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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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

Death Wish

 

Jax had never intended to end up as a live-action wish-granting genie. It wasn’t a career choice many made–none, in fact, which was the main reason the Star Foundation didn’t make it a matter of choices. Unless, of course, you wanted to get technical and point out that ‘do this or die’ is a valid choice, if a rather unpleasant one–but Jax didn’t care for technicalities.

Technicalities seemed to be rapidly taking over this train of thought, and he gave it up for lost, absently checking his wrist. He frowned, tapped it, and the string of numbers that had replaced his iDent patch flickered to life, glowing green through his skin and shifting as they ticked off a countdown.

“Four hours left.” he said, to no one in particular.

Tig hummed to life at the sound of his voice.

“Four hours to mission complete.” the hoverbot agreed in a mechanically toneless voice, whirring up by Jax’s shoulder. “Return to Star 42 in four hours on pain of immediate execution.”

Jax fixed it with a glare, the expression wasted on the sightless robot.

“Very helpful, Tig.”

The machine bleeped inarticulately, spinning on its axis, and Jax sighed. A year ago, he’d tried to cheer himself up by painting a bright yellow smiley face on the robot’s surface, and had spent the next twelve months violently wishing he hadn’t. Given Tig’s usual mode of conversation, the smile was often more ironic than cheerful.

He looked out at the planet they’d landed on, surprising himself by wishing he was back aboard his star again. The tiny ship seemed like a prison–was a prison, really–but it was a great deal more pleasant than a Ciloan city. The barren planet that had somehow managed to be the capitol of the entire Firusian Federation wasn’t known for its pleasant climate in the best of times, but in the midst of the city with the energy of a thousand generators, airboats, street lamps and restaurant-ovens radiating through the air, it was a hellish nightmare.

It wasn’t even midday yet. Barely past morning, in fact; the moons were still fading away in the north. But he had to wait.

“Do you require a countdown?” Tig buzzed helpfully, startling Jax out of his thoughts.

“I’m not dawdling.” Jax retorted. “I can’t do a thing until he arrives, anyway.” he gestured to the open square in front of them, where a small crowd was beginning to filter in before the famed Platform One, ready to hear the Emperor’s blessing. From the anticipation that buzzed through the growing group of people, you’d think this was a bicentennial event, and not a daily one.

“Your tone indicates a reply in the negative. Confirm?”

“Confirm.” Jax wondered if the robot could always pick up the emotions behind his voice, or if it simply picked up on the ones it needed to.

He wondered, perhaps a little pointlessly, if Tig knew that he was afraid.

He shouldn’t have been. The Star Foundation had gotten him on thousands of missions before this. Any prayer, any hope, any half-spoken dream that through chance or design reached the sensors of Star 42, Jax was commissioned with granting. Usually, it was children with simple requests (though on one occasion, a little girl asked him to remove the teeth from all the bears on her home planet. That mission had been a bit of a nightmare).

Today was something very different. Something illegal, possibly even wrong. Something that made Jax’s heart beat a sickening tune of worry in chest no matter how hard he tried to calm it.

Today, someone had asked him to kill the Emperor.

Jax had intended to be a smuggler. Good pay, low risks, new city every few weeks. Barely a month on the job before he’d been arrested and given the choice that was not a choice–death, or life-long employment with the Star Foundation.

Of the two options, the second had seemed infinitely more appealing. Magical wish-granting powers, his own private star. Not dying.

Well, not dying on the condition that his missions were completed on time. The Star Foundation prided itself on dedicated employees, and since their only employees were those already sentenced to death… the words ‘immediate execution’ were tossed around more than Jax would have liked.

Tig, apparently, had forgotten his request not to give a countdown.

“Return to Star 42 in three hours forty-five minutes on pain of immediate execution.” the robot whirred helpfully.

“I know. I can’t exactly shoot the emperor while he isn’t here, now can I?” Jax argued, attempting to reason with the bot, and succeeding only in reminding himself of the ridiculousness of his situation.

The Star Foundation didn’t endorse the killing of emperors. But, with the thoughtless innocence of bureaucratic administration, neither had they anticipated that their services could be used as someone’s personal assassination squad. Perhaps, if Jax mailed in a complaint, it would be read in a week or two.

But by then, Jax would have been forcefully decommissioned and left as a forgotten pile of smoldering ash until Star 42 was cleaned out in preparation for a new occupant.

Granted, going through with this assignment was high treason and would probably end with him dead as well as the emperor. But going through with it gave him time, and he was riding on the hope that once again, the law would let him slip quietly through the cracks and keep up some kind of existence.

After all, it was his only option.

Official-sounding trumpets blared, tinnily amplified through a complex myriad of speakers set into the four corners of the courtyard–a system to ensure that every citizen could hear every word of the Emperor’s Morning Blessing.

