A FOOL’S ROSE
They were hot on his trail, a pack of rapid men rushing through desolate streets and shuttered doors towards a scrawny thief whose appetite was only matched by hubris and desperation. Sweat streaked down Cole Livingston’s face, staining the secondhand suit that dulled with overuse two years prior. The weight under his right arm grew heavier with each frantic step leading him off of the primary streets and into one of the endless alleyways crisscrossing the byways of Malifaux. At first the large, parcel-wrapped tome he carried felt like any other book. Now it became the heaviest thing in two worlds. Despite the layer of muscle born from two decades of impoverished labor and fighting for the scraps of life, twin fires blazed inside his lungs. Rounding, backtracking, and never pausing, he eluded the shouts and footsteps that lingered behind him just out of sight. Silence save his own breath overtook the atmosphere around him. He had felt like he ran for days in those scant hours of escape. Alone, if just for a moment, Cole slumped against the mold covered brick and dug into his breast pocket with his free hand. His fingers brushed the comforting feel of his Peacebringer handle and the leather grip of poniard. A grin worked its way across Cole’s face as he brought forth a silver flask adorned with a rose emblem and emblazoned with a name that would never leave his soul. The whiskey deluged his throat and brought a brief moment of peace in the chaos of his mind.
Weeks of lying and weaseling out the information from seedy taverns and tetanus ridden brothels that couldn’t even compare to the shadow of the Honey Pot would apparently do him in this night. But the allure of one last score and one final payday was too great. To finally come home and embrace the warm softness of his wife’s form was worth the risk. Still, Lara’s words still echoed in Cole’s head with the crystal chime that only comes with the perfect hindsight of one too many mistakes.
“Easy scrip leads to hard days and painful nights.” Lara would say whenever she caught wind of one of his get rich quick schemes. Then there would be the routine he came to expect, first the arguing, the apologies, the consoling, the lovemaking, then the vow his skillset would keep him and her safe, and lastly, that this was the final time and they could grow happy and fat anywhere she wanted. That was the promise that always won her over, the pledge to whisk her out of their Irish-American neighborhood in Boston to places distinguished and refined. It was the same promise Lara would hurl into his face like a deck of discovered trick cards whenever he came home bruised, bloodied, and poorer than before.
The dream never came and instead Cole found himself alone in a strange land eking out whatever he could to pay for some way back home. By hook, crook, in deeds nefarious and vile warped the stillborn dreams of striking it rich through the Breach. His hopes of becoming a true man of enterprise had died, and it was back to old tricks to pay off new debts to the Ten Thunders by running jobs for the beasts who walked about the Honey Pot under the guise of men. Too little the pittance resulted in second, riskier, ventures. The pay in procuring rotting cadavers, descending into the Quarantine Zone, and embarking on other, “deeds” for the corpse-bothering fools that Cole found infested the city paid just as bad if not worse. No job became too dirty for him, and every tainted payment was one step closer to Lara and the feel of his lips on the rose tattoo that adorned her inner thigh. The memory of her was the Northern Light that guided him through the darkness that was his existence. But in three years the light dimmed, letters crumbled into the dust of oblivion, and left only desperation and the sting of the sweetest memories.
That was what lead him to find the other players in these games of intrigue that were far above his pay grade. Cole knew that his chance came when his handlers mentioned a book coming en route towards the hands of eager Arcanists. Whatever that was the book being transported caught Tannen’s interest but his eyes and ears were unable to produce a time or location of a changing hands. Cole didn’t have the strange resources of Tannen or Lynch but he knew he had to try. Lady Luck must have known the rose of Cole’s life yearned for his return as well. Through those nights with girls enshrouded by rumors of their arcane connections to card games with drunken foremen and gunsmiths in corner rooms, Cole placed the pieces of the puzzle together and found that the recipients weren’t of the same affiliation as the transporters. Instead of pale faced men and women shrouded in eldritch and forbidden lore, Cole discovered that it was a group of Freikorpsmen were hired to deliver the book instead. Mages and aberrations were one thing, but men, no matter how well trained or armed could still be swindled. Placing the flask back in his breast pocket, Cole shifted the burden under his arm into both hands. The parcel paper crinkled in his grasp that seemed to echo just too loud in the corridors of the stinking alley.
