly good sword against your scales, Ancient One.”

She shook her head, raising up onto her feet. She was lovely, he thought; all aglow and aglitter in the moonlight.

“Very well then, little one,” she said with a sigh. “Let me give you a gift, then, before your end: I will show you the futility of your life. You will see the solid things you fight for turn to dust, before you see the face of death.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Hm. I don’t think you’ve got a choice,” she informed, and lunged for him.

In spite of the dragon’s lazy mein, when she moved, she moved like a striking viper. She seized him effortlessly and leapt, flying out and up. The rolling plains-ground dropped off farther and father below them both.

“I will show you fear!” She purred, in a voice that rumbled thunder-deep through her coiling body and shook Sutoro to the very bone. She could have crushed him in her grip at any moment, but she did not, instead holding him just tight enough to keep him from wrestling free. He struggled, trying to pry the tight-gripping fingers from his chest, but it was in vain.

“Stop struggling, little one. You’ll die if I drop you.”

Sutoro’s heart was a fast-galloping warhorse, pounding against his ribcage as though it wished to break free of it, and he was half-twisted in the dragon’s grip, dangling oh-so-far above the ground below and watching it speed by–mist-and-moonlight fields, the black mass of a pine forest. And then, in an open space where the moon shone slick and unimpeded by the mists, he saw the shining roofs and wire-bright muddy streets of the little village, distant still but growing ever closer.

“I am owed respect,” the dragon rumbled, “From those whose lives are but dust mites to mine. And if respect cannot be given, it is still mine to take.”

Sutoro could make out the dark square of the rain-soaked teahouse. He remembered the villagers gathered inside it with their good humor and mild complaints, the warm lamplight thick with the scent of old wood and dry tea, and a spike of panic went through his chest.

He was no match for her strength, and they both knew it. Bent on their destination, she had ceased to pay any attention to him. Mind racing, Sutoro stared at what was within his reach, hoping to find something–anything–that he could use to keep her away from the village and its people. There was the dragon’s chest, pale and broad and covered in impenetrable scales; no help there. Her claws, wrapped around his chest, razor-sharp and shining even in the dim light.

Her claws.

He stared at the long golden talons for a mere second. Then he grabbed hold of one of them, digging mercilessly into the soft flesh at its edges and wrenching it with all his might.

She shrieked, twisting dizzily in midair as the talon–long as a sword and diamond-sharp–came free in Sutoro’s hands. Teeth clacked together beside his ear, a narrow miss as she snapped at him; the next bite she tried would take his head off. She had drawn him closer to her chest to gain a better grip. It was all he needed. He set the point of the talon over her heart. She was still writhing and screaming–or possibly shouting, though no words reached him–when he drove it in.

It was as easy a thing as driving a stake into soft earth. Hot golden blood hissed and sizzled on his face, his chest, his arms, and the dragon’s furious scream garbled. Her grip grew loose, then gave way completely, and Sutoro was falling free through the icy mist, with the great golden coil of the dragon hurtling silent as moonlight after him. The moment was outside of time. It was a picture in a book, set down in pigment and ink, sitting and gathering dust with no one to look at it. Sutoro’s mouth was dry.

Blackness met him only a second after the earth did.

* * *

He awoke to the dim knowledge of hands around his wrists, gripping tight enough to bruise, and a warm dark weight on top of him. The hands tugged, dragging him out from underneath it, and mud was squelching beneath his back as Sutoro took a ragged breath, sucking in the suddenly cool air like a benediction. He felt like something that had spent a week hanging in a butcher’s shop as he struggled to get upright. The world smelled of sick and sulphur, but at least he was standing on his own two feet.

People were moving around him, strangely tall. He looked down at his legs, gathered crookedly under him. Oh. He wasn’t standing, but sitting.

The discovery absorbed the whole of his mind for a moment, and he didn’t realize that he was slowly tipping over until hands caught him on the way down and set him upright again.

Voices gabbled all around him, and every so often a string of words became comprehensible to his heavily throbbing brain.

“–impossible–”

“–should be dead–”

“–get back, it could be a trick–”

The hands that had kept him from falling over were still on his shoulders, solid in a world that seemed as steady as a stomped puddle, and Sutoro blinked, staring into an age-lined face that seemed familiar, somehow. The man from the teahouse, looking him over with something like concern. Sutoro had never asked his name.

“Stranger, you’ve more than earned your meal.”

Sutoro managed a bleary smile.

* * *

The teahouse was packed to the brim with people. Arukoru could have made a year’s wages in coin that night, if he’d wished; but somehow the sight of the dragon, dead and dull-eyed in the mud of the very village it had thought to destroy, was too large. It pushed every petty thought of money and exchange from his head. He might be depleting his stores and destroying his business by giving away food and drink to all comers, but that hardly mattered, because the dragon was dead.

The dragon was dead. He could hardly believe it.

Men, women and children all had joined the celebration, eating and drinking and dancing as though there was no tomorrow–or, rather, because there was a tomorrow, and it was a much brighter tomorrow than anyone had dared to hope for.

As for the stranger, he had resumed his dark corner, nursing a cup of tea and a bowl of rice–all the thanks he would accept. His face had gone animal-blank again, but for a few moments, after they had dragged him free of the monster’s body, dull and dizzy and dripping with golden blood, it had been raw and open, full of human fear and confusion. It had been an odd, almost frightening sight; the bleary-eyed man, face like a confused child’s, sitting slumped in the dirt mere feet away from the monster he had killed.

Arukoru shook the thought from his head, turning to serve another steaming plate to a woman whose smile nearly split her face, and she knelt, offering the plate to share with the wide-eyed little boy who hugged her leg.

When he next looked around to check on the stranger, Sutoro was gone.

* * *

The mist had cleared, and the night was black edged in silver. For the second time that evening, Sutoro walked up the mountain. His legs shook, and his head felt as though it was swimming, but no trees whispered at him to go back. The wind was still.

It was the same mountain, he thought; the same climb. There was no reason for him to feel as though it was an impossible task. He had done it before. He could manage it again. One foot in front of the other.

Finally, the grass gave way to shifting rock beneath his feet, and he winced as he knelt, feeling on the uneven ground until his hands found the outline of his sword. He picked it up and tied it around his waist–the familiar weight a comfort, as always, but in the chill air a strangely inadequate one.

He let out a heavy sigh and got to his feet again, closing his eyes against the hurt in his skull. The dragon’s blood had dried on his clothes, but the smell of it was still there, doing no favors for his head. He let himself sink down for a moment, the rock that shifted under his knees reminding him of her laugh–so lifeless, after so many years of living. The sound of it–he didn’t think he’d ever forget it. Her words, too. For what do you fight? It’ll all be dust in a hundred years.

The echo in his head was nothing new, but he still grimaced against it. For a brief moment, he wanted nothing more than to remain where he was, kneeling, until the dragon’s promise to become dust came true.

He pushed the thought back to its proper place, to the edge of his mind, beyond the border of things he allowed himself to dwell upon. It could lurk there all it liked. For now, he just had to stand up. It was a minute until he managed it, but manage it he did.

He turned around, and halted, wavering on his feet, when instead of the slow moonlit slope he was confronted with the silver-edged outline of a man.

“Steady, stranger,” the shape said, holding out a hand. The man from the teahouse, Sutoro remembered. Arukoru, was the man’s name.

He remained silent and still, wondering what it was he wanted. Why he’d followed him up here, alone. He had hoped to slip away unnoticed; find another town, another monster to kill, another mountain to climb; but Arukoru was standing in his way, and to his water-wobbling mind, the shape of a man in his path presented an insurmountable obstacle.

“You’re not planning on traveling tonight,” Arukoru said, making the question into something that had no room for questioning in it at all.

“I cannot stay.”

If Arukoru’s question sounded like an order, his own statement had decided to dress itself in mourning-clothes when he had meant to parade it out in silks and armor.

“I never stay,” he added. The heavy thing in his throat did not disappear with the words. If anything, it grew heavier.

Arukoru only stared at him, face hidden in shadow, for a long moment. Sutoro’s legs felt weak beneath him, and his head did not want to stay solid on his shoulders. He could still feel the dragon’s claws around his chest, pressing tight. He swallowed, realizing what an easy thing it would be to step around the man, walk away from him and the little village with its warm teahouse and laughing people. He could leave this place, Arukoru’s outstretched hand, behind.

The freedom should have been a comfort, but instead it terrified him.

Arukoru was silent, a shadow that smelled like lantern-paper and candle-wax, as alien to the dark and cold as a shaft of sunlight.

“Boy,” he said, “don’t be a fool.”

He could leave. He should.

He didn’t.

His hand slipped off the hilt of his sword, and he let everything that had made his knuckles go white on it–all the fear, all the trembling tiredness–seep into his voice.

“Perhaps,” he said, “just one more cup of tea.”


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Of Stolen Gold and Princesses

Cracks in the Concrete

Suddenly, A Dragon

Wings

   Soldiers would be coming soon. Icanthus had yet to see them, however often he turned to look over his shoulder; but they were coming. He knew it in his bones.

   It was dawn, and butter-yellow light was shining, jewel-like, on the thick sheen of frost that covered the world. The light was warm, but not quite warm enough to cut through the bitter cold that had kept Icanthus walking and shivering all night long.

   He cursed the sunrise. Sunlight meant daytime, and daytime meant people, and people meant capture. He had to hide.

   He’d reached the foot of the mountains the night before, and made his way up a narrow goat-herder’s path along the mountainside. In the high altitude, the wind groaned around the solid, frozen rock, shuddering through the sparse growths of misplaced foliage. Between the solid rock on the one side of him and the steep drop-off on the other, Icanthus could see nowhere to hide. Even if he did stop and try to get some sleep, in the freezing wind he suspected that it would be a much longer, more final sleep than he wanted.

   He could go back. Perhaps it would be all right. In any case, it would be better than freezing to death.

    He gave the unworthy thought a feral growl, and tugged at his cloak, feeling the sharp spike of pain as the fabric moved across his ragged back. A small trickle of blood dripped, pleasantly warm for the two seconds before the cold got to it, from a freshly opened cut. Icanthus gritted his teeth. He would not go back. He would not turn around.  On the other side of this hellish peak, the lands of the Robber King, where there were no slaves and no masters, lay as a promise of freedom. He would not turn his back now.

    Even if he froze to death here, he would still be free. Slave-tattoos or no, he had no master now, and he never would again.

   The fiery words did not make the wind bite less.

   His empty stomach twisted, and a sudden spasm of dizziness hit him. Icanthus reached out a hand to steady himself on the cliff face, leaning heavily.

   The rock that was supposed to meet his fingers did not, and he fell. For a split second, his overtired brain wondered if he was falling down the mountain; but then he hit the ground and wasn’t dead.

   He was in a cave. A cave where the rock was dry and, though far from warm, protected from the biting wind. Moss grew sporadically, and was the softest thing Icanthus had felt in days.

He didn’t bother to get up. He was weary to the very bone and no longer cared if he froze to death. Too tired even to shiver, Icanthus curled up under his cloak and fell into an exhausted sleep.

*   *   *

   A muzzy-headed world of dreams held fur cloaks, hot spiced wine, and blazing fires. Icanthus woke to darkness and a dry throat. He blinked, worked his tongue fruitlessly, and looked at the pattern of shadows on the cave walls. Moonlight, he thought, reluctant to get up. Time to strike out once more towards freedom.

   He did not want to strike out towards freedom. He wanted to go back to sleep. It was comfortable, sleep. Warm. Pleasant.

   His slowly waking mind caught on a thought, tugging at it like a stream at an intruding branch. Sleep. Dreams. Comfortable. Warm.

   With a dull click of facts fitting together, Icanthus suddenly realized that there was something soft and solid resting against his back, and that whatever it was, it was breathing.

His shoulders stiffened. Other than the soft rise and fall of silent breath, the thing was motionless. Asleep? He eased himself away from it slowly, slowly…

   Getting to his feet as quietly as he could, he turned to look at the shape in the dark. The lumpy ridge of a powerful back, the dark gravity of a huge head–

   It growled softly in its sleep, and every muscle in Icanthus’s body went taut.

   It was a lion.

   A huge lion. A great mass in the dark, large as five men–a giant.

   Away from the beast’s warmth, Icanthus’s own heat was draining quickly. Shaking with equal parts cold and fear, he began to back out of the cave. It was just his luck to stumble across what was probably the only ginormous mountain-dwelling lion in the world. Just his luck.

    Please don’t wake up, please don’t–he sang inside his head, hope and prayer both.

   The great form shifted, a head rising up and turning until the moonlight glinted off of two great yellow eyes.

    It was a wonder that Icanthus’s heart didn’t stop. It raced in his chest, panic-weak, and his mind refused to do anything at all but order his feet to keep walking back, back, slow and calm and steady, as the beast stood up and began to follow, step by step, until they were both bathed in moonlight and Icanthus knew, with an odd certainty, that to step back any further would send him hurtling off the mountain. He stopped.

