Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Halloween Special - 2014



This is a true story. I've put the words into a dramatic narrative, tied some facts from before and after that I've found together and given the thing legs, so to speak, but the tale is one from my great-grandfather. I only have vague memories of the man, having died when I was very small -the odd way he spoke, the the heavy iron chain he locked his door with - but my grandfather has told me this story more times than I can count. My grandfather isn't a man prone to flights of fancy or superstition and has no particular taste for fantasy -but he has always maintained that every word of it is true.
 ***
A thing once known, can never again be unknown.  Though time may dull memory’s edge, the truths we learn are forever with us, whether we want it or not, or even if the world declares them wishful thinking or outright lies long after the fact. They follow us, footsteps echoing behind, their whispers ever in our ears, reminding us of what, in our hearts, we know that we know. There is no escape from those echoes, save for the grave.
The world may have moved on from the superstitions of the past, may mock and scorn the fears of their ancestors as nothing but vain grasping in the dark. But, having been born in one century and lived most of my life in the next, I have seen things from both sides of the divide. And I have seen what once crawled in the dark when men were wise enough to fear, and now walks amongst us cloaked in our arrogance and willful ignorance. I know the truth, whether I wish to or not, whether it wishes me to know it or not. It follows me still, ever…
            But I’m rambling, as old men with little time are inclined to do. Perhaps, if I should start where it began, so you can understand where it must now end.
*** 
            The autumn evening is pleasant, the cool dry wind coming off the West Desert ruffling my short hair as easily as it does the ripe stalks of barley stretched out in the fields beside the road. The sinking sun had turned crimson, painting the scattered clouds above the mountain line in shades of pink and gold. I lean back in the old birch chair on Jon May’s new porch, hoping to relax beside my old friend for just a spell more.
            “Simon Wales, it’s high past time you were headed home. You’ve a wife and child waiting for you.”
            The May’s aren’t near old enough to be my parents, but Jon’s wife Ida doesn’t let that stop her from hectoring me like a mother. The stout woman in the yellow dress taps her foot impatiently. I sigh, knowing she’s right, and rise, brushing my pant legs more out of habit than to clear any dust that may have settled there.
            “I reckon you’re right.” I snatch up my hat from wrought iron hook driven into one of the wooden posts that held up the porch’s awning with my left hand while extending Jon my right. The big man takes it as he rises, his grip firm and calloused as he shakes my hand with a grin on his bearded face.
            “Thanks for the help today, Slim. Couldn’t have done it without you and that nag of yours.”
            We’d spent all day tearing up the worn and rotting planks of his old porch and laying out and nailing down the new ones. We’d hauled away the refuse and debris with the help of a litter harnessed to my old paint Darla. All in all, it had been less difficult than it was time consuming, but I could understand Jon’s appreciation.
            We shake hands and say our goodbyes, and I take up Darla’s lead and begin my long walk home. The world outside the dirt road quickly vanishes with the slope of the road into the high barley behind me, leaving only the tall hill adjacent the May’s property and the church building atop it visible. Its lights stain the lengthening shadows around it a dirty yellow, indicating the Saturday women’s meeting was still in session.
            I walk for nearly a quarter of an hour before I come upon the hat. It’s broad brimmed and rounded at the crown, black and battered, the kind you’d find on Catholic missionary in some Western story. It sits dead center in the path ahead, with no way to easily skirt it, as if trying to block my way home.
            It seems nothing more to me than any other scrap of garbage one finds on the road, but as I try to stride ahead, Darla stops short, lead suddenly jerking taut in my hand. Casting a glare over my shoulder, I give the rope a tug and curse as the beast doesn’t respond with more than an unsettled nicker. Turning to face her now, I give the lead a more solid pull and nearly fall on my face as Darla actually steps backwards, dragging me with her.
            “Fine,” I throw my hands up in the air and stomp towards the hat, ready to boot it from the road lest it continue to offend my horse’s suddenly delicate sensibilities. “Heaven forbid something stand in your-”
            I cut short as I come within a dozen feet of the hat, tongue and feet frozen as the thing suddenly begins to lift from the dirt, not caught by any breeze but drawn straight up, as if pulled by a wire. But strange as that was, what holds me fast is what rises beneath the hat.
            The figure slides into view as if from behind a swiftly drawn curtain. The shoes are leather, patched and cracked from overuse. The suit is old fashioned, black fabric brownish with dirt and wear, jacket cut to fall to his knees and a waistcoat swallowing up a dirty white shirt. His face is downcast, lost to me under the shadow of that hat, but the skin of his hands is yellowed and waxy. The hands are the most unsettling part: fingers too long, joints crooked in ways that would almost seem painfully broken, and twitching with an unsteady rhythm.
            I reach into my pocket on instinct, hand closing on the cold metal shaft of the screwdriver I’d absently tucked inside when clearing my tools away at the May’s home. I take a step backwards from this sudden, impossible stranger, then another and another, seizing my horse’s rein before I finally manage to croak out a challenge.
            “Where did you come from? Who in God’s name are you?”
            The man’s head snaps upwards, and the failing sun does little to dispel the shadow. I can just make out the shape of his face, drawn and thin, nose prominent and hooked. His jaw seems to be spread in a grin I cannot quite see, and yet still feel.
            There is a… sound, in response to my question, grating and harsh in my ear, like nails across a slate, the strange figure’s voice or so I must presume. It forms a word, the likes of which I have never heard before. I will not repeat even here, for having heard it has proven my damnation, but the sound of it, every inflection and syllable still echoes in my thoughts. It seems to be spoken with reluctance, distaste, even, as if the figure does not wish to answer yet feels compelled to reply.
            The figure takes a step towards me, and it seems a stray beam of light catches beneath his hat. His eyes meet mine as I see them for the very first time. His – its, I should say, eyes were blue. Not the blue of a robin egg, or the still reflection of deep water –nothing of life or nature sparks in them. They’re flat and lifeless, a bloodless corpse - a pale and empty flame. Nothing else, just the endless blue - as starkly cold and pitiless as an empty winter sky. I try to look away but – blue, endless blue, hard and sharp and dead –it pins me, holds me, hooks and tears and claws me. I feel it step closer, just a single, slow stride, but it seems as if we now stare eye to eye. It fills my vision now, the blue, the endless blue, so vivid, so harsh my head begins to ache. Something hot and coppery trickles across my tongue. I try to… I can’t… I won’t… the blue, endless blue…
           My hand clenches tight in my pocket, a spasm of muscle, the angled head of the screwdriver biting into my flesh and I feel blood between my fingers. I curse, stumbling back a step, pain freeing my gaze for a single beat of my fluttering heart. But it is enough, and as the… thing, shaped like a man, takes another stride towards me, I yank on Darla’s rein and turn back towards the May’s, and run, my long legs eating up the ground as if the devil himself is at my heels.
 Which, in truth, does not fall short of the mark. I hear that grating mockery of a voice behind me as I flee. “Slim… Simon Wales…” Somehow, the thing knows my name.
