Halfway Over – Chapter Three

Lilly was as good as her word. With a parting nod to Beanbag, we left the bar and I found myself once again swimming through the crowds, though this time with a welcome partner. Lilly led the way, parting swaths of people aside with remarkable ease. I had no idea where we were going, only that with my hand in hers, I was prepared to follow her to the ends of the earth.

We passed by the hamburger stand and the mustachioed owner I had unwittingly annoyed earlier. Lilly gave my hand a squeeze, then let go and approached the stand. She must’ve been hungry. My stomach gurgled. Perhaps it was time for the greasy food for me, as well. I called out after her, “If you want a burger I can get you one, no problem.” I pointed my thumb to the end of the line.

She turned her head but didn’t slow down. “Why? I’m already doing that.” She approached the side of the stand, completely bypassing the long line of grumbling people. No one seemed to notice. I shook my head. City folk were so wrapped up in themselves. If she had cut to the front instead, they’d have chewed her head off. I watched her get the burger guy’s attention. Her back was to me and I couldn’t hear what they said, but I got the impression he wasn’t happy about someone not in line and wasting his time. He had two burgers wrapped up and was in the process of handing them over to the woman at the front of the line. Lilly held up two fingers. He shook his head. She balled her other hand into a fist and brought the two fingers closer to his face with emphasis. He shrugged. And then handed over the two wrapped burgers. Incredibly, the other woman just stood there politely, looking around like she was waiting on a bus. The man turned away from Lilly and began remaking the other woman’s food. Lilly swirled around, a satisfied grin on her face then came back to me.

“Here,” she said, pushing the burger toward my face. “I could tell you were getting hungry.”

Had my stomach growled that loudly? “Thanks,” I said. Then something occurred to me. “I didn’t even see you give money to that guy.”

She shrugged. “He knew me.”

A flicker of jealousy wormed its way through my insides. I took a bite of the burger, hoping to drown the jealous worm in grease.

She must’ve seen the look on my face. After a few moments, she smirked and said, “I’m not that kind of person.”

She wasn’t? Then why had she picked me up nearly sight unseen? It’s not like I was doing any modelling or running for playboy of the year. She kept an eye on me as we walked, and I had the distinct impression she was studying my reaction. Maybe I should just ask her, instead of letting speculation and doubt sour the evening.

“So—“ I began.

“Why you?” She finished.

“Yeah…”

“I started to bring that up back at the bar. But we both got a bit distracted.”

I nodded. The Gaelic poetry thing. I had forgotten the original track of that conversation before I had derailed it by talking about her performance.

“You’ve got a dumb sort of honesty about you.”

“That’s…” I shook my head. “That’s pretty blunt.”

“Sometimes being blunt is the only way to clear away the bullshit,” she said.

“You’ve known me for maybe an hour or so. How could you tell that about someone so quickly?” I thought back to our previous interactions, and her getting free burgers out of the surly burger stand guy. I playfully shielded my face from her view with a hand and asked, “Are you a mind reader?”

She laughed. “If I was, do you really think that hand would block you from me?”

“It might.”

“It’s all about body language,” she said. “You can learn a lot about people by paying attention to your surroundings—“ she arched an eyebrow, “and not spending so much time worrying about things.”

Was she talking about me? Or was wondering about it completely missing the point of what she had said? We finished our food and threw away the trash. I looked up at the bright starry sky. I wasn’t used to seeing them so clearly, with all the light pollution the city threw off. But tonight they were shining with an intensity I’d never seen.

“Huh,” I mused. “Wasn’t it thundering earlier?”

Her eyes flicked up to the sky then back to where we were walking. She seemed to have ignored my comment, instead saying, “Let’s go check out the boardwalk.”

I shrugged. “If you want, sure. I mean, it’s not what it used to be, with all the shops closing down and everything.”

She reached for my hand and she led the way. I barely noticed where we were going as a flash of pink lightning split the sky above us. Lightning without clouds? Was that even possible? And it was pink. I’ll admit I wasn’t on the forefront of meteorological knowledge, but I’d never heard of pink lightning. Lilly’s pace quickened, but I barely registered this as we threaded our way through the unhurried throngs of people.

“It’s like trying to move through a herd of cattle,” she said through clenched teeth.

I chuckled. “I know, right? Why is it that the faster someone tries to get somewhere, the slower and more in-the-way everyone else gets?”

She didn’t answer. I saw her glance up at the sky when more lightning flashed, followed by that low, rumbling vibration from earlier. And why not? If lightning could happen on a cloudless, why not thunder? It stood to reason, I supposed.

Our pace quickened again. “What’s the hurry?” I asked, not too bothered by the light jog. I didn’t exercise nearly enough, and to be honest it felt refreshing.

“Um, there’s a place that’s closing soon.”

“Ah.” It was getting late. I wondered why she had put off going to this place until closing time.

The crowds of people no longer made way for us. We dodged through the meandering masses, until there wasn’t even room to do that.

“Johnny, this’ll sound shitty. But just shove through them.”

“What, why?” This seemed a bit much. Being in a hurry was one thing, but there was no need to be rude.

“Because they’re not going to move and we are not going to miss this deadline.”

A cold chill flooded through me when she said that. I still hadn’t thought of anything to write that article about. I was going to miss the submission deadline. For the first time, my procrastination-fueled muse had failed me. Would Eugene let me go if I was late? He couldn’t, I’d never been late before. He was an understanding fellow, once you got him to stop fretting.

“Why did you wait so long then?” I shouted, as we zig-zagged through the people. Lilly wasn’t shy about pushing people out of the way. I tried my best to find a way through without knocking anyone over.

“I thought we had more time!” She yelled, dropping my hand and turning her job into a run.

What. The. Hell. Was going on? “Hey!” I sped up and realized that the nice stranger act wasn’t going to cut it if I was going to keep up with Lilly. My shoulder banged off a tall guy’s arm, my elbow glanced an old lady’s side, I tripped over a kid’s sneaker. I yelled sorry to each one, but didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Everyone seemed even slower than before, like they were barely moving at all.

More lightning flashed. More thunder rumbled. Wind was whipping up now. I saw the lights of the city a few blocks down flicker and die. “This is a hell of a storm comin’, Lilly!” I called after her. “Are you sure this place is that important?”

She threw up her hands but kept running. “Sometimes I have my doubts!”

We reached the boardwalk where thankfully the people were thinning, but still no less sluggish. My eyes swept out over the water, trying to see if I could spot the storm on its way over the horizon. It was then I noticed the faint red light reflecting off the waves. A persistent light altogether unlike lightning.

“Don’t look up!” Lilly shouted slowing down a bit to grab my hand again.

Naturally, I looked up. The sky was filled with crackling red flares of light circling above the city in a spiral pattern. I felt myself slowing down and was powerless to look away from the spectacle. The spiral pattern of red light began to spin.

Lilly yanked my hand. “Johnny, we have to move!”

“Yeah…” I said, trying to tell my feet to work. But they would no longer listen.

Lilly grabbed my face and forced it down to hers. Her glowing blue eyes bore into mine. “You. Will. Follow. Now!”

And like that, my feet started up again.

Lilly pointed ahead as we picked up speed again. “There, the boat!”

I saw what she was pointing at. ‘Boat’ seemed a rather trivial word to describe it. ‘Tanker’ would be more accurate. We ran toward the massive ship at the edge of the dock. I wondered how anything of that size had ever fit in city’s docks. A gangplank was extended down to the dock.

A horrible tearing sound filled the air as the red spiral above us all resolved into a vortex. It reminded me of a tornado, but entirely upside down. The wind pelted us with paper and trash as we sprinted toward the ship. The gangplank rose from the dock and began to retract toward the ship.

“Shit!” Lilly swore, putting on another burst of speed. “Johnny…”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t hate me for this.”

The ship started to move away from the dock.

“What are you talking ab—“

I was yanked forward and off the ground by Lilly’s inhuman grip. She screamed with effort and flung me toward the retreating gangplank as the ship rolled past us.

“Grab on!” She cried. “And don’t let go!”

Everything moved in slow motion now. I flailed through the air, knowing full well that I didn’t have the wherewithal to catch a wooden plank in mid-air, not as unprepared as I was at right now. I could see the plank passing in front of me, then beneath me. I reached for the edge. And missed it entirely. My heart lurched as I spun past my target. The gangplank passed by and I kept going. Lilly had really put her back into that throw, I thought. I saw the red-lit water falling further and further away and realized Lilly had either guessed I would miss, or hadn’t been aiming for the gangplank at all. I spun around just in time to catch the railing of the ship. Right in my gut. The air left my lungs in a horrible rush and I doubled up in pain. The force of Lilly’s throw, however, kept me going over the railing. I flipped through the air and caught sight of the swirling vortex over the city, and I thought I saw something else, like something coming through. And then my spin brought me around only to see the deck rising toward me way too qui—

Halfway Over – Chapter Two

The first thing I realized as I stepped out onto the busy nighttime streets was that I didn’t really have a destination or goal in mind. I stood in place in the middle of the sidewalk, trying to decide if I was hungry or just bored. Story of my life. I took a few steps in the direction the crowds were flowing a melted in with them, let the flow of passers-by pass me by. They moved with such energy, I could feel it thrum through me. The city had a pulse tonight and I was tapped into it on a strangely primal level.

I let the flow of people carry me along while my mind wandered, awaiting inspiration. My gaze drifted up to the towers of concrete and steel that rose up into the night sky, whose glass windows made the reflections of millions of street signs and headlights indistinguishable from the stars above. There really was nothing quite like a bustling city lit up at night. It was like a living snapshot of all we as a people had accomplished on our unending march to the future—

“Hey! You’re holding up the line!”

A sharp shove to my shoulder jostled me back into the mundane drudgery of the streets. I saw that I had somehow found myself to the front of the line at a hamburger stand, with a dozen or so hungry and increasingly grumpy city folk shuffling around behind me.

“Come on, order or get out of the line!”

I stepped up to the stand and surveyed the menu. The man behind the stand looked at me impatiently, his thick mustache twitching. Time was money, and I seemed to be wasting his. Time for a decision, stomach. My stomach responded with an indifferent shrug. I concluded I wasn’t hungry, just bored. Greasy food could wait. I stepped out of line and started down the street, ignoring the angry jeers of the people still in line.

I found my way back into the crowds, my mind once again jumping over the fence of discipline and running loose down the streets of imagination. I often wondered why I chose to live in a city, especially one as large as this one. I could do my job from anywhere with computer access. My apartment rent was hilariously overpriced. I couldn’t remember the last time I had called up a friend to go get a drink. And I the last family I had was half a continent away. But every time I stepped out and lost myself in a crowd on the move, it was like I was touching a groove of collective thought that did wonders for my writing. Others did yoga or meditated, so I supposed this was my version of it. I sometimes pictured it like I was part of the blood flowing through some wonderful, massive beast. It was the only time I felt truly connected to my fellow peoples.

I had no idea how long I wandered and wondered through the sea of humanity. Eventually, I was tossed ashore again, so to speak. Or more accurately, I was rudely shoved out of the crowd and found myself at the entrance to a rather damp and soiled alley. Halfway down the alleyway there was a blinking sign of red neon that read ‘Here’. Where the hell was I? I’d never heard of such a place. I shrugged and decided to check it out. After all, what was the worst that could happen? Aside from being jumped, mugged, stabbed, or any of the other hazards city dwellers the world over weathered on a nightly basis. I gingerly stepped around piles of trashbags, overturned trashcans, and feral trashcats as I approached the glowing beacon of red light. I saw it was hanging from the brick above a solid looking wooden door with an eye slat. I raised my hand to knock, but paused when I heard sounds from inside. It sounded like music, of a sort. But not the throbbing bass beat I normally associated with back alley clubs. I distinctly heard the sound of a guitar and tambourine. That was intriguing. I rapped smartly on the door and waited. No response. I knocked again and tried the eye slat. No response and the slat was sealed. I decided that this must be one of those private places, one where you could only get in if you knew someone who was a member, or some pretentious nonsense like that. Whatever, I’d find something else to get into—

The door swung open and a fellow with immaculately combed hair and a wild, bushy beard poked his head out.