   The beast was tall as a young tree, and towered over him in a startling outline of silver. A lion’s eyes stared down at him, and a lion’s mane trembled softly in the bitter wind. The beast yawned, stretching out great wings that showed up bright against the bitumen night.

The gryphon shut its yawn with a lazy clack of teeth and tilted its head to look down at Icanthus, regarding him with the same air a housecat might regard a small bug that could be a suitable snack, plaything, or both. Trembling, Icanthus didn’t dare move.

   And then, with a low keening sound, the great beast laid down at his feet. Its head swung around, nosing with pitiful gentleness at a place fear the base of its wing, then back to Icanthus, expectant. The moonlight made the scene a silent one, despite the moaning of the wind.

   If the gryphon had eaten him, Icanthus would have been annoyed. But only mildly so, and only for a very short while. It was expected of monsters who showed up at midnight to eat people, however inconvenient. But the creature was looking at him as though he was supposed to do something; and, tired and cold as he was, doing something sounded much more unpleasant than being eaten by a gryphon. Frankly, Icanthus wanted to go back to sleep and not have to wake up for another day or two. 

   “What is it?” he finally asked aloud, snappish from cold and annoyance. His limbs still shook with fear, but his mind was too tired to bother. The gryphon jerked its head around to the base of its wing, snorting impatiently. It wanted him to look at its wing. He did not want to look at its wing. However, with the great forepaws on either side of him and only the sheer cliff face behind, he didn’t have much choice.

   It keened again, petulantly.

   The wind nipped at Icanthus’s very bones, making his fingers feel like dry twigs and his feet turn into lumps of useless stone. The gryphon huffed again in soft impatience, and the gust of warm air washed over him like an all-too fleeting taste of heaven–if, that was, heaven smelled faintly of freshly slaughtered meat.

   “Don’t eat me,” Icanthus ordered, taking a step forward. He had to climb over its great forelimb to get close to its wing, and it shifted–ever so slightly–as he did. Iron-hard muscle rippled under him, and needles of visceral caution prickled inside his chest. The attractive option of running away as fast as he could tripped briefly across his mind. 

   Then he saw the creature’s side.

   “Oh. Oh, gods,” he whispered.

   He’d thought that the smell of meat had been on the beast’s breath. It had only made sense.

   But there, not quite hidden under a wing that had lost a good chunk of its feathers–

he couldn’t see it well, in the dark, but the smell turned his stomach. Great patches painted black, sticky and gelatinous to the touch, trailing tatters of skin and fur. The gryphon trembled when his hand came too near it, and Icanthus didn’t blame him. The wounds on his own back were a pinprick, a parchment slice, compared to this.

   “What did this?” He asked. The gryphon only stared back at him, dull gold eyes alive with expressionless personality.

   Who did this,” he amended, looking at the sick mess. He almost wiped his face with his hand, then realized there was blood on it, and let it down again. The beast shifted with a soft noise of pain, and Icanthus wanted, suddenly, to do something.

   “I don’t know anything about doctoring,” he said aloud. Partly to the creature. Partly to himself. The only thing he knew about doctoring was that it involved hot water and bandages, and he had niether.

   A sharp wind blew along the cliffs, and he shrugged his shoulders into his cloak absentmindedly.

   Then he thought again, and fingered the soft, thin fabric for a moment.

   The gryphon blinked at him, slowly, as he took the cloak from around his shoulders and began to tear it into strips.

   “You’d better appreciate this,” Icanthus mumbled, through chattering teeth.

   When he finally tied the last ugly knot on the makeshift bandage, his fingers had gone mercifully numb. To make up for it, sharp pains were jabbing from his knuckles up to his wrists at every movement. He stepped back, wrapping ice-cold arms around his stone-cold chest. The cloak had not been warm, but it had been keeping him from freezing completely. The gryphon turned its head to nuzzle at its freshly covered wounds, curious.

   “You’re w-welcome,” Icanthus said. He was feeling snappish, and felt as though he had a right to.

  With a throaty rumble, the beast swung around, pressing its head into Icanthus’s chest. Warm breath huffed softly around his feet. Surprised, Icanthus reached up a cautious hand to stroke the rough fur on the creature’s forehead. With a rumble of pleasure, it pressed his head into Icanthus’s hand, then shook free and licked his arm.

   “Ow! Stop that,” Icanthus protested, flinching away. The gryphon’s tongue was sharp as a razor. A lot of razors.

   Abruptly, the gryphon’s happy rumbling stopped. It looked up, staring out into the blackness beyond the moonlit cliffs. Mouth half-open, it huffed at the air. Icanthus realized, with an odd sense of shock, just how huge and wild and dangerous the creature was. It rose slowly to its four paws, and he took a step back, remembering to be afraid.


   The gryphon turned on him, looking at him with dark, animal eyes. Then it made that keening sound again–soft and almost friendly–and bent down again, extending a paw to him.

Icanthus, with only half a sense of what it wanted him to do, took another step back and the beast huffed with impatience. It stood and lumbered up to him, and Icanthus was paralyzed by the thing’s very hugeness.

   He remained so until it reached down and clamped its teeth over the back of his shirt. It picked him up, kitten-like, and Icanthus suddenly realized just how fond he was of having his feet on the ground.

   “Hey!” he shouted at the creature. “Stop! What–”

   It let him go, and he dropped heavily into the soft fur of its back. There was a man-sized hollow where the creature’s wings met the space between his shoulder blades, and Icanthus’s half-formed plan to clamber off its back began to lose its luster as the beast’s warmth began to seep into his own frozen bones. Its wings folded like shutters over him, keeping out the wind, and Icanthus blinked. The gryphon started walking, but he couldn’t get himself to care whether it took him across the mountains or back to the tramping soldiers who hunted him. He was warm.

And in another moment, he was asleep.

*   *   *

   Voices woke him. Icanthus burrowed deeper into a bed of fur, not wanting to wake up. The world was too bright and too loud to do anything in it but sleep. 

    His eyes opened, and he stared up at the golden light that drifted through his roof of feathers, listened to the rough voices that surrounded them both. Daylight. And people. He froze, digging his fingers into the gryphon’s fur and praying that whoever surrounded them would leave. Soon. Or that the beast would live up to his fearsome looks and chase them off.

   Instead, the treacherous creature sat down. Still weak-limbed from sleep, Icanthus’s grip failed him; he tumbled bruisingly down its back and into blinding morning sunlight. Something large loomed between him and the light. Icanthus squinted at it. A rough face, bearded and scarred with eyes as clear as shattered glass, squinted back at him.

   “Aye, Decimas. What big lice the beast’s got.”

   Icanthus stared up at the face, and edged away until he felt the gryphon’s solid bulk against his back. He was surrounded by amused faces and men with weapons in their belts, and he could feel the slave-tattoos like a firebrand on his skin. These were not soldiers. Somehow, the fact failed to make him hopeful.

   “Look at his wounds!” someone exclaimed. “It’s a wonder that he’s alive.”

   “Alive and fighting. He’s brought us a bounty,” someone else said, from nearby. “We’ll get some coin, I think, for a runaway slave.” 

   Tired or not, Icanthus’s hands fisted and he jumped to his feet. His legs trembled under him, and he felt the hopelessness of running like an abyss in his chest. Bitter bile in his mouth, he cursed the gryphon, cursed it.

    The man called Decimas was looking at him bemusedly, and in the midst of hating him, Icanthus saw that the gryphon wasn’t the only wounded one. Decimas was covered in cuts and bruises, and held himself carefully, as though some unseen wound pained him.

   Looking around at the gathered company, Icanthus realized that no one was walking undamaged. The clothes the men wore were worn thin and ragged by long use, and often stained with blood. For all the weapons in their hands and the swagger in their words, these were men who had suffered defeat recently, and not a clean one. Which made them at once ten times more pitiable and a thousand times more dangerous.


   With a great, comfortable huff, the gryphon shrugged his wings and began to clean one of his paws.

   “Tom, go get Hemas.” Decimas said, and the bearded man who’d called Icanthus a louse straightened up.

   “You’re certain? He’ll be asleep by now.”

  “I know. He’ll want to see the beast.”

  Tom left.

   “That,” Decimas turned his attention back to Icanthus, “And we’ll need him to figure out what to do with you.”

   The gryphon seemed more than content to sit and lick his paws. Icanthus backed against the beast as much as he dared, seeking a dim idea of protection from the prying eyes around him. Closed in on himself and wondering dully about his fate, he did not hear the faint rustling of movement and voices to one side of the human circle. He didn’t notice anything until the gryphon suddenly got to its feet–a sudden, careless movement that sent Icanthus half-sprawling.

The beast was keening joyfully. Icanthus turned, blinked, and saw a man. Tall and dark, with hollows under his eyes and a caution in placing weight on his left leg, he was grinning up at the great beast like a prisoner might grin at a glimpse of sky. The gryphon bent its head to him, pressing into the man’s chest, keening and purring by turns. The man, obviously tired and in pain, nonetheless reached up a hand, knotting it in the creature’s fur.

   “Aye, and you’re back to us,” he half-whispered. “You’re back, Cornibus.”

   “And he’s brought us a gift,” Decimas called out, aiming a pointed nod at Icanthus, who was now alone in the midst of the horde of men. The tall, shadowy man glanced up, his gaze crossing Icanthus with a faintness of feeling belonging to the very sick and the very tired.

   “A man?” he asked, with evident confusion.

   “A slave, and a thief too, if my guess is right,” Decimas said, with harsh practicality. “He must’ve tried to steal Sir Giant here, and was stolen himself.”

   Icanthus was indignant.

   “I didn’t steal anything.” Not even a slightly thicker cloak from his master’s house, when his master was a man not worth what a camel could spit. He’d taken what was his and nothing else. “He found me and he all but sat on me until I bandaged his side. I thought he was going to eat me.”

   This brought a flicker of a smile to the tall man’s face, followed by a frown as he stepped back, checking the gryphon over.

   Decimas was less amused. “Ah, yes,” he said in a careless deadpan. “And you were so terrified of this monster–” he gestured to Cornibus, who was purring loudly and trying to lick the Hemas’s face– “–That you decided to sit on his back. Or did he make you do that too?”

   “Actually,” Icanthus began.

   Behind him, there was a thick inhalation of breath, almost a hiss, that drew Decimas’s attention and Icanthus’s along with it. They both found Hemas, looking at what Icanthus knew to be the gryphon’s wounded side with an expression of consternation. He looked up, finding Icanthus’s eyes and holding them with an odd kind of magnetism.

    “You did this?” he asked. Icanthus, thinking at first that he meant the bloody mess, shook his head vehemently.

   “No, it was like that when–oh, the bandages. I did those. They’re not very good, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

   Hemas went back to studying them, crooning softly over the beast, petting it as though he could heal the creature by touch alone. Icanthus realized, with an odd sense of space, that the surrounding hooligans had trickled off, one by one, to settle around campfires, talking in low tones. It was a largish camp, and Icanthus didn’t stand a chance of running, even with no one watching him. Decimas was looming over him, anyway, standing with the mountains at his back like a posse of armed guards, keeping Icanthus from the Robber King’s lands.

   “We’re going to have to sell this lump, I’m afraid. I know you don’t like it, Hemas, but with the losses we’ve taken…” Decimas began, but Icanthus stopped listening, looking instead at the mountains, at the glitter of sunlight along their peaks, and feeling an odd tearing in his soul between the wild dreamer who longed to be free, and a dull, practical, half-human thing that, though hardly himself, was likely to survive for a very long time as a slave. He was too tired to feel anything very definite about the division, except that he didn’t like it and he couldn’t do a thing about it.

   “Need their feed–mutiny otherwise–” Decimas was droning, and Icanthus realized that the mountains looked wrong. In a sudden, wild flash of inspiration, he realized that they looked wrong because he was on the wrong side of them.

   He snapped his gaze back to the camp. A robber’s camp, and–he looked sharply at Hemas, whose tired eyes avoided his own–a robber king. Icanthus had done it. He’d crossed the mountains, and he was exactly where he’d set out to be.

   And the Robber King, champion of the poor and downtrodden, was going to sell him.

   Hemas seemed to have been taking in Decimas’s words, but his gaze had never left Cornibus’s side. Finally, as Decimas’s twelve-part presentation finished hammering out in excruciating, convincing detail exactly why Icanthus should be sold, Hemas looked up. Without hope, Icanthus had nonetheless gained a great deal of last-minute insight. Hemas was the Robber King. He looked so like the legends painted him, and yet so unlike. Like a statue battered by time, or simply a man drained by weariness. He looked at Icanthus for a moment–judging just how small a bag of coins he was worth, probably–and then to Decimas.

   “No,” he said.

   The same word lifted Icanthus’s head that slumped Decimas’s shoulders.

   “Sir, the men need–”

   “Food. I know, Decimas. We’re all hungry.”

   Decimas pressed. 

   “For food, we need money. And for money–”

   “One slave won’t fetch enough in any market to feed the whole camp, Decimas. Ten slaves wouldn’t. We will find food, or we will starve, but we will not sell anyone.”