There were an awful lot of citizens, Jax realized suddenly. He’d chosen at first to take up residence in a small alcove, from which he could see the tiny podium atop Platform One without being within sight of anyone standing there. A crowdful of heads milled about now, occasionally obscuring the podium from view. And while Jax had hardened himself to the idea of killing an old and powerful man to ensure his own survival, the idea of accidentally killing some innocent commoner in the process made him sick to his stomach.

Taking an ennobling breath, he plunged into the crowd, fighting his way towards the front. It would be hard to run away out of the melee once the deed was done, he realized; but there was no time.

The Emperor was arriving.

The base of Platform One rose up and opened itself, the various sections chuffing mechanically, unfolding like the petals of some reluctant flower. The crowd pressed Jax even harder. He saw, without exactly looking, a thin, pale-looking figure rising out of Platform One and waving listlessly at the people; but by then Jax was at the front, ignoring as best he could the bodies shoving themselves against his back. Tig had stopped the countdown; in truth Jax didn’t need it. He knew how much time he had–just enough to finish this and perhaps get away. Forgetting would take longer, he suspected; but he was on his own time for that.

“We greet and bless this morning, that dawns on our great city–” A reedy voice began, catapulted through the speakers to deafening effect.

Jax pulled the hand-pistol from his coat, checking for the fourth time that there was a bullet in the chamber. A glass shrapnel bullet, filled with an oozy green substance. It would shatter on impact, spreading the poison everywhere, filling the vital organs with tiny cutting shards, assuring death–a nasty weapon. A nasty job.

Jax drew another breath. Someone would see the second he aimed the weapon; he would have to fire as soon as he could, and retreat into the crowd again. Perhaps the shot would panic them enough so everyone would flee; in that case, he should be able to escape fairly easily.

He still hesitated, holding the pistol half-drawn from his coat and trying to still his shaking hands.

Perhaps he was looking for a distraction. In any case, a tiny movement, far off to his left, caught his attention.

Someone stepping out of the crowd–a girl, her dark brows determined, glaring up at the still-speaking Emperor with undisguised scorn. A blue satchel hung over her shoulder; still staring at the emperor, she tossed it at the base of the platform, mouthing words Jax couldn’t hear before she turned on her heel and disappeared.

Something about the oddity of this tugged at Jax’s mind, speaking of danger; he struggled to comprehend it.

Before he could, an explosion rocked the ground.

Jax knew only bits and pieces of what followed. Rubble flying, shocking the air with its very bulk; dust–he himself being knocked flat on his back–but other than that initial flash of panic and light, he could never recall anything but a dull, open blank of time.

Some seconds–or perhaps it was some minutes–later, he found himself unexpectedly alive. Half-buried in dust and scattered rock, adrenaline flooding and muscles quivering–but alive all the same.

He blinked, trying to clear blurred vision. A great dust-grey panel of metal–one of Platform One’s many petals–hung above him, suspended.

No, not suspended, he realized–broken. The rubble was supporting it, keeping it from crushing him–and trapping him in  a veritable cave of debris.

Where was the light coming from? Jax pushed himself up, ignoring his jarred and aching body, and saw Tig. The little bot had gone into its Night settings, glowing a yellowish-white. The painted face showed in ghoulish backlight; Tig had sustained no damages that Jax could see, but the bot was rolling on the ground in an uncharacteristically insipid manner. Jax picked him up, worried, and the bot’s light flickered.

“–M–iss-i-on–” Tig stuttered, trying to say something.

“Workaholic,” Jax muttered at him. “Can’t you worry about something else as you’re dying?”

“Ret–urn to stARr F-f-f-” the audio began to jabber and finally fizzled out, before adding clear as a bell– “On pain of death.”

And with that, the bot left Jax in the midst of a deadening silence. He stared at the darkly smiling face, resolving not to give in to panic. He couldn’t panic now–not yet.

Someone groaned. A thin, reedy kind of groan, followed by a faint cough.

Jax spun around, shining Tig in the general direction of the voice.

It was a man.

He was half-buried under a pile of rubble, blinking at Jax with watery eyes. Wisps of white hair clung to a scalp dotted with age spots.

“Help.”

“I’m coming.”

Setting Tig down, Jax knelt to examine the rocks that seemed to be crushing the man to nothing. The sight made him realize just how lucky he’d been.

“Get–get it off.” the man pleaded, apparently in reference to the several hundred pounds of rubble that had settled on his chest and legs.

“I will.” Jax promised, hesitating. What damage would removing them cause? Some foggy idea of misplaced organs and blood welling unwelcome in lungs gave him pause. The man groaned again, and Jax decided that whatever happened, it surely couldn’t be worse than slowly being squished to death.