“Ah, I thought I heard someone out here knocking.”

“Uh, hi.” I wasn’t sure what to say here. Was he a bouncer, a member, or someone else? Should I ask to come in or just take my business elsewhere? I shuffled nervously.

The man noticed my flighty posture and smiled knowingly. “Lost, huh? Come on in.” He held the door open.

I took a step, but paused. “Wait, what is this place?” As curious as I was, I didn’t want to find myself being led into some mafia gambling club or weird cult or something. Then again, if this was either of those places, I doubted they would just come out and tell me.

“This is Here,” he said. “It’s a refuge for likeminded people to gather and find inspiration together.”

“Ah.” This was still sounding like a cult to me.

He blinked, his smile faltering. “It’s a bar. People hang out here. Perform here. Dream up ideas here.”

That sounded a bit better. I was in desperate need of ideas, that was for sure. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to pop in and take a look. I reached for the door.

The man’s smile returned. He welcomed me in with a handshake and a clap on the arm. “Awesome, man. You’ll love it in here.”

He led me through a dark entryway and into a large windowless room, decorated with colored lights, tables, chairs, and plushy couches occupied to the last with excited customers. Works of post-modern art were thrown up onto the walls in a seemingly haphazard fashion, though I guessed it was meant to be purposeful, like the arrangement itself was the true art. The place was much quieter than I would have expected from the amount of people I saw. Most conversations were low murmurs or excited whispers. Then I heard the tambourine again and realized they were just being respectful to whoever was performing on stage.

The man nudged my arm. “Digging it?”

I wasn’t used to terms like that and answered lamely before I could stop myself. “Digging what?”

“It, man. It.”

Was this guy being intentionally vague? How could anyone stand to talk like this on a normal basis? I looked around, hoping to see if there was some obvious answer. “What is ‘it’?”

He pointed toward the performers on stage. I could see a tall fellow, dressed in clashing jeans and a business jacket, with a red scarf around his neck. He held a tambourine and banged it periodically, a look of rapturous intensity in his eyes as they swept the crowd. Behind him, half hidden from view from where I was standing, was a thing woman sitting on a chair, acoustic guitar in hand. She was dressed all in black, but also had a matching red scarf. Her hair was long and dark. Her face looked like a tambourine… at least until the other performer took a step to the side, revealing her actual face. She caught my eye for a moment as she took a breath before starting to… well, it wasn’t quite singing. I supposed it was more like she was speaking in a cadence, like reciting poetry. The only thing about it, though, was I couldn’t make out a thing she said. It was beautiful sounding, sure, but it sounded almost like she was speaking another language. Her gaze stayed on mine for a moment, and I’d like to say there was something profound that occurred. Something like my heart skipping a beat or sparks of attraction flaring. But nothing like that happened. She flicked her eyes elsewhere, and part of me wondered if it was me she had been looking at in the first place.

“Well?” The man beside me asked.

I had forgotten about him. “Oh. Yeah. Interesting stuff. Very…” I searched for the perfect term, “uh, avant-garde.”

He nodded approvingly, stroking his magnificent beard.

I leaned over, keeping my eyes on the stage. “So… what is it exactly that they’re doing?”

He chuckled. “Whatever they want. We try to encourage people to get up there and share whatever has been burning at their soul.”

“Ah.”

The performers finished the song/poem to a smatter of appreciative applause. I guessed this must have been their last piece, as the two gave a small wave of thanks to the crowd before exiting the stage. The woman looked over again and gave a nod. The man beside me nodded back.

“What’s your name, brother?”

I had completely forgotten to introduce myself. I felt like an asshole. “Oh, sorry. I’m Johnny.”

“Johnny, huh? Alright, sit tight.” He clapped my shoulder for the second time that evening, then went off to join the two performers as they disappeared into the crowd.

So, it was going to be like that, eh? Fine. I considered leaving. I had an article to write and crunch time was starting to bear down on me. But I still had no story. I sighed and flagged down the bartender for a drink. It was like my creative engine was burnt out. Every week I somehow managed to come up with something and put together quality content for Eugene’s website, and every week I went through this same problem. I always managed it, in the end. This time, though… I took a swig of my drink, not even remembering the bartender dropping it off. This time I wasn’t so confident I’d be able to pull that magic rabbit out of my ass by the due date, like before. And Eugene had sounded a bit more stressed about my deadline pushing than usual…

“Oy!” I looked over to see the bearded man waving at me from beside a table in the back of the room. The woman from the stage was seated there, her partner nowhere to be seen, and she saying something to the bearded man as he gestured for me to join them. “Come on over, man, grab your drink!”

I shrugged, previous concerns fading away. Why not? They both watched me intently as I picked my way through the crowd, trying not to spill my drink. I felt oddly self-conscious and had to actively watch where my feet were going, but I made it there in one piece.

“Hey, man!” The bearded man greeted loudly. He slapped my shoulder, causing my carefully protected drink to slosh out. He didn’t seem to notice. “Have a seat.”

The woman’s face was unreadable, I couldn’t tell if this was her idea or the bearded guy’s, or if she was even okay with it at all. “Yeah, alright.” I sat carefully, waiting for the woman to say something about this interloper joining the table.

She quirked up the side of her mouth, then addressed the bearded man instead in a light Irish accent. “Thanks, Beanbag. We’re good now.”

The bearded man, Beanbag I assumed, grinned. “Great! Let me know if you two need anything.” He spotted the male performer over at the side of the stage and left to go socialize with him.

I was now alone with her, and I had no idea what to say. “So… Beanbag, huh?”

She smiled again. “Yeah. Good guy. Owns the place.”

I couldn’t stop my jaw from dropping. “Who, him? He seems so…” I struggled to find a word that was accurate but still polite.

“Out there?” She offered.

Well, it was better than what I was going to say. “Yeah,” I agreed. “I’m assuming he wasn’t born with that name. Right?”

“With parents like his, it’s a distinct possibility,” she said. “But no, it’s because he’s really into that game where you bounce little sack of beans off your knees and elbows.”

I knew the one she spoke of. I hadn’t ever seen anyone out of their teens ever playing it, but who was I to judge what someone did in their free time? “He must really love it. Is he any good?”

“No, he’s dreadful.” She shook her head. “Absolutely dreadful.”

I nodded. “Ah, that’s a shame.” There didn’t really seem to be anything more to say on the subject.

She squared her shoulders. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked him to bring you over here.”

I blinked. “I didn’t really know who wanted me to come over. I guess I thought he had just gone to chat you up after your performance. Which was really good, by the way.” I added quickly.

She looked me up and down, eyebrow raised. “Oh, do you have an ear for poetry?”

I met her eyes, blue and brilliant now that I was only a few feet away and could properly appreciate them, and noted that her tone of voice had contained a note of challenge to it. I realized I was now facing a choice. In the past, this would have been the cue to summon my incredible talent for fabrication and charm my way into her heart. Or pants. Past results with other women had included both, much to my short term pleasure. However, the girls always ended up leaving after eventually seeing the charm for what it really was. Bullshit. Much to my long term detriment. Her eyes flashed and I had a horribly unsettling feeling in my brain that I could only describe as someone shining a giant spotlight down on my thoughts. Maybe bullshit wasn’t the way to go here…

“I don’t,” I confessed. “I’ll be honest, I actually couldn’t even understand a word you were saying up there. But it sounded beautiful and you had mine and everyone else’s attention.”

She didn’t respond for a moment. Was she turned off by my admission of ignorance? Should I have gone for confident bullshit? She reached over and took my glass in her hand, studying the contents closely. “It was Gaelic.”

Now, I know she didn’t say ‘garlic’, but it was the only word I’d heard that matched what she said. I got a sense of touchiness about the subject and decided that making any jokes about garlic would not be appreciated here. I decided that sticking with an honest lack of knowledge would be the most diplomatic way to go. “I’ve never heard of that. I assume it’s another language?”

Her eyes focused on mine through the liquid filled glass in her hand. “It is. And more.” Was she being intentionally vague to draw me in for more questions, or was she being terse and wanting me to drop the subject?

A faint rumbling shook the building and the lights flickered. Everyone froze in place, someone yelped in surprise as a glass dropped to the floor. The lights came back on and people started moving around again, sharing nervous laughter with each other.

The woman acted as if she hadn’t noticed anything awry just happen.

“Must be storming outside,” I said. “Weird though, because it was a clear night when I came in just a bit ago.”

She down the contents of my glass in one go. I hadn’t even had a chance to get drunk off that yet. She set down the empty glass and leaned forward. “Let me see your eyes.”

That wasn’t a request I was prepared to hear. But to my surprise, I found myself obeying. Her blue orbs held mine and I felt a bit of a spark. Not like a romantic one or anything, but more like a literal one. Like a charge of static electricity zipped through me. The lights dimmed around us, and the rest of the bar grew blurry. The sounds of people around us quieted to a dull roar, like I was hearing them from underwater. What the hell was going on? I hadn’t drank nearly enough to start blacking out, and I didn’t think I had been drugged… As the shadows strengthened around us, I saw her hair blending into the darkness and her pale face, still so clear in my vision, took on a disturbing skull-like quality. In her sunken eye sockets, her eyes flared bright, glowing with intensity. I tried to shake my head, to clear it all away. Maybe I had been drugged somehow? But my muscles no longer heeded my call.

The woman spoke. I don’t remember what words she said, or honestly if she even used words.

I answered in the same way she had asked. Whatever it was I said was gone from my mind immediately after they were thought.

The skull with the flaming eyes held my very soul in its regard and then let go.

I blinked and then found myself looking once again at the face of a normal, beautiful woman, surrounded by the noise of people in a back alley art bar. The hair on my arms was raised and I could see goosebumps all over my skin. My head swam, like I had just awakened from a dream that fled memory the moment is was recalled. Maybe I needed a break from work. From the city. Eugene would probably go into conniptions if one of his writers failed to meet the deadline, but clearly I was in need of some rest. Something was up tonight, and I wasn’t entirely sure it was all in my head.

“Are you alright, Johnny?” I found that my hand had somehow ended up across the table and was now in hers. Her thumb caressed the side of mine. I felt a thrill go through me.

I swallowed. “Yeah, I’m…” Wait, how did she know my name? I never told her. Maybe Beanbag had mentioned it to her. Yeah, that had to be it. But I still didn’t know hers. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I ever caught your name.”

The side of her mouth quirked up again. “It’s Lilly.” She stood, still holding my hand in hers and gave a light tug. “Come on, Johnny. Let’s go have some fun while we still can.”

Halfway Over – Chapter One

It was the end of the world.

Or at least one would have thought so, judging by the absurd number of missed messages I had from my boss when I walked in my apartment door. Setting my keys down on the counter, I scrolled through the myriad texts. The more recent ones had a definite sense of urgency and even panic. Another notification popped up letting me know I had several voicemails. I checked my missed calls and, naturally, they were all from Eugene, as well. It figured, the one time I forgot my phone at home while running errands was the one night all hell broke loose at work.

I sat down on my couch with a weary sigh. I briefly wrestled with calling the boss back, but decided to wait. It was probably nothing. After all, Eugene cried wolf several times a month whenever deadlines were due, as if I had ever failed to get an article in on time. But since the project was due tomorrow, I supposed it was time to get started on it. Like a champ.

The phone began to buzz. I answered, not bothering to even look at the caller ID. I had a pretty good guess as to who was calling. “Hello, Eugene.”

“Johnny, thank goodness. Where the ‘H’ have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for hours! Didn’t you get any of my messages?”