            In minutes, I’ve cleared the field, racing up to the May’s property. Jon is still on the far end of porch, away from the road, and I can see Ida through the window inside. Jon rises as he sees the look on my face, turning briefly to holler for his wife before Darla and I are at his doorstep.
            “Slim, what on earth-”
            That’s as far as I let Jon May get before I’m babbling, spilling out the entirety of what transpired in a few gasping breaths. My friend’s face shifts from concerned to confused, and finally to amused as I describe the thing on the road.
            “Slim – Simon!” His raised voice snaps my jaw shut, and Jon reaches out to grab my shoulder. “Get yourself together. You’re a grown man, for heaven’s sake. You’re too old to be jumping at shadows and telling tales.” He presses his handkerchief into my hands. “And take a moment to clean your face. You’ve bloodied your nose.” I take the white cloth and wipe it across my face, finding it wet and red.
            Ida, who has emerged from the house in time to catch the bulk of my story, laughs at her husband. “ ‘Haps young Simon here stopped for a drink on his way home? Did you stumble and catch your face? Is there whiskey on his breath, Jon?”
            That snaps me out of my silence, and I brush Jon’s hand from my shoulder. “I haven’t been gone an hour, man! Even if I’d had drink with me and the inclination to take liberty, I’ve not had time to get drunk, let alone see things that aren’t there.”
            Jon laughs, his grin big and slightly mocking, but as he turns his head to  make another jibe to his wife, he finds Ida silent now, expression flat and eyes staring dead behind me and my nickering horse. His eyes follow hers, and his face turns pale, blood fleeing alongside his levity. I turn, knowing full well what I’ll find.
            The figure had followed, just now stepping out along the dirt road from the fields of barley. Its eyes are shaded again, but I can feel the weight of its gaze like a hand on my chest, and I take a step back, nearly colliding with Jon.
            “Hold yourself, stranger.” John shouts, lifting one arm up above his head to draw the figure’s attention. “Stay there ‘till I can have a look at you.” The figure continues to walk, heedless of Jon’s words. In but a few moments he would be at the May’s door beside me.
           Jon looks to Ida. “Get inside, love. Lock the door tight.” She looks as if she wants to argue, but nods and moves inside. The figure advances, slow, steady – implacable. Inevitable. I realize I’m holding my breath, matching the sudden stillness of the west wind as the world itself seems to hold still as the thing approaches. Closer. Closer. Neither of us can move.
Closer.
The stillness is shattered by a sound from the hill, the single peal of the church’s cast-iron bell and the clap of her doors coming open. The women’s meeting had just ended, and people began to trickle out of the building, woman and ordained men there as chaperones both. The figure’s head turns, glancing towards the hill as if noticing it for the first time, and like smoke caught in a stiff breeze, simply melts away.
            For a moment, it’s all any of us can do to just stare. My blood runs colder than a mountain pass in midwinter, and my legs threaten to simply give out beneath me, only partly from my mad dash. Jon gapes, mouth working but no words forming, head shaking and hands quivering. The cool, dry wind off the West Desert sighs back to life, again wafting through the evening, the last lines of ruddy sunlight stretching our shadows long across the porch.
            Then I hear it, loud as a gunshot: the rough crunch of a leather sole on dirt, then another, and another after it. My eye lights on the dirt road, and clear as day, I see the prints of shoes appear, one after the other, steadily approaching the house again. I hear Jon’s breath suck in sharply as he spots it too, and still we are held fast, struck mute by the crawling dread threatening to engulf us.
            There is a creak and a hard thump as the bodiless steps move from the road and land upon the newly fashioned porch, each sound like the hammering of a coffin nail in my ears. I reach for Jon, trying to push him away. It’s me this thing followed, me it wants, but Jon can still escape, rush inside and be with his wife, even if for just a minute more. But my friend stands fast, shaking his head, jaw set in a grim expression.
            Thump. Thump. Thump. The steps are almost to us now.  Thump. Thump. I feel it, like a curtain hung between Jon and I, standing silently now, looming like the presence of the mountains. Out of the corner of my eye, I see its shadow, cast by the dying sun against the wall of Jon’s home, as large as life and black as sin, hat and coat and all. The shade hesitates, just a moment, as the shadow of the post holding up the porch roof seems to bar its way, but it shifts to reach around it. I see its hand fall on my shadow’s shoulder, and feel the ice-cold weight of its emaciated flesh on my skin. I catch a glimmer of that pale, dead blue in the depths of that darkness, peering back into my eyes with frigid, calculating hate.
            I pull myself away from the shadow, my back pressing up against the porch post now. The creeping thing follows, dragged with me as if clinging to my shoulder, and I feel that cold nearly caress my face. There’s a sudden hiss and the smell of burnt meat as the shadow recoils suddenly. A thin wisp of smoke curls up from the iron hook Jon and I had hung earlier that day, the metal now glowing cherry-red. Looking at the wall, the shade seems… caught, somehow on the shadow of the hook, wriggling and writhing like a fish on a line for a moment before snapping to unnerving stillness.
            “Guess I’ll have to just see you… around, Slim.” The words are a whisper in that same horrid voice as before. “Think we’ll see each other real soon.” Before I can react, the shadow on the wall fades away, just as its owner had before, leaving the iron hook to smoke and cool in the evening air. Wordless, Jon and I turn to stare at each other, neither of us moving until long after the sun has finally set.
***
            I went home after that. When she asked, I told my wife everything, save for that strange, horrible word the figure had first spoken. Something deep inside told me to let that lie. I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t like hearing it spoken any more than I did, or at least having its attention drawn.
            I’ve tried to live my life as best I could since. But no matter what I have done, where I have gone or who I’ve told my story to, the thing is still just a few steps behind me. Nothing like our first encounter, alone on the road home, but smaller things: a shadow cast against the light for only a moment, a flicker of that endless blue outside my window at night, the rattle of a doorknob from an empty doorstep. I’ve kept my home locked with bolts and links of iron since that day, and could never admit the utter relief I found the day my son tore down the outhouse and built plumbing into our home, no longer needing to brave the cold and empty night should need strike me.
            As I said, I’ve managed to keep a few steps ahead of my second shadow for this long, moving from job to job lest my routine became predictable, keeping my own company after my children moved on to have children of their own and my beloved wife passed on. But I am an old man, and though time will not allow me to forget what I know to be true, it has robbed me of my speed, my strength, my wit. My bones are now frail, my hip cracked in a fall I know I will never recover from. I am wounded prey these days, waiting that which circles me.
            I feel it, outside, even now, as I finish these words. I can feel its hate, its loathing for me and my iron locks. It cannot yet get in, but I can no longer get out. And I will not let it have me, nor will I die huddled in a corner, hiding from the shadow on my wall.
            I hope… I pray that this will be the end of it. That this evil ends with me, that the sin of the father is not yet visited upon his son or beyond. The service revolver my uncle brought home from the Great War sits on the table beside me now – I’m ready for what must be done. May its name die with me… and if not…