   Decimas was quiet, and Icanthus felt his hopes, which had been slowly sinking into a pit of muck, somehow rise out of it all, dripping and dirty, but whole. It was a great deal more than he had expected. He looked up at the tall, reedlike figure, uncaring as Decimas stumped off in a huff, muttering about idiot ideals and fool’s dinners. 

   Hemas followed the man’s shoulders with his gaze for a moment, then dropped it once again to Icanthus. Dark eyes, but bright. Almost fever-bright, and the way he held himself did not seem entirely healthy, but the set of his mouth was kind enough. Icanthus didn’t dare look away.


   “It’s cold on the mountains at night,” The Robber King commented. “Not many would dare take the cloak from their shoulders. Certainly not to bind the wounds of a beast.”

   Icanthus didn’t know what to say.

   “You’re sure–the money–” he finally began, confusedly.

   “Quite sure. You’re free, boy, welcome to stay or go. Though if you stay, I warn you, you’ll be hungry. Food is scarce in the mountains these days.”

   Cornibus made a low rumble of assent, and ruffled his feathers. Icanthus stared at him, able to think only of the twin facts that the Robber King needed money, and that the Robber King was not going to sell him.

   “Aye, food is scarce.” Hemas said, patting Cornibus’s head softly.

   “But, then again–so are bandages.”

 

Enjoy this story? There’s more where it came from. 

Why not take one of these tales out for a spin?

Desert

Saphed Maut

Land of Ghosts

 

Jester

   

Her name was Jester; but she had the look of a sea-dragon. 

It was not the first time Theophilus Quinn had thought this. The scarlet fanned sails with their wingish ribs made the analogy inevitable. But after the years he’d captained her, Quinn knew Jester better than most, and she was a dragon in every sense of the word. She sliced through the water with the skill of a sea-serpent, hunting her prey with fire in her belly and dagger-teeth in the hands of every crewman, gorging herself on gold and captives alike. Iron-armored hull. Red-silk wings. A love of treasure to rival any fairy-tale drake.

   Theophilus smiled, feeling the well-worn deck undulating under his hooves, and took a deep breath of salt air. His dragon.

Captain Quinn

   “Perhaps we’ll find some plunder for you today, eh girl?” he said, laying a hand on the ship’s side.

   “Is the port bow getting a share now?” a purring, lazy voice said behind him. “I’m jealous.”

   He turned to find his first mate looking at him with cool amusement. Sphynx had a knack for hearing everything she wasn’t meant to hear, and nothing that she was.

   “Yes,” Quinn replied seriously, as Sphynx padded forward on lion paws to join him. “I’ve been recalculating the shares based on who does the most work around here, so I’m giving her yours.”

   A smile fluttered across Sphynx’s face.

   “Ahh,” she said. “Keep it up, Captain, and you may develop a reputation for wit.”

   “Develop?” Quinn returned, with appropriate indignation. Sphynx folded her wings against her tawny back in a kind of delicate shrug, staring out into space and yet somehow completely present. Half-human as she was, there was a lionish, indifferent grace even to her human half.

   “One witty comeback out of two attempts,” she noted. “Better than usual.”

   The base of Quinn’s horns began to itch, and he scratched them irritably, stamping a hoof on the solid wood of the deck. He squinted at Sphynx.

   You’re a witty comeback.”

   Her ethereal smile widened.

   “Why. Thank you, captain.”

Sphynx.

   With a sigh of defeat, Quinn looked out to sea as well. The shore of Griza, a small and relatively ill-armed nation squashed between the larger countries of Sykar and Bresh, was just visible on the horizon. Quinn didn’t like venturing so close to lawful shores, but Jester had been out to deep sea for some months with little action and less plunder. The legend of the Jester and her crew had risen quickly, swept across the sea–and frightened enough traders off the open ocean that it seemed like to strangle itself.

   “That merchantman yesterday had a smuggler’s hold somewhere.” Sphynx said, as if following his thoughts. “We could have looked for it.”

   “Yes,” Quinn admitted. “And judging by the state of that ship, it might have held a penny’s worth of old rugs. Besides, he wasn’t about to give it up without a fight, and did you really feel like running a poor old man through?”

   Sphynx looked at him askance.

   “Perhaps not so drastic as that. Still, I wasn’t exactly about to gift him with a purse of gold either.”

   Quinn stiffened. He’d been so sure no one had seen that.

   “It was from my own share.”

   “As if I wouldn’t know that.” Her tone was one of easy dismissal. “But a warning, all the same; keep that up, and you may develop a reputation for compassion. That is far less desirable than a reputation for wit.”

   Quinn turned to find her golden eyes looking directly at him for once. Half-mesmerized by them, he attempted, without success, to form a reply.

   Thankfully, they were interrupted by Mixen, one of the crewmen, zipping between them on miniature pixie wings.

   “Sail to Second Hour, off starboard!” his pitchy voice shouted at them. “Looks rich too, Cap’n. Kingdom vessel, I’d say, and probably lost.”

   “No escort?” Sphynx asked.

   “None!” the pixie chirped in cheerful affirmation. “I say we go at ‘em with bloody cutlasses!”

   This was punctuated by a flourish of a sword as large as a toothpick. Behind Mixen’s back, Sphynx raised a single eyebrow. Her comments on his reputation still rankled, and Quinn gave the pixie a devilish grin.

   “Raise the flag, Mixen. Bloody cutlasses it is.”

*   *   *

   As it turned out, the flag was somewhat too large for Mixen to manage, and Horace the hawk-man had to raise it instead. But the flag was raised, and that was all the mattered as Jester’s sails were punched taut by a sudden turn into the current of the wind, and the sea-dragon of a ship flew over the water, speeding towards its slowpoke prey.

   “That is a royal ship,” Quinn said when the thing was slightly larger than a breadbox on the horizon. “But not Grizan royalty. It looks like…”

   “Sykar?” Sphynx, just back from rallying the crew into fighting order, suggested.

   “Perhaps–any particular reason for that guess?”

   “The name. Sea Centaur?

   Centaurs. The proudest beings on the planet. And thankfully for Quinn, some of the richest.

   “That would definitely be Sykar,” he said, in a swing of good humor. “Your eyes are better than mine. I’m surprised it wasn’t subtitled, ‘P.S. This belongs to Sykar.”

   Sphynx snorted. “They probably wrote that on the far side.”

   A smile snaked across Quinn’s face, then disappeared as he watched the ship. It was anchored, careless of their approach.

    Jester slowed, then stopped, bumping lightly against the Sea Centaur’s side.

   Half-planned war cries died in throats as the pirate crew, Quinn at their head, stepped gingerly onto the over-quiet ship. Not a single sailor was visible on the decks. No yellow plague banners fluttered from the masts to give its apparent abandonment a reason.

   “Did it…sail off on its own?” a faun asked, after a few moments.

   “Don’t be an idiot.” Horace the hawk-man replied, incredibly articulate for someone who had to speak through a beak. “Ghosts sailed it. Now that we’ve boarded, we’re all dead.”

   “Shut up, the both of you,” Sphynx hissed. “Captain’s thinking.”

   Quinn was tapping his fingers thoughtfully.

   “Actually,” he ventured, “I’m listening. You all hear that?”

   Everyone stopped, blinked, and pretended to listen.

   “Voices,” Quinn explained. “That way.”

   With a blustering, half-timorous crew behind him, Captain Quinn set off in the direction of the cabin. One mighty kick from one of his hooves, and the door flew open. Someone screamed.

   “Oh, what is it now?” another voice  grumbled. 

   Inside the cabin, a huge centaur and a tall but stick-thin elf were standing on opposite sides of a table mounded with paper and ink-pots. One of the ink-pots had fallen on the floor, making the whole cabin smell like a printer’s shop.

   “Don’t tell me,” the centaur said, resting himself lazily against the desk. “You’re here to sell baked goods.”

   Quinn had been about to say something suitably threatening, but his mouth closed in surprise. He would have made some kind of lordly retort, but the centaur was talking to the wide-eyed elf now.

   “Or is this a mighty band of fearsome warriors, here to assassinate me?”

   “Of course not!” the elf snapped, drawing himself up to his full delicate height. “This bunch of jokers is much more in your line.”

   Ever the enthusiast, Mixen flew into the cabin and brandished his toothpick wildly.

   “That’s Jesters to you!” he roared. Or, he tried to roar. His warlike mein might well have been terrifying to another pixie, but to the gathered company, it was rather too squeaky to strike terror into anyone. The centaur even went so far as to raise his eyebrows.

   “Hold on a moment,” the elf said. “Did you actually hire jesters? I know you’re not taking this discussion seriously, Lucius, but really–”

   I’m not taking this seriously?”the centaur, evidently called Lucius, boomed. “you’re the one who keeps quoting his grandmother!”

   At this the elf only drew himself up higher.

   “I will have you know that my grandmother is an esteemed philosopher with many apropos insights–”

   “To Hades with your grandmother! You’re a king, man! Kings don’t listen to their grandmothers!”

   “MAN?” the elf spluttered. “Are you downgrading to plain insults now?”

   Quinn realized with a small jolt that he and his fearsome crew had been forgotten. While he did not, perhaps, enjoy the customary terror of a vessel’s inhabitants upon realizing that that they were faced with legendary pirates, he realized suddenly that he’d grown accustomed to it.

   Being ignored was discomfiting. In fact, he resented it.

   The elf, half-way through a particularly sizzling jibe, suddenly realized that a sword was being held to his throat.

   And I–ah–hmm,” he coughed, looking at Quinn as though suddenly deciding to take in the meaning of his appearance–the scarlet lines inked over his face, the rings of stolen gold and silver haphazardly twisted to hang from his ears, his satyr’s horns etched with the symbols of the Thieves’ Guild. Then his eyes flickered to Mixen, whose tiny blade was tarnished with use, and Sphynx, with her blood-splattered coat and unsheathed claws.

   Lucius was slower to realize what was going on.

   “Bravo, goat-boy! Been wanting to do that all evening, but there aren’t any weapons allowed on this bloody ship, under the rules of the…”

   And at that point he stopped, realizing that there were, in fact, weapons on the ship–and none of them were in his hands. This balance of power was new to him, and it provided Quinn with a silence that was his to break. He grinned.

   “Allow me to introduce myself, gentlemen. I am Theophilus Quinn, captain of the Jester. This is my crew.” Quinn spoke quietly, but evenly. He’d never quite got the hang of officious shouting, and the calm tone seemed to carry more authority anyway.

   Of course, the sword helped too.

   The centaur’s eyes narrowed.

   “Quinn.” he stamped a heavy hoof, rattling the floorboards. “The pirate. I have sworn to bring you to justice.”

   “As have I!” the elf declared, glaring in turn, and Theophilus grinned further.

   “If ‘justice’ is shorthand for having me publicly dismembered, then allow me to wish you both the most tragic of failures,” he said, with a bow.

   “Ah, Captain?” squeaked a voice. “I think I know what’s going on.”

   Mixen was struggling to pull something free from the stack of papers on the table, and with a nod to Sphynx and Horace to watch their two captives, Quinn strode over to join him.

   “Have a look at this, captain.” Mixen delivered the paper into Quinn’s hands, and Quinn scowled at it. It was once been scribed over in excellent calligraphy, most of which was scratched out or blotted over. Only the superscript remained legible. It read,

   ‘Being a Treatie Betweene King Lucius Amon of Sykar and Lorde Berwen of Bresh’

   Quinn raised his brows, and Mixen was jittering with excitement.

   “Kings, Cap’n, both of ‘em!” he said. “I’ve searched the ship for gold and there’s none, but–they don’t call a fortune a king’s ransom for nothing!”

   Quinn was thinking.

   “Horace, what do you remember about the protocols for a legal parley?” the hawk-man had been a lawyer once. He blinked once at the odd question, but listed off the facts dutifully.

   “Must be held on neutral territory, with only the two parties involved present…no arms or men of war within fifteen miles. Or maybe fifty miles.” He shrugged. “Why d’ye ask, Cap?”

   Quinn caught a knowing glance from Sphynx, and grinned. She already knew. Whether it was fifteen miles or fifty, it hardly mattered; the Jester could fly free of this place in heartbeat, with better plunder than any pirate had ever claimed before.

   “There’s no gold for us on this ship,” he announced, and watched his crew deflate at the familiar news.

   “No, we have something better than gold. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have captured a pair of kings.”

*   *   *

   Amidst the ruckus of cheers, Quinn heard the plaintive voice of Lord Berwen.

   “Wonderful work, Lucius. You’ve gone and gotten us captured by pirates.”

   “This is my fault?”

   “Well, if you hadn’t insisted on a royal ship!–”

   Quinn smiled. Their bickering would quiet down soon enough, he wagered. No one could keep up a fierce argument for more than an hour or two.

   Five hours later.

   “Captain,” Horace said wearily. “Please tell me I can just conk them over the head so they’ll stop.”