He was already halfway done with the plan. With the book in his mitts Cole just had to rendezvous with the Thunders’ and their indentured servant with the foremost knowledge, and hunger, for relics and forbidden treasures. Of course, Cole never met Lucas McCabe in person. The man was something a legend to him, and the towering bodyguard of his didn’t help matters in the slightest. But after trading punches with a few of the wastrels that trailed behind McCabe’s coattails he was able to secure a meeting. With the scrip in hand and the destination of the transaction at the nearest train station, all Cole had to do was survive this ordeal. The glowing fire of Lara’s rose warmed his own resolve.
Feeling his curiosity bubble to the surface, Cole ripped away the paper to reveal what exactly he risked everything for. The leather of the cover felt old, ancient in fact. Golden gears adorned the cover with a front facing skull front and center. With what little light was left began to wane but proved just enough for a moment to rifle through the pages. The words inside were language of something alien and abnormal to Cole. Dark red characters seemed to shift and twist within the pages as if to befuddle his senses. The images proved no better to understand, bodies of a varying types were drawn in a every ghastly manner of vivisection and dissection along with alien instructions along with diagrams of foul and bizarre machinery. Cole never imagined to see such a thing back home. He chided himself, remembered that he was a stranger in a strange land. The haze of the book and its alien language and his own daydreaming were halted by a violent shout.
“He’s here!” The man cried before drawing his pistol and letting lose the deafening cry of gunfire.
The two bullets whizzed just near Cole’s face and instead found homes embedded into the brick walls around him. Taking no time to pause, he dove to the ground, one hand clutching at the text and another rushing back into his jacket. Instinctively and confidently, Cole drew his own Peacebringer and responded to the barrage in kind. Whatever was blessing Cole extended reach into the very barrel of his weapon. Two of Cole’s bullets sped forth with one landing square into the abdomen of the Freikorpsmen and the second impacting against the man’s skull that sent his head arching back and taking the rest of his body with him. He fell on his back lifeless.
Cole shot upright and thought to rob the man but paused at the decision with the sounds of approaching footsteps. Adrenaline flooded his blood and sent Cole back into his mad dash through the alleyways. As he dashed forward the sounds of more gunfire blasted behind him. Cole cursed at himself for letting his guard down. They were closer than he anticipated. He knew then he had to escape this maze of winding paths and overflowing refuse. Lara must have invoked the gods or something devil on his behalf as he came to a wooden door waiting patiently for his arrival along a dead-end path. Bursting through Cole found the fates deigned for him a choice, to descend or to climb upwards to the bleak heavens of the rooftops.
It’s always better to jump than to try to dig up for air, mused Cole. The wooden steps squealed in pain at the impact of his full weight. Cole climbed higher up the swirling stairs. Moving upwards another gunshot shrieked from the darkness below. A searing pain sliced across the outer meat of Cole’s leg as the bullet erupted through the steps and grazing his thigh but not lodging into his flesh. Pained but undeterred, Cole climbed higher while avoiding the volley. Small hope ignited in Cole’s heart as he glimpsed the exit to the balcony.
Cole inhaled the clear air of the evening atmosphere, and felt the small glimmer of hope in his heart glow just a little brighter only to be snuffed out by the shattering impact of bone on bone collision. Cole toppled down and his skin scrapped against the rough materials of the rooftop. Hands shooting up on instinct latched around on another’s. Cole’s eyes glared up to the masked visage of another mercenary. He couldn’t see the stranger’s face but desire for murder was clear. The brandished steel of a serrated blade maneuvered in the corpsman’s grasp, ready to land in Cole’s heart.
Blood began to trickle into Cole’s mouth stunting the flow of oxygen to his brain. He knew there was at least another still out on the hunt for him, two on one were odds he never liked. Acting on a gamble, Cole welled up more blood in his mouth and sent a spray of bright red juices into the corpsman’s face and covering his goggles.
“Gah!” The corpsman screamed in a shock. Blinded, he reeled back, taking off just enough force for Cole to shrimp from the other man’s grasp.
