Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Handful of Dust

This week's entry on the Western Baronies is a piece of fiction, entitled "A Handful of Dust." I hope you enjoy it!

***

"A Handful of Dust"
a tale of the Western Baronies



“How many of ‘em do you figure there are?” the wiry, dark-haired man asked the tall blonde man crouching next to him in the dust. The blonde said nothing for long moments, simply counting the silhouettes of men in the moonlight, looking at their shabby armor and underfed horses. The dark-haired one did not prod him, knowing that patience was a virtue out on the flats, and that their quarry wouldn’t be leaving any time soon.

After long moments of listening to the sounds of the desert—distant coyote yowls, the swirling wind, the voices of the soon-to-be dead—the blonde man replied. “I count thirty men. Give or take five. Firelight makes it easy to pick them out, but hard to tell how close packed they are. Most of them have shortblades and crossbows.”



“And the others?” the dark-haired man ventured.

“I see one fellow with a big damned broadsword, another loaded up with fighting knives. The whore traveling with them is carrying something under her skirt, and I don’t think it’s a chastity belt. And Mac Tucker’s there.”

“Shit,” he swore quietly. He had been hoping that Tucker wouldn’t be here. The rest of them would be easy to take down, even Tucker’s red-headed whore, but Tucker was one of the best ‘slingers in the baronies. Eight magistrates had died trying to take him down, not to mention the various vigilantes and do-gooders that had tried over the years. He was a bravo with his repeating crossbow, but his real talent was with the hand-and-a-half sword he carried on his back. Townies called it a bastard sword, and that was how the dark-haired man thought of it in relation to Mac Tucker—“that bastard’s sword.”

“What’s the plan, hoss?” he asked his blonde companion. The other man grimaced slightly in the dark; he hated being called “hoss.” He had been in the baronies for almost a year now, and he still had not gotten used to their over-familiar way of speaking, their slurring of the language, their casual crudity. Some from the empire found it charming—the blonde man found it annoying. In the name of duty, though, he had tolerated it and more still.

“Same plan as before,” he said, scooting back toward where the others waited. “We go in and kill them all.”



***



Colin waited until they returned to the big rock they were using for cover, well away from any prying ears, before he started cursing. Gareth gave his dark-haired companion a few moments to vent before cutting him off.

“That’s enough, Colin,” he stated flatly. Colin immediately fell quiet; he had learned early on not to challenge the blonde man when his voice took on that edge.

“What’s the problem, fellers?” asked Skinny Mullins. Gareth turned to look at him appraisingly. The man looked nothing like his nickname; all rolls of hard fat and harder muscle, he must have weighed nearly four hundred pounds. Gareth had seen him cut a man in full armor almost in half with the big, curved axe he carried on his back. He didn’t believe in problems that couldn’t be solved with violence, which made him perfect for tonight. Still, Gareth had to tread lightly with the man; he was new in the group, and his propensity for screaming at volume even before a fight could kibosh the whole deal.

“No problem, Skinny,” said Gareth. “We did some recon on the camp, got a handle on their numbers.”

“Mac Tucker’s with ‘em,” Colin blurted out, earning a sidewise look from Gareth that the smaller man pointed ignored. “Mac Tucker, and his redhead floozy.”

Skinny whistled. He had never shown fear in the short time that he had been with Gareth and Colin’s small group of magistrates, but he knew when to give his due for respect. Selina, the dusky-skinned priestess that acted as the group’s spiritual voice and their link to the Ma’at Church, gave Colin a firm glance. “We’ve discussed profanity in the presence of ladies, and about ladies, before. Haven’t we, Colin?” Colin nodded his agreement sullenly. “Three ‘Holy Mother’ prayers and an act of contrition when we get back to Cenotaph.”

“Yes, Sister,” he mumbled briefly. Gareth smiled for the first time that night. Bloody business was at hand, bloody and awful, and here Sister Selina was riding the young man for cursing, of all things. Like he hadn’t seen the sister with two pints in her, swearing up a storm and picking bar fights not just last week. Selina was beautiful, but she was a holy terror with the shepherd’s staff she carried as a walking stick. She could fight just as well as any man Gareth had met, and he was grateful now that she was with them.

“Focus, people,” Gareth cautioned, and then they were all business. Even Misha, the perpetually distant-eyed mystic, paid attention to his words now. “We’ve got Mac Tucker, three of his lieutenants, and about thirty rowdies out at a campsite. They don’t know they’ve been tailed, else they’d be watching the outskirts a little better. I figure that we have the element of surprise on our side,” he looked at Skinny particularly hard as he said this, “and I’d like us to keep it as long as possible.”

