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One of the new things you'll see about are the 'sticky notes' which you will occasionally see from the site Admins if something important shows up or is newsworthy, or if you happen to be in one of our many beta testing groups giving you an additional heads up when something new needs to be looked at or sorted.

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Nathan Caroland Nathan Caroland
Aaron

Storied Soundtracks

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I'm on it!

Also, because I'm a heck of a guy, the lyrics:

The pictures tell the story
This life has many shades
I'd wake up every morning and before I'd start each day
I'd take a drag from last night's cigarette
That smoldered in it's tray
Down a little something and then be on my way
I traveled far and wide
And laid this head in many ports
I was guided by a compass
I saw beauty to the north
I drew the tales of many lives
And wore the faces of my own
I had these memories all around me
So I wouldn't be alone
Some may be from showing up
Others are from growing up
Sometimes I was so messed up and didn't have a clue
I ain't winning no one over
I wear it just for you
I've got your name written here
In a rose tattoo
In a rose tattoo
In a rose tattoo
I've got your name written here
In a rose tattoo
This one's for the mighty sea
Mischief, gold and piracy
This ones for the man that raised me
Taught me sacrifice and bravery
This one's for our favorite game
Black and gold, we wave the flag
This one's for my family name
With pride I wear it to the grave
Some may be from showing up
Others are from growing up
Sometimes I was so messed up and didn't have a clue
I ain't winning no one over
I wear it just for you
I've got your name written here
In a rose tattoo
In a rose tattoo
In a rose tattoo
[x2]
I've got your name written here
In a rose tattoo
This one means the most to me
Stays here for eternity
A ship that always stays the course
An anchor for my every choice
A rose that shines down from above
I signed and sealed these words in blood
I heard them once, sung in a song
It played again and we sang along
You'll always be there with me
Even if you're gone
You'll always have my love
Our memory will live on
Some may be from showing up
Others are from growing up
Sometimes I was so messed up and didn't have a clue
I ain't winning no one over
I wear it just for you
I've got your name written here
In a rose tattoo
In a rose tattoo
In a rose tattoo
[x2]
With pride I'll wear it to the grave for you
In a rose tattoo
In a rose tattoo
I've got your name written here,
In a rose tattoo
In a rose tattoo
In a rose tattoo
Signed and sealed in blood I would die for you
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Oh, oh, oh
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Oh, oh, oh

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In a Rose Tattoo

Miriam ducked around a corner to squat behind some old crates. Fighting to control her breath, she tilted her head to the side and listened.

The footsteps were distant, but it was impossible to tell which direction they came from. Another sound—cackling, no singing—had joined it, but seemed to come from a different location. Where was he?

She clutched her rifle close to her chest. For the thousandth time, she wished Carter was with her. The thought stung, a pain that hadn’t faded in months. Maybe it never would. Grief threatened to overtake her and she had to mentally wrestle it away. The direction of the footsteps changed, as did the sound of off-key, Irish-accented rhyme. They were closer now, circling around her.

Miriam weighed her options. Get up and run, or fight, or maybe find a defensible position? A hundred battle tactics ran through her mind, but her training had never prepared her for a situation like this.

Out of the fog came the click-clack of high heeled shoes, and Miriam saw a woman appear on the street. Her hips swayed in a way that would scandalize a noblewoman and seemed too cartoonish for a real call-girl. A torn, but pretty umbrella hung over one shoulder, spinning it in her hand as she walked.

Miriam balked. Who would be selling trysts on a night like this? In this part of Malifaux? She started to speak, to warn the woman, and realized that she had fallen for his trap the moment she opened her mouth.

The call-girl turned on her heel, revealing a rotting head rolling on a broken neck. Milky gray eyes focused on Miriam and the undead let out a pitched scream.

The singing paused in the distance, then grew more excited. Rapid footsteps echoed off every brick wall, coming closer and closer.

Miriam leveled her rifle to her shoulder and fired, worked the bolt and fired again, a trained action that took her less than three seconds. The bullets ripped through the zombie prostitute’s face and chest, punching holes through her front and sending a shower of rotting gore out the back. The zombie collapsed, its body crumbling as if a puppeteer had simply cut its strings.

The singing became enraged. The eeriness of a jaunty tune, sung with such raw malice sent a chill through Miriam’s blood. She reloaded as she ran, refusing to wait for her stalker to find her waiting.

She didn’t make it three steps before the brick wall exploded before her, knocking her down and pelting her with debris. A burly, muscular shape smashed its way into the alley. The monster’s roars were almost human, but hollow and flat, the expulsion of gas from dead lungs.

The monster was a horrendous amalgamation of flesh and pneumatics, bulging with layers of muscle stitched end over end. It smashed at the brick with its bare fists, ignoring Miriam completely. Fighting the urge to scream, she began to crab-walk backwards, trying to reach her gun which had fallen out of reach.

She bumped into a pair of legs, and craned her head to look up at the mad, toothy grin of her stalker, Seamus. He licked his teeth, and began to sing under his breath, his eye twitching with a hint of the rage boiling under his skin.

Drawn to the sound, the monster faced them both. They loomed over Miriam, who tried to make herself small and of no importance. Seamus grinned at the monstrosity, then waved it off as if he expected it to listen. The monster hesitated, its body flexing and relaxing, as if it were trying to move but couldn’t work its parts. It’s eyes—one human, the other a mechanical lens—narrowed on Seamus. The madman went back to singing, reaching into his coat to produce an oversized flintlock pistol with a wicked bayonet slung under the barrel.

Emotions took turns screaming in Miriam’s head. Fear, panic, dread, grief, sadness, resolve. Death, it seemed, had come for her, in more forms than one. Her body wanted to scream, fight, flee, anything to save her from inevitability. The other almost felt… acceptance. A part of her had died not a month before. To go now, to go fighting? There was a symmetry in it. Her grandfather had not lived long after his wife had passed.

Maybe this was a fitting death, a chance to be with Carter again.

The monster growled at the sight of the gun, its body trembling with the urge to act. Miriam could see that it was not just one corpse, but many. The original body was still there, but it was broken and cut, stretch and stuffed with the muscle and bone and pneumatic parts of perhaps three other corpses, inflating its body into the shape of an almost comical musculature, and-

-No.

It’s barrel chest was marked with scars and stitching, but she had not and could never forget the mark that was tattooed over the location a heart would rest in a normal human. The skin seemed to have been framed, four metal plates set in a rectangular position to display the tattoo of a rose in its center.

“Miriam” was written in a banner, just under the rose.

A wordless cry of anguish broke from her lips, and in a flash she knew. She knew.

His face was mutilated with pneumatics, but she saw it. The cleft of his chin that even his goatee couldn’t hide. The peak of his hairline even though the creature had been shaved almost bald.

Leeroy Carter.

 

*

 

Carter tried to ignore it, but the sliver of sunlight peeking through the shuttered windows stubbornly lingered. He relented, digging himself out of a warm bed to shiver in the cool air of dawn. His mind felt pinched in his skull, the telltale signs of a hangover. Even in most piss-swill taverns of Malifaux, where drinks were more water than wine, there was always enough alcohol to make you regret it.

He rubbed his eyes and reached for the bedside table. His hand found a dented tin ashtray, digging a hand-wrapped cigarette out of it that had only burned down about half-way the previous night. There were matches in his coat on the bedpost.

He exhaled smoke into the air, watching its tendrils dance in the beam of sunlight. When he was finished he reached behind him to smack the smooth curve of an woman’s exposed rump. The body it belonged to writhed under the blankets, retreating from his touch. He gave the sheets a tug, revealing a pretty face with too-red hair. She winced, frowning at him hard enough to curl a dagger tip.

He let her fight her way to consciousness and went to the wash basin, splashing a sleep-deprived but handsome face lurking under a mop of unruly black hair. He thought he could use a shave, but the stubble gave his goatee a distinct sharpness that he liked. The woman sat up behind him, yawning heavily. He returned to her, just to watch her being her. Her sleepy eyes took on a pleasant quality, the kind of a well-fed cat, as she stared back.

There was a sharp knock at the door, followed by a crisp but almost wordless shout. The meaning was clear; all soldiers at attention.

Carter shrugged and went to stand up, but his bedmate took his arm. Her fingers felt like warm electricity moving up his bicep to linger over a bandage held over his heart. A few drops of blood had stained through, but it had long since dried. With a gentleness she didn’t normally demonstrate, she peeled the bandage away. Underneath was a faded rose tattoo that was a few years older than his need to shave. “Miriam” had been written in the tattoo’s banner, in fresh black ink.

Her faint smile turned into a mix of sheepish embarrassment and the same sly happiness she’d expressed shortly before inviting him to bed.

Carter shrugged, letting the implication linger between them. Time for talk later. Duty called.

Another sun, another scrip.

 

*

 

McMourning hummed to himself, walking a straight line down the corridors of his morgue. The silence was palpable, broken only by the soft tread of his padded boots on tiled floor and the muted sound of his rubber gloves clasped behind him. The air was crisp, cool, and filled with the scents of preserving agents and coppery blood.

Today would be a good day, he knew. Every night to bed content at the knowledge of a hard day’s work. Every morning to rise with the prospect of new discoveries and ideas.

He loved Malifaux. Life had such meaning here.

Ignoring the bow-legged guard at the doors, McMourning stepped into the examination room. A body waited, as it often did, draped in a cloth from head to foot. Sebastian stood nearby, dressed in a clean smock with a tray of surgical tools next to him.

He was joined by a Guild sergeant and one of his soldiers, who was weeping into her bare hands. Her hair was almost as red as her duster. Somewhat unbecoming of a soldier, but perhaps there were sentimental attachments to consider. No matter.

McMourning paused over the body, put on his best sympathetic face, and gently lowered the cloth, revealing the handsome and quite-well preserved body of a man in a smooth goatee and black hair hanging to his shoulders.

The female soldier shuddered, turning away. McMourning took the opportunity to glance at the report Sebastian had prepared. Leeroy Carter, age 26, born in—he set the report aside as unimportant.

The sergeant said something, but McMourning was distracted by the tattoo on the man’s chest, just over his heart. A rose, its faded colors suggested it was several years old. But the name written across it; Miriam, was recent. Perhaps only a few weeks or a month. He glanced at the female soldier and deduced everything he needed to. More curiously was the placement of what he assumed to be the cause of death: a gunshot wound dead-center in the rose’s blossom, directly into the heart. It was almost too perfect.

Feigning clinical detachment, he gestured to Sebastian for a scalpel, and the sergeant ushered Miriam out. The autopsy would not take long, but even as McMourning began his incisions, he could not take his eyes off the rose and the bullet hole. It would be a shame to see such a work of accidental art go to waste.

He wondered briefly if he was getting sentimental with age. With a bemused chuckle, he set to work.

 

*

 

The monster flexed its oversized hands and glared at Seamus. The madman’s song had lost any coherency and had descended into a simple rhythmic babble of sound and repetition as he tested the sharpness of his bayonet.

His latest fetch was a real prize, a lovely little Guild solider. A bit rough from combat training, but with such fine form. He couldn’t let such a lovely sight go to wrinkles. Now what would suit her best? A quick dash across the throat? Easy enough to stitch. A shot in the middle? A bit unseemly, for certain.

But then, she had gunned down his Donna. Donna, who’d done such a proper job alerting Seamus of the little lovely’s location.

A stomach wound, then. Slow, painful, and she’d remember it later, if she got unruly.

He gave the girl a hard tap on the shoulder with his boot, drawing her eyes—wide and pretty-blue—to his. Her face spoke volumes, and she screamed, a sound that gave him a momentary paroxysm of satisfaction. How he loved his work.

The monster—some stitched-together thing he assumed had broken free from the University—coughed, or choked or made some other odd sound. Seamus glanced up in time to see it swinging one of those ham-hock fists. He brought his own arms up just in time to block the blow, but it still sent him flying like a kicked puppy.

 

*

 

The soldiers from Earth were lead into an examination room, where a pair of unfriendly looking Witch-Hunters glowered at everyone, hands lingering on holstered rune weapons.

Carter was sat down on a table, stripped down to his waist, and told to wait for the examiner. He was about to light a cigarette when his eyes were drawn to a pair of… well-adjusted undergarments on the torso of a woman sitting next to him. He didn’t even catch the smarmy retort she gave him when she caught him staring.

He put on his best “yes ma’am” smile and started to introduce himself, but the examiner found time to interrupt, asking a bunch of seemingly random questions he guessed were related to the Breach sickness some folk got, and “sudden sensations of power” that sounded like something out of his kid brother’s dime novels. The examiner seemed to take his job seriously though, glaring at Carter’s attempts to be witty in front of his new female comrade in arms.

The examiner moved on to the woman, and it was then he learned her name; Miriam. A nice one. Getting her name was just the first step in the battle though. She brushed him off like dry snow, but he kept a grin on his face the entire time; he loved a challenge.

Something about that admittance broke through, and she smiled briefly before nodding at the faded rose tattoo on his chest, along with the empty banner under it. He said it was a good luck charm; he’d gotten the tattoo, but waited before adding the girl’s name just long enough to learn she was no good.

Miriam said it might be a good idea, then, to keep it blank. Luck was in short supply in Malifaux.

 

*

 

Sebastian rubbed his chin, wondering what had possessed Dr. McMourning to pursue such an odd project. At the doctor’s insistence, Sebastian had ensured the body of the newly dead Guild soldier—the one with the tattoo—had been delivered to his private laboratory, and now that McMourning’s daily rounds had been complete, he had fallen into his latest work with a passion, constructing a Flesh Construct that was an amalgamation not just of man and machine, but men and machines. It would be enormous, powerful, and—Sebastian had reckoned—grotesque.

Yet now Dr. McMourning moved about Construct with only the most delicate of instruments, performing the most artistic of surgical cuts. There was an artistic flair to his work that Sebastian hadn’t seen in some time.

But perhaps that was a good thing? It never served to grow bored in your work, though he admitted he had never seen the chief mortician lethargic in his practice.

McMourning reach for the first of the metal plates that would frame an insignificant piece of skin on the corpse’s chest. Well, insignificant to Sebastian’s thinking, anyways. Corpses came and went, and many of them had tattoos of some sort. This was the first time the doctor had taken an interest in one. He opened his mouth to ask, but after a moment of reflection, decided against it. It was invigorating to see McMourning taking such joy from his work, and he didn’t wish to spoil the moment.

The rose tattoo would have a place of honor on this latest creation, and let no one say Dr. McMourning was lack an eye for the aesthetic.

 

*

 

Miriam screamed as the Carter-monster slugged Seamus hard enough to knock him off his feet. The madman rolled across the filthy alley, smashed through the old crates, and lay still. The monster reared back and thumped its fists into its chest like a gorilla, then brought them both up over its head and down towards her. Her training took over, and she rolled out of the way, just missing twin hammer blows cracked the cobblestones. It tore head-sized chunks of the road and hurled them about, cracking brick walls and smashing distant windows.

Miriam reclaimed her rifle, and felt her hands shaking like she’d never felt them before. She came up to one knee and aimed the weapon at Carter’s deformed head. It whirled, saw her. Its eyes were devoid of recognition, it saw her only as prey, as a thing to be crushed.

Who had done this to him?

It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the here and now.

One shot, just let one shot, it had to be enough to put him to peace. She put her finger to the trigger-

A gunshot rang out.

Numbness, then pain, spread through her chest. Her heart ached. She stared down at the redness spilling over her shirt, pumping from a hole in her still-beating heart, struggling to pump blood and killing her even as it tried to keep her alive.

She turned her head, saw Seamus grinning at her with a smoking flintlock in his hand. He cackled something about the sharpness of his aim, and then she heard nothing. She fell to the alley floor and felt the last of her life drain away, her eyes lingering on Carter’s broken face, who’s human eye widened even as her own faded to black…

Seamus kicked to his feet, ignoring the crack of bone in his chest that were almost certainly crushed ribs. No matter, a bit of spellwork and he’d be right as rain. What mattered more was his prize.

A heart shot was a bit quick, but Seamus had to admit he’d been aiming with his hat low over his eyes. It was a devil of a shot though, and he twirled the gun in his fingers. Let’s see them Bull-heads fire a shot like that!

The patchwork monster stared at the woman, dumbfounded. It had halted in mid-attack, confused. Stupid thing probably didn’t know how to respond to a target that had just dropped dead. Seamus snorted. His girls had better wits about them than whoever was pulling this thing’s strings. He waved it off again, but it only stared. Annoyed, Seamus put a little magical whoomph into his mental command and assailed the creature with it, and it took a step back, glaring at Seamus.

Glaring with very human anger.

Seamus paused. That wasn’t righ-

The creature backhanded him, an almost casual move, but it sent him sailing again. A string of curses broke from Seamus’ lips before his head cracked against the brick and he slumped down to the floor again. Spitting curses, he began to furiously reload his flintlock.