Able to move but still on his back Cole sent the tip of his well-polished shoe square into the mercenary’s genitals. With a howl of pain that signaled every malign force within the city, Cole’s assailant to the ground next to him. Not risking the one chance he had to reunite with Lara and the rose-sweet love, Cole dove on top of the Freikorpsman. The tip of the poniard dove deep, charging past the leather armor, the uniform underneath, and puncturing flesh and bone. The stranger gave a deep gurgle that sent a deep red gore rushing out of every opening in the man’s mask that was proceeded by one final breath then stillness.
Not taking the moment to access his own injuries Cole scrambled for his firearm and the book, deigning to leave his blade jammed in the corpse’s torso. For a second he opted to return down the stairwell in hopes to beguile the last corpsman on his tail. The noises of hurried rushing and frantic, multiple voices, forced his hand. Cole looked ahead then around to the other rooftops that were scattered about the dingy landscape that had been his home for just too long. Distance gauged and little to nothing else to lose, Cole swallowed his fear and pictured his love, her rose tattoo on display just for him. With his resolve restored against all the pain howling throughout his body, Cole ran into a headlong sprint. The voices grew louder, then fainter as his eyes remained faithful, allowing the risk-laden leap to pay off and landing Cole across the rooftop just across from his previous posting. He took one last glance at the men chasing him. Two more figures stood where he had, inspecting the body of their comrade. Not foolish enough to linger, Cole scrambled to find that he had no exit atop where he stood.
The voices shouted at Cole from a distance demanding that he halt. Instead, Cole shot forward again in a madman’s dash and leaping once to another rooftop then onto another. Cole’s breaths grew faster and his legs were heavier. His desire to return home couldn’t fuel the flight to prosperity like he hoped. Gun in hand he spun to see the figures behind him. Dusk had surrendered to night in mockery of Cole’s predicament but the stars allowed the shadowed figures of his pursuers. The men stood, still and unmoving as their sights were kept locked on him and the book.
Sweat continued to pour down half-blinding Cole’s aim, still he extended his arm and pulled the trigger. The Peacebringer fired again, over and over. The bullets flew with love’s anguished desperation but missed their marks. The shadows remained away, stoic and determined. One of them stepped forward.
Cole winced and ducked to the side in anticipation for the return fire but it never came. Instead, the figure raised an arm into the heavens. A burst of light appeared above the stranger and driving a terrible realization into Cole’s brain with the force of a railway spike. Pivoting back around, Cole attempted to resume his rush across the heights of the city. His scant steps forward came with a burst of pain that enveloped his entire body and embedded itself like a thousand searing needles into his every corner of his being. The agony didn’t subside and every nerve in Cole’s body begged for mercy while his mouth slammed shut, his own teeth biting into his lips. A rush of wind gusted underneath, lifting Cole off of his feet. His mouth opened, spewing out black red blood and a scream loaded with pain and fear. He was on his back now, the gusts of sorcerous force shooting him off of the balcony and into the open air. Cole floated like a feather, a beaten, worn feather torn from the wings of the only angel he would ever truly know. There was a shift in his weight, the feeling his bowels jumping then dropping like a sack of lead. Cole’s widened. He was falling.
In the dark Cole saw her, Lara, standing there in all of her naked beauty. Light returned, and he found that he was back in his old tenement with her again. They had so little but somehow their tiny apartment lodged in some forgettable part of the city seemed crammed. He didn’t care, he was home again. Cole fell to his knees and he began to kiss the lily white skin along her stomach while his hand moved up between her breasts to feel the orange curls that dangled about wanton and free. An earnest smile emerged as he saw her tattoo proudly on display for him. Cole whimpered then looked up to meet Lara’s tender gaze. Tears welled in his own eyes. Lara raise her hand and brush the side of his face.
The caress turned into a hard slap that tore Cole from his taunting dreams and back into the world of monsters and machinations. Somehow he was alive, but injured and pain stricken. It felt like he had indeed been struck by lightning and then fallen off a roof. Ignoring his nerves shouting in resistance Cole turned his neck about to find himself now in a crate filled warehouse, gray, dull, nondescript, and forgettable. He tried to move but found himself unable. Cole stared at the ropes keeping him bound to the steel chair with a grimace. Another hand smashed across Cole’s face. His attention turned to a man who hovered over him like a viper ready to strike.