“I figure our standard ‘smash-and-grab’ will work just fine on this one,” said Colin. “The only problem I see is Tucker himself. We put a few shots in the rowdies and they’ll run for the hills, but Tucker’s got sand. His cronies will prolly stick around too, so we’ve got four main targets.” The nervousness in Colin’s voice was not lost on Gareth, but he knew Colin well enough at this point to realize that the man’s anxiety was habitual caution at work, not cowardice.

“So, where do you need me?” asked Misha in her strange, almost ethereal voice. Gareth had known a few mystics before—back in the empire, it was pretty much impossible to avoid—but they never failed to unnerve him.

“I’ll want you out in the shadows, hitting the area with as much mojo as you can throw at it. We need those grunts to run, otherwise we’re severely outnumbered.” Gareth was no fool—a dozen idiots with crossbows could still get a lucky shot in, and dead from bad luck was no more or less dead than being killed by skill. Misha nodded at this, and was silent once more.

“I’ll pick off the ones furthest away from the main group,” Colin noted, going back over their standard battle plan mostly for Skinny’s benefit. He patted his trusty longbow; the steel recurve could put an arrow through plate armor at almost a hundred yards, and most of the bandits were armored only in boiled leather, if they had any armor at all.

Gareth nodded. “While you’re getting in position, Skinny, the sister, and I will make for the far side of the camp. Once things are in fair confusion, Skinny, I want you to work on breaking the ranks. As soon as they’re good and gone, move in on the one with the broad blade. Sister, close up with that knife-wielding fellow and put him down as quick as you can. Guys like that are mean as snakes and twice as hard to kill. I’ve got Mac Tucker. Colin, you’ll be staying out of the way on this one—support fire only.”

Colin opened his mouth to object, and Gareth cut him off. One thing he could say about the smaller man: he might be nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but he stuck close by when the chips were down. Gareth insisted, “I need you to keep Mac and his people hopping once the grunts run, and I need someone to stay near Misha.”

Colin shot the moon-pale woman a sidelong look, one that she either didn’t see or ignored. She had been with them only a little longer than Skinny Mullins, but they knew even less about her personally. She never talked about herself, and her odd voice made listening to her for any amount of time a head-swimming experience.

“Sure thing, Gar,” he nodded finally. “Fallback plans?”

“None,” he stated flatly. “If you and Misha are all that’s up, and Mac Tucker’s still breathing, get the hell out and don’t worry about us. Grab the horses and get as far away as possible.” Colin nodded; he wanted to object, but he could see that Gareth was serious about this one.

Colin had figured the bandits they were chasing as small-timers when they set out last week. Trailing them had been easy—the dusty plains were less windy than usual, the bandits were traveling in a large group, and they hadn’t been expecting pursuit. Why should they? It was only luck that Gareth’s group of magistrates had found the survivors of the raid, parched and starving and badly hurt, a week outside of Cenotaph. Gareth had given them supplies and a horse, and sent them in the right direction. Colin knew right from the first moment, right from the downward turn of his mouth, that they would be chasing these bandit scumbags down. It didn’t hurt that some of the caravan had been taken alive; Gareth couldn’t resist saving prisoners.

Still, until they were on the move, Colin hadn’t realized that this whole thing also tied in to Gareth’s obsession with Mac Tucker. He didn’t know what the outlaw had done to the blonde man, if anything, but Gareth had always had a serious mad-on for the infamous bandit. Colin had met Tucker once, back in the bad old days before he became a law dog, and the man scared him. He got the impression from Tucker that he didn’t care whether he lived or died, and fearless men were always a little crazy—or, in Mac Tucker’s case, a lot of crazy. Gareth knew about Colin’s former connection, and about his personal fear, and Colin was grateful that he didn’t have to go in to face him. He would have been willing to do so, if Gareth needed him—he owed the man a lot—but still he was thankful.

“We ready, people?” Gareth asked finally. No one said anything—there was no need. “All right. Get moving then.”

“Got us some salvation to deliver,” Sister Selina added for good measure.

The five of them silently broke into two groups and made for the bandit camp.



***



Mac surveyed the bandits arrayed about the campfires, their slovenly appearance no better up close than it had been for Gareth at a distance. He watched them as they ate and drank the spoils of their theft, feasting and glutting themselves, making it a necessity that they would have to go raiding again in just a few days if they didn’t want to go back to starving.