The creature crept towards the dead woman, staring down at her with a thoughtful expression. Seamus brought up his pistol and fired, and the bullet pang’ed off the creature’s head, exposing a skull that was more metal than bone. Cursing to himself again, Seamus loaded a third shot. This ugly thing was interfering in his fun time!

The creature ignored its fresh wound, and instead plucked up the dead girl just as Seamus had. With a thumb that was bigger than her wrist, it clumsily wiped hair from her face.

Well, this was an odd turn of events. What exactly was he seeing? Old memories? Mimicry? Some of the dead he’d risen occasionally showed a bit of-

The monster glanced at Seamus with a look of pure hatred. Then it ran off into the night as fast as its heavy limbs could carry it.

Seamus blinked at the empty alley, even more perplexed. Then he shot to his feet and roared at the night sky, demanding the useless cadaver bring back his latest fetch.

 

*

 

Through the Breach, through the fog and gloom.

People said he would feel pressure as he passed through from one world to the next. That magic would surge through the body, potentially igniting a power it has never known before. Men became witches, monsters, or are consumed by supernatural flame.

But Carter didn’t feel anything. One moment he was Earthside, the next Breachside. Nothing more dramatic than the feeling of momentum gained and lost as the train rolled along its track.

Malifaux Station felt typical, the architecture was almost identical to its twin back on Earth. Oh, there were differences; the materials were a blend of both worlds, and the shadows seemed to creep along everything; the lantern light dying more abruptly than it would on Earth. But monsters and a sense of living dread watching you from every direction? Please.

Carter hiked his rucksack higher up onto his shoulder and followed the line of soldiers as a Guild sergeant barked orders over the din of departing passengers and hissing steam trains.

 

*

 

Sebastian balked as the doctor’s latest Flesh Construct returned with a bundle in its arms; a dead woman with blood dripping all over the street. The creature ignored his protests as it trudged down the hallways of McMourning’s private lab without the slightest respect for decorum.

The doctor was putting some fresh stitching on his Chihuahua as the Construct burst into the lab. The little dog growled at the sight. McMourning was surprised; the Construct had been set out to patrol the slums surrounding his lab and seemed to have found something.

With a gesture of permission, he watched as the Construct set a corpse on the examination table. McMourning noted its red Guild duster, disturbed at the prospect of being discovered. The guard was a woman, oddly familiar to him, but he couldn’t place where he’d seen her. When Sebastian entered, sputtering apologies, McMourning sent him out to cover the Construct’s tracks as best he could. Sebastian jumped to obey with only minor grumbling.

As he left, McMourning turned to the corpse. Freshly dead, yet with none of the wounds a Flesh Construct would inflict. A single bullet to the heart, and from the size of it not from a regular slug, either. As he worked he realized the Construct was looming over him, almost like a worried husband to an ailing wife. He waved it off, but it ignored him, and then growled when he tried again.

Now that was strange. McMourning turned to face it, and its eyes were focused entirely on the woman. He watched it absently scratch at the tattoo over its heart, the name Miriam still bold and black on its pale skin. It didn’t take him long to realize what he was witnessing, nor did it take him long to remember where he had met the woman before.

The sight brought a smile to his face. A whirlwind of ideas came to his mind, not the least of which was satisfaction at the progress of his work. How endearing! He had been a mortician all his life, and a good one. He had never been a proper doctor, but now… he felt the way such a doctor might. In a way, a life had been put in his hands. It was dizzying, exciting prospect.

He patted the Construct’s arm reassuringly. That was how doctors did it, correct? Then he set out his tools and best stitching. Yes. She’d need a new heart, but there were plenty. Strong ones, too. Maybe he would make her into a Flesh Construct; a matching pair! Or perhaps something more distinct, a beauty for his beast?

Wait. An idea occurred. Yes, yes!

He went to his drawers and produced his own needles and ink. He perhaps lacked an artist’s skill, but he could copy the original. How perfectly symmetrical!

Steadying his hands, he began to tattoo a rose onto the woman’s chest, around the bullet hole through her heart.

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I will be writing a story this weekend. Just got slammed hard with work, but I finally got some positive flips coming my way so writing time!

 

*rolls up sleeves*

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I am also working on one it's just not done yet. And I know of at least a couple others who are also doing the same.  You'll have entries, don't worry!   

 

 I also have a sneaking suspicion at least a few people are going to wait until almost the deadline to post their stories because they're worried about people stealing from them. My theory is that as long as you're the first version of it, you claimed the space. ;)

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Storied Soundtracks: Signed and Sealed

 

Lieutenant James Oulton came back to consciousness when he felt her slide out of bed next to him. He cracked his eyes just in time to see Captain Samantha Thrace prying open the port hole enough to stick her head out and heave. The noise was drowned out by the seagulls and crash of waves echoing in the pre-dawn light. Knowing they had to be close to port by this point, James stretched and began to rise for the day. Spying his half-finished cigarette in the tray bolted to the wall at the head of the bed, James fished the packet of matches from the pocket on his shirt where it lay on the floor, and re-lit the end as he tucked it in the corner of his mouth. At the rasp from the match head, Captain Thrace pulled her head back in and gave the Lieutenant an odd look.

“Waste not, want not.” James mumbled around the butt of the cigarette. She snorted at him, and then seemed to refocus, staring at his chest. He looked down, realizing she was staring at the patchwork of scars and ink that covered much of his body. It wasn’t the first time she had given the artwork spanning his body’s canvass that look; both thoughtful and concerned. But she had never before chosen to comment on his growing lack of unmarked patches of skin. For some reason, she did now.

“Which one was first, Jim?” she asked, closing the small window. James rolled his left arm so that the back of it was visible, displaying the large dark blue anchor there.

“First time I went out to sea. Merchant Mariner out of Belfast. I couldn’t have been more than sixteen.”

“And the rest?” Samantha pressed. James puffed a bit at his cigarette before answering.

“More than a few from my time at sea,” he said, indicating his knuckles where HOLD FAST was printed in blocky letters, four to a hand. “The rest, after I joined into the Guild. Mostly now when we end up in a fight and I get injured. Covers some of the worse scars.” Samantha, hand against the wall for support, shuffled back over to James and sat next to him on the edge of the bed.

“Which ones?” Captain Thrace inquired, drawing a hand over the colored artwork across the Lieutenant’s stomach. James leaned forward, catching Samantha’s hand with his own.

“Back of my right shoulder.” She leaned back to see a grinning skull over a single wing. “from when I was on the Rusviet border patrol. Small skirmish with the Undying Tsar’s forces, and one of them managed to circle behind me with a pole arm that I didn’t quite avoid.” Leaning back, and loosening his grip on Thrace’s hand, he guided her fingers to a spot on his ribs where she could feel the scar covered in striped orange and black snarling cat. “This one from a pirate’s shot in Malay, when the Portuguese hired the ship I was crewed on to help root the privateers out of the area around the Strait of Malacca.” Then he brought her hand up to a band of intricate green and gold knot work around his left bicep, below a black and gold coat of arms bearing a leaping stag. The skin underneath was pitted. “A Barbary slaver in the Mediterranean. I caught one of their arrows with my bicep. And then of course-“ James half-turned, so that Samantha could see the large rose bloom that covered most of the top of James’ right bicep, the top petals coming up over the point of his shoulder to nearly his collarbone. “London.”

000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

Eight Months Previous

            ‘The early evening shift isn’t so bad.’ Lieutenant Oulton thought to himself. ‘At least it’s cooled off some from earlier.’ The posting at the Guild armory barracks off the Thames was a rather light duty, as far as it went. Lieutenant Oulton had been rotated to London on light duty while his arm healed from his last deployment to sea. Currently, he was walking the parapet that topped the wall facing the river. Below him, crates were being offloaded from a Guild barge and carried into the armory cellars through an open gate.

The cyclical in and out of weapons and munitions through this outpost was a rather frequent occurrence, to the point where the river gate tended to be open more often than the main gate along the road. James continued his circuit of the parapet, coming to one of the guard posts. He leaned into the cover it provided from the wind so that he could light a cigarette, nodding at the man inside as he did. With a sheepishly guilty look, the soldier produced his own lit cigarette from behind his back, simultaneously chagrined to have been caught slacking while on duty, and relived that the Lieutenant appeared disinclined to chastise him for his lack of attention.

“Mind you don’t let Captain Thrace catch you,” James cautioned. “She seems to be quite the stickler for rules, that one.” The Guild guard nodded. James smirked back, and settled in to the alcove to gaze out at the city of London proper. Consequently, both he and the guard were looking when a crash like a thousand peels of thunder let loose and a jagged crack opened in the sky over the city.

Lieutenant Oulton’s cigarette dropped from the corner of his mouth when the rift widened, to the point that a dark sky full of foreign stars could be seen on the other side. Just when he was beginning to recover from the shock of a Breach, of all things, opening in the sky overhead, an ominous glow began to emanate from the hole in the world. Slowly, as though relishing the terror growing in the population below it, a giant humanoid inferno began to lower itself through. As its hand began to cross into his world, James managed to shake himself aware enough to move. The guard beside him similarly transfixed, James remedied the situation with the application of a well-placed boot.

“Move, you worthless lump! Get on the alarm, we need to-“ James was cut off as the hand made contact with the ground, and a physical tremor ran through the entire city. The stunned guardsman quickly made his way over to the hand-cranked emergency siren and began to turn for all his worth. On the roof above them, quietly at first, but gaining volume quickly, a high-pitched emergency siren began to wail. Guild guardsmen began to flood the courtyard, needing little time to orient their view to the glow the fire downtown was spreading. James spied Captain Thrace making her way up the stairs to the portion of the parapet that rose above the main gate, and set out in a rush to meet her.

“Captain!” he shouted. She turned.

“What the hell is THAT, Lieutenant?” Captain Thrace demanded. James could only spread his hands and shrug in disbelief.

“I couldn’t tell you, Captain. I was standing along the back wall, talking to Jacobson, when a, a Breach opened in the sky. About ten seconds later, whatever that is started to come through.”

“Whatever it is, it’s not going to be long before it comes through.” Indeed, the fiery arm had come through to the shoulder now, and the things head didn’t look to be too far behind. “ I want all the troops mustered in the square, fully armed and ready to-“

Whatever plan Captain Thrace was assembling on the spot was suddenly moot, as the towering, man shaped inferno suddenly vanished in a pulse of blue light, and an audible thump of displaced air. The two stood there in shock for a brief moment, before Captain Thrace spun back to the Lieutenant.

“Belay that. Take some of the loiterers from the courtyard, and finish unloading our shipment double-time. Then shut and bar the river gate, with a full watch all around. There’s liable to be panic in the streets with what just happened, besides the fire and probably looters as well. We’ll probably be contacted shortly to help maintain the peace.” The orders came naturally from the Captain, as though this were an every other day occurrence. Lieutenant Oulton could merely give a quick nod and salute, before heading below to relay orders.

The men scurried like ants, and had the rest of the crates offloaded in record time. James was standing by the open river gate, ticking boxes off the requisition form as the went past him and down into the cellars below the yard. The barge captain strode over.

“We’re unloaded, and the river is growing a might choppy fer my tastes. If’n yer through, I’d like to get my boat and men down the river to the docks at Dartford for the evening, if’n yeh don’t mind. Likely to be a bit calmer than whatever awaits ye ‘round these parts tonight.” he opined, with an accent thick enough to cut. Lieutenant Oulton nodded, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Likely not much rest for us this evening, but I won’t begrudge you yours. The river is looking unusually rough.” In the brief time they had been speaking, the normally slow moving water had gone from bobbing to roiling. With the two men watching, it quickly swept to a full boil before an eye-searing flash of blue light erupted from below the surface. James started to back slowly away from the water, with a sinking feeling rapidly filling his stomach. Drawing his pistol, he was about to call the barge captain back from the river’s edge, when it happened.

A wave crested, directly towards the armory from the middle of the river, depositing three large, jade green scaled monstrosities on the shore. No one-human or monster- moved. The beasts shuffled, seemingly bewildered, and looked at each other. James slowly started to reach his left hand towards his hip, moving for his second pistol at a glacial pace. Then all hell broke loose.

            Behind him, a crate of shot crashed to the ground as a wet-behind the ears rookie let lost a strangled gasp at the sight of the reptilian creatures. As though a prearranged signal, all three of the beasts leapt it unison- one at each of the men. The closest one hit the barge captain in a spray of scarlet blood. James managed to bring his pistols to bear quick enough to catch the one flying at him with a sprat of lead. Luck was with him to an extent, as a shot from his initial salvo managed to kill the monster, though its’ corpse still managed to knock him onto his back. This gave him just enough time to see the final lizard land in front of the young soldier, and seize his arm in its’ maw.

James brought his guns up as best he could, and fired at the beast behind him. The thing went berserk, dropping the rookie, when one of his bullets hit the thing in it’s’ eye. It screamed, the call ululating off the brick buildings around it, and stumbled back towards the river. James belatedly remembered the first creature at the same time his revolvers clicked empty. Turning back to the first monster, he tried to drag himself out from under the corpse of the one he had killed. With a hiss, it began to slowly stalk towards him.

A single shot rang out, and the uninjured creature dropped to the stones. Casting a desperate glace over his shoulder, he could see a rifle barrel sticking over the top of the parapet. Jacobson! The sentry had evidently heard the gunfire, and saved Oulton’s’ life! Furthermore, James could see a handful of guardsmen charging across the courtyard to the gate. Jacobson’s’ rifle rang out again, and this time the injured lizard pitched forward into the water, disappearing below the choppy surface. The men from the courtyard had finally made it to them, and two set about pulling the corpse of the one James had killed off of him. He kicked himself free, and spun to check the moaning soldier behind him. The guardsmen clustered around him were doing what they could to tend to his mangled arm, but it was probably a lost cause. James turned back to the barge captain, and realized that he was already gone. And if the still swirling river water was indication, they weren’t through yet.

“Everyone back inside, and get that damned gate shut NOW!” Lieutenant Oulton bellowed. The men around him jumped as the normally taciturn man firmly took charge of the situation. The men tending the injured soldier rushed to move him inside the gate. Several more formed up at his side, bringing their various rifles and small arms to bear on patch of turbulent water. James dealt with his lack of replacement firepower by drawing the pair of short swords, more like a pair of machete loose from their place at the small of his back. As they began a hasty retreat towards the open archway, a veritable battalion of alien beasts rose from the Stygian depths of the Thames, pouring over the bank and rushing towards the Guild guardsmen. Many resembled the first batch of lizard-like things that had set upon them, but several were smaller, possessing extra limbs. Some were even larger, resembling nothing so much as engorged, armored centipedes!

To the credit of the guardsmen, they recovered from their shock with the speed of well-trained troops and their initial volley dropped several of the monsters. To James shock, those behind the dead actually paused and began to feast upon their fallen comrades! But for every beast that stopped to devour the twitching corpses, another two seemed to stream past, intent on dining on Guild soldiers.

“Fall back!” James called, striding backwards, unwilling to take his eyes away from the approaching horde. “Back inside the gate! We must bar the doors!” Those soldiers around Lieutenant Oulton began to pace back as the fired. Their efforts were slowing the monsters, but the bulk pressed on. If they didn’t get the gate closed before the roiling tide of scale and fang broke, they would lose the whole armory.

The bulk of the troops made it through the open gate, but they were bottlenecking in their attempt to fit a collapsing skirmish line through a narrower gate. Several monsters had manages to catch guardsmen on the ends of the firing line unawares, moving with preternatural speed, and dragged wailing soldiers back into the throng of horrors to a grisly fate. One of the smaller things, with multiple arms, leapt at James as he stepped beneath the parapet’s overhang. Quick as lightning, he bisected its’ head from its’ body with a swing of his two blades. Kicking the decapitated corpse back at the horde, James stepped back, the last man into the arsenal. A score of soldiers forced it shut as several others pulled the Lieutenant back out of the way. James caught a glimpse of Captain Thrace shouting at men as they hauled light artery pieces up the parapet steps. Other soldiers stood atop the parapet already, firing riles down into the mass of nightmares beyond the wall. Captain Thrace strode up the steps, her axe in one hand, a pistol in the other.

“Lieutenant! Arm up and marshal the troops on the Western flank of the parapet. If these god-damned monsters breach, we’re done for.” Captain Thrace called out as she ascended the steps towards the Eastern side of the river wall. Grabbing a rifle from a passing guard, James did as ordered.

Mounting the stairs to the Western end of the wall, he looked down to see that a sizeable number of the gibbering monsters had fallen outside the wall, and that just as many were gorging themselves on the fallen. The bulk of the creatures had broken, and were flowing around the walls towards the city in small groups. There were still several that seemed to be rather determined to reach the soldiers inside, by any means necessary. The guardsmen, in turn, were doing their best to fire straight down from the parapet towards the long brown centipede monsters that were making the most successful at ascending the vertical surface of the wall. Even as James brought his rifle to his shoulder, one made it far enough up the wall to snatch at the end of a gun, and drag a hapless man over the edge of the parapet. His brief scream rang out, before falling silent as he impacted the cobbled surface below. James refocused his rifle on the monster that had pulled the soldier over, and shot it through its’ open mouth. The thing dropped from the wall as the back of its’ head blew out.