He was older, by decades and possessing the barely haired scalp and countenance of a scholar. His thin body was draped and wrapped with a flowing coat, arms behind his back like some drill sergeant. Cole’s captor his eyes behind a pair of dark glasses that glinted in the dim lighting. About the two of them a host of shadows mingled about and whispered to one another in tongues that failed to match anything of to the normal realms of speech Earthside.
Cole squinted, he was sure he had seen the man somewhere before. It was then the old issues of the Tattler and Malifaux Times unraveled in his recollection. Cole had been informed in the past by Tannen and Lynch about the wolves that prowl Malifaux with friendly faces and noble intentions but brushed them aside as idle cautionary tales. He even heard stories from the miners and steelworkers around the taverns but he never suspected such drunk talk to be laced with truth. Still, even now with the man before him Cole could scarcely believe it. Another gleam flashed across the man’s glasses and his hand struck against the bruised flesh of Cole’s broken face.
“Brazen, I’ll hand that to you at the very least. Still to assume I wouldn’t act immediately was ultimately the most foolish thing you could ever do. Now who sent you? Was it those fools at the Guild office? Matheson? Is that thing trying to set some deeds in motion again?” Ramos’ voice flowed like ice water. “Or was it someone else?”
The scholar’s gloved hand brought forth the tome into view. He caressed it in the way that reminded Cole of how Lara used to touch him. Cole opened his mouth in an attempt to respond but broke out in a choked fit of coughing before spitting out two broken molars.
“I thought this endeavor well-wrought.” Ramos continued. From behind three shadows moved closer. The men and women donned masks like the mercenaries but these were of a more abstract and intricate nature, pouches and vials adorned substantial amounts of territory beneath heavy cloaks. “I had hired the Freikorps to obfuscate the more obvious, blackhearts that may have tried to rear their heads in my procurement of such a relished find. Still, killing two mercenaries and eluding the Oxfordians is something to be admired.”
“Well,” Cole said with a bloodied slur. “If you liked that you should see what I can do on a right good day.”
“Don’t trifle with me you Neanderthal. Rarely am I forced to dirty my own hands with trash such as yourself. Now, tell me who sent you and allow this interaction between us to end on a more, pleasant note.”
“Make it worth me while and I’ll sing the sweetest song you’ll ever hear.” Cole said.
“Don’t test me oaf, you’ve nothing and everything is in my hands. Remember that you’re only alive on my accord.” Ramos asserted. “Now, speak!”
Cole’s tongue flicked at the empty spot where one of his wisdom teeth used to take residence. Ramos had no idea who he was. Absent title and reputation meant him all the more expendable, but on an occasion combining his status, or lack thereof, with a well-played bluff could prove advantageous. The other didn’t know Cole was an independent party in Malifaux’s game of shadows.
“Well, who else do you think would want a pretty little thing like what you got in your dainty paws there?”
The scowl across Ramos’ face deepened and curved into a jagged spike and his brow furrowed into a thousand angry lines of furious thought. He placed the book atop a nearby table and began to rub the sides of his temples before turning to face Cole once again. Doubtless to Cole, a slideshow of faces must have crisscrossed inside of the man’s brain. In the blink of beleaguered eyes, Ramo’s hand turned into an iron fist and smashed down into Cole’s cranium.
“Was it that scrap-monger? Hmmm? Did he send you?” Ramos hissed.
“Maybe he did, may as well be he didn’t. All these blows to my noggin’s left me a little fuzzy,” said Cole.
“Are you really this eager to die?” Ramos queried.
“Ah, mate all that running around they’ve got me doing in the Quarantine Zone has got me a bit more fearless in the face of death. If I keel over, I’ll just come back a little prettier.” Cole answered with a chuckle.
Ramos crossed his arms, turned to his faceless minions then stared back to Cole. “Oh, so it’s those Resurrectionists you’ve allied yourself with then? My boy, even I’d pity whatever pact you’ve struck with the likes of them. But who? Surely, something like the Codex wouldn’t catch the eyes of Seamus. No, the instructions therein could only catch the interest of one among them. Don’t trifle with me you foolish boy, is that who sent you?”
“Couldn’t say in this sorry of mine friend.” Cole answered. “Now if you untie and let me take a quick swig of my flask I might have a clarity about me.”
