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?