“Nope, not a one. I’ve been having issues with my phone lately.” That’s it, Johnny. Plausible deniability by way of unreliable technology. I had learned the hard way that it was easier to blame my phone or computer or internet for not being able to be reached than it was to waste time assuaging Eugene’s anxieties for the umpteenth time. That latter option ended up turning five minute work updates into hour long therapy sessions, and I wasn’t being paid to be my boss’s budget psychiatrist.

“Cheese and crackers, Johnny, with the way your phone has been acting lately maybe you should get a new one?”

I considered a few smartass responses to this, but something in his voice told me this may not be the best option. It was more cracked and higher pitched than it normally was. “Maybe I should. What’s going on, Eugene? I can practically feel you sweating through the phone.”

“Oh, Johnny, you know how it is.” There was a loud electronic hiss, the sound of a heavy huff of breath from the other end. “The separation isn’t going well, and Gregory is trying to bully me into giving him part of the website again.”

I, in fact, didn’t know how it was. I had never been married, therefore had no idea how separations were supposed to go. And as far as Gregory goes, I assumed this was Eugene’s husband from the context, but I couldn’t recall much about him from previous conversations. The details of who ran the website didn’t bother me, as long as I still got paid. But I had to move the conversation along now or he’d talk himself into a circle and we’d be here for ages. “Ah dang, I’m sorry to hear it, boss. I assume you’re calling me specifically because tomorrow is…” I purposely trailed off, hoping the prompt would force Eugene’s mindset back to business.

“The due date. Yes, yes. Please tell me you have the article finished and ready to go.”

I thought of the empty document page I would be staring at whenever I got around to booting up my computer as I answered, “You betcha.”

“Oh, that’s great! Can you send it now?” There was no mistaking the relief in his voice.

“Well, Eugene, you know I take pride in my work.”

A pause. “Yeah?”

“And we go through this with every deadline.”

A sigh. “Yeah…”

“I always turn it in the morning of, so I can spend a final evening going over it for grammar and spelling mistakes, factual errors, the whole gamut. And have I ever let you down?”

“No, of course not.”

“Exactly.” This was getting old. I wondered briefly if Gregory would be this overbearing as a boss. “So, if it’s okay, I’d like to jump off here and do some proofreading, alright?”

“Yes, please do. And if you can get it to me tonight, that would be a load off my mind, Johnny.”

That definitely wouldn’t be happening. “I’ll see what I can do. You’ve got to stop worrying so much about this stuff. You’re gonna kill yourself.”

There was a nervous laugh from the other end. “You’re right. It’s just that Gregory is just waiting for me to make a mistake, and—“

Here we go again. “Alrighty. Goodbye, Eugene.” I hit the disconnect button, knowing the delay would awkwardly cut the boss off in the middle of his sentence.

“–none of the other staff have submitted—“

I tossed the phone onto the cushion and made my way over my work desk to ponder over what my latest piece of nonsense would be. I flipped open my notebook and thumbed through page after page of indecipherable hieroglyphics I called handwriting, attempting to find an idea that I hadn’t yet written about. It wasn’t like I could go out and scoop breaking news, interview a celebrity, review a new car, or critique a new film. I had to write about hauntings, demonic possessions, poltergeistic occurrences, and other things that went bump in the night. The problem was, all of that had already been written about. It was a frustrating and unique problem in my line of work. I mean sure, there were always new stories of people coming forward with new spooky sightings, but it always ended up being the same story. Same creaking footsteps upstairs. Same doors slamming shut. Same stigmata on hands and feet. Whether these people were lying, delusional, or actual victims of supernatural zaniness, there was simply no imagination to it anymore.

I shut the notebook and stared at the blank white screen, waiting for inspiration. The living room clock tick-tocked monotonously. I cracked my knuckles and primed my fingers above the keyboard. Tick-tock. A cricket chirped outside my window. My eyes were riveted to the screen as I worked. Tick-tock. Some passerby in the hallway outside my door cleared their throat loudly. I felt like I had been at this for hours. Tick-tock. The sun rose in the sky, then began to set. Tick-tock. I stood up, walked calmly over to the clock, and firmly removed its batteries. No more tick-tock. I had had enough tick-tock.

“You seem bored, Johnny,” an oily little voice drawled from beside my ear.

“I am,” I said, noticing the tiny version of me dressed up like the devil and lounging on my shoulder. “What’s it to ya?”

“Oh, nothing. You’re not getting much work done, are you?”

“What are you talking about? I spent all day—“ My eyes caught sight of blank document on the computer screen. I had apparently wasted a whole day brainstorming. “Huh.”

“You’ve still got time to finish, you know.”

“Of course, I do.”

“But you can’t force inspiration.”

He had a point but I could tell when I was being led. Curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to see where I was being led to. “I’m listening.”

“Look,” he waved a hand, “just go out and get a burger. Call up a friend, whatever. Just take a break.”

I did need a break. But I knew me pretty well, and if I kept putting off the article there was a fair chance that it wouldn’t be done. Or even started. Truth be told, I struggled a bit with procrastination, but I also did my best work under looming deadlines.

“If you wait a bit more to write, you know it’ll be better.” It was like he could read my mind.

“Okay.”

“Just here me out—“ The little devil-me broke off as he realized what I had said. “What, just like that?”

I shrugged.

“I gotta admit, Johnny, I wasn’t expecting this to be so easy.” He frowned. “I had a whole manipulative spiel thought up and everything. Set aside the whole evening, ya know. Just in case.”

I spread my hands. “I don’t know what to tell you.” If I hadn’t had the inclination to coddle Eugene earlier, I certainly didn’t have it now to buck up a crestfallen figment of my imagination. I picked up the devil-me and traded him for the keys on my counter.

Devil-Me squared his shoulders and rallied magnificently. “Good. Great, even.” He clapped his hands together. “Okay! We’ll have a night on the town. You’ll be there. I’ll be there. And lordy knows what sorts of mischief we’ll get into.”

I headed for the door. “Right, well if you’re coming along then do what you gotta do.”

“Ah, of course!”

I glanced back at the now empty counter, and wondered if the pressure was getting to me. Maybe I really did need a night out to blow off some steam. The article could wait.

Nurem: Desolation’s Edge – Chapter Five

As he passed by a fallen post proclaiming he had arrived in the bustling trade hub of Deshran, Wulf Warren was forced to consider that an elaborate hoax was being played on him.

His initial impression of Deshran was of the oppressive silence of the area. He heard no voices, no wagons, no boisterous hooting from the pub (though he couldn’t actually see a pub from his trail this far out of town, he would have bet an entire month’s salary that there indeed was one). He wondered if this was ordinary for a town out here in the borderlands. In Nurem, a scene like this would have sounded the warning bells in his head immediately. Silence in a populated area generally meant foul play was afoot. He had no intention of letting his guard down, however. Though he had never actually been out into the Western Expanse, he had grown up hearing the stories of danger and adventure that seemed as regular a part of one’s day in the desert towns as the endless drinking and whoring, though that style of living had never held any particular appeal to him. He reached down and unlatched his gun holster, keeping a hand there, in case a quick and violent response was needed.

He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun, foolishly wishing in hindsight that he would have thought to bring a hat. He had gotten used to the tall buildings of the city blocking the sun from direct view. Sweat beaded down his face, and he resolved to purchase a hat as soon as possible. He rubbed two of his fingers together for luck, hoping Deshran had a general store that carried headwear. Annoyance played at the edges of his being, as characteristically he wouldn’t have looked over such a small, yet important detail while planning his task. He chalked it up to nervousness at his new assignment.

As he got closer to the town, he noticed they had no defensive wall, only a rickety, rotting wooden farce of a fence. Wulf shook his head in amazement. He was surprised Deshran wasn’t a burned out collection of rubble. Instead it was just a sleepy little set of wooden shacks, clouds of dust lazily drifting around in the afternoon sun. In the distance past the squat brown buildings, he spied a large hill, a lopsided, wooden Triarc cresting its top. How could this town have survived for so long against the roving waves of bandits and marauders washing in from the desert? Surely, they weren’t hoping to depend on Nurem or the garrison at Nuremgard to help defend themselves from invaders? They were days away at horsespeed from any possible sort of aid.

As he passed through the town ‘gate’, Wulf saw a cattello skull hanging from the wooden plank that made up the entire top section of the portal. He wondered if it was supposed to be some sort of warning. Aware that his only apprehension came not from the cattello skull, but from the town’s empty silence, Wulf sincerely doubted it. After all, what good was a warning that failed to warn anyone? And what exactly would they be trying to warn outsiders of?

He led his horse further into town, toward what he hoped was the main avenue of traffic. Hmm. Maybe the bandits did get everyone. He quickly reconsidered the thought, though, as there would have been obvious signs of struggle up and down the streets. If there was one consistent thing known about the bandits, it’s that they were not overly concerned with making a mess. To them, the bloodier the better, a calling card of sorts to any later passers-by.

He brought his horse to a halt at the main crossway. He spotted what he assumed was the pub, with the enchanting name of The Trough. Looking further, he saw the stable and livery, and opposite of that, the bank. At the end of the street was the general store, and to the side of it, a man-sized post with a bell on it. Probably some sort of warning system, for raiders. “Hello?” He called out.

No response.

Feeling the hair on the back of his hair start to rise, Wulf decide he’d had enough of this ghost town. He vowed to report the unexplained loss of Deshran’s population to his superiors, and considered making an additional recommendation to reclaim the town in the name of Nurem. Deshran was ideally placed near enough to the Expanse trade roads that it could soon become a bustling center of commerce and military expansion, in the right hands. Just as the fallen sign behind him claimed it once was. They would have to do something about those walls, though…

“Hold it, stranger.”

Only years of practice kept Wulf from jumping a meter high off his saddle in shock. He took a moment to calm his nerves. “Alright”, he kept his voice steady. “I’m holding.”

“Climb off of that horse there and turn around. Oh, and raise those hands skyward.”

Wulf obeyed, relieved he had prepared his gun beforehand for this scenario. Turning toward the speaker, he was confronted with a picture that, under different circumstances, might have been considered comical. Facing him was a thin, shriveled wisp of a man, white hair sticking out of an oversized hat, eyes wild with the desert heat, and holding some sort of triple barreled scattergun. The very idea seemed absurd to Wulf, as three barrels generally were not practical, especially given how long a normal one or two barreled scattergun took to reload.

“Easy there. Look, I’m not a bandit.” He felt rather foolish, being held at gunpoint by a geriatric holding a ridiculous and probably non-operational weapon.

“Who said you were?” The old man narrowed his eyes distrustfully.

“I’m Enforcer of Law. Lower your weapon.”

“And just who’s law do you be enforcing?”

“Nurem’s.” Wulf puffed up with pride. His was an authority backed by the full weight of the millennia-old judicial integrity of the most powerful city-state in the Esterlands.

The old man spat a thick wad of weed chew to the ground by Wulf’s boots. “Your ‘law’ don’t reach out here anymore. You left us to fend for ourselves against raiders and Khandarians, and worse.” He jabbed the gun forward at Wulf, making a point. “How do I know you’re not here take our land? Maybe your city is interested in empiring again.”

Wulf wondered if the old man had the Eye, as the thought of expanding Nurem’s influence had been one of his first thoughts upon seeing the seemingly abandoned little town. At the moment, he decided to be diplomatic and let the matter be, for now. “I’m just passing through, I only stopped in town to purchase some supplies.” He gestured at his hatless head.

The old man barked out a sharp laugh before he could stop himself. “You telling me you rode all that way, in this unforgiving sun, just to buy a hat?”

“Among other things.” Wulf smiled, hoping it would disarm the other man’s hostility.

“What makes you think we even sell hats here?”

A simple answer was all he needed. If all outlanders were this difficult, he foresaw a long, tedious mission ahead of him. “If I was mistaken in my assumption, then I can take my business elsewhere.”

“Just hold on, there.” The gun lowered a bit. “You bringing money with you?”