Slowly, the tide of monsters gave way to a trickle, and the Guild soldiers on the wall picked off more and more of those still feeding below. When the last one lay twitching among the carpet of bodies below, James turned his gaze out across the city. He nearly dropped his gun in shock when he realized he could see multiple glowing blue lights in areas across the city. That was when the low susurrus in the background focused itself in James ears, the faint cries of people across London echoing through the night as the very demons of hell spread through the city.

“We can’t save them all, can we Captain.” he murmured to Thrace as she walked up to where he was leaning over the parapet, the blue glow of distant portals combining with fires still burning across the city to cast an unearthly pallor across his face.

“Not without losing every man and woman already inside this compound, no. But we can sweep the surrounding area, save those nearby. We’ll give the men some time to collect themselves, reload their weapons, and then I’ll lead a unit out to see how many in the nearby buildings are still alive.”

James nodded, leaning his rifle against the parapet and digging in one of his pockets for a cigarette. Captain Thrace wrinkled her nose in obvious distaste for his habit, but held her tongue. James was thankful for that; he didn’t have the energy to listen to a verbal lashing for indulging while still technically on-duty. In the silence that grew as they sat there, James with his back to a crenellation and Captain Thrace with her back to the open doorway of the guard tower, they looked out towards London. Something large and primal bellowed in the distance, and the silence following that terrible noise seemed even more deafening by contrast. It was the only reason Lieutenant Oulton heard the nearly silent skitter of chitinous legs over slate shingles.

James’ head snapped upward as he lunged towards Captain Thrace, shoving her backwards towards the empty watch room behind her. At the same time, a searing pain alit in his right shoulder where the head of one of the centipede monsters snaked over the roof of the lookout station, catching his limb in the same space Captain Thrace’s head had occupied moments before. He screamed as it lifted him off the walkway, pulling him upwards towards the grasping legs reaching for his torso.

James managed to grasp on of his machete with his left hand, and brought it up in an arc towards the things neck. It cleaved through a leg, and bit in far enough that the beast let him go when it vocalized the shock and pain from his unexpected attack. Screeching in anger, it surged off the roof towards the spot James had landed on his back when he was dropped. All he could do was brace the bloodied machete it his left hand as the creature dropped headfirst towards him.

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Samantha traced the raised lines under the red ink rose tenderly, as James was lost in thought. Eventually, though, she pressed harder, and brought him back from his woolgathering. She smiled at him as he returned his attention to her.

“Well. London. You already know where that one came from, yes?” She nodded, still absentmindedly smiling as she traced the lines on his shoulder. But the smile turned to a frown as she stopped tracing the hidden scars, and started tracing the ink lines that made up the flower.

“James, does this say what I think it does?” It was less a question than a statement, but he knew he would have to confirm it anyway. Her finger traced the same pattern again, spelling out the three letters hidden among the petals marked into his arm. “You had this done before we left London, and it was a full month before…” she trailed off. James just tipped his head and returned a small, crinkled smile.

“Didn’t matter to me.” James said. “I made up my mind, the moment I pushed you down on top of that wall in London. I just had to wait for you to make up your mind. You came around.” Sam looked up sharply from where she was still idly tracing the letters on his arm.

That was why you pushed so hard to get yourself cleared before our unit got shipped out?” He nodded. “There was no way you could have known how things were going to turn out.”

“I already said, it didn’t matter to me. I just had to let you come around to it.”

“-Guernesy and Jersey. After that mess with the cultists, and that floating ghoul in the red cape-“ James nodded, and picked up where she left off, twining his fingers through hers where they had finally stopped tracing his arm.

“Just about eighteen straight hours of fighting the twisted monsters that used to be the villagers, pressing towards that big rock they had set up like some sort of altar, with that glowing book on it. You strode right up to it like a Valkyrie out of legend, and cut it in half with your axe.”

“It blew up! It knocked me right out of my boots! I landed on you, at the bottom of the steps!”

“And then, you picked me up and dragged me back to your cabin on the ship.” She actually blushed at that one. Sam was in rare form this morning. James chuckled a bit. “Worth every scrape, gouge and drop of blood along the way.”  Still blushing, Captain Thrace stood with a growl, and started to lean towards James, even as he leaned back, still grinning.

“I-“ she started, when a loud knock from the door cut her off.

“Captain Thrace, mam.” a voice from the hall, muffled by the door, interjected. “We’re about thirty minutes out from Gibraltar.”  The Captain sighed, and James’ smile turned bittersweet.

“To be continued, I suppose.” he offered. Captain Thrace merely nodded, turning to get ready. James stubbed his cigarette back out in the ashtray, and pulled his shirt over his head.

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            It was eerily quiet as the Guild troops disembarked on the main docks. When news that several masses of cultists had been streaming towards Gibraltar, the majority of the population had been evacuated by the Empire. But some token forces had been left behind to hold the line against Spain. There should have been someone to meet them. The whole of the city seemed … empty.

            Several other divisions were assembling on shore, as more and more Guild guardsmen disembarked from the ships along the docks. Captain Thrace had ordered her men off first, and they stood in loose ranks, a short distance ahead of the other disorganized squads.

            “I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Captain.” one soldier said. Lieutenant Oulton turned to glare at the private.

            “Shut it, Michelson.” James ordered. But Captain Thrace just ignored him, and kept marching towards the center of town. Squinting, James thought he could see an unearthly purple glow ahead, though it was difficult to make out in the early morning light.

            “Form up, men.” the Captain ordered. James fell in next to her. She muttered, quietly, to James. “I think the Culties may have beaten us here. Keep an eye out for monsters.” James grunted in affirmation.

            There was definitely something glowing ahead. As the squad stepped into an open plaza, the source grew clear. Spread irregularly through the plaza were three man-sized, iridescent portals, floating in mid-air. The soldiers stopped dead.

            “Michelson. Take Spinner, and the two of you head back to warn the others that the cultists have gotten to Gibraltar before us, and to move forward with extreme caution.   I           would bet my axe that floating freak in the red cloak in around here doing something. The rest of you, keep your heads on a swivel as we go. We’ve seen the Culties pop out of the portals before. Ones this small, we should be able to handle whatever comes out. We’re going through.” Spinner and Michelson took off double time the moment Captain Thrace stopped speaking. All the rest of the soldiers clutched their rifles a bit tighter, and began to stare unblinkingly at the rifts ahead of them.

            At a cautious pace, the squad set off across the plaza, giving the portals as wide a berth as they could. After several tense moments, all the guardsmen had shuffled through the plaza to the street across. With several sighs from the men, the resumed their march towards the center of the city.

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            After the seventh such plaza they passed through without incident, Lieutenant Oulton tapped his Captain on the shoulder.

            “Mam, I’m starting to think these portals may just be here to slow us down. We’re spending too much time picking our way through these open areas.”

            “Shouldn’t matter too much at this point. Per the maps I’ve seen, we should nearly be at the central plaza. If that silent red bastard is doing this anything like the other times we’ve gone after him, he’ll be there.” Captain Thrace pushed on.

            Within moments, she was proven correct. The buildings framing the narrow roadway the squad had been following fell away, and opened onto what could only be the main plaza. Several hundred yards away, the space between filled with a dozen of the glowing, eldritch portals, the mysterious caped figure that seemingly marshaled the twisted forces known as the Cult of the Burning Man was standing behind a pile of corpses, holding a book identical to the one Captain Thrace had dispatched some months previously.

            “Alright troops, we don’t have a clue what that monster is doing, but we know we don’t want him to finish. Time to show him why the Guild is top dog on two planets!” With a cheer of false bravado, the soldiers raised their rifles to fire a volley at the crimson specter.

            In a gesture that seemed more annoyed than bothered, the figure raised its’ unoccupied hand in a dismissive gesture. Several of the portals shifted in front of it, and the fired shots vanished, to parts unknown. With another sharp gesture, the portals began to circle it. Finally, the book snapping shut, the robed phantasm spoke.

            “Tooooooo laaaaate.” it intoned in a hollow, echoing voice that the solders both heard and felt in equal measure. The rifts circling the figure grew faster and faster as they began to rise into the air. Soon, they were moving so fast as to appear a single glowing ribbon in the sky above the plaza. The soldiers could only stand, transfixed as the formerly bright sky darkened until the only light came from the spinning portals in midair. With a crash louder than anything James had heard in his life, the sky within the circle of portals split wide, and a deluge of salt water poured across the plaza towards the guardsmen, followed immediately by the largest creature James had ever seen.

It was a greyish green, its’ sides covered in dark blue and emerald spots, and it stood head and shoulders above the closest buildings. A long, sinewy tail stretched out behind it, dragging on the ground and giving it the balance to stand upright on its rear legs. A fearsome maw, with teeth the length of James’ own blades split its’ leather maw. As it cleared the portal with a deafening bellow, the glowing ribbon shrank, circling the things’ neck as it contracted. Clearly enraged by this, the monstrosity bellowed louder than a train and brought a claw up to try and tug at the energy around it’s long neck.

As though this behemoth’s call were the tone to war, the buildings around the troops disgorged a dozen twisted, formerly human monstrosities still dressed in the rags of their former lives. Not a one matched the others, each twisted by some arcane process into new and unique nightmares. These things made for the troopers without pause, though they were easily outnumbered two to one. The shock of the colossal beast that had emerged in front of them left the rear guards easy picking for the twisted horrors.

Spinning, Lieutenant Oulton bellowed at the men. “To the rear! About face and fire!” To their credit, many of the Guild guards managed to get off at least a single shot before the monstrosities were among them, close enough that their longer rifles soon became a liability. James himself was set upon by a monstrosity bearing extra legs of passing resemblance to an overlarge spider. Two of the lower appendages helped brace the human legs on the ground, while the other two grasped Lieutenant Oulton’s rifle, forcing it back against him as the inhuman head of the thing stretched forward to snap at him.

Abandoning the gun in a heartbeat, James drew one of his blades and impaled the thing through its’ outstretched jaws. With a garbled shriek of pain, the forward press of the thing abated, allowing James to draw his second sword and dispatch it with a blow through the top of the head. Around him, the rest of the men were fighting back against the horrible things, though more than a few men lay dead on the ground. James hastily bean to scan for his Captain, but couldn’t see her in the mess of man and monster around him. Turning back to the larger threat, he had to stifle a scream. Captain Thrace had taken off across the plaza, evidently hoping to use the distraction of the monster fighting the cult leader for control to launch a surprise attack. She had to be going for the book again.

As James processed what was happening, the red phantom clearly gained the control over the monster he was looking for. It turned, a great lumbering motion, and its’ tail snaked out to sweep Captain Thrace from the plaza!

With the reflexes of a well-trained soldier, Samantha tried to slide beneath the approaching doom of the whipping length that was heading for her. She nearly made it. By the barest of margins, the end of it caught her across the hip, sending her spinning across the plaza to hit a pile of rubble. Head first.

“Sam!” James screamed, all thoughts of decorum and secrecy leaving him in that moment. He sprinted for her, losing sight of anything other than the beast turning to rear over where his fallen Captain lay. In deliberate slow motion, the thing’s jaw dropped open, a furnace glow growing in the back of its’ gaping maw. With speed born of desperation, James leapt for Samantha, her safety the only thought in his mind. As the hellfire poured from the monsters’ throat, James felt a burning sensation that started inside, and built until it could do nothing but burst. With a howl, he felt it flow forth through his right shoulder, and all he could do was stand over his Captain.

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            Adeodatos was pleased. Despite the recent setbacks, he had managed to call forth the great creature of sea and flame mentioned in the ancient text, and further, bind it to his will. And the piece de resistance was the Guild squad led by the one who had formerly stymied him stumbling onto his summoning just as he unleashed the monster into the town. But something was wrong.

            Directing the great dragon on to burn the rest of the guardsmen to cinders, Adeodatos floated towards where the two first victims should lay. Rather than their charred remains, a glowing bubble resembling a rose sat, though the fury of the flame had burned all around them to ash. With a frown, he reached towards it, intending to pop the construct and finish them himself. A spike of pain through the palm of his hand as he approached the barrier caused him the pull back sharply. The Lieutenant that followed his Captain like a faithful dog was kneeling over her, his swords outstretched and holding shape the shield. It was coming from him! That was interesting. Adeodatos studied them for a few moments further, before deciding to leave them be for now. He would content himself with wiping out all the other life on the island, and leave these two for the inevitable Guild reinforcements to find. Turning back to his leviathan, Adeodatos urged it on towards the port where the rest of the guards were marching towards their death.

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            It had been a week since James had awoken, bound and gagged in a small stone cell with no windows. Every part of his body ached. The strange pattern of soulstone on the ceiling, and the eldritch symbols on his manacles caused him no end of confusion. But the worst part was that any time a guard would enter to remove the gag and feed him, any attempt at questions were met only with blows and the gag being replaced.

            This time, when the cell door opened, a man in the raiment of an Admiral stepped in. In a dark, clipped tone, he spoke.

            “Whatever happened at Gibraltar, you were the only survivor. We can’t make head not tails of what happened, but you were all that we found, lying there with eyes and tattoos aglow. I don’t know if you’re in league with those Cult lunatics, or if you’re an Arcanist sleeper who was handed an opportunity to destabilize the Guild that he couldn’t pass up.”

“It may even be just the worst quirk of fate in the world, and you could be innocent. Were it solely my decision, you’d hang for your part in whatever happened, regardless. But some damned lenient fools seem to have been won over by your years of service, and would rather condemn you to the soulstone mines in Malifaux, so that your eventual death may in some way help make up for the damage you’ve done to the Guild. Your sentence is life in servitude, to be carried out forthwith.” James could only stare at the Adiral in defeated greif.

Two guardsmen James hadn’t previously seen stepped forward, one ramming the butt of his rifle into James stomach, the other forcing a rough burlap hood over his head. The pulled him upright, and dragged him out of the cell. Passing into the hallway, away from the strange soulstone setup in his cell, James felt the rose tattooed on his right arm flush with a dull heat. The letters hidden in the design throbbed as though in concert with a heartbeat not his own. James choked back a cry of relief. It didn’t matter what the admiral said. Sam was alive, and James knew it in his gut.

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            Captain Thrace was silent in her hospital bed. She had chased the nurses and guardsmen out hours ago, upon being informed that her former subordinate had been condemned to death for suspected Arcanist ties and his part in the demise of the Guild forces in Gibraltar.  In silent fury, she turned and picked up the hand mirror left on the bedside table. It was difficult to bring her left arm far enough over her body to use it, but eventually the scars running from her right shoulder up her neck and onto her face were visible. With a strain of effort, she managed not to fling the offending accessory across the room. Instead, she channeled her fury into summoning the guard posted outside her door with a shout.

            With as fierce a tone as she could muster, lying injured and bandaged in a hospital bed, she spoke. “You have new orders, soldier. You are going to find the best tattooist in whatever city we are currently located in, and have him back here within the hour. If you don’t accomplish this, I will drag myself from this bed, beat you with the stock of your own weapon, and do so myself. Am I clear?” The thoroughly browbeaten guard could only nod. “Then MOVE!” Sam bellowed. He shot off through the door, leaving her once more in peace.

            Settling back, Captain Thrace managed to lift the mirror once more. It was unlikely that whatever design could be applied to cover her scarring would be able to hide a name, but in her own way, she could honor Lieutenant Oulton.

 

Edited by Kaladin_Stormblessed
Story Added!

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Haunter   

I'm grinding away, hoping to have one done by the deadline.  Writing time's scarce, but this is occupying all of it until the deadline.  I'm guessing you'll get a flood of submissions in the final day or two.

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Attus   

 

A Rose for every Name

 

 

5:30 am, Tuesday

 

Tatt slowly opened up his eyes staring straight up at the ceiling, almost discernible through the gloomy pre-dawn darkness of the large sleeping hall. From across the room he could hear the alarm-clock being tossed against the wall and shatter into cogs and springs flying across both the floor and those sleeping closest to the point of impact, triggering a harangue of curses in at least three different languages. Apparently the Italians, Tatt judged by the answering harangue of what could only be more curses and profanities in Italian or something very similar, that at the moment occupied the alarm-end of the sleeping hall must have had a rough night and did not agree with the foreman's idea of waking time.