“Do not test me.” Ramos reminded him.
Ramos leaned forward with his hand outstretched again, but instead of striking Cole it fell softly on his shoulder. Like a man intent on breaking someone’s windpipe, Ramos’ hand squeezed deep and dug into the meat of Cole’s shoulder forcing out a weak, pain filled moan.
“You will tell me who made the decision in sending you forth to meet your maker. Or else I’ll cut my losses here and now.”
There was a rustle in scurrying underneath the fabric of Ramos’ arm. A new layer of sweat entrapped Cole’s face as the movements increased in a climax of countless silvery shapes pouring forth. The metallic forms moved with arachnid speed across the mass of Cole’s body. From the top of his scalp, across his face and all throughout his clothing, Ramo’s spiders were everywhere. Blinded and muted, all Cole could do was listen.
“I truly don’t know if you grasp the gravity of your situation. Perhaps you’re not in league with someone. Surely your ability to handle yourself suggests otherwise. But if you are unwilling to cooperate or, if perhaps you haven’t realized that loyalty is fleeting joy to be shed once entering Malifaux. Then I would suggest you take a brief moment to rethink your situation before you cross the point of no return.
“I’ve been past that point ever since I made the deal to come here in the first place mate,” thought Cole out loud. He couldn’t fool Ramos or himself. There was no way out of his situation let alone getting back home. He couldn’t bluff the man and even if that were possible there’d be no way for him to get through the enforcers about the warehouse.
Cole cursed his luck, but not the misfortune that landed him in such a predicament. Instead he cursed the streak that laid out a path of small victories that blossomed a shred of confidence in seeing Lara again. Living and dying in misery was one thing, but dying like a dog while just tasting the fruits of possible salvation was something else entirely. Cole shut his eyes under the crawling furor of Ramos’ spiders and awaited his demise. Instead, a deafening explosion tremored throughout the warehouse and into Cole’s core and sending him flying backwards onto his back. The spiders around him moved in a panic, skittering back before returning to their master.
With his sight restored, Cole peered towards the gaping orifice that had once been the warehouse entrance. It was Tannen, accompanied by a bald juggernaut of a man who Cole knew served as the menacing bouncer to the Honey Pot. Behind Mr. Graves, a pose of dead eyed Brilliance addicts trailed behind, shoulder to shoulder with familiar wastrels whom Cole had met with in his hopes of reaching McCabe.
A small and scrawny sort that made Ramos look all the more intimidating, Mr. Tannen stepped forward, unconcerned with the mages about the warehouse.
“Listen here, that’s our property you got there and we want him back.” Tannen announced.
“It’s our job to kill him when we see fit. Not you.” Graves added.
“And we’ll take whatever else you got lying around here too,” said Mr. Tannen with a sharp toothed grin.
Before anymore threats could be made, the shifting bodies of the Illuminated leapt forward, ready to protect Tannen. Their bodies were warped atrocities scabbed with the strange, radiant, callouses only seen in the heaviest of Brilliance addicts. Hands turned into hardened claws and mouths shifted into a grotesque maws eager for human blood. They were on the Arcanists and the remaining Friekorpsman.
The mercenary staggered back and quickly drew his pistol and firing a barrage of bullets into the closest Illuminated. Hardiness from higher tolerance and dulled nerves proved beneficial as Tannen’s henchman brushed off the attack and countering with a clawed attack. A howl roared from the Freikorpsman as his entrails spilled out of his stomach before he dropped to his knees and tumbling forward into a pool of his own blood and excrement. The Illuminated turned to a mage but another attack was halted a sudden burst of blue fire and turning the darkened into a pile of ashes. In his place two wastrels rushed the Oxfordian. Chains and knife blades swung at the woman. Taking a knife slice to her side, the woman staggered backwards unable to release another arcane volley. Instead, it was Ramos who acted.
Rage pulsed through the man but was stifled by a cold calculated countenance. Ramos moved for a jab, something Cole would never have expected. But with the ominous squeal of gears and bolts, Ramos’ blow landed with surprising efficiency. The punch crashed against the wastrel, sending the forgotten nobleman’s son’s top hat flying into the air along with an eyeball and copious amounts of blood. The wastrel fell, skull shattered and forced the second to move back in a panic.