            I’m sorry.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Short Stories - Pawnbroken and Wolfhound

Two short stories from the world of To Walk a Road of Ruin are now live on Amazon Kindle:

Pawnbroken: It should be a simple transaction - goods procured for a simple price, no strings attached. But nothing is ever simple for the tomb robbers Saga and Richter, and everything has a catch.

Wolfhound:The city of Brass is a world governed by order, the word of the law dictating every facet of its people's lives. But the soldiers trained to face threats from beyond the city walls and think beyond the strictures of their society find themselves at the mercy of a system that has no need for them when danger and disorder feel very far away.

Each is just 99 cents.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sneak Preview - Where Wolves Fear to Tread -Chapter I



CHAPTER I

"Pain is a wondrous motivation.

Ask any king or slave."

-Erasmus the Broken



            Baphomet’s kiss awoke me from my fitful slumber, fire raging from the tips of my fingers to the knotted scars on my shoulder. For a moment, animal instinct took hold, forcing me to curl into a ball as agony throbbed through my arm. I began to shake, cold sweat like raindrops on my brow, pain making my head spin.

            This is it, I thought, in vague detachment from my suffering.  It’s too much, too fast to beat now. Better to just give in.

            That was enough to get me to move, throwing back the brown woolen blanket to look at my arm. The sutra-laden silks that bound my wounded hand were soaked through, black blood obliterating the runes of purification. A fat drop of vitriolic fluid dripped from my fingers as I watched, spattering against the feather mattress with a hiss and puff of smoke.

            I rolled off the bed, fumbling for the pouch on the table next to me. Removing a fresh swath of inscribed silk from the waxed leather container, I began tearing the ruined bandage from my hand. Ignoring the pocks and scars my dripping wound left on the lacquered oak surface, I snatched up the copper washbasin and submerged my seeping forearm.

The cool water did nothing for the burning beneath my skin, blackening almost instantly as my blood polluted it. After a few moments of cleansing my wound, I withdrew my hand, drying it as best I could with the corner of my rumpled blankets. Using both good hand and teeth, I then began to mummify the crippled limb once more.

The burning ceased the moment I hooked the wrappings closed, the bandage’s seals flaring blue for a moment as they began their futile attempt to purge the demonic poisons from my arm. I fell backwards onto my mattress, my guts untwisting as the sweat dried from my flesh. Gradually, my body ceased its shivering as my mind cleared itself of both sleep and fear.

The damage the blood had caused to both the bed and the table would not go over well with the innkeeper, or my friend Richter. The room we had rented was the finest I had slept in since my childhood. Years in a cold, cell like dormitory at the University at Luxor and more recent times in cramped flophouses on the road had almost made me forget what a real bed felt like. With the unintended damage I had just caused, I might well be forgetting again in short order.

I rolled to my side, knowing that sleep would be an impossibility now, the adrenaline of my latest brush with Death still making my heart hammer. Instead, I stared at my swaddled limb, trying for the thousandth time to will it back to life. My fingers moved with great hesitation, as if mired in sand, their former dexterity a mere memory. Raising the appendage above me was little easier, my entire forearm almost a dead weight. Worst of all was the utter lack of sensation, dull throbbing drowning out any sense of touch my hand might have had.

The ghosts of pain that haunted every twitch of my crippled limb, a forget-me-not from a departed adversary, were nothing compared to how it had first felt. When the black hand of the Demon Baphomet had struck me, I thought I was to die on the spot. Even now that living rot could be creeping through my veins, crawling for my heart, trying to eat me from the inside out.