   The voices of Lord Berwen and King Lucius were audible even on deck. Both locked in the brig, they had begun by trying to discern whose fault it was that they had both been kidnapped by pirates. This had taken them into a deep discussion of their respective countries’ methods of boat-building, and from there Quinn had lost the train of thought. At the moment, they seemed to be occupied with insulting one another’s great-aunts.

   “You could,” Sphynx purred, “But then we’d have to execute you for mutiny.”

   Quinn turned in time to see Horace’s feathers ruffle.

   “I assure you, captain, I meant no–” he began to stutter, but Quinn waved a hand.

  “Never mind, Horace. Sphynx enjoys morbid jokes.”

  “We could always try separating them again.”

   “And have them shouting insults across the entire ship? At least now they’re relatively quiet.”

   YOUR GREAT-AUNT BERTHA WAS A TASTELESS HAG!” a voice belowdecks bellowed.

   Quinn sighed. “Relatively.”

   “Captain!” a blur of wings squeaked, flickering down from the mast-tops. “Sail on the horizon!”

   Sphynx’s brow furrowed.

   “Coming to bargain already? We haven’t even sent out our list of demands yet.”

   At the suggestion, Horace’s dejected countenance transformed into one of the purest joy.

   Quinn sympathized.

   “Perhaps they’ve simply noticed that their kings have disappeared,” he offered, as Horace began a wild dance of victory across the deck.

   Sphynx looked at the fast-approaching sail and cocked a doubtful eyebrow. “Perhaps.”

   “In any case, we’ll only find out what they want once they’ve approached.”

   “Sage observation. Best to look dignified and intimidating, eh?” she looked out over the ship and roared, “Horace! Stop baltering about and roll out some cannons!”

   The approaching craft turned out to be less of a ship, and more of a boat. It drifted toward the Jester with all the caution of a kitten approaching a tiger. There were soldiers on deck, dressed in a drab mess of several different uniforms–Sykurian and Bresh alike, with a Grizan or two mixed in for good measure. Add in an official-looking minotaur and his two satyr attendants, and the boat was well crowded.

   Quinn had intended to speak first, but the minotaur evidently had no time for pleasantries. He adjusted his spectacles and peered up in the vague direction of Sphynx.

   “So! Is it done?” he shouted, in a voice that had taken on a bureaucratic reediness in spite of his massive form.

   There was a very long list of questions that, under the circumstances, Quinn might have expected. This was not one of them.

   He frowned down at the minotaur quizzically.

   “Is what done?”

   “Don’t mess with me!” the minotaur said, sweeping the spectacles from his face and glaring up at the ship. “You know what we agreed. Are they dead?”

   “I don’t know–what? Is who dead?”

   “King Lucius!” a Sykurian soldier burst out, stepping out of ranks.

   “And Lord Berwen!” an elven archer joined in, stepping free as well.

   One of the satyrs was desperately trying to get the minotaur’s attention, but the minotaur only brushed him away.

   “We have paid you handsomely to eliminate those two embarrassments, and handed them to you on a practical silver platter, so–oh, for heavens sake what is it?

   This last bit was hissed to the nervous attendant, who whispered into the minotaur’s ears as he directed wild gesticulations at Jester

   “Oh,” the minotaur said, replacing his spectacles and squinting at the gold-lettered name on the ship’s side.  “Apologies, my friends, but you seem to be the wrong batch of pirates. Have you seen Captain Barrow of the Breakwater Saint anywhere?”

   Quinn blinked. Every soldier had been happily nodding at the minotaur’s chilling speech of treason.

   How were they supposed to hold two kings for ransom if no one wanted them back?

   He would have simply given them back, glad to be rid of their bickering whether he turned a profit or not, but if their own countrymen wanted them dead–

   It looked as though the royals would be staying aboard Jester a while longer.

   Unless.

   Half a plan was formed in Theophilus’s mind, and he snatched it up eagerly.

   Setting a rakish hoof against the ship’s rail and resting a lazy elbow on his knee, Quinn pretended to pick something out of his teeth.

   “Captain Barrow, eh?” he said. “As a matter of fact, I have seen him. I’d love to say he said ‘hello’, but there was a bit more screaming than talking at our meeting. Unpleasant business, but…” he trailed off, shrugged. “These are my waters. Can’t have trespassers now, can I?” he grinned down on the minotaur, who seemed nervous. “So, you’ve killed your kings, eh? Good for you. I’ve always fancied killing a king. Or being one.”

   He turned to Sphynx. “D’ye suppose there’s a vacancy for ‘king’ anywhere around here?”

   “Hmm,” the minotaur said, now looking decidedly uncomfortable. “How lovely. I wish you the best, sir Jester, but desire to take up no more than is absolutely necessary of your precious time–”

   “Hold on!” Quinn said, as though striking upon an original thought. “You’ll be needing a king, won’t you?”

   This halted the slowly retreating little ship in its wake. Everyone on board had the sense to look nervous now.

   “Actually, we were thinking about starting a unified oligarchy,” the minotaur posed, quaveringly.

   “What?” the elven archer interrupted, before Quinn had a chance. “I thought we were going to be a capitalistic democracy.”

   “I wished to return to the ways of our ancestors!” a Sykurian soldier shouted, stomping a hoof. 

   “Communism!”

   “Republic!”

   “Anarchy!”

   “Hmm,” Quinn said, tapping his chin. “It seems you really do need a king–to organize you. And to, ah…what else do kings do?” he turned to Sphynx, who was wearing an edged smile.

   “Collect taxes, mostly. And build roads,” she supplied.

   “Taxes!” Quinn declared. “Ah, yes, lots of those. And was it building roads, or building tolls on roads?”

   “Oh, certainly tolls. That’s what I meant, of course.”

   “Of course,” Quinn turned to the now quite jittery boatload of citizens with a magnanimous grin. “Being king’s a difficult job, but I’m more than happy to offer my assistance.”

   The minotaur blinked up at the ship, its looming cannons, and the sword-bearing pirate crew, and thought with a flash of rare insight that he had exchanged two simple fools for one cruel tyrant. If he had not yet considered the Jester as a sort of metaphorical sea serpent, he certainly did now; and he felt her coils wrapping, inescapable, around his throat.

   Then–like the voice of a saint from the grave–the song of a bird from midwinter–he heard a familiar voice, crying:

   “I do not bake moldy muffins!”

   The slumped shoulders of the elven archers straightened.

   “They taste as though you made them out of rubbish-heap findings and acorn shells!” shouted a second voice, and the Sykurians raised their heads and swished their tails.

   “With your tastes, that’s a compliment!”

   “We’re saved!” the minotaur shouted. “Sir Pirate, we have no need of a new king–ours are right there, alive on your ship!”

   Taking on an appearance of offense, Quinn huffed.

   “If you want them back, you’ll have to pay for them,” he said, folding his arms.

   The minotaur beamed.

  “Anything!”

  Epilogue

   “Your share,” Sphynx said, padding into Quinn’s cabin and plopping a bag of gold coins on his desk. He looked up at it, then at her.

   “Not bad for an evening’s work.” He put down his pen and spectacles. The ship’s log lay open on the table, the entry for the day still blank.

   “Not bad at all,” Sphynx yawned, sitting gracefully and wrapping her tail around her paws. She stretched her wings, folded them, and Quinn realized that he was paying unwonted attention to her magnificently glossy feathers.

   “Perhaps even…good,” she admitted, as he forcibly refocused on her face.

   “Good enough to earn that reputation for wit?” he was attempting a devilish grin, but she wasn’t in a gaming mood, for once.

   “For a second, I thought you were going to actually try out being a king.”

   Quinn snorted.

  “Fearsome thought, eh?”

   She stood up as gracefully as she’d sat down. “I think you would have made a good king.” She ruffled her feathers, announcing the conversation over.

   “But a better pirate?” Quinn asked as she began to stalk out the door, putting a small cough at the end of his words to hide the stutter that had begun them, and Sphynx halted, looking over her shoulder with a small smile.

   “Just don’t spend all that on pitiable old merchants,” she said.

Mixen.

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Justice and Sandwiches

Bazar-Tek and the Lonely Knight

Of Stolen Gold and Princesses

Desert

   For once, Micah was not worth robbing. In spite of the oppressive heat, that fact brought a spring to his step.

   The floor of the wadi was cracked and sizzling, the sky in one of its dry-season moodss–clear and blue as the season demanded, but dully so. Underneath it, the world held nothing but golden dust and heat-gnarled vegetation. It was a day over which the sun ruled like a tyrant, to worship or shake a fist at, as inclination dictated.

Micah.

   But Micah already had a God to worship, and he had never been much of a fist-shaker. He trotted along the wadi floor in happy oblivion, kicking up dust that stained his coat, swishing his tail at imagined flies.

   Thieves’ Valley was not a popular road–or, really, a road at all. He liked it for its very loneliness. Soldiers and tax officers avoided it because of the lions and robbers; for his part, Micah preferred the lions and the robbers. They, at least, only bothered you when they were hungry.

   Micah was close to home, and glad of it, but there was enough daylight left to take his time in getting there.

   As a point of fact, there was a little too much daylight. It was blindingly bright, and when Micah saw a stand of wind-weathered trees ahead large enough to promise a patch of shade, he made for them. A moment’s rest, a drink from his water-skin, a moment of thought and leisure away from the midday glare before being on his way again.

   He would be home before sunset.

*   *   *

   Aureus fought to keep his eyes open to the blinding, hellish light. Take one painful breath in. One painful breath out. Focus on the faintly waving branches over his head.  Every lungful of air was like a stab in his side.

   Flies zithered around his head, crawled on his side to feed off the blood that was drying on his fur. He brushed them away angrily.

  Wait until I’m dead.

   In this heat, it wouldn’t be long.

   The fire in his veins might have been rage or a spreading sickness. He fostered it, whichever it was–the rage might keep him alive. The sickness would help him finally die.

   A light skritching of small hooves across the thirsty ground made Aureus go still. Waiting.

  Had they decided to finish him? Gathered what scraps of barbaric honor this country held to give him a soldier’s death, after all?

   Pulling his fingers to a tighter grip on his sword, he bit his tongue as he gathered his legs to stand. He’d killed one of their kind before. He’d kill another before they were able to finish him.

   He would die fighting.

   The hooves came closer, and he waited for the stranger to round the scrub.

*   *   *

   The waterless heat had yet to kill the trees. Light green leaves hung like defeated flags from the grey branches, and Micah reached up to brush his fingers against them, wondering at the spark of color in the faded white-grey world.

   Unbidden, a patch of the tree’s shade took form and lurched at him with a gutteral growl.

  Startled half out of his skin, Micah stumbled back and heard the sharp hiss of a swung blade as it missed his throat. He scrambled away from the shadow-beast and into the sunlight, slipping on the dusty ground.

   The beast gurgled, towered over him briefly, and collapsed into the dirt, landing hard mere feet from where it had leapt up.

   Micah’s skin was still prickling with fear, hearts pounding hard, but he didn’t run. He snorted and stamped a hoof as the thing made another low noise of pain. 

   It was a soldier. Slick with sweat, stained with dirt and blood, but with a military cut to his tail and a short sword gripped in his fist. His legs had twisted under him oddly in the fall, and he glared up at Micah, making no attempt to rise again. Belatedly, Micah saw the dark sprays of red soaking the ground, hidden in the shadows of the trees and dripping in discomfiting amounts from a nasty-looking wound in the soldier’s belly. A thick scent of gore hung in the air, and Micah felt ill.

“Come to finish me?”

   “Come to finish me?” the soldier’s accent was thick and foreign, but easily recognizable. Hermean. The conquerors of the world, pompous even when they were bleeding half to death.

   “Do it,” his voice was dry, and it cracked into a snarl. The blade he held was wavering, but sticky with congealing blood that Micah guessed was not the soldier’s. “Do it if you dare!”

   “Ai, calm down. Calm down,” he raised his hands, placating. “I didn’t see you.”

   The soldier looked skeptical, but the bloody blade lowered, a fraction less ready to hack him limb from limb.

   “Ach, what happened to you?” Micah took a step forward–gingerly due to the sword still held ready to take off his head. The soldier watched him, equally wary. Kneeling uneasily at the man’s side, Micah peered at the wound. It was long, running the length of the soldier’s stomach, and bleeding badly. “Get attacked by a pack of lions?”

   The soldier snorted. “Just a Jackal.”

  “You’re lucky your guts didn’t spill out. This is deep.”

   A deeper wound than any jackal could have managed, but that was no business of Micah’s. He rifled half-helplessly through his bag for something to staunch the bleeding, there was only his water-skin, half-empty, and the cloth satchel itself. It was dirt-ridden and rough, but it would have to do. With a calculating glance at the wound, he began to tear the satchel into strips.

   The soldier watched him as he worked, eyeing the bandaging as though to judge it.

   “You’re a healer?” he asked, as Micah carefully laid the makeshift bandage over the worst of the wound. Concentrating on his task, he shook his head.