Now this was a trap of a question. If he said no, it was at least another four or five days’ ride to Parthis. He doubted his current supplies were sufficient enough for that long of a trip. If he said yes, then it was entirely possible that the older man would simply shoot him and take his money. “That really depends on what you have for sale, I suppose. Even if Nurem’s ‘law’ doesn’t extend this far out, it wouldn’t hurt to have an Enforcer owe you a favor.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. Wulf could see the little gears working in his brain. After a moment, the old man lowered the gun entirely and motioned for Wulf to follow him.

“Don’t worry about your horse, the stable boy will grab him.”

As they walked down the street, toward the general store, Wulf began to notice a few faces appearing from behind windows of the buildings. But not many. This town looked to be dying a slow and agonizing death. A few opened their doors and peeked out. He counted no more than a dozen or so faces staring at him.

“Where is everyone?” Wulf craned his head around, but saw no additional forms appear.

“You’re looking at them.”

The old man paused at the door to the general store, before holding the door open for Wulf, who stepped through and immediately began coughing from the stifling heat and dust pent up inside. The dust was so bad it had caked over the windows, allowing only a little sparse light into the shadowy store.

“You saw that hill out yonder?” The old man asked as he lit a lantern.

Wulf squinted through the dingy window. He could see the large hill beyond the buildings. “Yes…”

“There’s the rest of the town.”

“A mine?” He hadn’t heard there were any useful ores in the area, otherwise Nurem would have had interest in returning to the area long ago.

“A grave.” The Triarc. Of course. It’s what passed for honoring the dead out in the borderlands. Place it on a grave, and hope that whoever or whatever was buried underneath didn’t come back for vengeance. A holdover from a time in dim memory when the Western Expanse had once been the center of the civilized world, before the coming of the desert. Wulf had never been a student of the old faiths, preferring to believe that his fate was what he made of it, and couldn’t even remember the name of the religion the Triarc belonged to. He doubted many of the border dwellers could either.

The old man shook his head and went to sit on stool behind the counter. “Damned plague got ‘em.”

“Plague? Like, the Grim Tide?”

“Don’t be silly, boy. The Tide hasn’t been through here since before the last of the Khandarian invasions. Though, truth be told, the town never really recovered from that. Sure, we’ve limped on, at least until the next cursed disease came through.”

The last time the Grim Tide had washed in from somewhere deep in the desert sands, it had devastated entire populations and destabilized the balance of power between the various city-states of the land. The desert cities had been emptied down to a man, and although less than two centuries had passed since the plague times, there was now little more than ruins left to mark the graves of entire nations. The harsh desert was universally unforgiving to man’s feeble ambitions.

Still, this other plague could potentially be even worse than the Grim Tide. Wulf approached the counter and plopped down the only serviceable hat he could find, a little frayed at the edges but in remarkably good condition compared to the other moth-eaten offerings. “Tell me more about this plague. Why hasn’t anyone else heard about it? Why hasn’t it spread?”

The old man picked up the hat, making a show of ascertaining its value, probably trying to guess how much he could bilk from this naïve outlander. “It just showed up one day, as plagues are wont to do by my ken, first taking one man, then his wife, then his neighbor. One by one, they all fell down. But gods, the children…” His voice broke and looked away from Wulf, who could swear he had seen the old man’s eyes water. After a moment, the older man recomposed and continued, but Wulf felt a distinct change in the other man’s demeanor, like that of someone struggling with guilt or a damaging lie. “There was no pattern to it, least none that we could see. We never found out where it came from, or how it even spread around. But it left a only few of us here.”

Were the survivors carriers? Had he become infected just from stopping here? Wulf felt perspiration on his neck. “How long?”

The old man didn’t meet his eyes. “Nearly ten years now.”

He allowed himself a sigh of relief. He was probably safe. As he paid for the hat, he heard the door behind him swing open, followed by a woman’s voice.

“Did I hear you say you were an Enforcer?”

Wulf turned to see who was approaching him, but kept the old man in his peripherals. He still wouldn’t have put it past them to try something on him. He eyed the athletically built female approaching him, judging from the relative youthfulness of her face and lack of wrinkles that she might not have been from around here. “Yes. From Nurem.”  He heard the old man mutter something about how the town was attracting all sorts of strangers these days.

“Do you know how foolish it is for you to be here?”

“I’m learning that now, yes.” He couldn’t believe people actually preferred the lawless wastes to Nurem’s authority. But apparently they did, with a fiery passion.

The woman looked past him, to the old man behind the counter. “This man’s all paid up, right?”

The old man nodded, warily watching the exchange.

“Good. Come with me.” She grabbed Wulf’s hand and pulled him toward the door. He complied, centering his senses in case an ambush awaited him outside. His other hand clutched his gun holster.

Once outside, the woman turned immediately down an alley, then another. Wulf guessed they were behind the stable, convenient if he ended up needing to make a quick getaway. The woman stopped and faced him, lowering her voice.

“Did Revas send you?”

That threw him. “How did you…?”

“Look, I’m an Enforcer, too. I’ve been operating out here for a few years now.”

Her knowledge of Judge Revas notwithstanding, Wulf couldn’t believe that just based on her word alone. “Show me your badge.”

“Are you daft? You can’t keep a badge on you out here, for the same reasons you can’t keep telling everyone what you are or where you’re from. Normally, if a gang catches you, they may just wound you and take everything you own. But if they find a badge, they’ll do all of that and make a bleeding, screaming example out of you. People out here are rather resistant to the law, haven’t you noticed?”

“Well, aside from you and the old man, I haven’t actually encountered anyone out here as of yet.”

“By the time you learn, it’ll be too late to take that particular lesson to heart. Why are you here?” She sighed at his distrustful gaze. “Alright, fine. I am Enforcer Tarryn, first name Pedra. Officially, I’m under report to Judge Jeryd in Nuremgard, though I frequently am sent out to the territories to hunt down fugitives and assess threats. Which is what I’m assuming you’re here for. But which one?”

Wulf had never met Judge Jeryd, but had heard of him by reputation. A harsh, but fair man. He supposed it wouldn’t hurt to share information with this woman. The worst she could do was kill him. “Both, actually. I’m heading to Parthis to collect a fugitive from custody. The leader of a terrorist group called the Terrus gang. Judge Revas believes the gang to be a potential threat.”

“Ah, Hollis Marshall. I’m assuming that Parthis has no idea you are coming to ‘collect’ their trophy catch?”

“I have a letter to the Lord of Parthis from the Judge himself, explaining the situation.”

“Then you had better hurry. Rumor is they’ve got Marshall scheduled for execution.”

A cold chill overcame Wulf. His mission would end a failure before it had even begun. “Was there no trial?”

“Out here, the trials are mostly forgone conclusions. After the damage the Terrus gang did to Parthis, the people are demanding blood.” She saw the look on Wulf’s face. “Look, I’ll ride out with you. I know the fastest roads, and frankly, you need some lessons on how not to stick out like a sore thumb.”

“I take issue with that.”

Tarryn had already turned away, heading to the entrance of the stable. “Take as many issues as you want, just do it quick. We’ve got a time limit on our hands.”

As Wulf and his new companion made it back out onto the road, he turned and gave one last look back at the skeleton of a town that was once called Deshran, feeling an unnatural chill run through him at the sight of the funeral mound dominating its outline, the misshapen Triarc sticking out of it like a dagger in the back.

Nurem: Desolation’s Edge – Chapter Four

As he awoke, Hollis Marshall decided he had never had a headache this bad, at least not without it being caused by a savage hangover.

He opened his eyes and immediately shut them with a pained hiss as they were seared by cursed sunlight. He turned his head and opened one, testing his vision to see if he had indeed gone blind, as he feared. He saw only a bare brick wall. He opened the other eye and looked around, taking in the details of the jail cell he found himself in. He lay on what was technically a cot, but in reality was a wooden plank nailed to the wall. The door to his cell looked to be wrought iron, as did the bars on the single window on the opposite wall. The window through which the piercing rays of the harsh midday sun were shining, directly onto the place where his head had been laying. The headache was making it difficult to even see straight, and the sunlight wasn’t helping one bit. He wondered darkly if that was intentional in the design. If so, the designers of this jail were a level just beyond sadistic. Wait, why was he in jail?

He sat up, or rather, attempted to. The moment he tried, blinding pain flared in his belly. With a stifled cry, he flopped back onto the cot and tried to recover. What in gods was wrong with him? His hands felt a cloth wrapping around his abdomen. He pulled up his shirt and craned his neck to inspect the injury. A bloody gauze covering over his right side was all the reminder he needed of the gunshot, and of the violent events that had led up to it.

He lay his head back with a groan and tried to concentrate, but was interrupted by a sharp clang on his prison door. His skull reverberated from the sound, and he swore by all of the gods above and below that he would punish whomever was making that sound.

“Wake up, Marshall!”

Hollis turned his head away and tried to fake being asleep. He was in far too much pain right now to deal with any and all possible consequences of his criminal life.

“Hey! Wake up!”

He heard a jingling of keys and then the telltale squeal of rusty hinges as his cell door opened. Apparently, whoever it was couldn’t take a hint. He heard footsteps approach and tensed, ready to jump into action if need be. With a sharp intake of breath and a stab of blinding pain, he realized that tensing anything, especially with his wound still fresh, was a horrifying mistake.

Whoever it was that was approaching had apparently seen his painful writhing. “Good, you’re awake. Saves me the trouble.”

Hollis opened one squinted eye to see a rather powerful looking woman in a guard uniform standing there. He didn’t recognize her. “What do you want?”, he hissed through gritted teeth.

“I need to check on that wound, make sure its not getting infected. You’ve been in and out of consciousness for a few days now. We need you alive and healthy. Until the trial, at least.” She smiled sweetly. “Then you’re on your own.”

He closed his eye and leaned back, feigning submission but mind racing furiously. Maybe when she came closer he could…

“Arms behind your head. In the manacles.”

Marvelous. He let out his breath in a disappointed huff and complied, feeling the cold metal spring shut around his wrists. These were surely barbaric times, when jails had lost their faith that prisoners would stick to the honor system. Where’s the trust?, he thought, staring at the ceiling. “You know, I usually need a few drinks before I’m game for being shackled.”

“Shut up. Now lay still.”

“Forceful. I like it.”

As she knelt beside his cot, he saw that she had no visible weapons on her at all. A quick glance at the closed cell door told him everything he needed to know about his situation. They weren’t taking any chances with him. They not only knew who he was, but what his reputation told them he was capable of. He felt her hands tugging lightly at the edges of the gauze, her eyes focused on her work.

“I know what you’re thinking, Marshall.”

“Yeah? You were born with the Gods’ Eye? What am I thinking?”

She grinned, but kept her eyes on what she was doing. “That door behind me is locked. It won’t open until I bang on it and another guard lets me out. See him back there, watching?” She raised her voice. “Simmon!”

Hollis saw a man’s head immediately peek around the edge of the wall, on the other side of the bars. “Anders! Is that prisoner giving you trouble?”

“Not a bit. Just ensuring our guest behaves for us. Now go away.” Simmon disappeared from view. Anders glanced up at Hollis. “Point taken?”

“Point taken.” He didn’t like her grin. He didn’t like her knowing glance. Something about her entire manner was starting to raise the hair on the back of his neck. “So, what happens now?”

“I wrap you back up and you sit here quietly.”

“Of course, but I meant after that. Am I just going to be left here in the dark until I die of old age?”

“You’ll go on trial for the many, many crimes committed by you and your gang.” Her hands were rough. Hollis doubted her capacity for soothing bedside manner.

“That’s hardly sporting. I mean, they did commit their own crimes. Why should I be held accountable for someone else’s actions?”

“You were their boss. Most of those crimes were committed under orders from you.”

“That’s ridiculous and I’ll prove it. Take old man Terrus, for instance.”

“What about him?”

“Am I to also be held accountable for his various misdealings and delinquencies? Or the things he made us do while he was boss? He’s been gone nearly a decade now.”