Personally, he could not care the less about what time the foreman thought they should wake up in the morning in order to get their sorry selves to work in time. Unlike most of the others waking up in the hall around him he had been there for three years now, and grimly remembered the second foreman whose idea for waking time had been an hour earlier. Needless to say, he hadn't stayed foreman, or alive for that matter, for too long. In that light, the present waking time was a great improvement. Sitting up on the bed, he coughed into his hand, more out of habit that any real need to clear his throat, and relit the cigarette from the evening before lying in ash-tray on his bedside table. Taking a deep breath from the cigarette, he let the smoke rest for a short while within his lungs as he contemplated the second moon of Malifaux, visible through the window opposed his bed. He had always liked that second moon; it reminded him of just how far away from home he really was.

Exhaling the smoke he finally rose from the bed, gathered up his day-clothes, and, with the cigarette still hanging from the corner of his mouth, entered the closest wash room where he then promptly locked the door behind him. He habitually lighted the oil lamp hanging in the corner of the room with his cigarette before turning to the all-too-dirty mirror above the sink, contemplating for the fifth day in a row now whether he should shave or not before thinking the better of it. Pulling off his night-shirt above his head, the light from the lamp illuminated his heavily tattooed upper body and the many faces there engraved upon his arms, back and torso. They blinked awake in the sudden light hitting them, one or two of them yawning visibly as if disagreeing with the early morning. Tatt did not really care for them any more, and had long since stopped being amazed by the, in any normal circumstance extraordinary show being played across his upper body every morning as the faces awoke to life from a night of sleep. They had done so ever since he set down his foot on Malifaux station a year ago, and he had quickly grown bored by it.

The tattooed faces, and the few animals also inked on his upper body, moved around his skin, deftly, and in some cases rather frantically and clumsily, dodging the sponge as he absent-mindedly scrubbed himself clean for the new day. Washing his face, he saw the rose tattooed on his right wrist, its contours skilfully made up of letters instead of the usual lines, and the face above it, further up his arm, staring intently at him. It was the face of a young girl, Elaine he remembered her name, unlike the others always looking intently at him, never moving from its spot right above the rose. He returned the look, his own eyes full of regret as opposed to the deep loathing meeting them from the tattoo.

“O'Massey, you done in there soon?” the highly accented question, shouted through the door, was accompanied by aggressive banging and forced him to raise his gaze from his arm. He had no idea how long he had just stood there, returning the stare from the girl on his arm. “A minute!” he shouted back, quickly pulling on his clothes, worn out workers jeans and a long sleeved sweater to hide his arms.

Unlocking and opening the door, he was met by short line of people waiting for their chance to freshen up a little before work started for the day. Giving a short nod to Piekki, the Finn at the head of the line who had banged at the door, he squeezed by them and made his way down to the mess hall on the ground floor to get some breakfast.

 

Just shy of an hour later they were out the door and on their way to the construction site, inconveniently located half an hour walk from their sleeping hall, and the office of Rehberg construction. The train of workers moving through the streets, steadily around forty since he had joined the crew three years ago, attracted its fair share of pedlars, and this day was as usual no exception. He lazily scanned the the small crowd accompanying them, looking for the little girl he always bought apples from, the only goods she ever appeared to have, but could not really find her anywhere.

As it slowly dawned upon him that the little girl might not be around, he started looking around more frantically, almost knocking over the colleague walking behind him. He was stopped by a firm hand on his shoulder, and as he turned back again he saw Piekki walking by him, pointing towards something in front of them. “Calm down, O'Massey” he told him in his broken English. “There's your girl, and her apples”.

Looking down the street towards where Piekki were pointing, he could indeed see the little girl waiting for them. Her blonde hair was unwashed, her dress torn, her little apron dirty, and the basket she held in her tiny hands were filled with red and yellow apples. The scene was so usual, apart from where she stood, that he had to blink to make sure it was not just a memory. It wasn't, and he could not possibly be more relieved about it. He nodded a silent ‘thanks’ to his Finnish friend beside him and quickened the pace a little, walking up towards the expecting girl and her apples.

He fished up a penny from his pocket and, almost ritualistic by now, put it in her outstretched hand. She quickly hid it in a pocket on her apron and carefully choose an apple to give to him, taking extra care to give him a fresh one. The scene always brought a smile to his face, and today proved no exception. She found an apple that looked good enough for her to feel comfortable giving him and held it out between them. He flashed her a grateful smile and grabbed the apple, and then instantly nearly dropped it again as a sudden pain burned into his right wrist.

Biting through the sudden pain, he forced his hand to be steady and thanked the girl, hoping that she had not noticed anything. By the look of her sunny smile and she skipped away, fully aware by experience that he would be the only one buying from her here, he guessed she had not. After quickly glancing over his shoulder to be sure no one were too close, he pulled up his right sleeve to uncover his forearm. The rose he had tattooed on his right arm where glowing slightly, the contours of one of the petals shining in a blood red. The intricately tattooed letters there forming one of the many names making up the contours of the rose: Jenny. Above the rose, Elaine were slowly nodding to him.

Hearing the others now catching up to him, he quickly pulled down his sleeve again and found his usual position in the line. “You're really spoiling that girl, you know” Piekki told him as they once more found themselves walking next to each other. “I know”, he absent-mindedly muttered as an answer, craning his head to be able to see the watch on the wrist of the person in front of them. He read five to seven, he knew he would have to remember that. The burning sensation on his wrist were fading, and he knew that the glow were slowly fading from the rose, returning it to its usual lifeless ink.

And in his mind, he could see the girl slowly nodding to him.

 

 

7:15 am, Wednesday

 

He looked out of the train window at the buildings passing by, their gradual improvement in both quality and looks functioning as the tell-tale sign that he was quickly getting closer to Malifaux Station. He had taken the morning train from Southgate station, the first available for him, and was all to anxious to arrive as soon as possible, the events off the last morning still bright in his mind. He had learned quickly after arriving here that the rose glowing and burning meant a member of the old gang had crossed the breach into Malifaux. Every member of his old gang back in Belfast had had a similar rose on their wrist, a tattoo with the names of the others. Back then it had just been a fun idea, and they had known an artist skilled enough to pull it off. Here in Malifaux, the rose recognised its likenesses, and sensed their arrival.

He absent-mindedly stroke his thumb across the tattoo, over the name that had glowed yesterday. Jenny Diler had crossed the breach and were somewhere in Malifaux at the moment, and he were all too anxious to find her. He had of course preferred leaving right away, and take the first available train up to the station, but he knew that the foreman never would have let him go like that and still keep his job. Instead he had approached him during the day and managed to negotiate a few days free time, starting the day after. He had not been able to state a good reason for his sudden need to leave, but the foreman had fortunately let it slip due to his good work around the build site.

He had at a maximum four days to find her before he needed to be back to work, but he believed he should be able to make it. Jenny had a twenty-four hour head-start on him, and could be almost anywhere in the city, or outside it for that matter. But this was Malifaux, she was just arrived, and he knew that it was impossible not to leave a trail.

 

It was no more than twenty minutes later that the train stopped at his destination, Malifaux station. He double-checked so that the sleeves of his long, brown coat fully covered his both arms before stepping of the train onto the platform, putting on a pair of leather gloves while doing so. It had happened once or twice that one of his tattoos had gotten the idea to wander around on his hands, and the last thing he wanted was one of the witch-hunters looming around the station to see them. He was pretty certain that his tattoos being alive was magic, but at the same time very certain that he had no grasp of it himself. He was pretty certain, too, that the witch-hunters would not really care about the difference.

Taking a wide, but he hoped un-suspicious, turn around the two hooded and skulking figures patrolling the platform with the aim of putting as much room between himself and them as possible, he instantly set off to the platform of the Malifaux-Earthside train. The whole platform had recently been encircled by the Guild with a wall and gatehouse, and it was towards this gatehouse that he steered his steps. According to the papers the wall was to improve the safety of the people on the other platforms after the three incidents of last year, but everyone knew that was just an excuse for improving Guild monitoring of the influx of people to Malifaux.

He thought back to when he arrived here in Malifaux himself and how much easier it had been back then as he stepped into the large gatehouse, officially known as the registration office. Back then it had just been stepping of the train and then Malifaux was open to you. Nowadays, the new Governor General and his bureaucracy demanded you stop to register name, age, profession, origin country, and intended destination breach-side. It must be a hassle for new arrivals wanting to forget their past, but a real help for himself.

Stepping inside the building, he thankfully found it almost empty of people except the clerks handling the registrations, with only a few stragglers left from the morning train filling in the last of their forms. He walked up to the clerk closest to the filing cabinets and knocked on his desk to catch his attention.

“Yes, can I help you with something?” the clerk looked from the paper in front of him, sounding clearly annoyed at being disturbed

“As a matter of fact, I believe you can” Tatt answered him. “I'm looking for a woman who came here yesterday with the morning train” he made a pointing gesture towards the large document cabinets behind the clerk “and I was hoping that you could help me find where she was going”

“I'm afraid that information is strictly for Guild officials”. The clerk did not sound sorry at all and promptly returned his attention to the papers before him, not even bothering gesturing him to leave.

Tatt had been prepared for that type of reception and remained calmly unphased, fishing up a handful of scrip from his pocket which he carefully lay down on the table next to the papers the clerk were working on. “I know, but I hoped you could make me an exception”.

The clerk froze in his work and cast a quick glance at his colleagues before grabbing the money. Ten scrip was a difficult sum for most people in Malifaux to deny, and constituted most of what Tatt made in a month. He deemed it fair price to pay, though, if it could lead him to Jenny. “Morning train yesterday, you said?” the clerk did not let him answer but spun his chair around and opened one of the cabinet lockers behind him. It was filled to almost half with different folders, out of which he picked out one towards the end before closing the cabinet again and spinning back to the desk, laying down the folder between them. “What happens to be the name of this woman you are looking for?” he opened the folder and then deftly, and with clear signs of practice, thumbed through the papers contained within, exposing the passenger names written in the top right corner of every form.

“Jenny Diler” Tatt told him, still standing despite the vacant chair just beside him. “Might have introduced herself as Jen Dye, or Dyle” Jenny had never had any imagination when it came to aliases as long as he had known her, and he severely doubted that she had developed one during the last four years.

“Jen, Jenny, Dye, Dyle, Diler” the clerk muttered to himself while deftly thumbing the stack of papers a few times before, with a triumphant gesture, plucking out one of the papers, quickly looking through it, at then handing it over to Tatt. “One Jen Dyle, twenty-four, arrived in Malifaux from Ireland yesterday and on her way to Malifaux city to work as a waitress at the Sweat & Toil & Rum”, the clerk chuckled slightly at the name of the pub.

Tatt took the form and gave it a good look. Apart from the information the clerk just had given him, the form also stated some of the persons physical traits such as hair- and skin-colour, approximate height and weight, and distinguishable markings or scars, probably so that the Guild would be able to recognise you should you decide to break the law or something like that. He froze momentarily when he read about the rose tattooed on the individuals right wrist, which could only mean that it was undoubtedly her. “Thank you” he told the clerk before laying down the form on the table and turning around to leave.

“My pleasure, mr...?” the Clerk inquired, but Tatt were already leaving the building and either did not hear, or did not care to answer. For the clerk it did not really matter. He patted the pocket in which he had put his ten easily earned scrip, and then moved to return the folder to where it belonged.

 

Tatt stepped out of the registration office and blinked in the sudden brightness, the sun a little higher now on the sky as to remind him that he had a deadline. He knew now that Jenny were on her way to some pub somewhere in the city. What he did not know yet was were he could find this pub, which made the whole endeavour a little more problematic but in no way impossible. Quickly scanning the area in front of the building for the skulking witch-hunters, he left by the route that once again would put the most distance between himself and the robed figures. He needed to find someone who could point him in the right direction. Sweat & Toil & Rum sounded like a Union pub, which meant that he would have no luck asking the Guild guards dotted around the train station. Luckily for him though, the rails around the station were under constant repair, which meant that rail-workers were not hard to find.

He quickly spotted a small team of them lazily working the rails and approached. “Excuse me, but you don't happen to know about a pub called Sweat & Toil & Rum, do you?” he stopped and asked them from a few yards away, no sense in getting closer than needed to people wielding heavy tools and machinery. He got a few lazy looks from the workers before one of them, a woman who had had her left leg replaced a time ago, turned towards the worker furthest away from him and shouted something in, he believed, German.

The man, possibly the foreman but more probably the only one fluent in English among them, rose and walked up to Tatt, still standing a few yards from the group. “I'm sorry, I didn't hear. What pub where you looking for?” the man asked him in broken English, stopping a few feet away leaning haphazardly on a sledgehammer.

“Sweat & Toil & Rum” Tatt answered, feeling his mouth dry up a little but outwards managing keep an image of calm and confidence, he hoped.

“Why you need to know?” the man answered him. Despite not actually visibly moving, Tatt could feel the man in front of him slightly shifting his stance, and could see the crowd of workers behind him stop working and getting visibly tense, some of them even shifting their hold on their tools.

Fighting both the urge to swallow and to simply turn and run, he instead locked a, hopefully, steady gaze on the man in front of him and answered in the most steady voice he could manage at the moment. “I'm meeting a friend”

For a moment nothing really happened, and he had to struggle not to just abandon the whole thing and run away. But then, the man in front of him nodded, as if coming to an internal conclusion, and visibly relaxed. As on cue, the workers behind him returned to work, as if nothing had just happened. “In that case” the man answered him with a faint smile. “Let's not keep your friend waiting!”

 

 

5:20 pm, Wednesday

 

He was once again sitting on a train watching Malifaux pass him by through the window, but this time on his way to Ridley. The rail-worker had directed him to a not too shabby pub in the industrial zone, behind the train station fortunately so it had been easy to find. Just as he had first guessed it was a clear Union pub with mainly rail- and factory-workers making up the guests and filling the place even during the day. And, just as he had first expected, the pub had not been hiring anyone at the moment with more than enough people in the wait-staff to go around, making Jenny's stated reason for entering Malifaux just as fake as her given name.

He was of course familiar with the rumours circulating the Union, and since Jenny had always been a crack-shot with a gun he suspected that she had been brought to Malifaux as some sort of troubleshooter rather than choosing to immigrate to create a new life on her own. He could really not blame her, he would probably have done the same had the opportunity presented itself when he first arrived. His suspicions about the Union, and his thoughts of why Jenny had come to Malifaux, was both confirmed shortly after entering the pub as he walked up to the barkeep and told him that he was there to meet a friend. He had surmised that if it was good enough to convince the rail-workers at Malifaux Station to lead him in the right direction, it would be good enough to convince the barkeep. He had been right.

He had been led up to the second floor and into an office at the back of the pub, where he was greeted by a woman. probably She had probably been some sort of Union recruiter, or at least that was the impression. At the moment it had been hard to figure out anything at all about the woman who sat behind the simple desk in the middle of the room, her feet casually resting on the table while she carved some sort of doll out of a small log of wood she was holding. By the alarming number of small wooden figurines lining the many shelves in the room, he figured that she must not do much else during the day.

He still was not really sure of how he had managed to convince the woman to tell him where he could find Jenny, who he had referred to as the friend who had taken him to Malifaux and who he now tried to catch up with. He figured, though, that it somehow must have been his charm, since she had told him to come over should he ever find himself in the city again. He was off a mind to maybe take her up on the offer when he returned.

He shook his head at the general absurdity of it all. Even so, the opportunity had, somewhat at least, presented itself for him for a change. With just a little more effort once he arrived at Ridley he might find himself with a job opportunity as a troubleshooter, or something like it, he believed. He knew he had the right experience for the job, he thought for himself as he absent-mindedly fingered the rose tattoo on his wrist, one of his many permanent reminders off the gang back in Belfast. He cast the tattoo a quick glance, and caught the eye of the girl above it. She stared at him, as she always did. Her eyes were so still, and so full of calm determination that it instantly banished all other thoughts from his mind. No, he told himself, change would have to wait. He returned his gaze out through the window to the landscape of Malifaux passing by. Still a long time to go, but Ridley was getting closer.

 

 

3.25 am, Thursday

 

Somewhere in the distance he imagined hearing a wolf howling, other than that the town was deathly quiet. The woman at the pub back in Malifaux had directed him to a hotel, or something similar, in Ridley and he had now spent way too many hours looking at it from across the street to not look at least slightly suspicions. Luckily for him, the small town was at the moment populated by way too many people, and the crowds constantly filling the street had effectively hid him. It had, however, not hid Jenny from him. He had seen her pass by twice, once out from the building and then again back into the building a short time later. She looked exactly as he remembered her, the long red hair flowing unkept beneath just a slightly too large-brimmed hat. Not even her clothes had changed during the past four years, and he suspected that she must not have done that well after the gang split.

He had spotted her a few times through one of the windows on the second floor as well, and had surmised that it must be where she stayed. It had been dark for the last few hours, so he suspected that she slept soundly by now. Unlike the man in the room just next to her where a lamp still was shining bright, lighting up the window. Tatt took another sip from the bottle of whiskey he kept in his coat pocket and rubbed his temples between his index finger and thumb in an effort to not fall asleep.