   “Silver merchant.”

   The soldier grimaced. “Ah.”

   Blood was already seeping through the bandage, but Micah fancied that it was flowing more slowly as he tied off the last strips of cloth. Not as slowly as he would have liked, though.

   “We should get you to a healer as soon as we can.” He looked uncertainly at the man’s legs, twisted and eerily still. The soldier laughed without any hint of humor.

   “Broken,” he said. Micah’s stomach twisted.

   “Ah,” eying the soldier’s bulk, Micah wondered if he was up to the weary task of carrying it.

   “The name’s Aureus, by the way,” the soldier said, interrupting his thoughts. Leaning his head back on the scrubbish tree-trunks, he gave Micah an appraising look.

   The blazingly Hermean name shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly–but Micah still looked up at the soldier with new eyes, considering the fact that he was one of the ten thousand marching swords who had come to conquer and to kill, one of the arrogant red-cloaked penny-pinchers who had chopped the land into counties and sub-counties, building their traffic-heavy tax-racked roads and sitting petty governors in the seats of kings.

   A flare of fiery and not unfamiliar anger stole into his heart, and Micah stuffed it down with practiced ease.

   “Micah,” he offered, stretching out a hand. “And I may not be a medic, but I do know a bit about splinting broken limbs.”

   He looked up at the spreading tree above them both. “There’s a tree like this outside my forge, and there’s always some young rapscallion or other trying to climb it–and falling out of it, more often than not. Sometimes I think I make more splints than chalices.”

   Catching a glimpse of what he wanted in the midst of the tree leaves, he jumped for it. The dead branch jostled drily, but did not come loose, and he tugged at it, willing the thing to break free.

   Aureus watched him.

   “Why not cut the tree down?”

   There was a resounding snap as the tree branch finally gave way, and Micah caught it before it fell on the soldier’s skull.

    “Excuse me?”

   “Cut it down.” Aureus repeated, brushing a wayward leaf from his hair. “No tree, no climbing. No climbing, no broken bones. No broken bones–more chalices.”

   Micah frowned.

    “I never thought of that,” he said with a shrug, managing to make it sound as though the soldier had had a novel and intelligent idea. In truth, Micah had no more thought of that solution than he would have seriously considered killing the birds that woke him five minutes too early every morning. Working the fallen branch into a usable splint, he quietly reveled in the utter coldness of the over-logicked mind of Hermeans. They were the type of men who cut down trees for the sick sake of convenience, who probably would kill a bird that dared interfere with their strict schedule. They were not the kind of men Micah wanted ruling the world–whatever their emperor’s ambitions.

    “Which legs did they break?” he asked, splints ready. Aureus’s gaze had been wandering feverishly, and he blinked, seeming to shake himself into a dizzy kind of alertness. He gestured silently to one of his forelegs and one of his back legs, and Micah felt his stomach twist again.

   Aureus hadn’t been attacked by some wandering robbers, and Micah suspected that he hadn’t been left alive by accident. The soldier’s wounds were calculated and methodical–the wide slash across the stomach that would never knit on its own, sure to sour, poison and kill within a day or two of exposure to the heat, the legs crippled so there was no hope of getting to safety. Someone had wanted him to die alone and slowly.

   Robbers were one thing, but an attempted assassination such as this could hardly be ignored by the Hermean garrison. There would be a hunt for the attackers, and, failing to find them, the Hermeans would take their libation of blood from any one of Micah’s countrymen that came to hand.

    Micah could see it clearly playing out in his mind, and his fingers were unusually clumsy as he attempted to tie the splint. 

   “You could easily have left me here,” Aureus noted, watching him. “There would have been no ill for you. My body would be found in three days or a week–another poor deserter, fallen to robbers–and you could have made your chalices in peace.”

   It was as though the soldier had pulled Micah’s own thoughts out of his mind and read them aloud–but he wasn’t about to admit it. He pulled the knot tight on the first splint, and Aureus sucked in a breath, letting it out through his teeth.  The pain, though, failed to quiet him as Micah moved on to the second limb.

   “So why do you continue to help?” he asked, eyes over-bright. “I would not, had it been you lying there. Our peoples are not of the sort to help each other.”

   Micah snorted.

   “I’m not my people,” he said sharply. “And neither are you, try as you might to pretend that you are. And peoples aside, it’s nothing short of a sin to leave a wounded man to die, so drink some water and shut up.” He tossed the water-skin in the general direction of Aureus’s head, and was annoyed when the soldier caught it instinctively out of the air, still giving him that curious, fever-eyed look. Aureus opened his mouth, intending to say something which Micah intended to ignore, but there was no time for either of their intentions to come to fruition.

   Another voice boomed out over the wadi, startling them both.

   “Hermean!” it cried. “I’ve decided to end your suffering after all.”

   Micah looked up, recognizing the accent of his own people, and then to Aureus. By the sudden hardening of the soldier’s face, Micah guessed that he had recognized the voice.

   The assassin had returned.

*   *   *

   Aureus had almost hoped to escape the day alive. Fool. Fool to think that a well-meaning silver merchant could make any difference in the course of fate. Fool to think that that rabid dog of a rebel, the self-proclaimed Jackal, would be deprived of blood so easily.  He twisted, a curse and a prayer held under his tongue as he tried to see beyond the shielding screen of trees.

   “That’s the man who attacked you?” the silver merchant asked, half-whispering, hands halted midway through tying the second splint. He was right to be afraid, Aureus thought with a bitter taste on his tongue; the Jackal and his pack would kill him too for daring to help him.

   “Those are the men who will kill me.” Aureus said, straining his eyes to catch an over-shoulder glimpse of the Jackal at the head of his pack of devotees. “They’re ill-armed, but many and bloodthirsty. They want me–they need not have you.”

    Using the thin trees for support, he was struggling to get to his feet, not much wanting to face death lying down.

    “Don’t be an idiot,” Micah hissed, trying to get him to lie still. In truth, Aureus was not sure he could stand, but he was determined to try. Javelin-sharp pains shot through his legs and dug their barbs into the gash on his side, and he halted mid-rise, feeling the impossibility of the situation like a brick in his chest. But if he stood, if he fought, he could get the silver merchant away safe. He could set something in this ugly, barren world right, and if that was all the glory his death was to afford him–it was better than none at all.

   Micah was still trying to get him to lie down.

   “Just–hold on–” he was saying, a layman’s understanding of war prompting him to hesitation, but Aureus knew better. He struggled again, forcing his angry limbs to hold him and hearing the steady drip of his blood into the sand. The ground would be scarlet with more blood than his when this was over, he thought with vicious pride as Micah continued his protests.

   “If you’d just calm down for one–”

   “When they attack–” Aureus began.

   “But–”

   “When they attack,” Aureus repeated, slowly so the man could understand. “You run.”

   Micah only shook his head, not listening.

   “But–”

   “Hallo to the hiders-in-the-brush!” the Jackal called, cutting off the merchant’s words. “Having a banquet back there, or only deaf?”

   The sword was beginning to slip from Aureus’s sweat-stained fingers, and he adjusted his grip uselessly, tightening it until the whole sword, and not only his hold on it, wavered. He should have rubbed his palms with sand before he stood; he did not dare kneel to do it now.

   “I advise the Hermean to pray his gods for peace in the afterlife,” the Jackal roared, to the accompaniment of faint laughter. “But to my misguided countryman, I offer a chance to live, traitor though he is. Leave within the minute, and your life will be spared.”

   This was a surprise. Aureus glanced up, watching for the silver merchant’s answer.

   He didn’t know exactly what it was he expected. For an unarmed, peaceful citizen to offer to die beside him like a warrior, on the virtue of ten minute’s acquaintance? A word of reluctance, a single moment of hesitation when time was of the essence?

   Perhaps.

   “I’m coming!” the merchant shouted almost at once, going against every one of Aureus’s unexpected expectations in the space of a second. “Just a moment.”

   Aureus blinked as Micah bent to pick up his water-skin from where Aureus had dropped it, and wondered why he was surprised.

   The merchant turned, his expression unreadable.

   “Listen–” he began, sounding pained, and the half-started apology brought Aureus to his senses. What right had he to expect anything more than he’d already been given? The brief respite, the attempted healing he had been offered was more than enough mercy from one whose people were enemies and slaves in the eyes of Aureus’s kind. He shook his head, cutting off whatever the merchant had been about to say.

   “No. My thanks for your aid, and may the gods repay you for your kindness.”

   The merchant frowned slightly, and without another word, turned and walked out from the protection of the scrub-trees, raising his hands peacefully.

   “I’m coming!” he yelled to the Jackal, and Aureus was left alone.

*   *   *

The Jackal.

   Micah was met with silence and scornful glares as he walked out from behind the trees. The assassins were masked, and Micah watched their eyes with a twinge in his gut, afraid he would recognize someone–a neighbor, a friend. These were his people. But the only thing he recognized in any of their faces was a feeling–anger. Anger stoked to the point of bloodlust.

   Someone lifted his mask to spit at Micah as he walked by, and then as one the group turned to ignore him, beginning to talk amongst themselves. Plotting, perhaps, the best way to heroically vanquish the man they’d left crippled and dying in the middle of the desert.

   Pack of jackals, Micah thought, realizing that Aureus’s description had been apt.

   The thought gave him a very ridiculous, utterly idiotic, idea.  In a moment’s consideration, he was determined to carry it out. He grinned back at the tree-scrub and the arrogant Hermean behind it, then broke out across the wadi at a gallop.

   The jackals were so intent on pointedly ignoring him that they did not realize that he had set off in the exact opposite direction of home.

*   *   *

   Aureus could hear the zealots murmuring amongst themselves and a faint breeze beginning to rustle the leaves of his tree.

   Even the small honor of one life saved was taken from him. He would not run–he could not–but he also could not fight for long. He could barely stand. As the dim voices murmured on the other side of the scrub-trees, he fought to keep the world from spinning before his eyes.

    He wanted desperately to close his eyes like a martyr, but he was a warrior. He would die fighting, unresigned to any fate but the one he made himself.

   The Jackal was shouting again.

   “Who’s the conqueror now, Hermean?” he roared. “Where are your armies? Where are your gods? Can’t they save you?”

   Aureus tried shifting his weight. In a white flash of searing pain, his legs gave way, and he dropped like a corpse to the ground.

   “Oh, Zairus,” he cursed through his teeth, biting down a scream. “Just shut up.”

   He was weak–helplessly weak–and only getting weaker. With a soft, surrendering shudder, he closed his eyes, wondering how long the Jackal would keep boasting after he was dead.

   A sound like thunder shook the air.

   Aureus’s eyes opened of their own accord, the sound spurring his heart to race even before he recognized it. When heard behind the walls of a fort, the sound was quixotic. Out in the unprotected open, it was terrifying.

   Lions. 

   There was a man’s scream from beyond the tree-scrub as the lions, wherever they had come from, attacked.

   Aureus could run from lions no more than he could from jackals. Was he to be torn apart by wild beasts now? Raising his eyes to the sky, he wondered which god he’d offended to deserve a death like this.

   Something crashed through the brush behind him, and Aureus twisted to face it, vision blurry and hands tight on the slippery sword.

   It was Micah, bleeding from a few long slashes on his flanks and grinning like a fool.

   “What did you do?” Aureus shouted, above the screaming of the Jackals.

   “Stole a cub,” Micah panted. “Made a gift of it to our friends over there. Those lionesses are faster than they look.” 

   “You–”

   “Need to get out of here. As do you. Come on.” The merchant ducked, pulling Aureus’s foreleg over his withers and hefting with all his might to help him to stand.

   “Hopefully, the jackals and the lions will keep each other occupied long enough to get us out of here,” he said, helping Aureus to hobble one step, then another. Every step was blinding pain, but the corner of Aureus’s mind that mattered couldn’t find the energy to care. It was pain with hope beyond it, pain with the helping shoulder of a friend to get him through, pain that meant he was alive.

   There was another roar, another scream, behind them. Aureus was still hung up on a smallish detail, which his rattled mind would not allow him to skip over easily.

   “You came back,” he said, half to himself. “For me. And I’m a–a-”

   “A cursed slow walker is what you are. Pick up the pace or I’ll have saved neither of us.” Micah snapped.

   Laughing hurt, but Aureus did it anyway, shaking and almost falling over as he struggled to go faster.

   “You brought a pride of lions,” he said, half-choking on his own amusement.

   “They were closer than the garrison.”

   Aureus coughed unable to stand, and Micah scowled as he stumbled under his weight.

  “I don’t generally rile up lions on anyone’s behalf, either, so you’d better live to appreciate it.”

  Aureus swallowed his choking laughter. Tasting the tang of blood, he took another excruciating step forward and made a promise.

   “I will.”

“The neighborhood’s going to the tar pits, Helen.”

Enjoy this story?

I’ve got a ton more. Why not take one of them out for a spin?