Mac sighed; he hadn’t expected much from this lot, and so far they hadn’t proved him wrong. He could always use more cronies out in the waste, looting and pillaging for themselves but kicking back a portion to the organization in exchange for coordination and information. Still, he had wondered on not a small number of occasions if he and Nerissa might not be better off finding a different line of work, something more personal like back in the old days. It was a vain hope, though—even if they didn’t like the money so much, Hexen would never let them walk.

He shuddered just thinking about the withered, gaunt man that called himself Hexen. Mac hadn’t ever met someone as leathery as him, or someone as fearsome. Mac Tucker prided himself on being the meanest, coldest, most ruthless son of a bitch in the Baronies, but whenever he was in the same room as Hexen, he felt small and alone, like he did back when he was an orphan growing up on the streets of Oleshky. The man made him feel insignificant, and that wasn’t a way Mac was used to feeling.

He looked over at the prisoners, as he was wont to do when the thought about Hexen. One of the conditions for joining up with Mac Tucker’s posse was that gangs had to be willing to take prisoners. Word passed down along the chain that the organization made serious coin off hostage exchanges, and most folks just left it at that. Truth was, Mac didn’t know what Hexen wanted prisoners for, and he had never asked. All he knew for sure was that it wasn’t for hostage money. Most of the folks they snatched were poor settlers or traders, and Mac had never once been told to deliver a ransom note. No, people that got taken to Hexen were most likely dead, and that suited Mac Tucker just fine—better them than him was the code he lived by.

Dismissing the casual thoughts about the prisoners—and their eventual fate—Mac ran his hand over the smooth skin of Nerissa’s leg, delighting in the silky touch of her flesh as much as the razor blades that she kept in a garter sheath. She was beautiful and deadly, as much in charge of the gang as he was, and they had both grown comfortable with that state of affairs. Their eyes locked, hers promising impossible delights if they could just get a few moments alone.

Mac flushed, heady with anticipation. As he took a swig of warm whiskey in preparation for finding some excuse to leave camp, the campfire exploded.

Damn, he thought in shock as three men screamed and jumped away from the dancing flames, their clothes and hair burning merrily. Just… damn. More of the screaming flames exploded throughout the camp, setting men and clothing ablaze equally well. Mac recovered his senses faster than the others.

“Don’t worry about the goddamn fires!” he screamed. “It’s mojo—somebody’s doing a whammy on us, you asses! It’s just a shitting illusion! Grab your gear and get ready for a fight!”

Even as he spoke, an enormous man wielding a huge axe came over a rock pile on the edge of camp, warbling a shrieking battle cry. He neatly decapitated two men with a single swing of the blade, finally getting the curved steel stuck in a third poor bastard’s chest. The wounded bandit screamed in agony, the breath leaving his lungs in a single great exhalation of pain. The fat man put his booted foot on the bandit’s stomach and heaved, pulling the axe out in a wide arc of shimmering blood.

Mac pulled his heavy repeater from the rock next to him—Mighty Millie was never far from his side—and cocked it once, dropping a barbed quarrel into the groove. Let’s see if you like eating this, you fat sumbitch, he thought mercilessly. Even as he swung it up into position, Nerissa was moving to his back, whipping her razors and throwing blades from her dress in a cloud of steely death. Each of her fingers, it seemed, had grown an inch-long steel nail, and as fast as her hands moved, they disappeared and reappeared.

He fired at the fat man three times, hitting him in his great gut with all three bolts. Amazingly, the big fellow didn’t fall, just noticed the wounds to his stomach with passive distance, finally registering them with a look of swelling anger. This is not going well, Mac thought dimly, panic beginning to well up somewhere deep inside. That should have dropped his lard ass.

On the other end of camp, a woman in the loose habit of a Maryan battle nun spun a quarterstaff around her in a whirling pattern, striking bandits here and there as they approached her. Even a single glancing blow from that iron-shod staff dropped men in their tracks like a pole-axed cow. Mac smiled a grim smile even so; Syphen was closing up on the nun, which meant in a minute she’d be going from nun to none. He smiled from his own wit and barely managed to duck aside in time to avoid an incoming arrow marked with black fletchings. A sniper too, he mentally snarled. Does this night get any better?

Then he saw the blond man, coming over the same stand of rocks as the fat feller, moving at a slow walk, seemingly in no hurry at all. Mac’s blood chilled, and the old scar on his neck ached as he looked at the familiar blond hair, the chiseled jaw proclaiming noble blood. The armor was different—plate this time instead of the laminated shit he’d been wearing the last time—but no doubt, it was the same holier-than-thou asshole.