It took a short while, but at last that window went dark as wellig. He returned the bottle to his pocket and drew a deep breath before he as silently as he possibly could entered the now completely dark building.

 

It did not take long for him to reach the door he had figured must lead to Jenny's room. He gave out a short sigh as he carefully tried the door knob and realised it was locked. He had expected as much, but had still hoped this would be easier. Lucky then, the thought to himself as he picked up a visibly old and slightly worn out lock pick from a pocket, that he had come prepared. He had been quite good at picking locks back in Belfast, and even though it was a few years ago he was certain that he still had it in him.

He did, even if it took him a few tries more than it should have. At least he was quiet, he thought to himself as he entered the room and closed the door behind him again. The room before him was dark, but the moonlight entering through the window was bright enough for him to see anyway. It was sparsely furnished with only the most essential: a cupboard, a desk and chair, and a bed in the corner on which he could see Jenny sprawled out.

The blanket were haphazardly thrown down over her lower body, her night-shirt were in mess, and he felt a pang of sadness hitting him as he realised just how much he had missed her these past four years. They had been close friends, once, and he found himself longing back to those day.

He shook his head. There were no point in remembering, as there was no going back.

He removed his coat and laid it carefully down on the desk, the moonlight hitting his bare arms beneath it stirring the tattoos to life. As the faces looked around at the unfamiliar room before them, he silently moved closer to the bed. Through the corners of his vision he could see some of them spotting the sleeping woman and a look like recognition crossed their eyes. One of the faces, an older man, turned to him and started shouting, and although nothing could be heard Tatt was sure that he shouted the word “No” over and over to him. All the faces had now seen her, and fear could clearly be seen in most of them. Not Elaine's though, her loathing eyes were fixed on Jenny's face as he slowly leaned over her.

He could feel her pulse press against his palm as he slowly cusped his hands around her neck and then squeezed. It only took her a few moments to open her eyes in shock and fear but by then his hands and fingers were already securely pressed around her neck; effectively stopping the eventual scream that would have woken up the house and alarmed them of the impending murder. She flailed her hands at his arms, trying in vain to push him away. But it was no use since he was both too strong for her, and she was quickly growing too weak to struggle for long. When her eyes finally managed to focus enough to actually see her assailer, her arms fell limb beside her and an image of sudden and tremendous sadness fell upon her face. She mouthed something, voiceless for the lack of air. He could not be sure, but he was certain that she tried to speak his name, call out to him. Beg him to stop.

But he couldn't, she didn't let him. Through the tears that slowly clouded his view he could see, he was certain he could hear, the faces on his arms scream, howl, in muted horror. The faces screamed their hatred. Their sorrow. Their despair. They cried, some of them tried looking the other way. Every face but one. He could see her, clearly despite the tears. She stared intently at Jenny slowly dying before her, her face twisted in loathing and her colourless eyes burning with anger. The rose tattoo beneath her were glowing now, the contour made up by Jenny's name the brightest, blood red as opposed to the faint yellow of the other names. He could feel the life leaving her, her neck slowly growing limp in his hands. And on his left forearm, in an empty space of bare skin abandoned by the other tattoos, he could feel the by now familiar burning pain of a new tattoo being created. Through the corner of his eye, through the blur of his tears, he could see the outlines of a face appear, searing into his skin in a blood-red glow. It was screaming in chorus with all the other faces. Howling in pain and sorrow. It only took moments, and by the time life had left Jenny's real life eyes, the eyes of her tattoo on his forearm were looking down upon her unmoving body on the bed, tears visible in her inked eyes.

He gently let go of her neck, the tears now streaming freely down his cheeks. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry” he silently whispered to the dead woman in front of him, softly stroking her hair. The words were not meant for Jenny, though. In his minds eye he was back to four years past, in Belfast, looking down on a strangled girl whose neck he was slowly releasing and whose face he now knew all too well, tears filling his eyes. “I'm so sorry” he once more whispered to her, gently stroking away a lock of her golden blond hair from her face.

Blinking away the memory and the tears, he looked around the room. He needed to grab some valuables before he left, making it look like a robbery for whatever people who would be assigned to investigate the murder tomorrow. He made sure to leave a proper mess behind him before he left the room just a short time later, once more wearing his coat and a bag now hanging across his shoulder.

 

He stopped at the mouth of an unlit alley just a few minutes later, dropping the bag of loot to the ground. Leaning back against the wall of the closest house, he fished out the small bottle of whiskey from his pocket and put it to his mouth. The movement made the sleeve of his coat fall down his arm, revealing both the rose and Elaine beneath it, looking intently into his eyes. He froze for a second meeting her gaze before he tipped the bottle and swallowed a mouthful of the liquor inside. He returned the bottle to his pocket and then just stood there, meeting the judging gaze of the girl on his forearm. She was not angry, just judging, as if telling him that he still was not finished.

He raised his eyes to the rose tattoo on his wrist. Fourteen names made up the contours of its petals. Fourteen names, and now eleven faces. Three more names.

He coughed habitually into his hand and pulled a pack of cigarettes from a pocket. Looking down to the ground, he suddenly remembered the bag of stuff he stole from Jenny's room and gave it a good kick into the alley where he was sure some lucky street-kid would find and whisk it away to never be found again. He lit the cigarette and started walking back to the train station and the first train back to Malifaux City. Three more names. Three more faces, and then maybe, just maybe, the guilt would leave, and the girl could smile again.

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Never Forget

 

I got the name tattooed on my back each time one of us died - the First Highland Rifles, the Governor General’s Rabid Hounds… Johnny, who we called Thunder for his laugh, died at the barricades with an axe in his hand. Lana shot herself to keep the nightmares at bay. Connor burned out on Brilliance and poker and wound up in the river. A Nephilim opened Kelly from sternum to groin with a single swipe of its claws. And on, and on down the years and down my spine, a weight of names gone but not forgotten.

 

No wonder I couldn’t sleep at night. I gave up trying as the sun poked nervous fingers down the cracked cobbles of Breacher’s Street. My head screamed like something trying to break out, and I drowned it with a shot of opium water. The edges of the world softened and it smelled less like black powder smoke.

 

I pulled on boots, and cocked the brim of my hat so it covered the worst of the black blood burns, my one concession to vanity. The action on my collier was well greased and easy, so I tucked it into the holster on my hip and slid the long knife with the bayonet loop into my coat. I didn’t bother locking the door, anyone who wanted to was welcome to come at me - standing policy of the Hounds. It had been a long time since anyone could do worse to me than my own brain.

 

On a second thought I turned and pocketed the lavender scented card that sat crumpled in my ashtray.

 

The back room at the World’s Edge was still bustling when I got there. A coal fire burned in the hearth to keep back the chill of the day, and bookies and cutpurses held handkerchiefs over their mouths against the smoke while they waited to check in their last night’s take. Two hounds stood on the door, shotguns pointed at the splintering wooden floor, one more shadowed my quartermaster and the Big Book. She wasn’t armed but there was something in the bodyguard’s gaze that told you she didn’t have to be.
 

Colin, Carrie, Daniel, Lily… I recited their names to myself, a litany, a mantra. Carving into my soul what would one day be etched on my skin.

 

The crowd parted around me as I cut to the front, laughter and conversation ebbing away in my wake.

 

“Kill you to smile, commandant?” Said the quartermaster. She barely looked up from the Book, “You’re making my people nervous.”

 

“They’re your people now?” I said, then shook my head, “Probably. How are we looking?”

 

“Not bad,” she scanned the columns in her ledger, “Look to be coming out a good bit ahead. Terror went down in her first fight, so that helped.”

 

“‘Course she did,” I grunted, “The dog does as she’s told. Anything else?”

 

“Few bloody noses near the docks, Lynch’s dealers pushed us off of Battery Street. That big fellow with the railroad tie was there.” She caught the question in my eye, “No fighting, our boys gave way to the corner of Hunter and Longing, but they’re going to keep pressing if we don’t do something soon.”

 

“Thank you Carrie,” I said, touching my hat to the quartermaster, “I’ll be in my office if you need anything.”

 

“Liam,” she waved in the shadow of a salute, “They’ve always been my people.” Our habits haunted us as much as anything we had seen.

 

It took a conscious effort, but as I made my way back to the office I murmured greetings to anyone who caught my eye, cuffed a few lightly on the shoulder if it looked like they had a rough night. “Chin up,” I told one young woman with a fresh black eye.

 

She looked up at me and I saw she had a cut lip and bruising on her arms. “Give me your bag,” I said. She swallowed and complied, it was lighter than we liked to see but her knuckles were cut. “Dockside?” I said and she nodded. I pulled a wad of Guilder out of my pocket and pressed them into her palm. “Get some sleep, I’ll check you in. We’ll give ‘em hell tonight.”

 

I hopped up on a table as she started for the door, “Hey!” I called, and two dozen heads turned towards me. Carrie was right, the men would always follow the money, “Spread the word. The Barber’s men have a dot tattooed on their right earlobe. Tomorrow night there’s an extra share in it for anyone who can bring me a dock rat’s ear!” A cheer went up at that, and it continued until the ironbound door to the office swung shut behind me. I sagged against the frame. My secretary wordlessly held out a cigarette.

 

I took and lit it. He had been aide-de-camp to General Forthes during the Spanish campaign and watched fields of the dead stand and form ranks. He didn’t talk much anymore.

 

“I need you to take a letter,” I said, and he rolled his chair back, reoriented himself in front of a typewriter and rolled a sheet of paper into position.

 

“Ready,” he said.

 

“Governor-General Marlow,” I said, “Congratulations on your appointment…” I trailed off at the deafening silence from the typewriter.

 

“I’m sorry?” He said after a long pause.

 

“You heard me.”

 

“Of course.”

 

I started again, “Congratulations on your appointment. I received your message and I am honored that you have heard of me, but I’m afraid my record may have been doctored by overzealous chroniclers. Yes, the Highland First held the line at Razorback Ridge but we had sappers with us, and a mechanized unit. I did not kill a full grown Nephilim in single combat.

 

“For twenty straight months my regulars provided the anvil to the Ortega’s hammer, the rock that broke the Nephilim waves. And for that we were given medals, we were given hazard pay, and we were given the opportunity to leave and make our own lives.

 

“Since I resigned my commission those of my men who decided to stay in Malifaux have helped me to carve out a few blocks of order in the Quarantine Zone. We have made a living here on hounds of our own, and when we die we will shed our blood on ground of our own choosing.

 

“And so I must decline your generous offer. We will not give up the shallow freedoms that we have earned.

 

“Loyally yours, Liam Burke.”

 

There was a clatter of keys as my secretary caught up, and he looked at me, fingers poised. He raised an eyebrow.

 

“That’s all, Lawrence.” I said, and sank into my high backed chair, “Read it back to me.”

*****

Lilly watched from across the street as the fishermen approached the bag holder. Too much time on the banks of the Malifaux river had left them sallow and gasp-lipped. Their flesh hung loosely and there was hunger in their eyes. Steam boiled from their nostrils with each breath, stolen by the early chill of winter. Of course Lily hadn’t breathed for a long time.

 

The bag holder gripped her charge more tightly and pressed herself into the gapped tooth space between leaning tenements.

 

The system was simple. Customers paid the bag holder and got tabs of red paper in return. Around the corner that Hound’s Scrip was good for all manner of sins of the flesh - from cocaine to duck sausage smuggled from Earthside and grilled to order. They could buy their way into the dog fights, or get time with one of the appealing men or women who paid the Hounds for protection.

 

Lily could tell right away that something was wrong with these two - a wrong too deep to be explained away by their living in the Quarantine Zone or working on the docks. A soldier never lost the scent of another soldier’s fear. These two shuffled from death towards death, and they wore billhooks under their oiled ponchos.

 

She detached from the shadows and drifted into the street. She was stiff with cold, the blood frozen in her veins. As she walked she spun the knife end over end, the pommel never leaving her hand.

 

The bag holder was a young woman with narrow hips and wide set eyes. She wore leather gloves with iron nails pounded into the fingertips. “Gentlemen,” she said, “I need to see coin before you come any closer. Lily willed her not to sound so scared.

 

The fishermen looked at each other and the smaller one turned to her, “It’s payday,” he said, “Just looking for a little bit of fun.” He smoothed back his greasy hair. Lily figured he fancied himself quite the ladies man.

 

“You come to the right place,” the bag holder said, licking her lips, “Let’s see the coin.”

 

The smaller fisherman pulled his poncho aside and plucked a coin pouch from his belt where it had hung next to the billhook. The larger man aped him. The bag holder eyed them up and down, “Drop it,” she said, “And step away.”

 

The second man looked to his smaller compatriot, who shrugged, “Ah well,” he said, “Grab her, Henry!”

 

Henry pulled his billhook and lunged. Lily kicked in the back of his knee and cracked him over the head with the weighted pommel of her knife. He let out a watery cry and fell forward. She threw herself sideways to avoid a half seen swing, but the smaller man’s billhook caught her forearm and drew blood.

 

Lily hated knife-work. Too often she’d seen both parties to a knife fight end up in bodybags. She locked eyes with the fisherman and pushed her memories on him, shared the first time she had died. The feeling of her ribs snapping in sequence as the bear hugged the life out of her and the world went fuzzy and red, the horrible musk of its moldering fur crushed against her nose…

 

The revenant smiled as the fisherman’s eyes rolled back to the whites and he collapsed. She caught him by the chin and tilted his head to the side. Sure enough, there was a blue-black dot marking his right earlobe.

 

“Get their money,” Lily said to the shaking bag holder. She heard running from behind her - Hound territory. By the time the riflemen made it to her, she had retrieved the fishermen’s ears and their blood was pooling in the cracks between frostbound cobblestones.

 

She tossed one of the grizzly trophies to the first rifleman. “Dump them somewhere the Barber will find them,” Lily said, “Don’t get caught.”

 

They saluted, “Sergeant.”

 

When they had dragged the bodies away she offered the other ear to the bag woman. “Good work,” Lily said, “You earned it.”

 

The other woman just shook her head. It looked like she didn’t trust herself to open her mouth.

 

“Suit yourself,” Lily said, pocketing the ear, “I won’t mind the bonus.”

*****

I made sure I was in the office early, but I let the messenger cool his heels anyway while my crew counted the night’s take. I could see him pacing back and forth against the frosted glass of my office window while I shared a glass of whiskey with Lawrence. It was good stuff, liquid gold and smoke. I enjoyed it but Lawrence was entranced - it was one of the few pleasures a lifetime of war had left him with.

 

When the dealers, bookies, and whores had cleared out of my lobby I picked up the aethervox and told Carrie to send him in.

 

I’ve always hated looking at the dockworkers. I swear it’s not where the conflict started between the Barber and I, but it didn’t help. Their hair is limp with sour smelling water and their skin is grey, sickly even indoors away from the green sun. This one had built up a head of steam while he waited.

 

I put my feet up on my desk and waited for him to talk.

 

“The Barber-Surgeon sent me,” he said, “Under a flag of truce.” I lit a cigarette. “He has a complaint.”

 

Lawrence and I shared a meaningful look. I could almost see the steam coming up around the messenger’s collar. The flush of anger suited him, he looked almost human.

 

“You’ve been assaulting our enforcers,” he said through gritted teeth.

 

I reached under my desk for a burlap bag and upended it, over a dozen ears spilled out, “What makes him think it was us?” I said. The messenger reached into his coat and I swung my feet off the desk. “Go ahead,” I said, gesturing to the pile, “Give me an excuse. I’ve room for more ears.”

 

The messenger withdrew his hand, he was holding a clipped rose with petals rich as blood. “One of them died,” he said.

 

“Cost of doing business,” I turned a hand palm up, “The Barber knows that better than most.”

 

“The man you killed was his son.”

 

Shit. I didn’t quite manage to hide my reaction. When you have no other option, charge, “What was his son doing harassing my dealers?”

 

“He was dressed as a fisherman,” the messenger spoke stiffly, “He was on the streets in defiance of his father’s wishes.”

 

I pursed my lips, “So the Barber’s son goes out in disguise, attacks my people, and dies,” I said, “How is that my problem? He knows the game.”

 

“The Barber-Surgeon understands that it’s not your fault.” It took visible effort for the messenger to choke the words out, “But understand, it needs to be answered.” I waited.

“We know who killed him,” he said, “And we want her dead.” He laid the rose on my desk.

 

I ran my tongue over the inside of my teeth and considered him. “If I do this,” I said at last, “You’ll stop pushing me on the west. You’ll keep the fish market and everything beyond but you’ll leave me the Pits, the Coliseum, and Acres park. You won’t harass my dealers, you won’t try to move on my markets.”

 

“We’ll pull back from the Pits,” he said, “And we’ll sell our stake in the Coliseum for Three hundred scrip.”

 

“Fifty.”

 

“One hundred.”

 

“Done,” I said. I could hear the clatter of Lawrence’s typewriter, “And the park?”

 

“No good,” he said, “We need the High Street gate, same as you.”