The Pick-Pocket of Ishtar

The Wolf of Oboro-Teh

Death Wish

Saphed Maut

 

The train sped into the station with a flash of gold and a huff of steam. A muffled loudspeaker crackled to life, calling out names and numbers as the station was inundated in a flood of departing passengers.

   The torrent of humanity washed over Detective-Inspector Avaidh Isha with the full force of a thousand uncaring strangers desperate to get home. He ignored the rough jostling. He had more important matters to worry about…for instance, his train ticket. 

   It seemed to be written in some kind of code consisting of numbers and letters, which seemingly bore no relation to one another or to anything else in the station. He scowled at it. It did not become any less cryptic.


   He glanced up, straining to see over the swift-moving herd of humanity in the dim hope of discovering some sign of where he was or where he was supposed to be. His train was supposed to be arriving within the next couple of minutes–though it could be late. Or perhaps he was late. Or did he have the wrong station?

   The numbers painted on the station’s walls bore no resemblance to the numbers adorning his ticket. Deeply dissatisfied, Isha returned to scowling at them.

    Past the general hubbub, the bored-sounding loudspeaker began a new string of names and numbers, which Isha, by some miraculous chance, clearly heard and understood.

    “Number three-forty Upanyaan Express, departing for the provinces of Shoony, Mahatvaheen, and Kahhi Nihan in five minutes.”

   Kahhi Nihan, Isha thought, head snapping up. His destination. Tightening his grip on his single case of possessions, Isha plunged into the fray and fought his way to the platform.

*   *   *

   Between the train doors and the ranks of prospective passengers stood a man in unassuming green livery, checking tickets with a vapid expression that seemed to rise above circumstance in a manner similar to a meditating monk’s–save that the monk generally had greater awareness of his surroundings.

   “Ticket please,” the man recited as Isha approached, and Isha gladly handed off the bit of indecipherable script.

   “Detective-Inspector Avaidh Isha,” he announced unnecessarily, in an attempt to stir the ticket-priest from his reverie. “Has my luggage arrived safely? I’ve a great deal dependent on their–”

    “Am I supposed to keep track of your belongings, Kamatar?” the man in green snapped, looking up. Taken aback, Isha was about to rebuke the man when he saw the triangle tattoo of a Behetar on the man’s wrist. His words died in his throat. No matter how low their occupations, the Behetar held a higher caste, and therefore a higher rank, than any Kamatar.

    “Apologies,” Isha muttered, taking his ticket and ducking onto the train as the Behetar relapsed into glaze-eyed contemplation.

   As the train rumbled and wobbled to life beneath Isha’s feet, he made his way to the next green-uniformed attendant–a servant-caste Kam Se Kam this time, as evidenced by the small circles inked upon his wrists–who politely informed him that his luggage was indeed settled quite comfortably in the back. With a calmed mind and an uneasy stomach, Isha found his way to his seat, sitting down just as the train gave a decisive lurch forward.

   One of Upanyaa’s famed hovering railways, the train shuddered slightly, then began to glide without the slightest tremor. Isha watched the landscape outside his window blur as the train began to come to speed, his churning stomach quieting a little. Watching the shaggy grass-ridden hillsides and scrubs of mangroves whiz by, he wondered why he’d ever accepted this mission.

   It was a pointless question. The commission to bring Saphed Maut, the White Death, to justice–to capture the most successful brigand Upanyaa had ever known–was an honor impossible to refuse. It was a level of respect that had never before been shown to a mere Kamatar, and Isha intended to prove that it was deserved.

   Of course, he’d accepted before he’d known the mission would involve travel and commanding his own squad of men. He was uncomfortable with both. But the traveling was already underway, and seemed more or less survivable. As for taking on his first official command, he would muddle through as best he could.

   Saphed Maut was a prize well worth the trouble.

   Little was known about the origins of the white-clad brigand. Isha had first heard of him in snatches of song on the street, where the brigand’s escapades were put to rhyme by half-starved poets, and the poems put to tunes by riot-happy children. It was difficult to parse the facts out of the stories that were told about the man, and after months of investigation, all Isha knew for certain was that the brigand had a habit of popping out unexpectedly upon travelers and caravans, taking two-thirds (always two-thirds; never more and rarely less) of their goods, and slipping away again like mist in the morning.

   Of course the legends went further. They painted pictures that seemed the stuff of fairy tales–Saphed Maut escaping from the gallows, Saphed Maut aiding star-crossed lovers to escape their families, Saphed Maut escorting a poor widow across his territory and leaving her with a generous gift of gold.

   Of course none of the stories could be confirmed–their very nature did not allow for it–but neither could any of them be disproven.

   For the hundredth time, Isha found himself wondering what had possessed him to accept this commission. Honor was only a powerful substitute for an answer, and it did not explain his fascination with the man. Perhaps there was something in that fairytale figure which simply demanded to be noticed.

   That was it, he thought. It also explained why a simple brigand was such a priority in the minds of his superiors–for, true or not, Saphed Maut was the sort of figure to inspire such stories. Dangerous stories about nobility and rebellion that the government could not abide.

   And they were right, Isha ceded reluctantly. Rebellion was never good. Nothing ever came of it but chaos and bloodshed. He turned from the whizzing landscape to stare at the seat-back in front of him.

   A slim ribbon of one of the brigand’s stories flicked its tail as Isha pushed it forcibly from his mind, and he looked up again, determined to chase away all thought that did not relate to the copper-colored sand or azure sky outside the window.

*   *   *

   The train lurched. Starting awake to sit up poker-straight in his seat, Isha gripped the arms of his chair just as the great, smoothly operating train screamed, leapt, and halted with a deafening cacophony of shattering window-glass and its nose in the sand-banks beside the railway track.

   It was all more shocking that violent. When a sudden tenuous silence indicated that the crash was over, Isha took stock of the damage–one old man appeared to have fainted, the porter was nursing a bloodied nose, and Isha was still perfectly safe in his seat.

   Barely a second of silence passed before the yelling started. A jumble of varied dialects began to jabber to the general effect that everyone wanted to know what was going on, no one did, and someone would certainly have to pay for it.

   A scream from the pilot’s car silenced everyone. The door between the pilot’s car and their own burst open, and into the gap stepped a man dressed in white. Isha sucked in a breath, not alone in his recognition of the towering figure.

    Saphed Maut.

   Only his eyes showed through the turbaned mask, but they glittered with devilish joy. The whiteness of his robes was broken by the stains of sand and sweat–but the very stains seemed like marks of age and importance, like the tarnish of ancient statues. Cocking his head to one side, the brigand spoke.

   “Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” he said politely. “I’m here to rob you.”

   Shifting in his seat with the half-insane idea of getting up, Isha was halted by the click of a flintlock. Turning cautiously, he found a young boy squatting in the sill of the shattered window, fixing him with a white-toothed grin.

“Keep to your seat, Grandfather,” he said jovially. Isha raised an eyebrow at him–Saphed Maut wasn’t known to work with partners.

   The boy wasn’t the only one. Behind the brigand, hugging a sack that was larger than herself, stood a mere child of a girl with wonder-wide eyes.


    Pinned in place by the gun aimed at his head, Isha watched how Saphed Maut worked. Apart from the conductor who must now be lying dead in the pilot’s car, the brigand didn’t shed another drop of blood. Taking the sack from the tiny girl, he tossed it in the very center of the floor.

   “Ladies and gentleman, a small request. A donation–a single valuable, with which you will not be heartbroken to part, and which we shall be most gratified to gain.”

   The edges of the brigand’s eyes gained deep wrinkles as a mask-hidden grin widened. An earring was tossed into the sack, and then a glittering pocket-watch. Isha shifted in his seat, and the boy pressed the barrel of the flintlock closer to his head. The movement, though small, drew Saphed Maut’s attention, and the wrinkles at the edges of his eyes were replaced by a wrinkle between them.

   “Hari, I don’t believe we need to keep this gentleman on the danger end of a gun.”

   The boy huffed, but readjusted the flintlock’s aim to point at the ceiling. Isha found himself looking up into the brigand’s mask.

   “You have my thanks.”

   “I’d rather have your gold,” the brigand said lightly.

   Isha thought of his ‘luggage’, waiting only a car away, and of the pilot’s dying scream. And then he stood, rising until his eyes were level with the brigand’s.

   “I’m afraid,” he ventured, “That you will not be leaving with the gold of anyone here.”

   The slit in the brigand’s mask showed the faintest glimmer of confusion.

   “Men!” Isha roared, hoping that his assigned squad of officers were in the next car and not drugged or unconscious or bribed away. Saphed Maut had a talent for foresight.

   But it seemed that the brigand had not seen this coming. Isha’s officers crashed through the door, flooding into the car, and Saphed Maut all but tripped over the small pile of valuables on the floor in surprise. Seeming to recover himself, he darted forward again, seizing Isha’s sleeve and dragging him off-balance. Struggling against the unexpected attack, Isha found his arms caught in a vice-grip, back stiffening as the brigand’s blade pressed against his throat.

   The onslaught of officers came quite suddenly to a standstill.

   “Hari,” Saphed Maut said softly, “Kiran. Behind me, now.”

   The flintlock-happy boy was as wide-eyed as the girl now, and he scrambled to join her behind their leader. Isha swallowed, disliking the way the blade-edge wavered against his throat.

   “I’m going to back up now,” the brigand took a single step back. “Don’t make a move, don’t follow me–and I will let him live.”

   Isha opened his mouth to shout that his men ignore what the brigand said. Capture him! Finish the mission! But the tickle of the knife killed the words even as they rose in his throat, and he remained silent. Saphed Maut began to pull him back and out of the train as the officers, glancing at one another, reluctantly stood down.

   Like everything else that whole unbalanced morning, the rest happened in a flash. One of the passengers, inspired, reached out behind the brigand’s back, seizing the boy as a counter-hostage. The girl screamed as she was grabbed as well. Saphed Maut spun with his unwieldy burden to help them, and one of the officers took the opportunity to fire at his unguarded back. The bullet pinged off the wall of the train, and Saphed Maut ducked. Another shot rang out, and the brigand stumbled, jerking backwards into the pilot’s car and shutting the door behind him.

   And then the hero–the criminal–fled, dragging the Detective-Inspector with him.

*   *   *

   Isha’s lungs were not nearly bursting. They had burst, several hills ago, and then he had grown new ones and those had burst as well. They stopped in a little clearing where the morning sun was not as cruel as usual, and Isha allowed himself to crumple onto the ground below a tree, where he panted with slightly less dignity than a dying fish.

   Saphed Maut did not let him rest long. Rounding the clearing with a string of breathless curses, he turned on Isha, hauling him off his feet and pushing him ungently against a tree.

   “You ordered them to take my cubs?” His voice was lower, more dangerous than a shout, and his eyes were blazing. “They are children! They know nothing–”

   It would all have been very intimidating, but Isha was far too busy being tired to be frightened.

  “Oh, yes, I silently signaled those civilians with a special code, because of course a couple of street urchins were the very first thing on my mind while I was being held hostage with a knife at my throat!” he snapped irritably.

   For a split second, Isha thought the brigand would kill him. But then the White Death blinked, shuddered a tiny laugh, and stepped back, letting Isha slide back down to the ground.

   “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry.”


   He rubbed his face like a cat trying to wash itself, unwrapping the mask and letting it fall in a fluttering wave of white to the ground. He was young, Isha realized with a dim sense of surprise. Barely into his twenties.

   “I left them,” the brigand said shakily. “The second it looked to go ill for me, I left them. Lord of Heaven help me.”

   Isha waited in discomfited silence for a moment, feeling that he was witnessing something very personal.

   “They won’t kill them,” he assured weakly. “Not even for being your allies. They’re children–the judge will surely be lenient.”

   The brigand gave a flat half-laugh.

   “Kill my cubs? No.” he turned to face Isha with an ironic smile. “They will not do that. Only hurt and enslave them. I have seen the leniency of your judges before, Detective-Inspector; I will not trust my children to it.”

   Isha frowned, wondering how the man had guessed his rank–and realized that his coat had fallen open during the run, and his badge of office was hanging out of it with undignified precariousness. Straightening it, he sighed.

   “Avaidh Isha.” he said, without really expecting to be heard. “That’s my name.”

   The brigand gave him an odd look.

   “Jaidev,” he offered, holding out a hand. Isha noted the marks on the man’s palm–a pair of intersecting lines. The mark of the Kucch, the lowest cast of all. There was some speculation as to whether they were even properly human.

   Gingerly, Isha reached up to clasp the brigand’s hand in his own.

   Jaidev’s harsh smile seemed to soften somewhat, and he turned away again, walking the little clearing as a beast paces its cage.

   Isha shook himself into some sense–the children did not matter. It did not matter that Saphed Maut was young, and it did not matter that he was Kucch. Isha was still an officer of the law, and all that mattered was bringing the brigand to justice.

   And as unpromising as the situation seemed, Isha had an idea to accomplish it.

   “You want to save your cubs?” he asked.

    Jaidev raised his brows.

   “I intend to.”

   Isha forced his voice to sound calm, disinterested.