I sighed, rising to a sitting position, reaching again for the medicine bag on the table at my side. There is nothing for it, my thoughts echoed in my head. Kage is dead and his master’s claw taken by the Inquisition. No use in wading through the past when time is better spent dealing with problems right now. I fished out a steel phial and cracked the white wax seal, my nose crinkling at the bitter scent. Placing it to my lips, I threw my head back, trying not to gag as the cold, sticky mass crawled down my throat.

My stomach gave an uneasy rumble as the alchemical concoction reached it. The antivenin had been Richter’s third attempt at curing the infection of my arm. Like all the remedies before or since, though, it had only managed to slow the rot’s spread. The pattern various restoratives had become a kind of ritual, a grain of hope that the whole would be more than the sum of its parts.

My stomach complained again, demanding I give it food to counter the concoction I had forced upon it. With a yawn, I stretched my good arm above my head and stood. Padding lightly across the chilly hardwood, I first gathered the medicine bag from the table, then moved to the dresser, sifting through the drawers for my gear.

Slowed by the lack of two functioning hands, I wriggled my way into my armored leathers. I doubted I would have need of the riveted cuirass and leggings, my remaining steel-backed gauntlet or even the heavy boots, even if I were to run errands today. The terror of recent weeks had left me paranoid, however, and prudence dictated that I be prepared for anything. Better to be armed and feel awkward than unarmed and feel dead.

In that vein, I began to strap on the various tools of my trade, hanging the various belts and retention loops from the steel bits reinforcing my leathers. First came my dirk, the span of steel belted low and near the middle of my waist. My broad, double-edged Levite knife came next, strapped at the shoulder of my wounded arm. The last of my blades were the paired throwing spikes, once at home on my wrist, now tucked in my boots to compensate for my wounded hand.

With my knives secure, I began hanging the assorted belts and pouches containing my more mundane gear: picks and other similar tools. Over those I slung my cartridge belts, lead-capped brass cylinders shining in the yellow sunlight of my window. Two of the heavy leather bandoliers crisscrossed my waist, with a third hanging across my good shoulder. Double-checking every buckle and taut strap, I made my way back to the bed.

From beneath the corner of the mattress, I removed the repeater, still snug in its well-oiled scabbard. With another creak of leather, I strapped Richter’s mechanical masterwork to my thigh. I paused to draw it, my paranoia demanding that I make sure the tool was in working condition.

Not a speck of rust marred the repeater, from heavy barrel to spurred trigger guard. With a flick of my thumb across the release lever, the frame pivoted on its forward hinge, exposing the cylinder. Six brass circles popped up to greet me, spring ejection sliding out far enough to spit out any empties. All six stayed put in the cylinder, lead noses holding them in place, reassuring me that the weapon was as ready as it could be.

Snapping the repeater closed with a practiced twist of my wrist, I spun it back into its scabbard. The weight at my side was comforting, cold metal and warm leather as familiar as any friend. Until quite recently, it had been the most powerful tool in my arsenal, and still was the first to come to mind when trouble came calling.

With no small amount of trepidation, I reached for my final weapon, the most deadly tool I owned, leaning against the wall beside my bed. Fenris, he called himself, the Daeva of fury and god of wolves. With even my good hand shaking, I reached for the blade, cursing the day I had ever found the ancient saber.

I tried to ignore the glowing indigo eyes that flashed through my thoughts as I lifted the saber. He never slept, watching me every moment I held him, panting to be free. It wasn’t the only time the wolf-god spoke to me…no, he could do that whenever he wished, it seemed, but he was far louder when I had him in hand. I belted the sword to my waist as quick as I could, trying to ignore the growl of his demands.

"You crawl like a wounded hind, cur." The snarl echoed only in my head, a thousand cries of anger and fury mingled into one soundless voice. "Such pain and suffering for naught. Cease this pulling cowardice and let us both be free, boy! The only way to overcome misery is with might." I could hear the lupine grin in his words.

I did not dignify the barbs with a response, knowing that debate with Fenris was impossible. He craved only one thing: freedom, to vent his rage on everything around us. Every obstacle in my life, the wolf-god saw as something to either tear asunder or test our mettle against. He was utterly single minded…and was making more and more sense as days went by.

Rather than fight him, I silently lifted my mantle from its hook upon the wall, settling the black ampil cloth about my shoulders. The garment was heavy, material double-thick and complete with hood and high collar to ward away winter’s bite. Donning it filled me with a vague sense of guilt, knowing that I had, for all intents and purposes, stolen it from a woman I had thought a friend.

Before I had time to get stuck once more in that mire of self-loathing and recriminations, however, the door of my room slammed open, knob hammering against the wall. Through it marched Richter, in all the blue and black finery of an errant Luxor Scholar, his hair and mantle still damp from melting snow. He ran his gloved fingers through those raven locks as he kicked the door shut with a backwards boot, flashing me his typical mocking grin as he did so.

"Up and about once more, good Saga?" His tone of voice made it clear the question as rhetorical. "So kind of you to be awake for my precipitous, yet ever timely, arrival. Would you care to break your fast?" He slid his silver-framed spectacles up from the point of his nose, grey eyes meeting my blues.

I nodded, and my colleague drew back his cloak, argent charms at his wrists chiming softly, reaching for the satchel at his side. Rummaging through the oddly stitched bag, he removed a glass decanter and parcel of sweetbreads, both too bulky to fit within a container like the one at his side. My friend had tried to explain how the occult vessel functioned on several occasions, but my eyes always glazed over after the word ‘escheract’. Instead, I simply accepted the proffered goods, sitting again on my unkempt bed as I made ready to eat.

I tucked in with an almost undue amount of haste, my appetite overwhelming good taste. Richter made an appalled noise in the back of his throat as I shook a cloud of crumbs from my mantle onto the floor. I could not have cared less at that moment, hunger putting manners to silence.

Draining the flask, I glanced back at my companion, waiting for him to start his protests. Instead, he simply sighed, shaking his head and turning to the window. His expression fell further as he spotted the scars my blood had left on the table.