 

“We’ll guarantee you free passage out of the quarantine zone via the High Street gate, and your boys can still deal in the park, but we’ll provide the security. No guns, no knives.”

 

He shook his head, “Sometimes we need to get muscle into the Guild Quarter on short notice.”

 

“Bullshit,” I said, “You own the river. If you’re using High Street it’s to run drugs, tomes, or artifacts. If you want muscle on the other side you can arrange it with us on a case by case basis.”

 

“You won’t get a cut.”

 

“Sure,” I agreed, “I won’t take a cut.” Lawrence ducked his head to hide a smile. “I’ll send it up town today to have it certified by a Lawyer.”

 

The messenger shook his head, “Not until we see her body.”

 

I picked up the rose, spun it between my fingers. “Fine. We’ll have the Lawyer on hand. He’s come to the World’s Edge before. We’ll do it in the courtyard out front.”

 

“The Barber-Surgeon won’t come alone,” he said.

 

“He can bring a bodyguard,” I said, “We’ll even give them their ear back. Call it a good faith gesture.” I showed him my teeth.

 

We haggled over how many and how well armed the retinue could be. I could see the messenger was outside of his script. “We should just meet on neutral ground,” he said,

 

“You and the woman, the Barber and two men. You can bring your pistol-” I shot to my feet.

 

The thorns of a Malifaux rose bite deep, and I gritted my teeth against the waves of euphoria pulsing from my left fist. I crossed to the messenger with a single stride and then it was grab-twist-lift and I had him pinned against the wall. “Tell your boss, he’ll get his head,” I hissed, “But it will be in a time a place of my choosing.” It took a force of will to release my death grip on the rose and tuck it in his breast pocket.

 

“And if he wants to come at me?” I wiped my bloody palm across his jaw, “Tell him I could use a shave.”

 

The fisherman was staring up into a corner of the room his eyes glistening from my knuckles pressing into his throat. I stepped away and he staggered, nearly falling. “Get the hell out of my office.”

 

“Well if he wasn’t going to cheat the retinue before,” Lawrence said when the door had swung shut behind him, “He sure will now.”

 

I picked at my fingernails with the tip of my knife, “He’ll cheat on anything he can,” I said, “I don’t mean to kill Lily. Hell, I don’t know if I can.”

 

“So what’s the plan?” He asked.

 

“Oh, I’ll shoot her in the head, he’ll find that she doesn’t have a pulse. He sign the contract, it’s certified, he leaves and we have some breathing room to deal with Lynch and his people.”

 

Lawrence didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to.

 

“The Barber doesn’t have the muscle to take us on our own turf. Not with half his heavy hitters or better laid up.” I jerked my chin at the pile of ears.

 

“I’ve seen him fight,” Lawrence said, “He’s fast with those razors.”

 

“Not faster than a bullet,” I said.

 

“Maybe, but he can bleed ghosts with those things.”

 

“I’m not a ghost,” I said, “He’s just a man.” Just a vengeful, murderous, psychopathic man. They’re a dime a dozen in this godforsaken city.

 

“I’ll write the Lawyer then,” Lawrence said. His voice was thick with all the distaste I felt towards legal magic. Still, I needed some breathing room and this would give it to me.

 

“You don’t think he was awfully eager to come to terms?”

 

I looked at Lawrence, he was still hunched over his typewriter. “It was a good night,” I said, but I didn’t quite believe it, “We’ll present in force when he gets here.”

*****

“I’ve never been shot in the head,” Lily said with a grimace.

 

“I don’t expect you to enjoy the experience.”

 

She looked at my plate, “You know I can still smell?” She said, “Can’t eat, but I still want to.” I reached for her arm and she jerked it away, “Can’t even taste something and spit it out. All just ash on my tongue. Where’s the justice in that?”

 

“We’ve had little enough justice over the years,” I said, “You more than most.”

 

“Maybe,” she said, staring at her hands. Her knuckles were flat from years of fighting. “I’m still walking though, aren’t I?”

 

I nodded.

 

“Damnit, why’d it have to be the Barber’s kid?” She said, “I knew he thought he was some kind of a hotshot, but hell.”

 

“Justice,” I said. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her, my red right hand for the last five years. The bar at the World’s Edge was all but empty. Just Eddie polishing glasses and one of the Hounds, McCullen, guarding the door and humming Loch Lomond off key.

 

Once the factory whistle blew we would see the same good custom as any night, but now our voices echoed faintly from the smoke cured wooden rafters and rattled in the cracked tabletops.

 

“I remember playing poker on the train ride over,” Lily said, sloshing a dram of whiskey under her nose, “I won a pair of boots, an extra ration of cigarettes, maybe five scrip… We played on a barrel of gunpowder that we rolled into the middle of the car. I would have won more but when we made the transition the train jerked and the barrel toppled over. We all scattered so it wouldn’t crush our legs… Got a good laugh out of that.” She was smiling at the memory, “We had beef in our rations. They said, well you said, that Malifaux was a land of opportunity for an aspiring soldier. We’d carve out a bit of civilization in the wilderness, six months would see us setup with enough to live by. In a year or less we’d have made something real of our lives.”

 

“And look at us now,” I said. She lifted her glass to me, it was thick bottomed crystal, what soldiers called an officer’s powder horn.

 

“There were a hundred fifty guns on that train,” she said, “And a dozen support; your staff, the non-coms. How many are left?”

 

“Twenty-six,” I responded automatically. Lily winced.

 

“Rhetorical,” I apologized.

 

“How many will there be after tomorrow?”

 

“If we pull this off, no one has to die.”

 

“And tomorrow, and tomorrow…” She was barely talking now, drifting out on a tide of thought like a pyre boat.

 

“Everyone dies eventually,” I said, “You should know better than anyone.”

 

“When you shoot me,” she said, “I hope I don’t come back. I don’t want one more…” Lily ran a hand across her forehead, anticipating the exit wound.

 

“I can do it with sheep’s brains if you like,” I said, but she waved a hand, dismissing it.

 

“If the Barber sees it’s fake there will be fighting for sure. He knows what it looks like when you shoot a man.”

 

“Still,” I said, and the offer hung like smoke over the table.

 

“What’s wrong with you?”

 

“Me?” I sat up straighter.

 

“You don’t ask permission, you give the order that needs giving and you expect it to be obeyed. When you sounded the charge off the Ridge seventy men died in under a minute, traded for a hundred yards of rough ground. They cursed you, you know.”

 

“It hooked us up with the constructs, let us roll up the monster’s flanks, kill their shamans. Gave the sappers time to blow up that damned stone…” I shook my head. It was the right call. That didn’t make it an easier one.

 

“Exactly,” she said, “So man up and blow my head off. Lord knows it’s doing me little enough good where it is.” Lily dumped her whiskey into my glass and stood, “I’m going to go for a walk.”

 

Eddie tossed a glass end over end, caught it and slid it down the rail. He didn’t talk much since that night with the hollow-eyed girl, like he was caught between gunshots, but I could tell when he was worried about me. He struck a “ta-da” pose and I forced a smile for him.

*****

The next morning the take was bad. We hadn’t run any of our best dogs into the Pits, and I’d ordered the dealers and whores to take no chances - they were out under half protection after all, and only a handful of my Hounds were on the streets. I had gambled that the Barber wouldn’t push me overnight when he had the opportunity to cut out my heart in the morning.

 

And so my men were rested and clear-eyed come morning when the lieutenants crowded into my office. I had a rough map of the neighborhood spread on my desk.

 

“We’ll do it in the courtyard,” I said, “Rifles in the upstairs windows of the pub, keep out of sight unless shooting starts.” I locked eyes with Daniel Grace-Charles, the mousy leader of my scouts, “Far as we know the Barber doesn’t have any sharpshooters on his payroll, but don’t get cocky.”

 

“Shoot ‘n scoot,” he said, “Can do. We worried about rooftops?” He’d lost three fingers on the Ridge, built a brace to replace them out of carved wood and leather rather than take a debt for pneumatic replacements.

 

I nodded, “Good idea to have someone take a look when we’re done here. Prevent any nasty surprises.” He threw a two-finger salute and I moved on, “St. John?” The only non-Hound around the desk raised his head, “You and Carter take your best dogs into the alleys here and here,” I indicated areas on the map with my knife, “He tries to outflank, you put a stop to it.”

 

“Won’t let nothing larger than a rat through,” St. John said. His breath smelled like raw meat and his arms were hairless, covered in ropey scars - he held that a dog would only bite you once if you showed it you didn’t care.

 

I licked my lips, “If somebody comes at you in force you sound the alarm and pull back in good order, you hear? We need those dogs in shape to fight come Breach Day.”

 

“Let me take care of my dogs,” he said, “You worry about yours.”

 

“Right,” I looked around the table. Hard eyes stared back out of hard faces. “Everyone else? Shotguns, pistols, knives. We put on a good face out there and we can get through without firing a shot.” I looked at Lily, “Not more than one anyway,” I motioned for her to take the floor.

 

“You all know what I am,” she said, “What I do. I fully expect to see your ugly mugs in here tomorrow morning so don’t go getting yourselves killed while I’m stuck face down and can’t help you.” She swallowed and I was suddenly aware of how very small she was, “In the unlikely event, however, that our Liam is more competent than any of the bastards who’ve killed me before then-”

 

She stopped at the sound of running outside the office and one of our lookouts burst through the door with such force that it rebounded off the wall, “He’s here.”

 

“What?” Four hours early, the bastard.

 

The lookout was panting, hands on his knees. I motioned for Lawrence to pour the man a drink. “Talk to me, son.”

 

He knocked back the watered whiskey and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “I spotted him coming down Fleet. He’s got fourteen of his people under arms. They’ll be here in ten minutes, maybe less.”

 

“Fourteen? Well, if he want’s a fight, we’ll give it to him.” I punched a fist out over the desk, “Highland Rifles,” I said, and they joined on the refrain, “Never die!”

 

“Alright,” I said, “Let’s get to work.” My men jumped to their roles and I left the office surrounded by a maelstrom of activity, sandbags stacked against the walls, guns oiled and snapped together, rows of cartridges being filled on the money counting tables.

 

Lawrence wheeled his chair out after me, his pipes lay across his lap. Lily met me at the front door to the bar as I checked the action and load of my pistol.

 

“Without firing a shot?” She said.

 

“I’m an optimist,” I said, slapping the revolver closed and shoving it back in its holster.

 

“Not since I’ve known you,”

 

“Well I’m trying to turn over a new leaf.”

 

“Want my advice?” She asked. I cocked my head. “Don’t.” She shouldered open the door and walked into the courtyard, her coat blowing out around her.

 

It was a grey day. The dust from the mines hung heavy, carried in on a north wind. The judging eyes of darkened windows leered from the tenements all around. A Roman statue graced the dry fountain in the center of the square, a siren, open-mouthed and full of song.

 

The Barber approached at a stroll flanked by men with billhooks and fish knives, women with blunderbusses and weighted nets. My Hounds piled out of the bar behind me, spreading out to either side of Lily and I, shotguns over their shoulders, knives loose in their sheaths. They walked with the unconscious rhythm of military men and I felt a cold pride flood my chest. There was a howling behind me and I knew the dogs were piling out into the alley behind the bar.

 

We came to a rest some twenty yards from each other. I waited, and the Barber stepped forward. “You know why we’re here,” he thundered, “Let’s get this business done.”

 

His greying hair was pulled back in a slick knot and he wore a thick leather apron. I spotted the famous silvered razors hanging from his belt.

 

“You’re early,” I said, “Lawyer isn’t here yet.”

 

“That so?” He said, pulling a watch from the pocket of his battered black vest, “No, no.” The Barber said, “Says right here that now is the time for vermin to die.”

 

There was something of the Black Blood about him, you don’t fight Nephilim for long without being able to spot it. His skin was too tight, too pale, his veins stood out like a roadmap and his forehead bulged. The horns would erupt soon. “How many of his men know?” I murmured to Lily.

 

“Think they care, sir?” She whispered back.

 

“She’s my soldier,” I called, “I’ll be killing her myself.”

 

The Barber held up a hand and motioned us forward, “My man said. Said you were right insistent about that. So I’ll be checking the body, understand?”

 

“That’s the deal.” A Watcher, drawn by the sound of raised voices, settled on a lamp post. Its brass and leather wings telescoped back and its red eye set to wandering.

 

“Do it in no man’s land,” he pointed to the cobbles between our two crews. Lily walked forward, holding her hands palms out. I followed her, drawing my revolver. There was a tarnished brass plate bolted to the grip, it had been given to me In Recognition of Extreme Bravery in Service to the Guild.

 

“There’s an Earthside address in my rooms,” she said looking at the cobblestones, “On my desk. If it sticks this time-”

 

“It won’t,” I whispered. It can’t, please…

 

“If it does, sew me full of soulstones and ship me back.”

 

“A lover?” I said.

 

“None of your business,” she hissed, “But it’s my mom.”

 

“Get on with it!” The Barber called.

 

Lily knelt and I set the mouth of the pistol at the back of her skull. She was singing under her breath, some bawdy parody of “In the Sweet By-and-By” and I bit my lip to keep from smiling. “Thank you for your service,” I said, and pulled the trigger. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I caught a flicker of movement on one of the roofs down the road.

Lily’s body hit the cobblestones. I stepped back, let the pistol fall to my side.

 

Lawrence began to play “Flowers of the Forest” from his place just behind the line.

 

The Barber crossed to the body, kneeled and lifted Lily’s head, set two fingers against her throat. “Satisfied?” I said.

 

“Almost.” He pulled out one of his razors and flicked it open.

 

“It’s done,” I said, “No need to defile the dead.”

 

“Speak for yourself,” he said, and swung the blade at her throat. My bullet caught him in the shoulder and he spun to the ground. I shifted my aim to fire again but there was a flair from the roof and I had a split second to register the crack of a clockwork rifle before the bullet hit me. I felt the impact, and a flare of heat as the soulstone in the pouch around my neck burned out.

 

“Freikorps!” I shouted, “On the roofs!” I wondered where the Barber had found that kind of money, but I pushed the thought aside. Lawrence was already piping out the order for general assault and shotgun blasts filled the air.

 

I shot the Barber twice more as he got to his feet, but my bullets left nothing more than little puckers in his skin. Trickles of black sludge burned holes in his clothes but he stood, drew his other razor and smiled at me. His tongue was unnaturally long.

 

He charged and I closed my eyes. The tattoo on my back burned like it was first being etched and the shades of the dead coursed out, lined up between us. They raked at his skin and left welts, fired empty throated guns that splattered ectoplasm and haunting memory. The Barber’s razors flashed, burned away the shades, fog before the sun.

 

Around us our men died and the loose soul stuff caught in the arcane matrix of my back. Arms like hardened smoke grabbed the Barber and held him fast.

 

“You can end this,” I said, “Lay down arms and go.”

 

“Save your breath,” the Barber said. There was a darkness all around him, and he flowed towards me. I felt a razor at my throat and struck out with my revolver. He parted like smoke, slipped through the space between shadows. I emptied my gun into the darkness and at least one shot connected. There was blood flowing down my neck and I felt weak. My shades were scattering, joining the melee and dissolving as memory failed me.

 

I blinked and he was there, a hand gripping my collar, foetid breath in my face.

 

“What?” He said, “Nothing to say now?”

 

I spat in his eye and he jerked back. I made a fist and swung but it glanced off harmlessly. He laughed, pushed my head back, and bared his teeth. His breath was scorching on my neck, his saliva smelled like rot. I felt his jaw clench…

 

And he went slack, his eyes rolled back and I pushed him off of me. Lily stood there, bloody but whole. “How does it feel?” She said, but the Barber was in no condition to answer.

 

“Duck!” I managed to call out around the blood in my mouth, and she hit the ground on reflex. A glowing fist cut the air where she had stood, as a Strongarm Suit landed, sending shards of paving stone flying like bullets. A rifle shot pinged off its helmet from somewhere upstairs.

 

Lawrence sounded the general retreat as black armored figures flooded into the square.

 

I pulled myself up against the fountain and picked up my pistol, reloaded it as Lily crawled on her stomach to my side.

 

“Well that didn’t go as planned,” she said.

 

“No.” The Strongarm blasted chunks out of the fountain as it stalked towards us. I leaned out of what was left of our cover and fired. It began to run. I fired again. A nimbus of light grew around its fist. I fired a third time and it jerked back. The suit powered off.

 

I blinked in surprise as the thing fell on its side. There was a Lawyer behind him reading from a heavy tome, tracing clauses with one ring-decked finger. I was aware, somehow, that the tide was turning as I stared into his eyeless mask. My men rallied when the Strongarm fell, and Grace-Charles directed precision fire from above. Together they made a clear argument to the mercenaries that this contract was no longer as profitable as it might have seemed.

 

The Lawyer closed the book with a snap and a burst of dust and picked his way over to me. Behind him the Strongarm, still underpowered and sparking at his joints, began to crawl and then lumber away.