   “My superiors want you, you know. Not two orphans they’d just as soon toss in the gutter.”

   Jaidev’s eyes went cold, calculating, and he cocked his head to one side.

   “Meaning?”

   “A trade.” Isha said. “You could give yourself up in exchange for their freedom.”

   A bark of laughter.

   “And why would I give myself up when I could simply trade you?”

   Isha shook his head.

   “They won’t take me. I’m replaceable. But give yourself up, and I swear to you that your cubs will go free.”

   “And am I to trust the word of an officer of the law?”

   “I keep my promises.”

   Realizing that the brigand had no reason to believe him, Isha tried to look as trustworthy as possible. But Jaidev was already looking at him, looking as though he would look through him. Finally, he said:

   “Yes. Yes, I believe you would.” thoughtful, he looked up again, into the sun-gilded higher branches of the trees around them, blinking as if only just realizing that they existed, and were beautiful. Then he looked down to Isha again.

    “Very well. Take me back–and let my cubs go.”

*   *   *

   Technically Isha’s prisoner, Jaidev strode ahead of him towards the small group of police and train passengers still gathered by the crash. He had put the mask on again, seemingly determined to give himself up as Saphed Maut and none other.

   Isha had been surprised to see the face behind the mask; it was odder, somehow, to see the mask with the face underneath it. Jaidev was a young man who was willing to give up his life for his cubs. Saphed Maut was a thief and a murderer. And somehow, they were both the same man.

   Startled by the brigand’s approach, the officers by the train stepped back, beginning to huddle in formation. Swords were drawn, and a rifle leveled. Before the confusion got entirely out of hand, Isha rushed ahead, stepping between Jaidev and his own, now very confused, men.

   “Sirs,” he panted, “We have reached an agreement.”

*   *   *

   “He wants what?” Isha’s second-in-command, a Kamatar who very much resented the appearance of someone he didn’t outrank, said. Isha considered his tone of disbelief out of proportion to the situation, but kept his sheen of politeness nonetheless.

   “The children, Detective Hoishe. He’s formed an attachment to them, and values them above his own life.”

   Hoishe snorted, eying Jaidev, who stood off to one side with crossed arms and an implacable expression, uncaring of the rifles trained on him.

   “They have some method of breaking him free, more likely. I say, seize him now and let the justices deal with the lot of them.”

   Isha drew himself up.

   “I’ve made a promise, and it’s a promise I will keep. If our prisons cannot withstand the assault of a couple of children, then there is no point in arresting anyone.”

   Hoishe raised an eyebrow, then shrugged.

   “Fine. If you’re so intent on letting a couple of criminals go free, then I’ll not stand in your way–but remember, this is on your head.”

   He gestured, and an officer ducked into the wreck of the train, coming out again with the prisoners in tow. The girl gasped at sight of Jaidev, breaking free of the officer and running to him. The boy followed, and Jaidev knelt to pull them close.

   “Kiran, Hari. Take good care of each other.”there was the faintest hint of a smile showing through the implacable mask. “I’ll be seeing you soon.”

   “The only person you’ll be seeing soon is the hangman.” Hoishe butted in. “Enough of this.”

   Reluctant, Isha gestured for the officers to seize their charge.

   “Run now.” the Jaidev told his cubs, harshly, as the men took his arms. The children stepped back, reluctant at first, then turning to flee like rabbits from a hunter.

   When they were gone, all the fight that was in the brigand seemed to disappear. He let the mask be jerked from his face, let himself be shoved to the ground and his hands tied behind his back. One officer kicked him in the ribs, and Isha stepped forward.

   “Enough.” he ordered. The officer stood down with a scowl, letting Saphed Maut be pulled to his feet.

   A small cheer broke out from the few remaining bystanders at the sight of the brigand in custody, but Isha couldn’t muster a drop of pride. Whatever had happened today was not good, and it was not a victory. At best, it was cold justice; and as Isha watched the limp, robed figure escorted away, he could not help but wonder if even justice was too generous a term.

*   *   *

   The White Death was safely locked away, and for the first night since the advent of his career, the general populace could sleep in peace.

   Isha, oddly enough, could not sleep at all.

   Jaidev would be hung in the morning, if all went as expected. A fair punishment for a murderer.

   Troubled and restless, Isha went over the events of the wreck in his mind until he was sick of them. The lurch. The halt. The scream of the dying conductor.

   Isha had been surprised by that; Saphed Maut wasn’t known for bloodshed.

   Blood, Isha thought dully. You would think that there would have been some small splatter of it somewhere on the brigand’s white robes, or on one of the blades he carried.

   There had been none.

   Come to think of it, Isha couldn’t remember seeing a body either.

   Sitting up straight with the energy of dawning realization, Isha considered, for the first time since the crash, the possibility that the conductor had not been killed. The events fell into place neatly. The train had not crashed by chance, but was guided off the rails by a skillful hand–a bribed hand, perhaps. It fit Saphed Maut’s profile far better than a messy murder.

   Which meant Saphed Maut was not a murderer.

   Which meant Saphed Maut did not deserve to die.

   Heart pounding, Isha ripped himself free of the sweat-grimed sheets and leapt to his feet, searching the floor for the official uniform he’d discarded.

   Saphed Maut did not deserve to die.

   And Avaidh Isha intended to make sure he did not.

*   *   *

   The city prison was not a noisy place, even on the worst days. At night, the only sounds were the quiet shifting of straw as prisoners stirred in their sleep, the click-clack of a guard’s game of dice, and the chirring of rats and locusts.

   A bat had appeared in the prison earlier, and the yelling of the guards as they scrambled to kill it had been the most ruckus the prison had seen in months. By the time Isha arrived, the bat incident had long since blown over, and the guards had returned to their game of dice.

   “Detective-Inspector.” Badak, who had been losing, beat his companion to a salute. “What a–hm–surprise.”

   The Detective-Inspector was by and large uninterested in salutes, and glanced briefly at the game.

   “A pair of sixes, and you’ll win the pot,” he remarked helpfully, continuing, “Which cell was Saphed Maut put in?”

   “The White Death?” Badak shivered. “End of the hall.”

   The Inspector looked down the hall distractedly. “I wanted to ask him some questions before he’s sentenced in the morning.”

   “Ah, right.” Badak fumbled at his key ring, unhooking one and looking up to hand it to the Inspector. “This one should do the trick. Will you requ–”

   Detective-Inspector Isha shook his head, taking the key without a word and striding down the dark hallway.

   “That man’s braver than I am.”

   “Like that’s such a compliment.” Harjeet snorted, sitting at their table again and palming the dice. “You should have seen your face when that flying mouse flew in.”

   Badak drew breath to defend himself, but Harjeet only tossed the dice nonchalantly.

   “Also, you’ve lost the game.”

   Badak growled.

*   *   *

   Isha was trying not to let his nervousness show, trying equally not to look at the straw-floored cells and their quiet occupants. How many people were here? How many people deserved to be?

   Isha had trusted the law, once. Now it seemed a fragile, easily twisted thing, hard to straighten out and impossible to rely upon.

   The last cell on the block was the darkest, the lonely light bulb in the hallway having burnt out. In the shadows, it was hard to tell what was straw and what was man. With another glance towards the distant and well-distracted guards and a decisive shake of his head, Isha twisted the key in the lock. The door creaked open, and he stepped inside.

   It was all straw. The cell was empty.

   Isha’s gaze settled on a blur of white tucked between the cracks in the wall. He took it, unfolding the thin paper and tilting it to get the best of the dim light. It read,

   Dear Officer of the Law,

      I regret to inform you that I must once again decline your kind hospitality. I have been called out on pressing business, and was obliged to slip away, not wishing to trouble anyone with my affairs.

   I thank all and sundry for the warm welcome.

     Regrets,

   Saphed Maut.

   (Postscript): One of your brethren made remonstrances to detain me, and, my business being urgent, I was forced to resort to unkind means of putting him off. The man can be found in the supply closet just down the hall from my suite, and he should be commended for his vigilance.

   Isha coughed, suppressing the spasm of laughter that threatened to take his lungs. He read the letter again, and was caught in the throes of another coughing fit. Finally, he folded up the bit of paper and deposited it in his pocket, shaking his head at the empty cell. 

   Then he turned to make his way back to the dicing guards and deliver the horrible, horrendous news that Saphed Maut had escaped.

   The hardest part would be in keeping the smile from his face.


Enjoy this story?

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The Wolf of Oboro-Teh

 

Lord Shiram Reuben blinked at the room that surrounded him as though it were a new and unexpected thing. Somehow it was, though he’d been sleeping there for years.

More to the point, he’d been dramatically failing to sleep there for years, which was all the more reason the chamber should seem familiar.

   He sighed, sitting up and trying to pinch the last vestiges of the dream from the bridge of his nose.

   “Lord Reuben?” A cautious scuff of feet in the doorway accompanied a cautious voice. He looked up to find one of the housemaids squinting sleepily at him past the glare of the candle she held. “Are ye all right?”

   Shiram stared at her a second, tried to remember her name. Failing, he shook his head.

   “I’m fine.”

   His own yelling. That was what had woken him–and evidently others, as well. The household staff should be used enough to these nightmares to stop checking on him.

   The maid yawned, pulling her shawl closer around her shoulders.

   “All right, m’lord. Is there anything else ye need, long as I’m here? Cook’s got cakes cooled in the kitchen.”

   Cakes were not the furthest thing from Shiram’s mind, but they were near it. He stared for another moment, mustering a reply.

   “No…Madalena, you can go.”

   He hoped he’d gotten her name right. Not that she’d feel free to tell him if he hadn’t.

   Possibly-Madalena nodded, barely keeping her eyes open, but managing a sleep-soaked smile.

   “Ye’ve the bell to ring should ye need anythin’, then. Wishin’ ye good rest.”

   She turned, plodding down the hall by the light of the single, slightly guttering, candle.

   “Thank you,” Shiram told the open air, unsure she’d hear him. The faint flickering of candlelight in the hall receded, leaving him alone in the equally uncertain light of a dying fire.

   The dream had coiled around Shiram’s insides, pulling death-tight and jolting him awake. Even now, shifting tendrils of it seemed to lurk in the shadows. He closed his eyes, aware both of how tired he was and how impossible sleep would be.

   It had not exactly been a dream if remembering–though those were bad too. Shards of memory, rather, disconnected and slice-sharp. The scarlet smile of a queen and the scarlet spills she smiled at; the curiously wet scent of iron-tainted air and the odd heaviness of a knife in his palm. It had left his stomach sick and his mind reeling with things he would rather have forgotten.

   He took a deep breath, opening his eyes in a cautious attempt to draw comfort from the solid, warm-lit stone of the walls around him and the tattered tapestries that adorned them.

   Shadows shifted rhythmically in the firelight, and a bed, a great feather-stuffed thing Shiram had never quite got the hang of, sat in the middle of the room, casting the biggest shadow of them all.         

   Shiram, surrounded by perfectly comfortable furs, lay on the floor.

   The warmth of the fire was slowly ebbing, allowing the biting midwinter chill to leach in though the stone walls.  Not caring to freeze, Shiram rose achingly to feed it.

   Orange flame rose, sparking, until it licked at the new wood with tongues of white. Shiram kicked a log, watching sparks dance up the soot-choked chimney, then flick out as the cold killed them.

   He’d have to tell James, the steward, that the chimneys needed cleaning.

The thought came uninvited, from a world so very far from his late dream that it made him laugh. There had been a time, before the scarlet-smiling queen, when Shiram would have scoffed at the thought of commanding a castle. He still scoffed at it, so strange it seemed.

   It wasn’t as though he hadn’t earned it. His Queen was not one for superfluous generosity; he had earned this–earned it in ways that gave him screaming knife-blade nightmares, ways that made him see a fire and expect the scent of burning flesh.

   Survival, he’d called it. Loyalty. He’d wanted very much to survive, when the world was a cruel place.

   He thought of Madalena and the cakes cooled in the kitchen.

   The world was kind now; but he was not.

   He closed his eyes, more tired than anything, and the nightmare crept eagerly into the dark behind his lids, snapping him awake.

   The firelight was bright enough to hurt, but he stared into it anyway, wondering if survival was worth all that much after all.

*     *     *

   The next morning, the Lord of Oboro-Teh informed his steward that the chimneys needed cleaning, and announced his own intentions to go riding. James took both facts in stride, assuring his lord that the fires would be kept burning to await his return.

   If the steward noticed the oddly quirked smile that was Shiram’s only response to this declaration, he did not mention it.

*     *     *

   

   The air was bitter. Shiram halted for the third time in the past half-hour, keeping his horse from sweating, and the beast pawed at the snow, frustrated by their slow progress. Leaning forward, Shiram gave its shoulder an absent pat. Though his eyes were glazed over by cold and carelessness, he couldn’t keep them off of the thick pine wood ahead–his goal, if this ride had a goal. There was something about the darkness, the twisting branches, that seemed like a comfort in comparison to the age-blemished expanse of powdery white that surrounded him now.