“Are you trying to give us more reasons to send you to the gallows?” She raised an eyebrow.  “He was never brought to justice. Legally, we could still hold you responsible, by proxy.”

“The gallows? That’s harsh. But you see the point I’m trying to make, right? That proxy stuff is bad law. Entirely unfair.”

“Unfair? People died, you scum.”

“People should have the good sense to get out of the way when danger is about.”

Anders finished with the gauze and stood up. “You know, when word got out that we caught the leader of the Terrus gang, the other territories all wanted a piece of you, too.”

“That’s very sweet. It’s nice to know I’m so popular.”

“Some of the deputies here came up with a rather clever way to make that happen.” Oh, this doesn’t sound good.

“My ears are simply tingling with anticipation.” But on the inside, Hollis’s stomach began to knot. He had seen what happens when the accused are given over to mob law. Law being something of a euphemism here.

“Instead of a hanging, it was suggested we tie you spread-eagle to a table and have a team of horses pull your limbs in various directions.” She mimed her limbs being pulled apart. For Hollis’s benefit, to be sure. “And then representatives from the territories all get a piece of the infamous Hollis Marshall, like a souvenir. Everyone would be happy.”

Barbaric. These people had no sense of decency. He should have taken Jimmy’s suggestion after Terrus died and moved operations to Nurem. At least there he could have a civilized execution. “I don’t like that plan. It, uh, it doesn’t make me happy.”

“Well, that’s hardly up to you.”

“Okay, compromise? Hang me first until I’m dead and then, now follow me here, and then pull me apart. I can’t stress the being-dead-before-the-pulling-apart part enough.”

“I’ll pass along your wishes, but…”, she flashed a sunny grin, “I think people are in the mood to see some of the pain and misery you’ve visited upon them all these years repaid in kind.”

“Then those people are twisted. And morbid. And seriously, consider this: wouldn’t that make all the pain and misery I allegedly caused over the years kind of justified then?”

“I’m leaving now, Marshall. You had best make your peace with whatever gods you worship, not that it would do any good. The Gates will be barred to you, as they are to all of your kind.”

“Then I’ll just stand outside of them and make a terrible racket until they let me in.”

“Good luck with that.” She banged on the cell door. “Simmon! We’re done!”

“Hey, wait!”

She stopped and looked back at him. “What is it?”

Hollis rattled his shackled hands. “A little help here?”

Anders smiled and came back. She leaned in close, like she was going to undue the shackles. Hollis caught something in her eye, something dangerous, manic even. It was his only warning. Her fist came down on his face, smacking his entire skull to the side. The burst of pain darkened his vision and he saw stars. Without thinking, he looked back at his tormentor just in time for her fist to come down again. This time he felt a tooth come loose. He spat it at her face. Her smile became a grin, her lips pulled back to show far too many teeth, a death rictus. Her eyes blazed with insanity. “Good, Marshall. Very good.” Her tongue traced the edge of her mouth, tasting his blood. She wiped most of it away. She leaned in even closer, her mouth inches from his, her breath on him. “If you keep that up, I could see you and I having some real fun.” He could only blink his eyes to keep the blood from pooling in them. Anders giggled and gave his face a playful smack, a parting gift of face-numbing pain for him to remember her by. She did reach up and undue the shackles, at least, before sauntering away. Before long, Hollis was left alone with only the blessed sound of her boots fading into the distance.

He supposed Jimmy wasn’t the only one who let his mouth get him in trouble. Not my finest moment. He turned his head and spat out more blood. Now what?

Nurem: Desolation’s Edge – Chapter Three

Even after hours of staring at the Three Pillars, Tracey Vallorne wondered if perhaps she needed an attitude adjustment.

Tracey had never considered herself of a religious sort. She looked around at the congregation surrounding her, and wondered just what it was these people were feeling as they silently focused their attentions on the inanimate objects upon hill before them. She knew what she was feeling, and it wasn’t the holy spirit. Instead, she felt the sweat trickling down her back. The reddening of her fair skin in the cruel midday sun. The eyes of covetous men sneaking glances at her, momentarily safe from the reproving glares of their own wives. The mocking caws from a nearby cactus crow. The blinding glare reflecting from the viewing window of the nearby minster. For the life of her, Tracey couldn’t understand why a priest would voluntarily choose to hold such a long service outside, not two hundred feet away from the minster itself, exposed to the various elements and disruptions the desert was known for. Why even keep the building open if it wasn’t to be used? It seemed wasteful to her, perhaps even sacrilegious, considering the dearth of resources here in the wastes.

She sighed as the priest finally stood from his kneeling position and turned to address the gathering. Finally… The man stared out across the crowd, his one eye glittering in the sunlight. He had an eye patch covering his left eye, and even from this far back in the crowd Tracey could see the long ragged scar that traced that side of his face, an eerie echo to a similar disfigurement she possessed. Her mark wasn’t nearly as severe as the priest’s, though, as she still had the use of both eyes.

Eventually, the priest began to speak in a gravelly, booming voice that seemed as if it could carry for miles across the hardpan desolation. Tracey listened with half an ear as the man droned on about the fires that consumed much of Parthis the night before, and the people who’d had their souls stolen from them by these “flames of wicked genesis”. The man spoke with a definitive authority, one that the people responded to with quiet reverence. Eventually, he offered a final prayer to the Pillars, and sent the congregation their separate ways with his blessings. Most left, though a few lingered, seeking advice or some such from the priest as he stood at the foot of the hill. Tracey found her way to the edge of the small crowd around the priest. She waited with as much patience as she could muster as petty problem after petty problem was presented to the priest, each complaint dressed up in a cover of false piety. Tracey wondered how any of these people were able to function on their as adults. Were they all brought up needing their hands held through every point of strife? Finally, the last of them cleared off, leaving her alone with the priest. She stepped forward, drawing the priest’s singular gaze.

“Is there something you wish to ask of me, humble daughter?” He smiled thinly at her, the harsh lines on his face thrown in sharp relief by the unrelenting sunlight.

“Do you ever tire of having to listen to people’s endless problems?”

“They seek direction when they are lost. It is my duty and honor to provide them with any assistance I am able.”

“Truly?” She watched his face, looking for any indications of his true thoughts.

He looked away for a moment. A brief grimace touched his face. “There was a time when I was such as they. A man of many vices. As I was, I could have cared less for their troubles. A selfish life, devoid of virtue. One that offered no true satisfaction. Aside from my children, that is, lost to me now…”

She frowned. The report she’d been given hadn’t mentioned any children. She wondered how incomplete her information was… “Plague?”

“No. It makes no matter.” His eye returned to hers. “I digress. I see how frightened these people are, and I sympathize with them. I feel their fears as vividly as they. After all, I am only a man, however imperfectly I have lived my life.” His gaze hardened. “I wonder, does this bother you?”

She bristled. “Not in the least. But I’ve seen firsthand what fear does to people.”

He glanced at the scar on her cheek. “I believe you may have. But not everyone can be generalized so readily.” He paused. “Perhaps you simply need an attitude adjustment?”

“You have no idea.”

“I am sure I do not. So, what is it I can do for you? Surely, you haven’t come here simply to idly palaver over the motivations of lower humanity.”

She measured the distance between her and the priest before answering. “Not exactly. Though, it is lower humanity that brings me here. I’m here for you…” It was her turn to pause. “Malcolm.”

Tracey watched as the priest’s smile disappeared. His entire demeanor shifted, and she felt a twinge of apprehension at the malice she now felt emanating from the false priest. He seemed to grow in size, his single eye becoming a pale blue portal into a soul as scarred as the face that housed it. And then, as quickly as it was there, the threat was gone. The old man visibly sagged.

“I don’t know how you came to know that name, but it belongs to someone that no longer exists. I ask you to leave me in peace, please.”

Seeing the man standing before her, she doubted that Malcolm had ever truly gone away. Her hand inched down to her belt, ready to flip her coat to the side and pull on the priest if necessary. With her other hand she made an exaggerated gesture in the air as she answered him, hoping to distract his attention if it came down to violence, “I appreciate the offer. Allow me to make a counter offer: you come with me, nice and quiet-like, north a ways to Telujha.”

“Telujha? And who, may I ask, in Telujha have I offended in some past life enough for him to send a bounty killer after me?” He said ‘bounty killer’ with an air of disgust.

Tracey could have gone on at length about how hypocritical it was for a criminal, former or otherwise, to look down on her career choice. Bounty killing was sanctioned, or at least tolerated, by the various peoples of the Expanse. She chose to let his slight go. He was probably just trying to keep her off balance. “Not him. Her.”

His eyebrow arched and he chuckled. A brief flash of the old Malcolm returned. “Her, huh? So, Dal Magris finally made good on her threat. Took her long enough. Just like a woman to keep a guy waiting till his hair goes gray.”

“Perhaps she was simply waiting for you to drop your guard.”

“Crafty.” Malcolm’s hand was working its way behind his back.

Tracey’s revolver was in her hand, as if it had jumped there of its own accord. She tutted the old man, who froze in place. “Let’s not do anything ornery here, pal. Dal Magris never specified dead or alive.” Actually, Dal Magris specifically wanted him alive. Malcolm didn’t need to know this, however. “Hands up.”

The old man complied. “Knowing her reputation, I’m inclined to think you may be lying about that.”

“Are you willing to bet on that?” She hefted the revolver a bit, emphasizing her position on the subject.

“Do you really think this is the first time I’ve stared down the silver?”

She sneered, her scar cruelly twisting her face. “Do you really think this is the first time I’ve pointed the silver at someone?” She held his gaze, never blinking.

“How would it benefit me to come with you? Either I draw on you and die here, or Dal Magris has her way and I die in her possession. Neither choice is very appealing, you understand.”

“If you come with me, who knows, you may catch me off guard and make good with another escape.”

The old priest appeared to consider this. “I don’t want to die. Maybe I’ll hide a little further away, next time. Cirillian, perhaps.”

Tracey found it hard to picture this grizzled one-eyed man in a laid-back, tropical setting. She doubted the people of Cirillian would appreciate his presence, either. “I’ll take that as a tacit agreement to my terms. Drop whatever it was you were sidling your hand toward to the ground and step away. Now.”

“As you say.” A small container plunked to the ground and he stepped aside. She couldn’t make out its contents from where she stood. “Medicine. I take it when needed.”

“And you need it now, with a gun pointed at your head?”

She saw his hands trembling. He noticed it himself and smiled apologetically. “Stress tends to make it worse.”

Tracey couldn’t tell if he was being truthful or not. Either he was an old man with an affliction that required medicine, or he was nervously trying talk her into letting him poison himself. She decided to play it safe. She unhooked a pair of handcuffs from her belt and tossed them to the ground in front of Malcolm. “Put ‘em on. I’ll think about your medicine while we travel.”

“You are more merciful than your reputation led me to expect, miss Vallorne.”

She grinned humorlessly. With his background, she wasn’t surprised he had guessed who she was. “Then you don’t know me very well, at all.” She gestured with her drawn gun. “Now get walking.”

Nurem: Desolation’s Edge – Chapter Two

Wulf Warren decided, as he scaled the seemingly endless steps of the Spire of Law, that he was glad he had not worn his armor to this summons.

His knees crackled as he mounted the last flight of stairs in the immense tower of metal and marbelite. Though he was only in his late thirties and his hair and beard had only recently begun to pepper, it was days like this that reminded Wulf he wouldn’t live forever. He paused at the top of the flight to catch his breath, trying not to think about the long walk back down. Gods, it was far too early in the day for this.

A patch of blue caught his eye against the white marbelite wall, a window. He approached and looked out over the still sleeping city of Nurem, fighting a feeling of vertigo when he saw how high up he really was. He could even see the fortress town of Nuremgard far to the north and west of the main city. This Spire was one of many in the sprawling walled city, though all were relatively recent additions in the past few decades, with the advent of steel in construction. He squinted in the rising sun’s already harsh rays and could make out the desert and plains that surrounded the city. A bird flew past the window, cawing wildly, a noisy reminder of how high up he really was. Wulf shook his head, wishing his feet were back on solid earth.