"It still festers, does it not?" He raised a hand, waving of any attempt for me to reply. "Of course it does. And still I can find no sovereign for your ailment, despite all the resources I can avail myself to." He spun back to face me. "Three-thousand years worth of hoarded silver at my fingertips and all my vaunted talents, and I can do naught but buy you time."

Richter had once been so cocksure, so over bold, so…well, damned arrogant it had hurt to talk to him at times. Ever since we had faced Kage and the Demon in the vaults of the fallen fortress Amn-Feng, though, he had been almost perpetually crestfallen. His old brashness only reared its head in momentary glimpses these days: a sly expression or haughty word, gone in the blink of an eye. He blamed himself, I knew, for the disaster deep in those ruins, rightly or no.

I spoke up, not wishing to watch my friend get mired in thoughts of our fallen companion Grail, or my own afflictions for that matter. "So, what has today brought? You still haven’t told me what you’ve been spending all your time looking for."

Richter gave me a weak smile, sliding back to perch upon the table beside the bed, his back against the wall. "What would you think I have spent my time upon, Saga? I have endeavored to find some cure or some healer capable of doing what I cannot. So far, the best I have received are a few useless tinctures and offers from a fumbling sawbones to hack the bloody thing off!"

He paused, trying to bring calm back to his voice, and I took my moment to rejoin the conversation. "Wintering in Hadrian wasn’t my idea, if you remember. I wanted to be on a boat back to Samarkand the minute we crawled out of the ruins, weather be damned. Hell, we still can take that ship any time you’re ready, seeing how there’s still hardly any snow on the ground."

I didn’t mean to antagonize my friend, his remorse and personal anguish being quite genuine. Richter wasn’t the one dying of slow rot, though. Having to confront the looming specter of my own mortality on a daily basis had left my temper a bit uneven, to say the least. Still, I was being relatively civil, feeling as frayed and surly as a barghest with a sour tooth.

Richter, to his eternal credit and my nagging concern, did not level any burning retort, instead casting his gaze to his feet. "Quite so, Saga. Perhaps it would be best if we were away to home posthaste. Certainly Luxor will hold better resources than this city of lackwits. Before we turn our sails southwards, though, perhaps you might indulge my final resort this side of the Glass Sea?"

Even miserable with self-doubt, Richter still managed to twist things the direction he wanted them. Heading home was at the bottom of his list of desired options, having left many a bridge there in ashes when we departed. While I did not doubt that my friend felt this ‘one last try’ would be beneficial, it also would stall his painful return to his father’s side. The prodigal son would find leaving Luxor a second time a bit more difficult, of that we were both sure.

Richter did not wait for my assent before laying his cards on the table. "To the east of where we now stand, on the plain betwixt the cities of Morgen, Faust and Kestrel stands the great tree Benten. Now, the pink blossoms of the Daeva of desire are hardly the cure for what ails anyone, let alone you, I freely admit. But beneath those branches sits a monastery of sorts, and in it a sage most reputable and learned. If there is a cure to be had in all the Free Cities, this man shall have it."

I had never heard of such a place, but knew better than try to dispute Richter’s knowledge with my own. Though we both were University trained, his education had been superior, both in breadth and depth of study. Though I had dabbled in waters my colleague had not touched, there was no arguing with him in fields he claimed mastery of. Richter, of course, both knew this and flaunted it.

I waved my good hand, bidding him cease his attempts to sell me on this idea. "Alright, alright. I see your point. It’s quite a ride to the plains of Benten, though, even with winter this mild…are you sure this is a better choice than just making for Samarkand straight away?"

Where he once would have scoffed at my lack of confidence, Richter instead shook his head. "I cannot say for certain, Saga. We may be out chasing wild raths once again. But if the all the libraries and catacombs of Luxor turn up nothing but dust, I would rather not have to turn back across the sea again when we could have found this sage before we left."

I worried my lower lip for a moment. "That’s a good point," I finally said, "but give me some time to mull it over, ok? We can still make all our preparations to leave before we decide where we’re going, after all." My time might be draining like sands through a turned glass, but that was even more to the point. It was my funeral, after all.

Richter’s eyes met his boots again. "That may not be the most…prudent course of action. There was another, nagging matter I have meant to bring up with you." He seemed almost nervous or embarrassed to continue. "I suspect a person or persons unknown have been following me as I have gone about my daily tasks. For what reasons, I cannot fathom, but, as their presence was being deliberately concealed, I doubt they are savory."

My crippled fingers twitched as I fought the urge to leap from the bed and wrap my hands around Richter’s throat. Exercising self-control as firm as tempered adamant, I kept my seat, allowing my voice to carry only a white-hot edge of the truly molten fury I wanted to vent. "Why, in the name of Heaven, Hell and the lands of life between, did you not think this was something to be told to me immediately? Glass, Richter, I’m only dying, not made of spun crystal! I’m not going to break if you bring me some bad news."

My companion’s head snapped up and, for a heartbeat, I saw some of the old fire in his eyes. I heard the sharp draw of his breath, as he prepared some blistering retort. Then Richter’s shoulders sagged, and the air slipped back from him in a sigh, his normally scathing wit checked by his melancholy.

"Forgive the failure on my part, kind Saga. The fact that we have been hounded by every manner of monstrosity and the spirit of Baphomet itself over the past season continues to have me jumping at my own shadow. I brushed my initial suspicions aside like the crumbs you have left upon the floor, thinking them mere phantasmagoria." He bracketed his forehead with one hand, thumb and middle finger massaging his temples.

I rose from the bed, now unnerved enough to pace, boots clicking on the wooden floor. "So who, exactly, has roused your suspicion?" Part of me wanted to hope his initial instinct had been right, that he was simply breaking his neck looking over his own shoulder. We were strangers in a strange land, after all. I could think of no one in a hundred leagues who even knew us, let alone wished us ill.