“Gareth,” he said aloud, with enough volume that Nerissa turned to look. She blanched; she remembered all too well their last encounter with the blond magistrate. At the end of it, Mac and the blond man were both nearly dead, Gareth left to bleed away his life in the sands while Nerissa dragged Mac off to stitch his wounds. One look at Mac told her all she needed to know—he was going to fight the magistrate again. She opened her mouth to say something, and he raised his hand to quiet her. “Get out there and stop that damn spellbender and archer. I figure they’re probably together—get one, get the other. I need you on this, sweetie,” he finished with unexpected tenderness. Nerissa nodded, grabbed his forearm once for luck, and darted off away from the approaching knight.

“Come on with it then,” Mac snarled as he gently placed the crossbow on the rocks next to him. He reached back and grabbed the new sword Hexen had given him. Its hilt felt loathsome in his grasp, somehow alive and sickly, and he longed to use his own familiar blade. But Hexen had given him certain assurances, and he intended to see those assurances tested. He pulled the sword from its sheath, blasphemous letters dimly lighting its surface. He smiled, a cheerless thing that did not touch his eyes. “Let’s see your armor save you this time, pretty boy.”



***



Misha halted her illusory assaults on the bandits as they began to break and run. She kept her pale, shifting eyes on the camp, alert for an opportunity to help but glad of the respite. Pulling primal energy was difficult, fraught with danger, and even illusions could kill with a misspoken word or hasty gesture. She looked up at the stars as they danced in her ephemeral sight, all blinking eyes and darting figures and things moving between them. She looked over at Colin, his aura a tight, frantic green; he was afraid but controlling it. She admired that—controlling your fear was one of the first things that taught you in the Lyceum.

Colin spared a moment to glance back at her, then continued his sniping, putting arrows into fleeing men here and there. Sometimes they fell, dropped by a powerful shot or a lucky hit, but the frequent and painful grazes he gave most of them were the real incentive. Gareth made a big point of always allowing enemies a way to run. “A man with no way to escape,” he had told Colin once around the campfire, “is a man with no reason to stop fighting.”

He certainly agreed with the sentiment. There had been any number of times that, if the group hadn’t been in a situation where the only choices were fight or die, he would have run himself. Or perhaps not. He often thought such things, but he also well knew that there had been plenty of times he could have run that he didn’t—like now, say. Mac Tucker scared him shitless in a way that other criminals didn’t, in a way that plains monsters and desert abominations just couldn’t stack up to. He’d seen Tucker fight once, seen it up close, and he never had a desire to see it that close again.

“Help me! Please, someone!” came a cry from a nearby dune. Colin took his eyes of the battle—the sister seemed to be doing fine against the fellow with the knives, and damn if Skinny wasn’t laughing as he fought—and looked toward the sound. Running across the sand, her dress bunched around her in tatters, was a beautiful young woman, maybe late teens or early twenties. From the look of her, she was one of the hostages, and Colin’s bile rose as he thought about what they must have been doing to her to get her in such a state.

“Misha,” he said quickly, “keep watching, and yell if they need me. I’m checking this out.” The perpetually dazed-looking arcanist nodded, and Colin sprinted across the sand and scree to the girl. As he approached her, he could see the long scratches on her pale, milky skin and the dark place on her cheek where someone must have hit her. He picked up his speed as she stumbled, bringing himself up short less than twenty feet from her when his mind finally caught up to his gut.

Wait a minute, the cautious sniper thought, the prisoners are on the other side of camp… So how… Even as he was processing the answer, the girl looked up, a gleam in her eye, and Colin barely had time to start reversing his direction when her hands came up filled with steel. He managed not to take any of the razors she threw in the eye or neck, which could have ended the whole thing right then from how much they ripped and bit as they struck, but wasn’t fast enough to dodge entirely. Four of the small missiles tore into his shoulder and torso, shredding flesh and tearing tendons.

Colin felt something wet and hot pour down his side and his left arm went numb; he dropped his readied arrow into the dust at his feet, unable to hold onto it. He scrambled for cover, taking another razor in the back, as he yelled, “Misha! Hide, goddamn it! Hide!”