He turned and approached the ornate ghostwood door, the wood as white as the stone surrounding it, with an engraving in ancient Llanic carved into it. Wulf was two decades past his requisite Llanic courses at the Academy, as the language was the only surviving remnant of a civilization so old it had nearly passed entirely out of history, and thusly was not used in everyday situations. Wulf couldn’t recall much from those classes, either of the language or the history of the Llanic Empire, but he would always remember what these particular words meant.

He smoothed his gray Officer tunic, and then lifted the metal knocker on the door and let it fall, a jarring clang reverberating off of the marbelite walls on down the steps of the Spire. A click was heard on the other side of the door, and a muffled voice bid him entrance.

“Officer Warren, come in, take a seat.”

The speaker was a thin man who looked to be in his late fifties, beardless, with sensibly styled short white hair, and a pair of half-moon spectacles dangling on the tip of his nose. There was nothing particularly remarkable about this man that marked him as a Judge of the City, aside from the voluminous black robes adorned with golden stitching.

“Your Honor.”

Wulf nodded his respect and took the offered seat. The Judge’s chambers lavishly decorated, shelves piled high with tomes of knowledge, statues and paintings along the walls, and a massive viewport behind his desk, through which a stunning view was available of the sun rising from above the Shining Mountains to the east. Wulf tried to ignore the realization of his elevation, feeling his stomach roil. He turned his attention elsewhere, anywhere, in an attempt to send the nausea away. The desk in front of him itself was, curiously bare, save for a darkstone statuette of Lord of Balance, the faceless robed figure that held its arms out to the side like a scale. In one hand, was a metallic plate holding a skull. In the other, a heart. Though he had served the City’s Justice for twenty years, which in itself served the Lord of Balance, Wulf had always found the figure to be rather unsettling.

“I assume you are familiar with our Lord Aequitis?” the Judge smiled, indicating the statuette.

“It’s quite striking, your Honor.”

“You may call me Judge Revas, Officer Warren.” The older man reached across the desk and picked up the statuette. “I have so many other statues, sculptures, paintings, a collection I have been accumulating my entire life. Any one of them worth enough gold to purchase and run a small barony down south in the Lysian Plains.”

Wulf nodded. After nearly four decades of life in the capitol, he found the idea of a quiet life of luxury out in the ordered country increasingly appealing.

Revas continued, “Yet this.” He hefted the little statuette. “This is my favorite.” He tossed it to the floor, where it clanked sharply off of the marbelite floor near Wulf’s feet.

Wulf started at the sound, but didn’t say anything. He felt Revas was on the verge of making a point, but for the life of him couldn’t see what point that may be. At this stage in his life, he had arrived at the conclusion that he was best used serving as a blunt weapon, as opposed to navigating the ins and outs of the politics of leadership. For the most part, he felt that his superiors concurred, especially after that debacle with the Blackgate Murders a few years back. It was a certainty to Wulf that he had risen as far as he could in the organization, and he’d had nearly four years to make his peace with the situation.

“It cost three silver pieces down at the bazaar. Made entirely out of darkstone. Cheap and durable.” He laughed. “And there were dozens of them for sale!” Revas paused and looked appraisingly at Wulf, as if expecting something from him.

The statue. Of course. Wulf reached down and picked it up, handing it over to Revas, who dropped it absentmindedly onto his desk. “A fine thing, our Justice system,” the older man smirked. “There is always someone to return the law to us if it is lost in some way, yes?”

Was Revas mocking him? “My apologies, your Honor, but I assume you haven’t summoned me here just to clean up your mess.” He gestured at the darkstone statue on the desk.

The Judge’s eyes narrowed. Wulf felt a small triumph at needling Revas. The man could stand there and pontificate all day, but that didn’t mean he could talk down to Wulf in any way. Whatever his shortcomings might be, Wulf wasn’t some spineless whelp fresh out of the Academy. His days of mindless repetitions of “Yes, Sir!” were years behind him now.

The Judge turned from Wulf and went to his chair. He sat down, taking his time to get comfortable, before leaning forward.

“On the contrary, Officer.” Revas sighed and produced an envelope from the folds of his robes. He placed it on the desk in front of him, clasping his hands together. “That is exactly why I have summoned you here. I have a mess on my hands, though not specifically one of my own doing. I believe you are the one who can help me clean it up.” He slid the envelope across the desk.

Wulf reached for it, but paused before picking it up. “Why me?”

“You came highly recommended for this kind of assignment.”

Wulf couldn’t fathom who would have made such a recommendation. As far as he knew, his supervisors merely tolerated his presence. Maybe they were simply trying to pass him off onto some other unsuspecting superior. “What kind of assignment?”

Revas gestured toward the envelope. “Why don’t you find out for yourself?”

Wulf took the envelope, but made no move to open it. “I’m a slow reader.”

Revas gave Wulf a long glance. “I think you read better than you are willing to admit.” Revas stood and paced around the desk. “This is a manhunt,” he paused, his hand on the statue of the Lord of Balance. “Out in the Western Expanse.”

“Your honor, I appreciate the offer, however I am an Officer of the Law. My jurisdiction is within the city. Not hundreds of miles away in the border lands.” Wulf waved his arm in the direction of the Expanse, visible as a far away band of brown on the northwestern horizon.

“Your jurisdiction is wherever I tell you.”

“The territories in the Expanse may beg to differ, your honor. Not to mention my superiors, as well.”

“If you accept, they will no longer be your superiors.”

Was he suggesting… “You’re saying I’ll be an Enforcer?” Now the supposed recommendation made even less sense. He wanted to ask if this was some elaborate ruse, but couldn’t imagine a Judge taking this kind of time to play a part of some amateur prank.

Revas nodded. “Back to the assignment at hand, your quarry will be a group of criminals who refer to themselves collectively as the Terrus Gang.”

Wulf searched his memory. “I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard of them.”

“I am not surprised. They operate primarily in the wastes around Oseti. They rarely come any further east.”

“Then, why is this Terrus Gang our concern? Neither Oseti, nor any other of the city-states past the Straights have claimed any allegiance to Nurem for years now. Why not let them handle it?”

“Normally, we would. However, the Terrus Gang has graduated from a fringe nuisance to a potentially legitimate threat to our society. Word has reached me from the Lord of Parthis that his city burns, and dozens of people are dead or wounded, due to an unprovoked terrorist attack being attributed to the Terrus Gang. Our city has enjoyed an unprecedented period of relative peace for well over a century now, due in no small part to our preemptive policies we have towards these sorts of disturbances.”

Due in no small part to the withdrawal of the Khandarians, as well, Wulf added silently. Returning his focus to the subject at hand, Wulf found it difficult to believe that a small-time group of carriage raiders would ever have any reason to cause such wanton destruction. “Are we sure this was the actions of a whole group, as opposed to one individual?”

“We have only the information the city’s Lord sent. This is why I’m sending an agent out into the Expanse. You are to ascertain as to the true cause of this attack and, if at all in your power, end the threat before it roams any further east.”

Wulf nodded in agreement. “And the leader, someone named Terrus?”

“There was a Terrus, yes. Though, he apparently met some sort of mortal misfortune in years past. Since then, one of his thugs has taken control, a Hollis Marshall. He was to be your primary target, but things, however, have changed.”

“Was?”

“Hollis Marshall was found unconscious at one of the city’s gates, presumably shot while attempting to escape. He has been taken into custody is being held until he is fit to stand trial.”

“How do we know it is actually Hollis Marshall?”

“Aside from matching eye-witness descriptions, he was found possessing a gang pin with the Terrus insignia.”

“Good. Let him hang. Makes our jobs a little easier.”

Revas chuckled. “If only it were that easy. The leadership of his gang has dispersed into the wastes, no doubt waiting to gather again and hatch further nefarious deeds. We have no information on where they could have gone to ground, or what they plan to do next.”

Wulf could see where this was going. He leaned forward, his interest piqued. “But we have someone who does.”

“Technically, Parthis has that someone. And although Nurem no longer rules the region, we have maintained a favorable relationship with the various city-states, especially Parthis. This however, isn’t charity and I’m certain their Lord is only willing to remand Hollis Marshall to Nurem in return for us guaranteeing the total annihilation of the Terrus Gang.”

“Alright, so if Marshall is no longer the primary target, who is?”

“His former second in command, a James or ‘Jimmy’ Bariss. We suspect it was he who shot Marshall and left him to be taken by the city guard.”

“Well, that’s loyalty amongst outlaws for you.” Wulf shook his head.

“Indeed. Now, although Bariss is now your primary target, do not underestimate the threat of the four other leadership members. Their profiles are all in the envelope, and I suggest you pay close attention. These are hardened cutthroats for whom murder is a game, and human lives merely points to keep count.”

“Dead or alive?”

“Try to keep at least one of them alive, if possible. We have a secure holding area that they will be taken to. These brigands will be interrogated to see how large their operation potentially is, and what kind of threat their activities could pose to our city.”

Wulf knew the holding area Revas was alluding to. The Silent Sentinel. He’d never been there himself, but had occasionally seen from afar the mobile prison fortress patrolling the harbor. The stories he’d heard about the place…

“And if they can’t be taken alive?”

Revas grinned, white teeth flashing in the morning sun. “I leave that judgment up to you, Enforcer Warren.”

Wulf smiled. Enforcer Warren. He could get used to that.

Nurem: Desolation’s Edge – Chapter One

It was during the second song that Hollis Marshall felt he may have to shoot the man on stage.

What the young musician was doing was a travesty to what any sane individual would call music. The lanky fellow was hollering out a series of cliché lyrics in a warbling voice that lacked any sort of sincerity, his shabby wooden guitar not so much playing notes as it was screaming out in protest. Hollis wondered if anyone else in here was as offended as he, and looked around at the other handful of patrons in the bar. His scowled when he saw that he was the only one giving the spectacle on stage any thought at all. He should have expected that, as no one came to the Liver’s Bane to enjoy the atmosphere or take in the sights. But with Jimmy being a no-show for over an hour now, the dank saloon’s ambiance was starting to damage his calm. The fool on stage began singing a slow, mournful ballad about his mud hound wandering off, and Hollis was abruptly aware of his hand squeezing the grip of his revolver. He couldn’t remember moving his hand to his holster in the first place, but now that it was there, he gave careful consideration to ending this immediate irritation…

An impatient female voice intruded into his focus. Hollis tore his eyes away from the unknowingly fortunate young lad with guitar, his hand falling away from his weapon. A serving girl was standing next to his table, tapping her foot. “Pardon?” He asked.

She spoke as one might to a child. “Do you want another?” She indicated his empty mug on the table next to him.

The server wasn’t a bad looking girl, and who was to tell if Jimmy would ever arrive at this point. It wouldn’t be the first time Jimmy had failed to show up to a meeting, so perhaps some female companionship would distract him from casual murder. Gods knew alcohol wasn’t doing the trick by itself. He had to admit, though, the warbler on stage was putting him in a decidedly un-romantic mood. He waved her off wordlessly. The girl moved on to another table without a look back.

“Hey, it’s the boss man!”

“And he’s low on booze!”

Hollis cursed underneath his breath. He had hoped to wait till after meeting with Jimmy to gather the rest of the crew. They had dispersed into Parthis over a week ago, as they tended to do between jobs. It was as much an opportunity to spend their ill-gotten gains as it was a break from one another. So far, the minimal contact policy seemed to be working, as in-gang shootouts were currently at an all-time low. Two hulking figures stood at the Liver’s Bane’s entrance, the gaslights outside throwing their outlines in sharp relief. Anyone who knew the Simurgh brothers would recognize those silhouettes anywhere. That is, if their booming voices hadn’t given them away first. The two brothers moved toward Hollis’s table, pausing only to yell for a round of ale. Mikello sat first, on Hollis’s left, and Markin sat at Hollis’s right.