   Without the dull whuff and scrunch of the horse plowing through snow, another sound–just as quiet–was vaguely audible in the clear air. Voices. Some distance away. Shiram blinked, trying to make out what they said; frowned when he found he couldn’t.

   Noting that the horse had cooled down, he turned it in the direction of the sound. The beast shook its head in disapproval at his indecision, but swung obediently aside.

*     *     *

   As they grew closer, Shiram realized that the voices were shouting. Cresting the slight hill that lay between himself and the voices, he saw–but did not understand–what they were shouting about. 

   The scene was a wild amalgamation of people, sheep, and piled brushwood. Shiram halted, watching in confusion as some of the people rounded the sheep into one great wool-ridden, bleating mass, while others handed out weapons of all kinds–makeshift weapons, rakes and pruning tools and one rusty sword that must have belonged to someone’s great-grandfather.

The brushwood was being pulled into great heaps that might have served either as fortifications or a battlefield funeral pyre. They were working themselves harder than Shiram had dared work his horse, and Shiram felt the faintest twinge of guilt as he wondered why.

   A few of the peasants noticed the newcomer, glancing and nodding to one another without ceasing their work. Eventually the glancing and the nodding reached a white-haired man with work-hardened hands and a work-crooked back, who gave Shiram a long and calculating look before brushing his hands to approach him.

   “M’lord.” he said, giving a respectful nod. Shiram returned it.

   “Goodman.”

   “Thaddeus,” The man supplied. Shiram nodded again, this time towards the general turmoil.

   “Are you preparing for a festival of some kind?”

   The man named Thaddeus shook his head.

   “Would it were something that friendly, M’lord. It’s wolves we’re preparing for–or a wolf, rather.” The shepherd shrugged his shoulders, a slight involuntary movement protesting the cold. “It’s been stealing the sheep–not many, but there in’t much to go around in the first place, what with the taxes and the–ah–” he looked at Shiram, realizing he may not have picked the best person to complain about taxes to, and attempted to amend.  “Not that I won’t give my sheep to feed our queen in a heartbeat–but there’s none left for wolf-fodder.”

   The implied comparison was as unfortunate as it was unintentional. Shiram concealed a smile and gestured to the brushwood barricade.

   “You’re setting up a fire ring,” he noted. Set alight, the wood would burn long and bright–and wolves cared little for fire. 

   “Ay, and a night watch.”

   “No hunting parties?” Shiram asked, realizing the question was idiotic even before Thaddeus shook his head in denial. Hunting bows were not common among shepherds; the Queen discouraged them. Still, they could have come to the keep and asked for a band of Shiram’s men-at-arms. 

   If it came to that, there was no need for them to go to the keep at all.

“One wolf, you said?” Shiram had learned his hunting chasing fugitives and traitors–the queen’s enemies, and occasionally his own. A wolf would be a welcome change.

   Thaddeus was nodding, but without enthusiasm.

   “It’s said…and this may just be peasant’s talk, M’lord…but ‘tis said that it’s no normal wolf. More like a demon, according to the few who’ve seen it. Glowing red eyes and a cry like a banshee.”

   “A demon wolf?” Shiram raised his eyebrows, and Thaddeus gave a half-ashamed gesture, shrugging off the warning. “As I said. It may be the fear talking, and not good sense.”

   Reuben frowned.

   “It may also be poachers, or a clever thief. I’ve known a few to do the like–act the monster or the demon, scare people off their scent.”

   The horse shifted under him, tossing its head, and Thaddeus set an unthinking hand on the beast’s shoulder, calming it.

   “Of the two, M’lord, I’d rather have the demon.”

   “Less destructive?”

   “Less pitiable. I wouldn’t mind seeing a demon drawn and quartered.”

   There was a small fire in Thaddeus’s eyes, though it died quickly again. Shiram suppressed a grimace–he’d carried out the Queen’s laws often enough to know how unforgiving they were. Necessary, from a political perspective. But in the eyes of human beings who knew what it was to be hungry…cruel.

   “Well, there’s a good chance it’s only a lone wolf. Lost its pack, maybe, and turning to easier game,” Shiram said. “Has it left its tracks anywhere?”

   Thaddeus looked surprised.

   “Everywhere.”

   “Show me.” 

*     *     *

   The old shepherd led him to a place where the wolf had made its kill. The tracks were muddled and indecisive, mixed with blood and the plundering hoofprints of a panicked herd, but there was a clear enough path out of the mess.  A trail of blood led up and into the woods; he intended to follow it.

   “It seems a dangerous thing, hunting it,” Thaddeus said, as Shiram remounted his horse. The statement held an inquisitive twist that Shiram did not particularly like, and he shrugged.

   “It seems a dangerous thing, living in these hills,” He returned, indicating the blood-patched snow and still-shouting melee of shepherds. 

   “Ah,” Thaddeus said with a slight chuckle. “We cast our fortunes on the will of the holies, for sure. ‘Course, it’s hard to tell how completely we cast them, for we always expect ‘em back again–but the holies, they come through.”

   He returned his gaze to the snow-frozen blood.

   “Sometimes,” He amended.

   Satisfied, Shiram set to evening his reins.

   “If you ask me, M’lord, any man who goes to fight even a single wolf alone is hell-bent on suicide.”

   Shiram looked down to see the old man giving him a piercing gaze, which lowered as Thaddeus reassumed his place.

   “If you ask me,” he said quietly, with the implication that of course no one would ask him, and that his words were of no import. Shiram only nodded, letting the old man return to his work.

   It was not suicide, he thought in belated self-defense. He was simply…casting his life on the will of the holies.

   He did not expect it back again.

*     *     *

   The woods deepened and the clouds grew darker as they plodded on. Lowering his head, the horse huffed a soft breath at the snow–more warning than frustration–and Shiram found himself reaching for his sword more than once.

   Five minutes–or perhaps it had been half an hour–later, the mouth of a cave gaped before them, darkly visible against the pale-glowing snow. The blood trail spattered in frozen drops over its threshold.

   Snow flew up in a gust of cold as Shiram leapt off the horse, absently looping its reins around a flimsy branch. The horse could make its own way home; Shiram would not be needing it much longer. The beast snorted, a cloud of white in the still air–the dark air. It was near the end of evening, and he would be missed soon–but not for long. Oboro-Teh would find another lord, in time. Perhaps a better lord.

   And this cave would be the grave of at least one monster tonight. Two, if Shiram’s blade held true. With a lightly pounding heart, he drew it and stepped into the dark.

Something cracked under his foot. Looking down, he saw the tiny skull of a rat, crushed under his weight. The cave floor was strewn liberally with other tiny bones, stripped clean and sucked of their marrow, and Shiram frowned.

   This did not look like the work of a wolf.

   There was a shifting, almost a scuttling, in the dark; Shiram jumped back, half-believing he’d heard a whisper of a voice in the biting air.

   He held his sword close and ready, listening as well as he could past the beat of his own heart. The things moving in the dark sounded…small. His mind conjured a horde of rattle-boned ghouls, a contingent of bat-size demons.

   Something pattered past him, brushing his leg. It was out of reach before he could even see it. The thing was followed by another–who was not so lucky.

   Shiram moved like lightning to snatch a handful of hide, jerking the scuttler-in-the-dark backwards and into the light, twisting his sword to run it through.

   He stopped just short of killing it. The thing staring up at him with terrified eyes was a child.

   Shiram stared back, too shocked to lower the sword, and the boy bit him. He dropped it with a surprised yelp; scrambling to his feet, the boy began to run.

   “Stop!” he shouted, but of course the boy didn’t. Shiram, used to hunting men with much longer legs, caught up with him quickly. The child stumbled, and he grabbed the back of the boy’s neck–holding him tight and gingerly, as he would a snake. With a wild-man yell, the boy pulled a knife, opening a stinging cut on Shiram’s arm.

   “I’m not going to hurt you,” Shiram growled as he wrested the little weapon away. He was not very convincing, and the boy tried to bite him again.

   “I’m not going to–ow.” something hard bounced off of Shiram’s back, and he spun to face the new attack.

   If the boy was wild, this girl looked wilder. Her grease-grey hair contrasted with her tiny stature, and her knuckles had gone white around the slingshot she held. A tiny bird-skull was looped inside it, as ammunition.

   “Jess, just run! Get out of here!” the boy struggled as he spoke, evidently wanting to follow his own advice. Jess turned a steely frown, originally meant for Shiram, on him.   

   “I in’t leaving you, stupid,” she said, as yet another child–a tiny, wide-eyed thing in a tattered dress–peered out from behind her skirts. Shiram found her–and indeed everything–unsettling.

   This was not a wolf, not a demon, and it was not death. He felt cheated.

   Another bird skull bounced off his shoulder, doing nothing to improve his mood. He swung the boy around to act as a shield from any further missiles, and ignored the warm trickle of blood dripping down his arm.

   It was poachers, then, as he had feared. What had Thaddeus said?

   I wouldn’t mind seeing a demon drawn and quartered.

   But these were not demons. The boy in Shiram’s grip felt brittle enough to shatter from cold alone.

   “Let him go!” the girl shouted, fingers fisting tighter on a sling they both knew was useless.

Shiram wished he could.

   “I was expecting to find a demon wolf up here,” he ventured. “It’s a good ruse. I’m curious to know how you carried it out.”

   There was silence.

   “Whose idea was it?” Shiram watched the girl’s face, but it was the boy who spoke.

   “Mine,” He snapped, twisting in Shiram’s grip, trying to face him. “Just mine. We all needed the meat–but I’m the one who took it.”

    He sounded as though he was admitting to treason. Given the laws on poaching, he might as well have been.

   The laws of the scarlet-smile queen were just, from her own perspective, but in the eyes of those who knew what hunger was…Shiram had known hunger, once. Had he forgotten that?

   “And blamed it on a red-eyed demon,” he said, watching the boy’s face. “How’d you manage that?”

    The boy clenched his jaw.

   “None of your business.”

   Shiram raised his eyebrows, recognizing the hardness in the boy’s voice. Men became hard, when the world was cruel–and the world was cruel, unless someone bothered to make it kind.

    Glancing at Jess, he countered her frightened scowl with a small smile.

   “Well then,” he said, thinking things through. He looked back the cave mouth, to the set of tracks in the snow–thought back to the shepherds, all convinced of what they’d seen–a demon-wolf with glowing eyes. “There’s no sheep here. No wolf either.”

   He eased his grip on the boy, and the child dropped, scrambling out of reach to stand between Shiram and Jess–but he didn’t run, and the suspicion on his face was beginning to show eggshell-thin cracks.

   “Perhaps the wolf’s dead,” Shiram ventured, sheathing the sword.

   Slowly he realized that Shiram was not here to bring him to the law. He took another step back, suspicious again.

   “Thank you, sir,” he managed. “The wolf’s dead–and he won’t be stealing any more of your sheep.”

    Jess nodded in agreement. “Bless your heart, sir,” she added.

   The boy turned with cold-stiff shoulders to lead them away; and Shiram found, quite suddenly, that he did not want his heart to be blessed.

   “Wait,” he said to the trio of retreating backs.  “Do you expect I’ll leave you out here to freeze to death?”

    Kindness was as soul-seizing as cruelty, once given into. He shook his head.

   “Come back with me. I’ll see you fed, at least.”

   He would feed them for as long as they cared to stay. Perhaps it would not make up for the lives he’d ended, the laws he’d carried out. He did not much care; there were three lives, at least, that need not be snuffed out today–and that was enough. 

   None of the children moved, and even in the deepening dark he could see disbelief twisting across the boy’s face.

   “And in return for all this?” he asked, his voice tinged with something like sarcasm. It sounded ugly, coming from one so young.

   Shiram had asked the Queen the same thing once. ‘Loyalty,’ she’d said. She had meant his soul.

   Shiram shook his head.

   “Nothing.”

   Just his own soul.

Epilogue:

   The boy’s name was Steven, Shiram learned; and the little wordless girl hanging off of Jess’s skirt was called Hanna. The ride home was long, but they were met by friendly kitchen fires and Cook’s cakes. Madalena–for her name was Madalena, as Shiram was proud to discover–was the one who finally made Steven smile. It was a small, brief smile, but it was a beginning.

   Shiram sat farthest from the fire, keeping the nightmare shadows away from the now-happy group. The cold had wearied him to the bone, and he was almost considering going to sleep. 

   A tiny hand seizing his sleeve stirred him, and he looked down to find Hanna giving him a mostly toothless grin. He was too surprised to protest as she pulled herself onto his lap and curled up like a cat, falling asleep in matter of minutes. 

  Shiram blinked–first at her, then at the stone walls. No nightmares lurked there, for once. Just firelight, and kindness, and home. A kind world, in which he hardly seemed to belong. He would have gotten up to leave, but for the lightweight anchor asleep on his chest.

   Lord Shiram Reuben of Oboro-Teh dared a smile.

   Cast your life on the will of the holies.

   For maybe, just maybe, they would give it back again.

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