“Misha?” said the girl, now clearly recognizable as Tucker’s redheaded bimbo. “What a pretty name. I think I might bother remembering it after I kill both of you.” She paced forward, flicking a steel disc over Colin’s head where he hid behind a stand of low rocks. He saw it for what it was—a calculated trick to make him panic, break cover. When he did, he’d take another half-dozen of those throwing razors in the face and neck, and that would be that. He moved quietly instead, to take better cover. It was just a matter of time before she found him, but maybe he could buy some time until then.

He hefted his recurve bow in his right hand, testing his left shoulder for motion. The numbness was fading, but only to be replaced with a hideous, burning pain. Up close, she was going to tear him to pieces, no doubt about that. He looked out at the dunes; if he ran for it from his new angle, he might have time to put distance between them, maybe enough that he could start picking her off again… but if he ran, she’d just kill Misha in his place.

Maybe it was time to find out once and for all if he was as yellow as he’d always thought. The fear left him as he stood, pulling back the heavy bowstring. It weighed a thousand pounds, and she was miles away. She saw him as he stood and cocked her arm back. A second later, only one of them was standing.



***



“Mackenzie Tucker,” said Gareth, “I hereby order you to stand down and be bound by law.” He drew his longsword as he spoke the words, a pure formality that he realized Tucker wouldn’t take, even if faced with overwhelming odds. His thugs were scattered, sure, but his buddies were holding their own against Skinny and Sister Selina, and the halt of arrows and mojo could only be a bad sign. He didn’t see Tucker’s girlfriend, and his stomach sank. Wey-At’s name, he thought, just hold on a minute, Colin.

Mac didn’t say anything. He just started walking forward toward Gareth with that ugly, hollow smile on his face and the strange sword in his hand. Gareth had never seen the blade before—it wasn’t Mac’s usual sword, certainly—but his quick glimpse of twisting letters on the blade made him cautious. Things like that could mean mojo, but where in Castur’s hell had Mac Tucker gotten his hands on a mojo-blade?

Gareth dropped into an easy defensive stance, ready for Tucker’s usual style of reckless onslaught, and he was not disappointed. The criminal threw himself at Gareth with a focusing shout, swinging the hand-and-a-half sword easily in both hands, as though it weighed almost nothing. Even with his defenses ready, Gareth barely brought his blade up in time to deflect the blow. As the two swords met, flat to flat, green sparks flew from the exchange.

Damn it! Gareth thought. Enchanted for sure! His armor would be almost useless against a magicked blade; such things could shear through steel like paper. If he managed to catch a normal sword poorly in the parry he had just tried, it would have nicked the blade—doing so against a mojo-sword would probably end with Gareth’s longsword in two pieces.

Tucker laid into him again and again, swinging the blade in mad arcs interspersed with enough timed strikes to keep Gareth on his guard. Each time their blades crossed, green sparks flew from the meeting, and Gareth could see his blade dulling and chipping just from continued exposure to Tucker’s new sword. He had to end this—and soon. He couldn’t even spare a glance at the others to see how they were faring.

The two swordsmen clashed on the sand, dust kicking up from their feet as they jockeyed for position. Taking a calculated risk, Gareth stopped his intense parrying, letting Tucker’s sword slip in toward him, deadly close. As he did, Gareth’s armored fist took Tucker in the jaw, putting him off-balance long enough to rap him across the knuckles with his crossguard. With the pop of a joint breaking, Tucker dropped the blade, and it shimmered and flared briefly before sputtering out in the sand.

Mac cradled his right hand gingerly; two of his knuckles had cracked, and at least one of his fingers was dislocated. That would hurt a bastard in the morning. “Hey, law dog,” Tucker said as he sucked the blood from his wounded hand, “might wanna check yourself.”

Feeling sudden warmth, Gareth looked down. He saw a rent in his armor, just to the left of his solar plexus, a clean-edged cut that leaked thick blood. Tucker had cut him—cut right through his armor—without him even noticing. “I’ll be fine,” he choked out, knowing that he only had a minute or so before blood loss put him on his ass. “But thank you for your concern. Now surrender.” He leveled his sword at Tucker and spared a quick glance around the battlefield.

Skinny Mullins was cut bad in a dozen places, red muscle and yellow drops of fat showing through torn skin, but he wasn’t down. In fact, he was—Gareth was pretty certain—sitting on the fellow with the broadsword, the weapon in question laying a dozen or so feet away. Skinny picked at his wounds, pulling out grit with one hand, while he lackadaisically punched the downed man in the back of the head with a meaty fist. Sister Selina and the knife-fighter still squared off, both of them tired and breathing heavy. And where was his gods-damned cover fire!