A jab in his shoulder from Markin. “What’s going on, boss man? You look like your mud hound just ran off.”

Hollis gave Markin a dark look. Damn his eyes thrice for reminding Hollis of that performer’s terrible song.

Mikello reached over and picked up Hollis’s long empty glass. He made it dance upon the tabletop, and, raising his voice to a falsetto, said, “Oh me, oh my! Cheer up, boss man! You think you’re low on spirits? Look at me; I’m an empty beer glass!”

“Damn, that’s clever stuff, brother.” Markin said, laughing.

Hollis leaned back in his chair, briefly deciding that one town wouldn’t be big enough for the next dispersal. “What brings you boys in here? We don’t have a job lined up, yet.”

The serving girl arrived, putting fresh mugs of ale in front of the two brothers and Hollis. “Heard you were gonna be in the area,” Mikello said, grabbing his glass and taking a long draught. “Drink up, boss man!”

Hollis wondered how they had found out, as the only person who had known his whereabouts today would have been…

“Jimmy found us down at Missy Lou’s, told us to meet up here,” Markin scowled. “Only reason we didn’t put a bullet in him for interrupting our, uh, private reflection time with the missies was because he offered to pay for all our drinks. And more private reflection time later on.” He saw Hollis glaring the glass of ale. “So, drink up, boss man!”

Hollis scowled at the ale. He was a lager man, himself. Ale tasted like urine to him, or at least what he imagined urine to taste like. Maybe it was just the color of the liquid in the glass that invited the comparison. “Did he tell anyone else?”

“Sure. The whole gang. Jimmy told us if we wanted in on the next job to find you here.” Mikello thumped his now empty mug on the table to get the serving girl’s attention.

“Did he now?” Son of a bitch, Hollis thought. He should have known something like this was going to happen. Hollis had to wonder at Jimmy’s audacity. Did the man think Hollis was going to step aside and let Jimmy take the lead, simply because Jimmy had tracked down the information this time? Not likely. He grabbed the mug of ale and got over his dislike of the pale liquid within a few gulps. Get far enough into a glass, and all of the stuff tasted the same.

The other members of the Terrus gang filed in, Phillio and Alek, and sat at the table. Still no Jimmy. Alek sat next to Markin, throwing a cursory greeting at Hollis before grabbing a mug and draining it in one gulp. Phillio glanced at Hollis in acknowledgment, his dark eyes betraying no emotion as he took the seat next to Alek. The two were close, but not as inseparable as the Simurghs.

Drinks were drained in record breaking amounts, with Alek and the Simurgh’s going punch for punch. Hollis eventually relented and had one last lager. He didn’t want to be slurring his words when Jimmy arrived and the planning began. Phillio ordered whiskey, as he always did, but only nursed the small glass. Now that he thought about it, Hollis wasn’t certain he’d ever seen Phillio actually drink. Curious. Hollis checked his pocket watch, and rolled his eyes. Over two hours now. If Jimmy didn’t show up, Hollis figured he’d be stuck with the gang’s tab. He could almost hear his wallet crying out in pain.  Never again, Jimmy.

A few gun shots sounded from somewhere outside. The people in the Liver’s Bane showed about as much interest in the shots as they had with the regrettable entertainment; a few faces glanced over at the door, and then returned to their various shady dealings. Hollis shared their indifference, as long as the cause of the ruckus didn’t insert itself into his business. The guards of most of these little towns were more than sufficient to take care of violent undesirables. More shots were fired, this time much louder. The door to the saloon slammed open, and a figure rolled through, pistol drawn and at the ready. The figure jumped to his feet, swearing loudly at something or someone outside of the bar as he hid by the door. Hollis recognized that voice, and grimaced. Of course, that would be Jimmy.

“Fellas, back exit. Go. I’ll cover Jimmy here.” Hollis stood, drawing his weapon. The other members of the gang moved without hesitation. “Regroup at the house.”

Jimmy yelled, “No, Hollis, the house is compromised!” He leaned out and fired two shots out the door. Answering shots blasted in from outside. A glass mug shattered, eliciting a scream from one of the serving girls as they fled out the back exit.

Damn your eyes, what did you do, Jimmy? “Okay, change of plans. Get the horses, try and run the gate before it closes. Mind the guards, they’ll be out in force by now.”

The few patrons in the bar who refused to evacuate flipped over their tables, ducking down behind them to hide from the rain of projectiles. A couple whoops and a few hollers were thrown about. Hollis saw one of them still drinking, clutching a mug in one hand and a weapon in the other. Apparently, even a deadly shootout was preferable to the awful acts on stage tonight. Hollis crouched and moved past him. He took up position facing Jimmy from the other side of the door.

“What about you guys?” Alek yelled from the back exit, his rifle in hand.

“Don’t worry about it, just go. Soldier’s Bay.” He waited for Alek’s nod of understanding before turning his attention to the problem Jimmy had brought down on them.

“Well?” Hollis asked, eyebrows raised.

Jimmy smirked at him. “Well, I finished the job. But there were… complications in the final phase of the plan. Situation became fluid.”

Finished the job? He couldn’t be serious… “Fluid? No, this,” Hollis waved toward the direction of the shooters outside, and continued, “isn’t fluid. We’ve been over this before.” Hollis moved away from the door toward the window. He poked his head out, trying to spot the attackers. He saw nothing but the darkened empty streets of Parthis. “What good is pulling off a job when you’re not alive to enjoy the rewards?”

“Hollis, buddy, as much as I’d love to regale you with tales of my heroic exploits, I think we have more pressing matters to attend to at this time.”

Hollis could see his friend was right, and decided to let the subject drop for now. “Fine. How many?”

“Four.” Jimmy leaned out and fired again. A strangled squawk was heard from outside. “Three.”

“Guards?”

“Not yet. These are, uh, private investors.”

Hollis shook his head in disbelief. “Were these private investors aware of their donation to our affairs?”

Jimmy grinned, and Hollis had to wonder if this isn’t how Jimmy had wanted the job to turn out from the beginning. “You’re kidding, right? Are they ever really aware?”

He fixed Jimmy with a dead stare. “Not when it’s planned right.” Hollis ignored Jimmy’s dismissive head shake, spying one of the shooters crouch running toward an abandoned produce cart. Hollis aimed and squeezed off a round, nailing the man in the knee cap. Firing again, Hollis ended the man’s screams of pain. Two now.

He didn’t hear any answering shots. In fact, it was noticeably silent. What were they waiting for out there? Jimmy fired again, breaking the stillness. “Jimmy, stop firing.”

“Why? We got ‘em on the run!”

“Listen.”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Exactly. They’re moving around. Probably trying to outflank us. Might be trying to cover the back door.”

Jimmy glanced back at the exit. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He looked over at Hollis, his grin still in place. Typical Jimmy. “Well, at least it gets fun now. What do we do?”

“We could sit tight and let them move around all they want out there. Wait ‘em out, till they make a mistake.”

“Sounds good.”

“You don’t think the guards are on their way now? They’ll have heard the shots.” Hollis watched Jimmy reload and wondering how anyone could simply be that content to spin the wheel of fate and then just go with it. “Jimmy, they aren’t going to care who started the fight. They’ll just drop the gate and deal with the agitators.”

“Okay, so we go. Cover of darkness should work in our favor if we’re fast.”

“Right, but we need to—“

Jimmy pushed away from the door, quickly glanced around, and then dashed to the back exit, shouting, “How’s this for planning ahead, Hollis?” He disappeared into the darkness behind the Liver’s Bane.

Hollis sat there, mouth open, letting his unfinished sentence fade into the silence of the now vacant tavern. With a shake of his head, he collected himself and followed Jimmy out into the darkness. As he moved, he kept expecting to hear the sharp report of the attackers’ weapons signaling a premature end to his life. He crouch ran through the vacant bar, taking care to stay behind the overturned tables as he moved. He passed a few bodies in the darkness, unfortunate fools caught in the crossfire.

Hollis ducked out the exit and dropped behind a barrel for cover, listening for the sound of incoming death. He saw a few more bodies strewn about the alleyway, but gave them no more than a brief thought. A dark form stirred from its place on the ground, coughing and groaning. The warbling timbre of the young man’s voice was unmistakable. He remembered his earlier irritation with the kid, and how he had considered putting a bullet through him simply for his singing. Nausea rose through him as he realized his dark wish had come true. The younger man sputtered, blood dripping from his mouth, joining the growing puddle of crimson surrounding his fallen body from his wounds. Jimmy hissed at him from an alleyway further down the street, waving his hand to get Hollis’s attention. Hollis gave the wounded kid on the ground one last glance, the young man’s tenacious grip on life disturbing Hollis in a way he couldn’t figure out.

The boy looked up at him, eyes wide with fear. “Please…”, he gasped, reaching for Hollis.

Jimmy hissed again. Hollis gave himself a tap on the forehead with two fingers and pointed toward the sky, then moved on past the dying boy.

As they made their way through the alleys toward the town’s gate, Jimmy gave him a sidelong glance. “Did I just see you-“ he imitated Hollis’s forehead prayer, then continued “-for that waste back there?”

Hollis hadn’t thought Jimmy would have noticed that. If he was being honest, even he wasn’t sure why he had done the prayer. “That boy deserved a scrap of peace in his last moments. Not his fault he caught a bullet.”

“Now, Hollis,” Jimmy began, “As long as I’ve known you, I never had you pegged for being a believer. Have things changed? Are we going to don some wooly robes and drag Triarcs through the town streets on the holy days now?”

“Shut it, Bariss,” Hollis ignored the other man’s raised eyebrows and clenching jaw. Hollis realized he had taken to using that tone with his old friend more and more these past few months. He took a breath, not wanting to escalate the situation further. “Look, just keep quiet, the guards will be on the lookout for suspicious persons. We match that on a normal day, so let’s not make it too easy for them.” He sped up, passing Jimmy and taking the lead. A small doubt tugged at the back of his mind, asking him how wise it was to turn his back on Jimmy. How long would the decaying memory of their friendship stay final violence? Hollis put away that troubling thought and kept moving.

They traveled in silence through the dark alleys of Parthis, the time for words having passed. Hollis had a feeling that he and Jimmy weren’t so much watching out for each other any longer, as much as just covering their own respective backsides. He guessed it didn’t matter who was watching out for what, as long as they were still doing it.

Eventually, they came upon the gate out of town, or rather, the gate that would have led out of town had it been raised. And surrounding it were half a dozen of the town guard. Each guard was stopping random townsfolk as they passed by, asking questions about the altercation at the Liver’s Bane. One guard was on horseback, taking notes on the various citizens’ responses.

Jimmy elbowed Hollis’s side. “Well, now what?”

“We can’t get through there as things stand.”

“Naturally. Another gate?”

“I’m sure they’re all closed by now. Seems a shame to waste any more time running around the town when we have the exit right in front of us.”

“Agreed. But how do we get those guards away long enough for us to lower the gate and get through without them finding us out?”

“I think…we need a distraction.” Hollis winced as he said it. The plan sounded so flimsy, it practically invited disaster. However, he couldn’t think of anything better. The only other option he could think up involved a rather foolhardy jump from the roof of the guard house to the wall, and then over the other side. How they were to scale the three story guard house from the outside, what they were to do about the three story drop back to the ground on the outside of the walls, and how they were to escape through the desert on foot without any provisions when the next town was over three days ride in any direction, though, were just a few of the massive bumps in the plan he couldn’t reconcile. “A big distraction.”

“Too bad we don’t have any explosives with us. That’d free up the area right quick.”

“Yes, that’d be the ideal lure. An explosion somewhere further into town would keep them occupied more than long enough for us to lower the gate and get through.” Hollis wondered if Jimmy was thinking of the various supplies now abandoned at their hideout, including an obscene amount of explosives. He still found it incredible how much Jimmy’s recklessness was continuing to cost them. And what did Hollis or the Terrus Gang have to show for it? Nothing. There would be an accounting for this situation, Hollis vowed. But only after they got out of this mess.

