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.
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.