“Alright,” he said, steeling himself to haul the stones away. “Alright. You’ll be–” he hefted the first hunk of rock off the man’s chest, almost dropping it again at the man’s scream. Instead he managed to stagger several feet away with it, dropping it on the ground beside Tig. The little bot rolled listlessly, making the oddly strewn shadows of the cave dance.

The man was lying still, making small sounds of pain. When Jax returned to his side, he shook his head wildly.

“No. Leave them. Didn’t–think.”

If there was a way to help, Jax didn’t know it. The sense of despair he felt at that surprised him.

“Not to worry.” the old man said, almost lightly past his pain. “I’m sure they’ll all come rushing to save me.”

Jax wondered at the assurance in the man’s voice.

“No doubt. You’ll be second after the Emperor, I’m sure.” he said, half in imitation of the man’s lightness, half in an idiotic bitterness that sprung from the knowledge that however it may be with this man or the Emperor, no one would be coming to save Jax–rushing or otherwise. The old man looked at him sharply, making Jax realize just how stupid his feelings were.

“The Emperor.” the old man managed. “Would he really be the first on everyone’s minds? Is he really that beloved?”

Beloved, Jax thought. Odd choice of words.

“He’s… important.”

The old man nodded. “Important.” he repeated dully, staring up at the unwelcome roof. The silence that followed was deathlike, and Jax checked the numbers across his forearm in discomfort. The green figures were ticking away softly, rhythmically, but the time they represented sent a wave of panic. Forty-two minutes left?

No rescue crew, rushing or not, would be getting here in a mere forty-two minutes.

Jumping up, Jax searched the walls of rubble for a weak point. Finding none, the panic began to take over and he scrabbled at the piles of rock, prying stones free with his fingers. He could feel the old man’s eyes boring into his back as his attack on the wall grew ever fiercer, to ever-diminishing effect. A layer of rubble, displaced by his efforts, tumbled to the ground in a bruising cascade–only to reveal another wall of rock, tighter-packed than the first. Heart pounding furiously in preparation for a flight he could not take, Jax sagged against the stone and tried to ignore the useless chorus singing in his head–trapped, trapped, trapped.

He forced breath into unwilling lungs, trying to think. What was the worst that could happen? Tig was in no condition to decommission him. He would just have to not return to his star. Go on the run. He could do that. He could survive…

Until the Star Foundation caught up with him. There would be no explaining, after that, no consideration of his case.

“Seeing as we’re both going to be stuck in here until someone comes to rescue us, you might as well introduce yourself.”

Jax  let his eyes glaze over as he stared at the wall separating him from his star, processing the old man’s words in tandem with the realization that he was going to die, very soon, and there was nothing he could do about it. The revelation did not make him feel conversational.

The cycle of his panicked thoughts was thrown off course by a new idea.

Why shouldn’t he feel conversational? He had less than forty minutes to live. And for the first time in his life, he had no secrets to keep. No consequences to fear. He could be utterly and freely truthful for a whole–he checked the numbers on his arm again–thirty minutes, starting with his name.

He turned on the man and tried to smile.

“Jax Cortas,” he said flamboyantly, as though he was announcing the name of a saint or a brigand. The old man blinked up at him, unimpressed.

“Ereb,” he offered simply.

“I’m an assassin,” Jax said, high on the recklessness of honesty. Ereb’s eyebrows shot up, and Jax grinned at him, walking to sit with his back against the wall so they could speak face-to-face. “Sent to kill an emperor. Not my usual line of work, but–”

Jax had grown used to spilling his thoughts and feelings in their unadulterated entirety on the unresponsive Tig. In the throes of habit and revelation both,  he poured his whole story out, beginning with the impossible choice and ending with the girl and her backpack.

“Come to think of it, she was probably the one doing the wishing,” Jax said, as he finished. “Didn’t even know she’d hired me.”

Aside from a few initial expressions of surprise, Ereb had been as unresponsive as Tig–though his immobile expression was much less cheerful. As the story ended, the old man frowned.

“Surely you could have refused,” he said, rather stiffly. “They can’t penalize you for not breaking the law.”

“Not knowingly,” Jax agreed. “But their systems are automated. By the time it was realized what happened–” he shrugged. “I’d already be dead.”

With that cheery reflection, he looked at his clock. Nineteen minutes. He wondered if Tig would repair himself in time for the execution, or if some other hoverbot would take his old friend’s place. Not that it mattered. He forced his wrist down, forced himself to look away. Ereb wasn’t doing too well either, he realized. The man was breathing weakly, face wrenched into an expression of pain.

“Are you certain I can’t–” Jax began, moving to try and shift the rubble again, but Ereb cut him off.