"Ronin," my friend replied, lifting a hand to ward away a retort. "Yes, I know the east is filthy with the brown-mantled vagabonds, but I mean specific ronin. The same three faces, always in the edge of my perceptions, slipping around a corner or washing away in the crowd as I turn to look."

I turned away in my pacing, peering out the window at the white-powdered roofs across the way. Ronin would have no reasons of their own to be following us. The disciples of the various schools of swordsmanship scattered through the Free Cities were mostly vagrants, mercenaries without masters now that the Illuman crusades had stopped and the city-states had not resumed their squabbling. If Richter was right, that would mean some master had set them on our trail.

"How sure are you that these men are really shadowing you," I said, still looking away. "I mean, with so many ronin in this city, surely some would cross your path from time to time."

Richter made an offended noise. "I may have failed us all quite spectacularly down in the ruins, but give me a little credit, Saga. I am certain they are following me because they are down in the taproom right now. I only just managed to give them the slip by going through the kitchens and up the back stairs."

I turned on my heel, jaw dropping. "You lead them here? Demon-damn, what the Hell is your problem?"

Richter flinched, shying back as if I were about to strike him. "It is not like that, Saga. They are only three, no great threat if we choose to end it here and now. And as I said, then never saw me ascend the building, let alone what room we are in. Harm is as far away as it has ever been."

I would have flung some scalding retort his direction, but the clamor of spurred boots outside our door said everything I needed to. Once again, Richter had tempted fate with both word and deed, and fate gave in to the enticement. We both fell as silent as the grave, my hand falling to the repeater at my thigh, Richter sliding his arm back into the depths of the bag. The scuff and scrabble of plated feet may have only been a whisper, but in the calm before the maelstrom, each metallic scrape was a shout to our ears.

The tense silence shattered as a fist beat a sudden tattoo upon our door. This was no timid knock of some hostel steward, nor the urgent rapping a flustered clerk, but the pounding of a hand barely restraining itself, a simple formality before the door was forced. True to my instinct, the handle was wrenched from the outside, with vigor enough to break the mechanism had Richter remembered to lock it. There was a sharp crack as something struck the oaken barrier, one hinge splintering as the door slammed open.

Before the first figure could even cross the threshold, I had the repeater out, sighting along my arm as I canted my body away from the door, minimizing the target my frame presented. There was a roar as the hammer fell on the cartridge, alchemical fire sending the lead into the intruding figure. My aim was true, the round smashing into the bridge of the ronin’s nose and spattering those behind him with the back of his skull.

I did not hesitate as the body slumped back into the hallway. I might have been a better man than the one who left Luxor with Richter a decade ago, but no twinge of conscience or mote of mercy stayed my hand now. There was no quarter here, not for those who had come without words, but only unwarranted hostility. There could be none.

Before the first corpse could touch the floor, I had squeezed off pair of rounds, a flick of my wrist sending them into the other two men. More blood, thick and dark, spattered the walls as the other figures stumbled backwards, lives seeping through their fingers. Scattergun in hand, Richter swept forward, peppering the wounded ronin with scattershot before slamming the door shut once more, drawing the bolt closed this time. A breath later a pair of heavy thuds sounded in the hall, signaling the collapse of the remaining swordsmen.

Richter gestured with the repeater’s larger counterpart. "We should away with all due haste, merciful Saga. Through the window and across the frost-kissed rooftops, I suppose, lest more of these detestable ronin lie in wait for us below."

I shook my head with vigor as I split the repeater, ignoring the three empty shells as they chimed upon the floor. "No, Richter. We’ve already spent one turn of the season running from something we didn’t dare face. I’m not going to spend another looking over my shoulder." I could feel the wolf-god growling his assent with every word, making me shake my head again to clear him from my thoughts. I won’t be at your beck and call either, damn you!

The Daeva of fury only laughed in reply.

Richter made as if to respond as I clumsily thumbed fresh rounds into my weapon with my wounded hand, but the sound of more feet on the stairs cut him short. There was a curse as someone stumbled over the carrion I had left in the hallway, then the sound of steel on scabbard. Neither Richter nor I spoke a word as we raised our weapons to the door once more, the oily metal click of the repeater’s cylinder the only sound between us.

A heartbeat passed…then two and three, without as much as a whisper from the other side of the door. My crippled fingers clenched at my side as I resisted the instinctual urge to raise that hand to support my outstretched weapons, knowing its palsied trembling would do me more harm than good. Why don’t they just get it over with? the animal portion of my mind seethed. What are they waiting for?

Tightly focused on the exit as I was, the only warnings I had were the final, heavy bootfalls on the roof outside our window. I spun in surprise, unable to bring my weapon to bear before my new assailant was upon me, bursting through the glass in a shimmering cascade. The repeater went off with an almost startled pop, round shearing through the plaster above me as I fell backwards beneath the sudden weight.

Had the ronin had his sword free, I would have been done for, run through or hacked to ribbons. Instead, he sought my throat with his hands, flailing his head and legs against me in an attempt to keep me disoriented. Unwilling to shoot again for fear of hitting Richter, I reversed my grip on the repeater and bludgeoned the figure’s head with the leather-bound pommel and cruel spur jutting from the trigger guard.

The ronin recoiled in pain, raising his hands to the bloody furrow my blow had carved. I pressed the advantage, years of experience throwing me at the brown-cloaked man before he could recover. Tangling my arm in his, locking my elbow to keep the repeater from hammering into him, my attacker jerked me into a roll across the floor. Somehow, I ended beneath him again, my weapon and arm still twisted away, watching with rising panic as the ronin gathered his wits and began fumbling for his sword. Desperate, I flung my withered arm up, hoping to distract my foe and try to free myself in his surprise.

Instead, the ruin of my arm surged up with a strength I had been sure it no longer possessed. My bandaged palm caught the ronin’s cheek with stunning force, snapping his head backwards. With a violent twitch, my hand spasmed into a claw, fingertips shredding the other man’s cheek, my thumb hooking into his eye. With a desperate shove, I slung my assailant to the side, his head striking the seasoned oak of the bedpost beside us with the sickening crack of bone. Almost as if possessed of its own will, my arm shuddered again and again, pounding the man’s skull into the unyielding wood, leaving only pulp behind.