 

“Looks like it was a good thing I arrived early.” The Lawyer’s voice was like frozen mercury, “Perhaps we could step into your office?” He waited for me to pick myself up.

 

I scanned the courtyard, still woozy with blood loss. There were bodies of too many of my men in amongst the dockworkers and beetle-eyed Freikorps. I watched St. John put a bullet through the head of his favorite dog as she lay whimpering and bloody. The Barber must have escaped during the fighting.

 

“Can you,” I said to Lily, gesturing at the courtyard.

 

“Get yourself seen to,” she said. I put a hand to my neck and felt the sluggish pulse of blood over my fingers.

 

“Lawrence!” I shouted as best I could, “To me.” I heard the squeak of his wheels unnaturally loud in the post-battle stillness. “Come on.” I didn’t look at the Lawyer, “I need a drink.”

 

Inside, he seated himself across from me. “I’ll not mince words,” he said as Lawrence daubed alcohol on my wounds, “The Guild has heard your complaints, and we appreciate your service, but the fact is that we need good men in low places. Our grip, as you may have noticed, is slipping. There are Things moving in the quarantine zones that we cannot see.”

 

I flinched, and Lawrence murmured an apology. “And you want me to be one of those men?”

 

“We trust you,” the word sounded wrong coming from a Lawyer’s mouth - I assumed he had one somewhere under the mask, “It’s as simple as that. And in times like these that trust is worth a great deal.” He steepled his fingers, his grey leather gloves seemed to swallow all sound in the room, “We see how you have been pushed, we can give you the tools to fight back.”

 

“We’re fine,” I said.

 

“Really? Your back must be getting awfully crowded...” There was a note of amusement in his voice like roses in a fine white wine. He inclined his head, inviting confidence, “If I told you that a warehouse just across the border had been raided, too much Arcanist scum on staff, that the new guards were all military men looking for a way out, that they are standing guard over a cache of brand new repeating rifles, body armor, and prototype machine-carbines, you wouldn’t be at all interested?” He pulled a cream-colored card from inside his jacket and turned it over between his fingers.

 

I was too tired, I knew he could see the hunger written in my face. “What will it cost me?”

 

“Just your word,” he said, “Your assurance that you will continue your work here, and when we come to you with small tasks you will carry them out. Quietly.” He stood, he didn’t need to wait for a response. “The address,” he said, dropping the card on the table, “Time, and the name of the shift foreman. You may know her, she used to be a sapper.”

 

Lawrence was silent until the Lawyer was long gone. “So we’re working for the Ram again,” he said.

 

“I should burn the letter,” I said. “That bastard mage thinks he can pull me, pull us back.”

 

“But you won’t,” Lawrence said.

 

“More suicide missions, more last stands. More dying for the Guild, Marlowe, and St. George...”

 

“We lost three today,” Lawrence said, “Do you need their names?”

*****

A few hours later, and a world away on the other side of the quarantine barricades, Lucius Mattheson rolled up the Lawyer’s report and stuck one end in the charcoal brazier on his desk. His new office was small and cramped, but it had the benefit of being tucked into an unnamed municipal building far from Franco Marlow’s too-watchful eyes.

 

The Freikorps had been payed through a series of intermediaries, one of whom had just had the misfortune to wander into a Union bar on payday and wouldn’t be talking to anyone ever again. The Watcher he used had been reported destroyed early last year, he had punched its logic cards himself.

 

The only loose end was the fisherman. It hadn’t taken more than a few guilder to persuade the Barber’s son to take to the streets that night but now he was a potential liability. He would have to meet with an unfortunate accident. Lucius made sure his blade slid cleanly from the ebony cane and stepped out into the night.

 

The shadows clung to him a little too closely. If the thing under the mask could smile, it would have. He’d been manipulating events from behind a desk for too long, Lucius realized, it felt good to be working in the field again.

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The Brothers Hoffman

Even after all these years, it still ate at Hoffman. This whole situation, from the Breachfire that destroyed his brother’s body and mind to his current role in the upper echelons of the Guild, this was never how it was supposed to go. He sat in his tiny, organized office with every light off but a single glowing lamp. The room was cold and metallic, and as per usual he was the last person left inside the Amalgamation Charter Enforcement office. Hoffman took a long puff of his pipe as the rounds alarm went off. It was 9:00pm and he was almost done for the day. He grabbed his Old Fashioned off the corner of his desk and rolled his wheelchair to the door, shutting off the light and heading down for a final check of the ACE construct quarantine wing. This, of course, meant also checking on his brother.

The hall between the office suites and holding compartments was straight from the hospital horror movies he remembered as a child on the Other Side. Endlessly long and glaringly bright, even for this late at night, Hoffman rolled and sipped, sipped and rolled, until he reached the corner where the cells start. His personal Mechanical Attendant sat at his own miniature desk at the start of the corridor. A robotic Jeeves, he was always there if Hoffman happened to need anything.

“Good evening, Mr, Hoffman,” his little friend said peacefully, “Final check?”

“You got it buddy,” Hoffman replied, “See you in the AM.”

Turning the corner he came to Compartment #1, the Peacekeeper. His own creation and loyal especially to him, he was capable of anything from suspect extraction to singlehandedly putting down a Bayou riot. He would generally be on Patrol outside the building until daybreak, but Hoffman had sent him here early tonight because he knew he would need him fresh in the coming days. Compartment #2 held his two personal Hunters. They were just like the Guild Hounds, but they never lost a scent or got distracted by a squirrel. And they were thankfully sound asleep. Compartment #3 was the Watcher. A sleek modern marvel of surveillance, it could track just about anything on the ground or in the air. It honestly scared the hell out of Hoffman most of the time, but at least he usually wasn’t the one being “watched.” Compartment #4 held the Guardian. He looked like the Mechanical Attendant’s bigger and stronger older brother but was generally peaceful when not on the job. And finally Compartment #5. His brother Ryle, sedated and confined to the corner of a dark and reinforced cell. Memories from Earth-side, when he was “Charlie,” instead of Director Hoffman and his brother was “Ry” instead of just Holding Compartment #5 raced behind his eyes.  Hoffman hated seeing Ryle like this but he knew for now it had to be this way. His brother was dangerous when left to his own devices, and the deal he cut with the Guild was as much about protecting his brother as it was about the work he was supposed to be doing on his brother. He knew he walked a fine line between the Guild leaders and the Arcanist Ramos of the M&SU, but such had to be his course, at least for now. His judgement day, all their judgement days, was right around the corner. And he still only had half a plan.

The transition from being his brother’s best friend to being his brother’s keeper was always difficult for Hoffman, but it was especially trying this night. As he finished his check he maneuvered out of his wheelchair and into his MALCS (Malifaux Amalgamation Load Carrying System) device for the journey home, he couldn’t help but let his mind wander. Every cobblestone, every turn, seemed to make his thoughts race, and he knew then it was going to be a difficult night alone. The Guild was running out of patience with his work with Ryle, and Ramos was taking considerably longer than expected on a solution to make Ryle a functioning Malifaux citizen again. Hoffman knew he only had a short time left to either make his brother whole again or get him the hell away from the Guild and as far away as possible.

Hoffman sidled up to the shed behind his townhouse and slid out of the MALCS device and back into his residential wheelchair. A small but cozy place, it was home. He wheeled himself inside and into the kitchen, and relighting his pipe, wheeled himself to the to the liquor cabinet to pour another drink. He hoped a bit more whiskey would ease him into some sleep, but somehow he knew it would take a little something else. He grabbed two bottles and went to making his cocktail, the one his go-to whiskey, imported straight from the Bayou, the other a small bottle with the face of a red-haired man and wide smile on the label. McMourning’s Drelerium would certainly make him sleep, but it also made his subconscious run wild. He took a stiff swig of the swill and clutching his glass as if to smash it to bits, headed off to his chambers. As Hoffman collapsed into bed, he knew he was in for a night of flashbacks and memories, and just hoped that they would be on the positive side. He was half right.

As Hoffman drifted off, he awoke in a place of his childhood.

*****

His eyes squinted in the bright, shining sun, and a cool breeze with just a hint of salt was in the air. The call of seagulls and the crash of the waves was all that was on the wind. He was aboard the Construct (aptly named by his engineer father), his family’s longtime sailboat, and every Sunday the four of them, Mom, Dad, Charlie and Ry would head down to the docks, picnic lunch in hand, and head out onto the water. No School Headmasters with their ready-to-swing rulers and no city smog. Mom and Dad even seemed less exhausted on these days, and even though they certainly still were, they knew how much a day on the water meant to the boys. For as long as he could remember he had been in a wheelchair, but that never slowed him down. And on sailing trips Ryle made sure to keep a wheel in his spokes especially on days with particularly choppy seas like this day. It didn’t matter whether they went sightseeing, fishing, or just out for a sunset cruise; a day on the boat for the Hoffman family was as close to perfection as it could get for Charlie.

But Charlie’s picture perfect afternoon evaporated in an instant. As if from a storybook of the sailing tales of old, the sky changed in an instant. Clouds rolled in without warning and the seas began to roil. Hoffman looked to his wheelchair spoke and Ryle’s foot was gone. He wheeled around, and Mom and Dad were gone too. Ryle was looking into the distance from the front at a hellishly bright light. Was that, Breachfire? Charlie wheeled himself to the helm of the Construct and spun the wheel hard left to try and turn back. The boat continued straight and gained speed. He frantically spun it hard right. Still nothing! And going faster still! He called out to Ryle, who didn’t even turn around or acknowledge his voice. He was transfixed to the inferno they were rapidly approaching. As they sped towards a judgement day fit for a pirate, Hoffman’s subconscious flashbacks began jumping between the day on the train and the dream, just as his eyes split wide open and he woke up in a cold sweat.

*****

Well there was the first one. McMourning knew how to knock a person out, but the whole peaceful sleep part of the deal still seems to have eluded the mad doctor. Awake, and unfortunately now damp, Hoffman slid up in bed and flicked on the lamp. He struck a match and lit his pipe. If only he had a better answer for the Guild on why his brother either a.) Wasn’t a threat or b.) Was their best new asset. The Guild loved to think they had something better than everyone else (even if they didn’t), but Ryle was such a loose cannon when he was let out it was hard to make a solid argument or either of those cases. But Hoffman knew who his brother really was. He just needed to get him back to that point, whatever means necessary.

Hoffman reached to the bottom drawer and grabbed a fresh undershirt for the rest of the night. He took another sip of his drink and reclined back off to “sleep.”

*****

His ears rang, his vision was blurry and his eyes were full of tears. The last thing Hoffman could remember was a train ride headed towards the Breach on the South side of the city. He and Ryle boarded the train for what they thought would be a new and temporary adventure. And now he had no idea where he was, and all he could see was the glow of what looked to be a forest fire. He was moving away from it, almost scuttling, but didn’t know how. He hadn’t been able to use his legs since he was a child. Was he walking? No, and this was certainly too fast for even his personally designed wheelchair. He cleared his eyes and looked to the side to see four mechanical legs moving rapid fire fast. A man walked next to them, and he couldn’t make out his face but for stark white tufts of hair and dark goggles. Farther yet there was another set of legs carrying someone else. Ryle! Hoffman called out his brother’s name, yet no sound came out, and he slipped back into unconscious.

Hoffman woke up again on a cold, metal exam table. A hospital maybe, yet it defintiley felt more like a laboratory. Something must have happened on the train ride, and he must have hit his head. But again, how he did he get here, And where was his brother? How did they get away from the fire he saw? And how was he not hurt? As questions spun through Hoffman’s head the heavy vestibule door opened and a tall, spindly man with the white tufts of hair and dark goggles entered the room. It appeared to be the same man he saw a few minutes, or however long, ago that was.

“How do you feel,” the tall, spindly man with white tufts of hair and dark goggles said.

“Fine, I think,” replied Hoffman, rubbing his head as he sat up on the table, “Who are you?”

“My name is Dr. Victor Ramos. You and your brother were in a terrible accident. But you’re safe now.”

“Ryle!” Hoffman exclaimed, “Where is he!” “Is he hurt?” “Wait…how am I not hurt?”

If they were in a terrible accident, and he couldn’t move away on his own, and there was a raging inferno of hellfire in the distance, how was he here, unscathed and essentially in good shape?

“Your wheelchair, did you build it yourself?” Ramos asked Hoffman curiously.

“I did, I’m an engineer. Wh..?” Hoffman’s head hurt so bad he almost forgot about his own invention. His personal wheelchair was fire-proof even through the hottest of blazes, so that if he were ever in a situation he could flip himself forward and essentially be protected.

Ramos began to explain, “There was a Breachfire flare, and explosion on the train as you and your brother passed through. The blast must have knocked your chair forward protecting you almost entirely.”

Hoffman’s face turned from angst to anguish.

“Your brother was not so lucky, but he is in good hands now. We will do what we can.” Dr. Ramos turned to head back to the door.

“Where is he?” Hoffman shouted as the doctor pushed opened the door.

“Rest now,” Ramos instructed, “There will be plenty of time for questions later. We will make you boys good as new”

Hoffman went to jerk up off the table but something held him down; it felt like it was some sort of magic. The harder he pushed the harder it pushed back. He tried one final time but the aura slammed him back into the table, cracking his head off the stainless steel.

His eyes snapped opened. He was drenched in sweat. Again.

*****

First his family and now Ramos was in his dreams. Hoffman knew this was going to be a long night but certainly didn’t prepare for this. His parent’s had an exceptional influence on him and his brother Earth-side. He got his Dad’s engineering prowess and Ryle his Mum’s passion for life, both traits they exemplified to this day. But after the Breachfire explosion, Ramos was right. He did make them good as new, into the people they were today, for better or for worse. Charles and Ryle Hoffman would not have even survived if Ramos and his creepy crawly friends had not come to their aid. And after everything that happened after there was something to be said for that. Hoffman wasn’t entirely sure what, but there was something to be said.

Hoffman usually didn’t have issues with nightmares, but unfortunately that was a side effect of Drelerium and a turned out a little Drelerium went an awful long way. Without even another drink from the bedside table, Hoffman drifted back off to sleep, and could almost immediately feel his subconscious takeover.

*****

The sun was shining and that meant it was May. And May meant regatta season. 4:30am and still dark, Charlie and Ry were right in the midst of hooking up their Hoffman-designed skiff to their motorbike to head down to the water. The boys had grown up on the water with what began as Sunday outings with their family. These day trips grew into a passion for racing, and there was almost no better team than the Brothers Hoffman. Their dinghy, the Construct II was self-designed and superiorly engineered by the brothers both for speed and to accommodate Charlie’s lack of leg movement. Turns out you don’t really need your legs to sail.

With the boat hooked up, Charlie maneuvered into the sidecar and they were off to the water,and in their minds, another victory. As they sped down to the docks, the brothers figured this would be just like every other regatta, Show up, set in, speed off, take the gold, They had done it dozens of times. Once at the launch dock, the Construct II was dropped into the water and guided over to the starting pool. A hull that shone like burnished brass beamed almost gold in the morning sun. They both pulled to unfurl the sail, and a giant black sheet with an Old English “H” began to billow in the river breeze. The boat of the Brothers Hoffman was unmistakable both in appearance and that fact that it was almost always the one to catch. This day would be no different.

Bang! The starting gun fired and the boys went to work. They shot off the line and out into an early lead. Their father’s engineering knowledge that passed through Hoffman was unrivaled in their sport; the Construct II was far and away lighter, stronger, and faster yet still within the rules required to race. As they pulled several lengths ahead they settled into the long, slow roll that would carry them to the finish line. Ryle looked back to his brother.

“Charlie, you know how many wins this will make?” he said.

“I’ve lost count but I know you haven’t Ryle. How many?” he replied, half laughing.

“30!” Ryle exclaimed. “One for every year we’ve been brothers!” As he shouted his voice trailed off into their signature “battle cry” as they neared closer to the finish line.

Charlie closed his eyes. How lucky was he, to be able to compete with his brother at something they love with a family that supports them. He and Ryle had always been close and he knew they would be forever.

But as he opened his eyes, something was different. The finish line hadn’t gotten any closer, but it seemed the horizon had and the sky had started to darken. What the hell was going on? There wasn’t supposed to be a storm today. He shouted to Ryle, who was looking off into the distance and he didn’t answer. He pulled hard right on the boom to turn as flames exploded from the sky on the horizon. Not again. He swung left and the boat still didn’t change course, holding true to what seemed to burn brighter and brighter. Not twice in one night. He screamed to Ryle again who didn’t move. Not twice in one lifetime. They were headed straight for the finish line that would surely be engulfed in these had-to-be imaginary flames. The sky hasn’t rained fire since the Breach explosion. This must be a dream, Charlie thought. It wasn’t the first time he’d relived that fateful day. Yet why did he feel heat on his face and see the top of their hull beginning to change color? He pulled back and forth on the sail boom and violently, and when nothing happened, shook his head to wake himself from what surely must be a nightmare.