“Lure? I was talking about tossing the explosives at the guards themselves. We could just waltz through afterward, amongst the tiny people pieces.”

The dying singer’s face flashed through Hollis’s mind. He felt his stomach churn, but decided it had to do with that foul ale he’d drunk earlier. Regardless of his stomach’s feelings, Hollis saw a massive flaw with Jimmy’s plan. Hollis pointed at the gate. “Do you see how close they are to the gate? And how spread out they are? Anything powerful enough to take out all six of those guards would damage the gate, as well. We’d be trapping ourselves in.”

“Ah.”

Ah’ was a bit of an understatement. Regardless, this discussion was over a moot point. “It doesn’t matter anyway. We don’t have any explosives, so we’ll have to—“

A thunderous rumble shook the ground beneath Hollis and Jimmy, followed by a wave of hot wind blasting through the alley behind them. Hollis turned and watched as a massive orange fireball lifted toward the sky from a few blocks back. Back in the direction their hideout…

Hollis caught Jimmy’s eye. “’Compromised’, was it?”

Jimmy smirked. “In a way.” He pointed past Hollis. “Check it out. The guards are leaving.”

Indeed they were. Hollis wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. They waited for the last guard to charge off down the street, and then approached the gate controls. Hand on lever, a thought occurred to Hollis. “Jimmy, we still need—”

“Stop where you are and step away from the gate!”

Hollis and Jimmy whirled. It was the guard on horseback. In a flash of motion nearly too quick to register, Jimmy drew his revolver and put a bullet between the guard’s eyes, the back of the man’s skull exploding outward in a spectacular display of blood and gore. Hollis was glad the commotion from the explosion masked most of the sound of Jimmy’s shot. The guard’s body slumped forward, and began slowly sliding off the side of the horse. Jimmy apparently found this too slow, as he stepped forward and yanked the dead man’s corpse off of the horse. He turned to Hollis, who still had his hand on the lever. “Let me guess, you were going to say ‘Jimmy, we still need horses’, right?” He reached over Hollis’s hand and yanked the gate lever. “Problem solved.”

Hollis looked down at the guard’s corpse, then back at Jimmy, who was climbing onto the horse. Jimmy caught Hollis’s eye, a look of cruel amusement on his face. “Gotta love those hard calibers, eh?” Hollis reached for the reins. Jimmy yanked them out of reach. “Not this time.”

Really? Now of all times? “Jimmy, we don’t have time to argue over this. I’m not riding passy.”

“You are so right.” Jimmy pointed his revolver at Hollis’s chest and backed the horse away. “We don’t have time to argue anymore.”

“Jimmy…” Whatever his thoughts earlier, he didn’t think he’d ever have had the heart to betray Jimmy. Jimmy, however, had no compunctions of the sort.

“Oh, come on, don’t give me that look. We both knew this was coming. Things aren’t what they used to be.”

“I can’t argue that.”

“Finally, we agree. It’s become clear to me, Hollis, that you don’t have the heart for this line of work any longer. The other boys are with me, they just never had the stones to say it to your face.” Jimmy face hardened, his eyes cold diamonds in the dark, shining from beneath the brim of his hat. “We’re done, Hollis.”

“Terrus put me in charge for a reason, Jimmy.”

“Terrus? That old goat was senile. By the end he was talking to his horse.”

“We all talk to our horses.”

“No, I mean full-blown conversations. Like it was talking back to him.” Jimmy frowned, as if attempting to imagine what a horse may have had to say on the subject. After a moment, he shrugged. “Hell, I’m surprised the other guys went ever along with his decision. Especially after seeing how far gone he was.”

Hollis remembered how bad it was, seeing the man who had taken in two orphans from the streets of Nurem and taught them the way of life in the Expanse, seeing him falling so far from what he had been. He wondered if that night Terrus had experienced any moments of clarity before the night he had wandered off into the shadows of the desert night, maddening bellsnake venom coursing through his veins. “Maybe they trusted the legacy of the man who made the choice, instead of the circumstances that forced him into it.”

“I don’t think trust factored into it with this bunch. Outlaws, remember? I think they were just happy they didn’t have to think things through for themselves. That there wouldn’t be a gap between jobs with an immediate successor.”

Hollis took a tentative step toward Jimmy, trying a different tact. He had to get that gun away from him. “Jimmy, listen, I know things have soured between us recently. But we grew up together. Just think about what you’re doing.”

Jimmy let the gun lower in his grip, considering Hollis’s words. Hollis let himself hope that his old friend could be brought to reason… until he saw Jimmy smile. Not the mask of cruelty he had worn after gunning down the guard, or the cocky grin he had flashed during the shootout at the Liver’s Bane. This was a real one, tinged with sadness, heavy with thought and purpose. “I am.” He lifted the gun again.

There was a sharp report throughout the desolate plain, and Hollis felt a searing pain in his stomach. He reached down and felt a slick wetness on his abdomen, and then felt his knees give out. As a blackness infinitely darker than a moonless night enveloped his vision, Hollis heard Jimmy quietly say one last thing as he walked back to his horse.

“When we finally meet again at the Gates of Surnoth, I’ll be expecting your apology, Hollis.”

Nurem: Desolation’s Edge – Prologue

Twilight was falling upon the Western Expanse.

It was that mystical hour where it seems as if the entire sky is but a thin window into the unknown. Vast mesas stood guard like black sentinels at the sun’s back, while strange constellations of stars swirled endlessly overhead. It was that time when the sureties of day’s reality give way to the wild imaginations of the night.

The moon had begun its slow journey across the sky, emerging from hiding in the east, casting its strengthening glow across the hardpan valley, as the sun’s weakening rays retreated ever further toward the opposite horizon. Somewhere, a lone wolvar howled a mournful tone.

It wasn’t long before the sun had finally fled behind the hills, abandoning the valley to the growing darkness, as if absolving itself of any terrible deeds that were to be committed this night.

At the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley, a dark silhouette stood watching, as if overseeing the motions of the encroaching night. A small glow appeared as the figure lit a cigarette, its weak light reflecting briefly in the man’s eyes. Those eyes, belonging to a hunter of men, watched as the cigarette’s thin smoke drifted lazily into the night sky, eventually dissipating into the still air. The eyes returned their watchful regard to the valley below.

The sun finally disappeared behind the mesas with a final flash, allowing the encroaching darkness its nightly victory. The last glint of natural light reflected briefly against the longrifle leaning against a nearby boulder. As if on cue, the man finished his cigarette and firmly stepped it out with one boot. He reached over without looking and took the longrifle into his grasp. The weapon came up, and then once again the man was still.

Moments stretched while the man stood there. The stars brightened and the moon took over the sun’s watchful guard of the world below. A gun shot shattered the tranquility, a deafening thunderclap in the vast stillness of the valley. And for a long instant, all was silent. The man lowered his rifle, eventually letting it go entirely. The sound of footsteps approached, but the man paid them no heed. He dropped to his knees, one hand reaching up to his chest, before coming away glistening with blood. A shadow separated itself from the nearby darkness and loomed behind the kneeling man. The shadow raised one hand, the light of the moon shining across a large revolver.

A second shot echoed through the valley. The shadow slipped away into the night. And once more, all was silent in the Western Expanse.

SHADOWS AND SILVER – Chapter One

I am being followed. At least, I think I am. Who or why, I haven’t the foggiest. Yet.

I try not to change my pace as I walk down the cracked sidewalk. If I speed up or turn around, whoever it is that’s following me could panic. I can’t have that. I need more time to feel out their intentions before I can act. A blast of wind blows in, an avalanche of cold air and rain billowing my trench coat open and soaking me to the bone. I have to keep a hand on my wide-brimmed hat to keep it from blowing away. I decide to take this opportunity to readjust my coat, the normally tan cloth so darkened by the incessant rain it may as well have been black, and pull it closer to me. This allows me to place my other hand near my revolver, hopefully without arousing any suspicion.

But before I can do anything about my pursuers, I need to know how many are tailing me. I steady my breathing and stretch out my awareness, listening closely to the ambient sounds of the dark city borough. I slowly parse out the car horns and engine noise; I hear people yelling at each other and tune them out; I pick up the sound of the heavy autumn rain rattling against tin rooftops and move past it; there’s a heavy splash through a puddle— There! A second splash follows, along with a stifled curse, coming from behind me.

Ahead of me I see a battered old coupe parked in front of a shuttered apothecary, and just beyond, the entrance to a small alleyway. I make my way toward the alleyway, hearing the footsteps behind me gradually getting louder. They’re speeding up. I wonder if they are on a deadline, or if they’re afraid I was about to make a break for it. Judging from the volume of their tread, though, they were still a good ways behind me, and they hadn’t yet broken their speedy stride into a run. As I come up on the parked coupe, I fix my eyes on the apothecary’s windows. In their grimy and faded reflection I could make out myself, and then two smaller shapes at least a dozen paces back. I pass the shop and turn the corner into the shadowy alley. Hiding from these two shouldn’t be a problem here. I find a shallow alcove just past the corner and disappear into the darkness, waiting. I hear both pursuers enter the alley, their boots scraping against the slick pavement. Their voices bounce off the walls of this manmade canyon, echoing loudly. Perfect. They’ve thrown quiet caution to the wind, and in their haste, I can make my move. I ease my revolver out of its holster.

A shadow stalks toward my hiding place, swearing and not even bothering to lower his voice. I let him pass without incident, marveling at his lack of awareness. These guys were rank amateurs, and I had to wonder who would’ve been desperate enough to hire them to do anything, much less trail me. A second shadow passes by and promptly drops like a sack of rocks when my gun comes down across the back of his head. The body splashes down into a puddle and I wince at the sound.
The first pursuer pauses and begins to turn around. “Hey, Bolton, did you hear that? It sounded like a—“

“Hold it right there,” I say. To his credit, the first pursuer freezes in place, hands stretched out from his body timidly. He is a thin man, dressed in the standard black coat and matching hat that most hired goons in this city seem to find fashionable. His partner is much more solidly built, and I’m glad that he was the first to fall into my impromptu ambush. Big Boy could have been trouble.

I keep my revolver trained squarely on him, and step back from the downed thug. I couldn’t afford to be surprised by Big Boy playing possum. “Turn around. Slowly. Keep your hands up.” Thin Man starts to turn and hesitates. Was he going to make a move? I can’t give him time to think. I have to keep him off-kilter. “Now.” I raise my voice, putting some force behind it. The Thin Man obeys and briefly locks eyes with me before seeing his partner’s body in a mud puddle between us.

“Damn, man, you didn’t have to kill him!” He starts forward toward his partner, until I clear my throat and wave my gun at him. He looks back up to me as I shake my head slowly.

“He’ll live. He’s gonna have a hell of a headache when he wakes up, though. Now, are you carrying?” Thin Man shakes his head violently. “Is your friend?” Another shake of the head. I raise my voice, just to throw him off balance, “If I ask you a question, you don’t just shake your head. You answer me.”
“No! No, we don’t have any guns. I don’t even own one.” Thin Man’s words fall out in a nervous jumble, his hands shaking. “Please, you misunderstand, we were just sent to find you.”

“You could have put in a call to my office.”

Thin Man cocks his head. “We didn’t know you had an office…”

“I don’t. Never mind. The point is, stalking a man down an empty street at night ain’t exactly the safest way to approach him. Why, he may even think you mean to do him some sort of harm. And who knows how said man may react in that situation.” I nod toward Big Boy, who let out a pained groan and began to stir.

Thin Man’s eyes twitch down to his partner. “I… see your point.”

“Good.” I clear my throat, bringing Thin Man’s eyes back up to mine. I grin, making sure to show far too many teeth. Thin Man gulps. “Now walk.”