What have you done to me? I cried in my mind, leveling my accusations at the wolf-god crouched within.

"I have done naught but watch, whelp," came the terse reply. I thought I could detect a hint of worry in that rabid growl, though. "Your arm is rotten with the crawling chaos. Does it but merely corrode the flesh?  How in the binder’s name would I know? You should avail yourself of my teeth, boy, and take the damned thing off before it’s too late."

I shook myself, ignoring the insane…but oh-so enticing suggestion, and took stock of the situation. Though I had taken no notice in my struggle, the men in the hall had battered their way in and had eaten from the maw of Richter’s weapon. The once-fine walls were now painted red, and the doorframe was peppered with scattershot. The ronin now cooled with their brethren on the floor, but even as I rose, another sprang into view, hoping to strike while Richter worked the lever of the scattergun.

The agile, darting thrust made by the ronin was no match for the speed of howling lead, however, a round from the repeater tearing through his knee. The swordsman crumpled, clutching his wounded limb, his sword falling forgotten to the floor. I drove one booted foot down against his skull to finish the deed.

We were still not secure, the sounds of more men on both the roof outside and in the halls outside our door promising trouble. The only saving grace of the entire situation was the fact that, while consummate soldiers and deadly swordsmen, ronin rarely deigned to use alchemic weaponry. Deadly though they were, the single-shot breach-bolts that played the common cousin to Richter and I’s Brassian weapons were sometimes scorned as cumbersome or unreliable. That misconception was probably the biggest thing keeping us alive right now.

"I thought there were only supposed to be three," I noted grimly. "By the sound of it, the whole inn is here to kill us." With that I was out in the corridor, not bothering to wait for Richter’s reply. Likely, it would have been either caustic, self-deprecating or both, neither of which we had time for.

I tried to ignore the blood and worse that threatened to take my feet from beneath me as I stalked out among the fallen. Though the establishment was among the finest I had ever been able to stay in, the hall was still uncomfortably narrow, with barely enough room for two men to pass each other between those rock-maple walls. As such, the four browncloaks coming my way could not throw their full weight against me.

Still, they almost had me despite my advantage. The first fell easily enough, like his brethren before him, clutching at his abdomen as his guts and lifeblood fouled his garments. The ronin behind him, however, was already pushing past the dying man, his conservative prayer-blade arcing for my throat in a formal stroke known as the Shadow of Lightning. Only the stumble of his falling friend saved my life, twisting the blade as it closed, tearing a crimson streak across my cheek instead. I gritted my teeth, disregarding the fire blooming through my face, and thumbed back the hammer of my weapon as the offending ronin staggered, still off balance, towards me.

The barrel of the repeater kissed the ronin’s forehead for the blink of an eye, metal still hot enough to sear flesh. For sliver of a moment, our gazes met, his eyes wide with pain and surprise, as the clockwork movements of the repeater’s mechanisms played the man’s funeral dirge. Lead split his face in another breath, eradicating all pain and doubt from his expression. Blood and animus coated my hand in the blowback, turning my stomach. I had no time to be appalled by my grisly handiwork, though, with the final pair of swordsmen howling for my blood.

I swung my body to one side of the passage, slamming my crippled side into the wall as I made a desperate dance away from one ronin’s stop-thrust. The other was waiting for me, sweeping his saber low, trying to take my ankles with Smoke Upon the Water. With no retreat left to me, I fell backwards, swinging my legs up to avoid dismemberment.

My back struck the piled dead, my fine sable mantle squelching in fluids I refused to consider. Steel sang past me, narrowly missing my flailing legs and shaving a hank of auroch hide from the heel of one of my heavy boots. The air rushed from my lungs in a muted curse, and I dizzily tried to bring the repeater to bear before it was too late.

Scattershot tore the air above me, slamming into my opponents like the fist of God. Behind me, the lever of the scattergun clacked out and in, ejecting spent brass and cycling a fresh round home. Stepping to the side of me, Richter raised his weapon to his shoulder once more and fired into the newest fallen, assuring their demise as well. Stretching out one black-gloved hand, my friend then pulled me to my feet.

"Still think we should be standing our ground, dear Saga?" The sarcasm in Richter’s words was nearly drowned by his weariness. "This army of sellswords is barely the shadow of the falling hammer, old friend. Whomever sent them is doubtlessly elsewhere, waiting for word of our miraculous escape so he can toss something else our way. Slaughtering half-starved mercenaries, cathartic as it may be, is hardly a proper use of our limited time."

He looked poised to say more, but the thud of ronin on the roof above us spun the Invoker’s head, along with the scattergun’s barrel. Another gout of noise and flame sprang forth a breath later, a brutal surprise from beneath for the lurking swordsmen. Chunks of wood and plaster rained down as Richter worked the lever on his weapon, and more lead followed, this time along with howls of pain.

Richter sighed, brushing debris from his mantle and matted hair. "Well, there goes our deposit. Now can we cease this dallying and just bloody well leave?"

I opened my mouth to begin my counter attack, then clenched it closed, shaking my head in defeat. He’s right. There’s no profit in this. Hell, this may just be some way of delaying us until the real trap gets sprung. Better to get out now while they’re still reeling from our counterattack.

"If we’ve gotta’ go, then let’s get going," I grumbled. "Do you suggest we take the back stairs and find a way out using the kitchens or go straight on through the commons?"

My friend made a face, equal parts worry and disgust. "Either. Neither. I wager both shall be under watch and guard at this point." Richter expression lightened, if only a shade. "Of course, we could hit both simultaneously, blitz the bastards and then tear out of whatever exit we can see like the Devil himself is at our heels."