“Don’t be an idiot,” he snapped. “I’m gone, whether you move them or not.” his voice, strong at first, became a choked whisper by the end of the sentence. This helpless fading pricked Jax to something like anger.

“Help’s coming, and you’re alive yet. Don’t give up so easy,” he said, not gently.

Ereb looked at him, eyes bright and suddenly clear.

“Fine advice. You should follow it yourself.”

Unable to reply to this, Jax looked down and found himself staring at the numbers in his wrist again. Fifteen minutes. He wasn’t giving up; he was facing the facts.

“Stop looking at that!” Ereb blustered, wheezing and struggling under the rubble. Jax tried to get him to stop, then realized Ereb was peeling something off his arm.

“Cover it with this,” he said, sounding very petulant and old. “No point staring at how little time you’ve got.”

It was an iDent patch–the man’s entire identity.

“I won’t be needing that anymore, anyway. Make good use of it, hey, in– the–” he coughed, the sound reverberating deep in his lungs– “In the time you have left.”

Precious little time that was. Still, Jax didn’t have the heart to refuse.

“More time than–I have,” Ereb said,  as if answering his thoughts.

Jax darted forward as the old man coughed again, sputtering blood this time. Unsure what to do, Jax held up his head, and in the idiocy of fear alternately demanding that he not try to speak and that he say something–anything.

There was no one shining or horrible moment of death. There was only the fright, the struggle for life–and then the realization that, quite suddenly, the thing he was holding was a man no longer, but only the empty shell of one.

Not long after, a drill broke through the ceiling, opening a portal into the cave. Light streamed in, and Jax blinked. A pair of hoverbots were the first to enter, whizzing curiously about the room.

Jax’s time had run out long ago, and he steeled himself against the inevitable–but the bots seemed uninterested in him. Waiting out of respect for the dead, perhaps.

Emergency responders were the next on the scene. They had none of the hoverbot’s dawdling complacency, racing forward the second they hit the ground. Jax, still cradling the old man’s head in his lap, shook his head at them.

“He’s dead.”

The first responder scowled at him and knelt beside Ereb anyway, scanning him, opening his eyes, feeling for a pulse–as if somehow, one of the tests would show a different result from the rest. Jax edged away from her efforts, slowly standing up. When she finally gave up and sat back, it was with an expression of complete and utter tiredness.

“How long has he been gone?”

Jax checked his wrist. The iDent patch Ereb had loaned him had blurred the lines to the point of unreadability, but there was no green glow visible beneath it now. His time had run out, he wasn’t sure how long ago.

“He’s been dead at least fifteen minutes,” he said, taking a safe guess as he wondered again why the hoverbots waited. The second responder stepped forward, kneeling over the body, and Jax stared at the open hole in the rubble. He could clamber through it, leave… and spend his last minutes running, shot in the back instead of the front.

The difference wasn’t worth the effort.

“We’ll have to be the ones to carry the news, won’t we?” the second responder said dully, removing his mask. “He’s really dead.”

Jax stopped staring at the listless hoverbots to look at the responders again.

“He had a family?” he asked, wondering who they would be reporting to. The second responder looked vaguely surprised to hear him speak, as though he’d forgotten Jax existed.

“Sadly, no,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The Council will be hard pressed to find an heir.”

“Hard pressed! More like overjoyed and at each other’s throats,” the woman replied, scowling at her scanner and tapping it on the concrete floor. “Damned thing won’t work,” she muttered.

“What? Let me see.”

“It keeps telling me he’s not in the system–and that can’t be, the Emperor of all people is sure to be in there.”

“Surely,” the man said, fiddling with the scanner in complete oblivion to the fact that Jax was struggling under the weight of an impossible revelation.

Ereb. Emperor Ereb-Claren, ruler of all Cilos–and he had died in Jax’s arms.

The second realization was almost upon him when the responder put it into words.

“His iDent patch is gone!” she exclaimed. “How can it be gone? Only he could have removed it, and where–”

Jax was staring at the thing on his arm–a gift given so flippantly he’d never realized the import of it. An identity–a new identity, free from the Wishing Star Foundation and all its penalties. Not just something to distract him from his own inevitable death–life.

The responders had fallen silent as well, and Jax looked up from the patch on his arm to their incredulous looks as they all realized the same thing. Suddenly he felt the weight of the dust, the dirt, the blood that covered him; the cheap tattoos that marred his arms seemed to be burning on his skin as for a second, he saw himself as they must be seeing him. A criminal. A commoner. A dirty stranger.

The woman, still with a dazed expression, pointed the scanner at him. It whirred, clicked–and announced, in automated tones–

“Identity confirm>Ereb-Claren the Twenty-Fifth, Emperor of Firusian Federation.”

“Well then,” the second responder said, shaking his head. “Long live the emperor.”

And, in spite of every doubt, he did.