As if in answer to his question, Nerissa came over the stand of rocks where he had left the others, Misha held in front of her like a shield and a razor to the mystic’s throat. Shit, thought Gareth. Where’s Colin? For just a moment, he had the uncharitable thought that the boy must have finally given in and run, and guilty fear followed close behind, worried that perhaps he had not.

“Let him go, law dog,” Nerissa said calmly from behind Misha. “Let us all go, and I’ll give you back your huckster with all her parts still on.” The struggle ceased in the space of a few breaths, everyone pausing to see how this would play out.

“No deal, Nerissa,” Gareth said. “You kill Misha, and you’ve got no shield. Two seconds later, I run Mac through and Skinny over there,” he nodded at the fat man, “breaks you in half. No goddamn deal.” He hefted his sword overhand, as though he were going to chop Tucker’s head off right there. To his credit, the man didn’t flinch, just looking at Gareth with those cold snake-eyes. He knows I’m bluffing, Gareth thought. Let’s hope Nerissa doesn’t.

“Wait!” she shouted, pricking Misha’s neck with the razor. I’ve got her, he thought, and paused before the downstroke. “I give you the huckster and the hostages, and we walk. That’s the goddamn deal! Take it, or I saw her head off.” Misha gave no indication of fear; Gareth didn’t know if it was because she genuinely wasn’t afraid, or she just didn’t understand what was going on.

He nodded his agreement; he wouldn’t have let Misha die, and he hoped he could explain that to her later. But back in Marikuhl they had always said, “Look for the best advantage.” Getting the hostages was just an incentive. Gods, I hope Colin’s all right. He saw Mac leaning down for his sword, and Gareth tapped him on the cheek with the flat of his blade to stop him.

“As I do recall,” he said with clear emphasis, “you’ve got a sword that’s fine and good all on your own. Right, Mac? And if that’s so, you surely don’t need another one. Leave it.” Mac hesitated, as though he might start the fight again, but a look at Gareth’s cold face made him reconsider. He slung his crossbow onto his horse—making sure not to make any move threatening—and hee-yawed off into the darkness.

Grudgingly, Selina and Skinny let their combatants retreat, though the knife-fighter had to help the pummeled fellow collect himself. Gareth noted that Skinny might have broken the man’s leg. Nerissa was the last to go, finally releasing Misha with a quick push down the slope. Misha stumbled and fell, coming to her hands and knees a dozen feet away.

“This ain’t over, law dog,” Nerissa threatened before vanishing into the night, limping oddly as she went. As soon as she was gone, Gareth ran for Misha, blood loss forgotten before the cold tang of fear.

“Get the hostages!” he shouted to the others. “I figure we got about fifteen or twenty minutes before they reconsider, and I want any man-jack that can move holding a weapon by then. They come back, I want them to get a gut full of spear and shot.” Briefly checking to make certain Misha was unharmed, he scrambled over the hill and back to their sniping point.

“Colin!” he shouted. “Where the devil are you?” He darted around rocks and scree, looking for his young friend under the cold light of the moon. Finally, after what seemed like forever, he rounded a corner and saw a boot toe sticking out from behind a boulder, pointed straight up. Oh, gods…

Gareth sheathed his sword and ran to Colin’s side. The dark-haired young man was still breathing, but raggedly. A finger-length needle stuck out of his neck on the right side, blood pooling under his head like black mud. He bubbled blood from his lips with each breath, and Gareth’s heart sank in his chest. Colin held up his right hand, and Gareth took it gently, almost as if Colin were made of glass.

“I shot the whore,” he bubbled. “Shot her in the damn hip. That shit’ll sting when it rains, hoo-boy.” He gingerly touched the steel barb in his throat. “I think she got me one better, though. Damn.”

“Yeah, she did,” Gareth said, unwilling to sully his friend’s last moments with a lie. “She got you well and good.” His voice sounded thick, even to him, and his eyes stung. When they cleared, he realized that Colin could not have heard his reply. Gareth bowed his head and prayed.

Then he stood, releasing Colin’s hand—now no more than dust shaped like a man. There was still work to do, and payments to be exacted. Gareth itched to mete them out. Tears unshed, he walked back to the encampment, there to make deadly plans.

3 comments:

JM Campbell said...

Excellent story. Poor Colin.

Jeremy Puckett said...

Thanks! There's a follow-up fiction that might get posted here eventually. Colin is in it. =3

Ruggs said...

Hey, you! I was tinkering around with your old artificer design. Would you mind if I ran a few ideas past you?

If not, please email: ruggsemail at gmail.