“Don’t you even think about falling back!” Graves roared as he pushed forward, stepping over his dead men to meet Ramos with just a plank of wood in hand. Before the mountain of muscle barely contained in a three-piece suit could take a swing the remaining Oxfordians moved to protect their mastermind. A flurry magic erupted in front of Graves face but did little to deter him. Off to the side the remaining wastrel and Tannen engaged in a beguiling flurry against the sole other mage.
Free of the spiders but in the thick of the maelstrom, Cole wriggled against his constraints. Cole shifted back and forth until his eyes spotted exactly what he needed. Silently thanking the threads of fate, Cole kicked forward trying to reach discarded metal spider that whirred uselessly in its damaged state. Kicking and nudging with his leg, Cole pulled at the hunk of shrapnel closer until it fell in reach of his hand. A rush of pain from inside his palm spasmed through Cole’s arm as jagged edges of steel drove into his hand. He focused his mind, imagined Lara, his rose, and started to saw through the ropes.
Ramos sidestepped another hammer blow from Grave’s tree trunk arms, but was forced to eat the attack from the oncoming wastrel. The chain struck against the old man’s shoulder, but was deflected by the deceptive protection of his modified long coat. Ramos outstretched again, but not with the rocket fist that finished the wretched existence of the last standing Illuminated. Ramos palm opened, sending a batch of robotic spiders flying into the scoundrel’s face and exploding into an air of blood, smoke, and shrapnel. Ramos cast a wicked grin at the form of Mr. Graves, confident his vast intellect and arsenal were a match for what was Brawn incarnate. But a dashing figure holding an oversized codex shook his attention. Even Graves cast a sideways glance at the retreating form of Cole Livingston. Ramos stabbed forward snatching at the fabric of Cole’s breast pocket, but snarled a curse as his grip came apart.
‘Hey! Get back here, we still gotta ‘shiv ya’!” Tannen shouted before dodging an elemental bolt.
A wastrel rushed to block Cole but another footballers kick to the stones sent the blacksheep tumbling. Cole didn’t turn to see if the two parties halted their ensuing battle to stop him. There was no point. All that mattered was to keep running. Fueled by thoughts of love and home, of cards with hardworking men who thought monsters were only the stuff of children’s stories and being scolded for coming home late, Cole rushed, barely cognizant of his geography and towards the location of his rendezvous.
The man waiting stood, his body growing tired from waiting half a day for an arrival that surely wouldn’t come. Cigar in hand and a perturbed look on his face he remained. He leaned against the railing around the station. Taking one last drag and dropping the smoke he turned, ready to leave only to find a broke and beaten man ready to topple forward in exhaustion.
“Well, I don’t think you know how much trouble you’ve gotten yourself into.” McCabe said with a chuckle. “Or maybe you do, who the hell am I to judge?”
“I-I’m glad you’re still here.” Cole coughed.
“Figured I’d wait and see if my boys managed to drag your corpse back, but I guess they’re still at with Tannen and whoever you up and decided to piss off.”
“Look,” Cole said before showing him the book. “This is what I’m talking about.”
Lucas McCabe eyed the Codex in Cole’s hand and shrugged. “Ah, I don’t know if that’s for me, books are hard to move, and I don’t know if I can handle the heat you just put on it and yourself.”
A sinking feeling overcame Cole, his heart dropping down through his lower intestines and into the soiled streets.
“We had a deal!” Cole sobbed.
“No, I said I’d look at what you got.” McCabe corrected. “Maybe we can talk to some of the other Thunders and see what you can get for it. Pending my fee of course.”
Cole fought back the tears, he knew the effort and blood on his hands would be paid in a fraction of what he needed. Unable to take another breath he reached his breast pocket to pull out his flask. Instead of the last gift Lara gave him, he held a tiny spider reminiscent of the countless spiders that surrounded Ramos. The rose and Lara’s name that adorned the flask could still be seen emblazoned on the spider. The thing whirled and hissed with mechanical life forcing McCabe to jump back with a curse. All Cole could do was sigh as moving bits of metal exploded in his open palm, his thoughts of Lara’s words ringing in his ears.
“Easy scrip leads to hard days and painful nights.”
A FOOLS ROSE.docx
A FOOLS ROSE.docx