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.”