It was as good a plan as any. "You take the back way, then. I’ll handle the front stairs." I started to walk down the corpse-strewn hall again, pausing to look back when I did not hear my friend begin to move.

"Saga," he started, turmoil staining his features. "I do not know why these men are trying to murder us. I have done nothing untoward since we arrived here in Hadrian and made as little noise as possible. You must believe me. This is…this is not my fault." It was as close to a plea as I had ever heard from Richter’s mouth.

Had I any suspicion that this were my colleague’s fault in truth, I would have shown him no mercy. There was no lie in those grey eyes, though. Many a time, he had brought danger to roost and left me to clean it up, but this time was not due to any reckless choice on his part. No, I needled at my anger, he had only failed to notice the writing on the wall. And at no fault of his, with his energies spent trying to save me day in and day out as they’ve been.

I nodded, and then turned back to my path. As I reached the top of the stairway, I felt Fenris stir in my thoughts again, his growl throbbing through me.

"Whelp… Do you truly think you might survive such an attempt? I can taste the rage of even more than have already fallen above and below us. That clever toy you call a weapon will not be enough to break so many." I felt the Daeva’s will surge against mine, almost causing me to stumble.

And what would you suggest I do? I thought back, too upset to even raise my voice against the wolf-god. We cannot go up. We cannot go down. Do I wait here forever until they starve to death? I hoped my sarcasm was palpable even in my thoughts.

"Free me," came the expected reply. "If you die, I am as good as such. But we can bind our strength together, my spirit and your form. We shall walk amongst them as a wolf among lambs, rend their flesh from their bones and grind them to dust." I could hear the beast salivate at the thought.

I shook my head in stubborn refusal, even as dread crept in. The wolf was right. I could not face so many men, even were I whole. The ronin were soldiers, born and bred, and though I had studied swordsmanship as a lad at the University of Luxor, it had been as an art. These brown-cloaked mercenaries had spent decades dedicated to the blade, not as a dance but as something akin to a religion. The Myrmidon Sword-priests of the Free Cities might be all but extinct, but these altar-boys were more than devout enough to beat me.

He has to be lying, I insisted to myself. It is but a snare, to trick me into giving him control. Falter now and he’ll never give me my life back.

That furious growl held something of a tone of hurt when next it sounded. "I am many things, cur, but I do not play false. I will not make a slave of you. Let me but show you our strength, together, once more."

"And in return?" My voice was a whisper as I crept down the stairs, hoping to keep myself unnoticed to those who waited below. "What price to do you ask of me?"

"Simple, boy.  Just put the Invoker’s trinket back in its place at your side and draw me instead." His amalgam growl lowered an octave. "Do not mistake me, child of man. I can do this with or without your consent. the rage in your heart is ample leverage for me. Showing me your trust will but make this easier…on both of us."

I ignored the request, having reached the base of the staircase. Repeater still in hand, I nudged the door to the commons open, just a hair, so I could spy out what awaited me in the other room. It was not a pretty sight.

Ronin were everywhere, blades of every size and shape drawn and close to ready. Obviously, the sounds of our struggle above had them all on edge, but none seemed so foolish as to funnel themselves into the narrow quarters we had butchered their brothers-in-arms in, but simply waited to block our escape. From the narrow cross-section I could see, there were easily a half-dozen, and more than likely more. Not a single patron or member of the inn staff was in sight.

Richter’s plan was clearly impossible. These men would not be scattered by bravado and a few well placed rounds. No, they seemed ready to tear anyone they saw to pieces. We would not, could not, make a way out this way.

I had just begun to slowly pull away from the door when I heard a clatter from somewhere across the taproom that I could not see. In an instant, the ronin were moving, practically dashing to whatever had drawn their attention. For a moment, I had hope that the path to the door would be made clear, but even in my limited view, I could see that a pair of browncloaks had hung back to block the exit.

The wreckage of that hope crumbled into ice-cold ash in my next heartbeat, Richter’s cursing branding him as the source of the disturbance. The bark of the scattergun followed, preceding the too-familiar sound of crumpling bodies. It wasn’t enough, though, could not be enough, and the pair of rounds left in my repeater would hardly mean anything against the tide of steel that would shortly find my friend.

I was out of options.

My boot hit the door, flinging it open and bowling over the unseen ronin standing before it. Richter stood across the way, behind the polished oak bar, back to the kitchen door. With one hand he brandished the scattergun, waving it menacingly at the, now more wary, ronin who approached. His other hand clutched at a growing ball of flame, fueled by Richter’s own willpower in the absence of any natural fire to support it, called by the names of Dragons that fell from my friend’s mouth.

I wasn’t about to let my companion become a martyr, to exhaust himself with Invocation to make an exit for me. Not while I still had Fenris.

"Richter, get out of here, now!"

I slid the repeater back into its scabbard and move my hand to the hilt of my saber. Fenris, I began, thoughts as reluctant and resigned as my voice would have been, bargain struck.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the wolf-god grin his metal-toothed grin. "Very well, Saga. You will not regret this, I swear." He gave another wordless growl. "Now, let us have our fun…"

I felt the Daeva stir, both beneath my hand and inside my head. For a moment, I was… not at peace, but calmed, my mind focused to crystal clarity. The dull, omnipresent throb of my withered arm faded away as Fenris’s power wrapped itself about my soul. A honed, almost cold edge of fury at first, I felt the heat of the Daeva’s rage rise, braiding itself into my own anger to forge an unbreakable alloy of wrath.

Almost to a man, the ronin turned to look upon me, but none moved closer for one long, held breath. Perhaps they were puzzled by my sudden appearance, confused by why I simply stood with my hand clenched around the grip of my blade. Maybe they felt the presence of the wolf-god, the overwhelming anger radiating from me striking them senseless. Mayhap they simply saw their own inevitable deaths. In truth, it didn’t really matter to me, not right then.

Then my wrist twisted, saber hissing free, and my world became nothing but the indigo flames of Fenris’s eyes.