The Construct II sped into the now flaming vortex that was the finish line.

Hoffman hit the ground with the force of a lead weight as he fell out of bed, still swinging the boom from side to side. As his eyes slid open from the squint that was just looking on from fire, he reach over to his side table to pull himself back up.

*****

So far he had had two flashbacks of Breachfire and one of dear old “Uncle Victor.” Hoffman looked at the clock, blinking 3:30am. He was definitely going to have to find another sleep alternative, but that was neither here nor there for the time being. His mind, powerful as it is, was trying to tell him something. And apparently it had to be through the rollicking roller-coaster of dream subconscious.

But what was it? Hoffman knew his balancing act of keeping his Arcanist ties a secret and Guild loyalty was quickly running out of time. But he still needed them both. He knew Ramos was the only person in Malifaux that would be able to make his brother “more” Ryle than he was now, and hopefully into someone that could once again exist on their own. He also knew that until that could happen, Guild quarantine was the best and safest place for him. Ramos had to continue to think he would get access to guild construct technology, and the Guild had to continue to believe that Ryle was their in-development super-weapon that could wipe out the Arcanist construct forces if necessary. All this clanging around in Hoffman’s head made his eyes heavy, and he nodded back off for hopefully the last episode of this night’s journey.

*****

The last name of Hoffman meant farmhand, or courthand. It was German or Dutch or something like that, and whatever it was the surname wasn’t of a particular glorious history. Not like the legendary family fighter name Ortega or long line of McMourning doctors. But Earth-side Charlie and Ry’s mother and father had built their little offshoot of Hoffman into a respectable legacy. His father had attended as much University as he could on a farmer’s son savings, but through apprenticeships had become a renowned engineer, specializing in machinery and construct systems. Charlie definitely got his love of mechanics honestly. His mother had always been home with the boys, working odd jobs here and there for some extra family money but always putting their growth and development first and foremost. They were good people, known in the community for being good people, and had no intentions of ever changing that.

The name Hoffman, but none of their parent’s hard earned family respect, followed Charlie and Ry to Malifaux. After the explosion and their rescue/ capture/ abduction/ salvation by Dr. Ramos, the Brothers Hoffman was known a bit differently than their Other Side counterparts.

Hoffman’s eyes opened above his old laboratory table in Dr. Ramos’ Arcanist M&SU Union hold. This dream seemed different, as Hoffman realized he was asleep and dreaming, yet was much more aware of what was happening unlike the night’s previous flashbacks. He was watching himself, no longer Charlie but now Charles the Engineer, in his own dream!  The dimly lit experimentation space was both foreign, as he hadn’t been there in quite some time, and familiar, like his quiet office a back at ACE. He stood watching himself working over a large mechanized claw, an artificial prosthesis that he immediately recognized as the one his brother wears back in Holding Compartment #5. He looked as if he was putting the final touches on his mechanical masterpiece as a familiar voice rang out.

“Is it ready yet, Charles, my boy?!” Ramos exclaimed from the other lab station.

“Just about Doc” Charles replied, “A few more minutes and it will be all set. I was able to…”

“However you think, quickly now,” Ramos said as he cut him off in mid-sentence.

Charles had been a fine engineer’s apprentice before boarding the train, but after working with Ramos at the M&SU for just a few weeks, the Doctor had unlocked an almost symbiotic bond with machines and technology, as if the new Malifaux citizen had a magical touch of sorts. Since the Breachfire, they both had worked to try and get Ryle back into a functioning “human” and they were nearly done. Ramos had an uncanny reputation in Malifaux as a master of all things metal and was shrewd business man to boot. His protégé was quickly making that same name for himself.

Charles picked up the claw appendage from the table, laid it on his lap, and wheeled himself across the room to Ramos’ station. The Doctor had been working on his “pet project” as he liked to call it. It was similar to the arachnid-like constructs that carried Hoffman and his brother away from the fire, but was much larger and made of what appeared to be brass. According to Ramos, it would be smart enough to fix his other creations on the spot under most any condition, making and army of Arcanist arachnids, for the most part, unbeatable.

Ramos looked over the arm that Hoffman has upon his lap.

“You’ve done good kid,” he said as he laid a hand on his shoulder, “Your brother will be back together no time, and it’ll be thanks to you. Go ahead and grab some lunch.”

Those words made Hoffman feel good and yet at the same time somewhat distressed. He would find out later that this aid of Ramos always came with a cost and certainly wasn’t just the sunshine and rainbows he would make it out to be.

Charles wheeled himself through the laboratory doors, but what was on the other side was not the M&SU corridor, but the ACE hallways of the Guild he knew so well.

After Ryle had been “completed” and some assorted cantankerous chaos ensued, Charles Hoffman had taken his position with the Guild, convincing them to keep his brother alive as a useful tool and that he alone needed to be his keeper. His engineering mind and special touch with technology helped land him his position, and over the years he climbed the ranks to his current post as Director Hoffman. Curious to see what dream-ACE was like, he wheeled himself to the quarantine wing as he did every night. He headed down the long hallway as he had done so many times before, reaching the corner before the cells start. Yet there was no Mechanical Attendant waiting for him. Strange, but he turned the corner nonetheless.

Compartment #1, the Peacekeeper. Yet no machine was in the cell. The Peacekeeper was a large hulk of metal and couldn’t really “go missing”, but maybe it was out on patrol? He knew Compartment #2 held his two personal Hunters. But this area was also empty. Compartment #3 was the Watcher, and was empty again. Hoffman began to feel a pit growing in his stomach. He rolled on further. Compartment #4 was supposed to hold the Guardian. Yet it held nothing but empty space. As he moved to Compartment #5, he hoped this cell would not be like the others. His brother Ryle had to be in there. But when Hoffman pulled in front of this very familiar compartment, there was nothing to be seen but an empty cot.

Turning his chair on a dime he sped down the hallway back to the main offices. It was late but maybe someone would know what had happened to his machines. Had they been captured? Had the Arcanists finally began to push back? His wheels spun with a metallic glow as he blew through the cubicle farm, seeing no one until he was almost to his office and all but running through an ACE orderly there on late night watch.

“Where are all my constructs!” Hoffman shouted.

The orderly looked at him quite confused, “Are you OK sir?”

“Of course I’m not ok!” Hoffman retorted, “Where. Are. My. Machines? And where is my brother?”

“Sir, the ACE was shut down three weeks ago when Ramos was arrested,” he explained, “The Guild said they didn’t need the construct reinforcements or the ACE anymore and they were all destroyed.”

“What! I mean…of course they were. But what about #5?” Hoffman asked frantically.

Hoffman started to sweat. He forgot that most people didn’t know the sub-humanoid construct of Compartment #5 as his brother and most figured he was just another quarantine resident.

“Sir, they’re all gone. The Guild said you gave the order.”

Hoffman didn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it. He turned from the orderly in shock and utter dejection and wheeled himself into his office. He let his upper body slump and his head slammed squarely onto his desk.

He woke up rubbing the front of his head, and immediately started reaching for t-shirt #3.

*****

It was finally morning, or morning-enough to stay awake. Hoffman felt as if he hadn’t slept a wink (probably because he hadn’t) and his head pounded worse than it did in his flashback nightmare dream episodes. He slid from his bed to his chair and headed to the kitchen. Maybe bacon and eggs would make everything a little better. And if not coffee certainly wouldn’t hurt.

As Hoffman sat at the kitchen table he knew these Drelerium-induced flashbacks had come for a reason. These memories were tattooed on his psyche because his brother was as big a part of him as anyone or anything. He was out of time with both the Guild and the Arcanists and he knew it; soon he would either stand up to the Guild with the Arcanists to keep his final dream from becoming reality, or be stabbed straight in the back by one of Ramos’ spiders if he stayed allied with the Guild. Hoffman knew exactly what he needed to do before all hell broke loose, and he picked a pen from his jacket pocket and a napkin from the rack and began to sketch.

In Malifaux, tattoos are not as common as they are Earth-side. Much more painful and considerably more expensive, they are reserved for a fair few individuals and are therefore essentially non-existent based on these two things. If one does seek out one of the few “artists” in Malifaux, their new mark is always hidden, serving only as a personal reminder of one’s own life and experiences, never meant to be seen by another except in the most intimate of circumstances.

Loading back into the MALCS device Hoffman headed back to his little mental shelter of an office. Once inside and resituated into his wheelchair, he headed past his frosted glass door down to the construct quarantine wing and back to his Mechanical Attendant.

“Is it time yet, Sir?” the little robot asked politely.

“Almost,” Hoffman replied, “One more thing to take care of.”

“Open top hatch, Holding Compartment #3. Send the Watcher for Zoraida,” he ordered.

Zoraida was affectionately known as “The Swamp Hag,” both a Neverborn and a Gremlin seemingly old as time. She was also one of the only tattoo artists in Malifaux, and the only that Hoffman knew he had at least some semblance of control over. Never in a million years did he think he would seek out a Malifaux tattoo, but he intended to keep his brother with him wherever he went, hopefully in person but at the very least in spirit.

Hoffman heard a crash as Zoraida dropped back through the top hatch of Holding Compartment #3. He wheeled down the corridor to meet her. As he opened the front hatch door, the Watcher made no attempt to escape, returning to his perch as she walked out.

“Nice to see you again, Director,” she snarled, “Perhaps you could send a horse next time?”

“I do apologize, your Hag-liness,” Hoffman mocked, “But there is no time. I need a favor.”

Zoraida smirked “Well what’s in it for me, hmmm? You know the rules. Charles. No ante, no aid.”

“What’s in it for you is I won’t have The Watcher drop you on Slate Ridge for the Mauler when I send you out of here. Any other questions?”

Zoraida’s smirk disappeared and she knew he was dead serious. It was rare Hoffman was so short with someone, even the Swamp Hag, but he had no time for snide questions. He showed her the small sketch he had drawn on the napkin at the table. The expression on Zoraida’s face changed instantly and he sarcasm disappeared.

“Your brother?” she said, with an air of almost human compassion.

Hoffman nodded and she nodded back. He unbuttoned his top three buttons and she went to work. The end result: a small, red “R,” just above his heart.

Hoffman would die for his brother, and this memento would stay with him whatever the outcome. He didn’t look the same, he didn’t talk the same, and he didn’t walk the same. But Ryle was still a Hoffman and he always would be no matter the label placed on him. “A rose by any other name” they say. And Charlie would make sure that would never change.

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Neverin   

Silent Lady

 

 

Storm was coming and tavern sign hanging above the entrance already started swinging. Black sign said in golden letters "Drop & Kick Law".

 

Ganmar took of his woolen bucket hat with his left hand and put it in his pea coat pocket.

Tavern was not much different than many other he has seen in many ports he visited. Crowd and tobacco smoke.

He searched around looking for familiar face but crowd and smoke wasn't helping.

 

While he was searching his eyes met with eyes of big hulking brute. He knew the kind. It was a kind that was always preying on smaller men.  You have one in every bar.

 

Brute shouted - "You lost sailor? Looking for sea? It is long way from here, ha-ha"

Ganmar thought - And sense of humor is always the same- and answered

 - "It is still closer to me than your brain is to you"-

 

Brute's face reddened, he clenched his fists and started to move towards Ganmar. Before he even made a step, his companion, smaller in stature but more perceptive, caught his arm and said - Harl, look at his hand-.

Harl said - I saw his anchor tattoo, that's why I called him a sailor, you idiot.-

- His other hand Harl, look at it Harl. Maybe it isn't wise to mess with him.-

Harl looked at other Ganmar's hand, hand that was still in glove, and it looked like fingers under that glove ended in claws.

Harl turned around and got lost in crowd.

 

Ganmar noticed others stealing glances toward his right hand, but as long as they stayed away he didn't mind. He wasn't very social anyway.

 

He made his way to the bar and when he got bartenders attention said - Rum, double.-

Bartender put glass and a bottle of rum on bar, marked the level of liquid on bottle and said - Help yourself-

Ganmar took bottle with his left hand and said to bartender - I am looking for...-

-Trouble? - said raspy female voice from behind him. Just below his ribs he felt something round pressing into him. Gun, he presumed. He didn't even try to turn around, but in the mirror opposite the bar, through stacked bottles he saw a woman with a cowboy hat.

 -What the hell? -he thought.

- Just don't move- another voice, from his right, cut into conversation. He looked towards voice. Mustached man, with sombrero and, what appeared to be hilt of sword, on his back was eyeing him suspiciously.

- Put your right hand on bar - he said. In his tone you could hear he was hoping that Ganmar would refuse.

Ganmar was going to obey, that is usually sensible thing when you have gun pointed between your ribs.

So he slowly put his gloved hand at the bar.

- Pull of the glove, we are just gonna check if you are Neverborn - man said, and you could hear hope in his voice.

Ganmar caught glove with his left hand, and slowly pulled it back, wandering what Neverborn is. As he removed glove, all his fingers, but thumb, ended in steel, sharp nails. Again, he deliberately, slowly, removed steel nails from his fingers, leaving only stumps of fingers, about two centimeters long. It was obvious someone cut Ganmar fingers.

- Man that sucks, but Malifaux do things like that to people- man said.

- Malifaux didn't do this, but a man I am looking for did.-

- Anything special about him? Maybe I seen him?-

- He got rose tattoo on his left palm-

- Nope, but then again life expectancy on this side of Breach can be pretty short-

- Oh, I intend for his to be extremely short- thought Ganmar.

 

Man with sombrero shrugged, turned around and left, the lady with cowboy hat was already gone.

 

Ganmar put his right hand fingers, or what was left of them, on bar, near steel nails. He winced as nails slided towards his fingers and merged with them, and thought

 - This is what Malifaux do to people-.

 

He put glove back on his right hand and thought - If law here is ladies with cowboy hats and mustached Penguins with sombreros, maybe you really could get away with murder.-

 

He finally managed to pour himself his well-deserved drink, when he noticed that bartender is watching him with interest. - Damn, he probably noticed merging- .

 

He decided to match bartenders stare with his own, this time ready to fight his way out and just for second there, he thought bartender's eyes appeared slitted, like snake eyes. He blinked, and eyes that stared at him were normal, bloodshot eyes of someone who spend too much time in smoke filled rooms and drinks few shots too many.

 

Bartender winked at him and moved closer.

- So, you are looking for someone?-

- You don't miss much, do you?-

- And smart ass too. Maybe you would fare better in life if you are nicer to people that can help you.-

Ganmar squinted at bartender.

- You know of him, of man with rose tattoo on his palm. - It wasn't question, it was statement.

He clenched his fists, hardly holding back jumping at bartender and beating information out of him. The fact that bartender was over two meters high and built like ox didn't bother him. His motto was, as was of the most whalers, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." He never really knew why it was their motto since whales never fell, but some thing in life you just have to accept.

 

- I know where you might look for him, and since I like how you fooled those Guild goons in thinking you are not one of us, it'll be cheap.

- Help yourself- said Ganmar, and put bag full of golden coins on bar, wandering what one of us meant and then decided that he really don't care.

- Your money is no good to me. I do not trade in conventional currencies.-

- What do you want?-

- I trade in stories, and I want yours. Tell me why you want to kill this guy so much.-

 

*

 

Ganmar drank his rum bottoms up, poured himself another drink and lit a cigarette.

- He betrayed us and that's why he has to die, he and his wench-

-Wench you say, just don't tell me it is classic boy meet girl story, it will be boring one and not worth my information-

 

Ganmar continued talking, like he didn't hear bartenders comment.

- I was a harpoon operator on whaler ship.  North Beauty was the name of ship, and what a beauty it was. We were sailing for 3 weeks, looking for whales, but we didn't spot any.  There were sixteen of us in crew, including Captain Vollad, and First mate Chaseur. We sailed together for six years and were like family to each other.-

 

He stopped for a moment, sipped some rum, and continued - Then we saw a ship, its sails were thorn and flapping in the wind and there was no one we could see on deck.

First mate Chaseur and three of us boarded it. Deck was empty, but even with noise made by flapping of thorn sails we could hear wailing. Slow, soul tearing cry, which was coming from below deck.

We descended below and found a source of cry, a lady in her twenties, slow rocking back and forth.

We tried to talk to her but she wouldn't answer. After we searched the boat and found no one we took valuables from it, and the lady, of course, and went back to our ship.

Chaseur seemed to grow very fond of the lady, feeding her and taking her for walks on decks. Her wailing stopped but she was silent all the time. We even named her Silent Lady.

During next few days Chaseur made himself a rose tattoo on his left palm.

 

Captain Vollad was getting more and more nervous, he told as he heard stories of empty ships before, of bad luck that was brought by finding one and not being able to find any whales seemed to confirm this. He decided to turn back ship towards nearest port to disembark our silent female companion as he deemed her most responsible for our bad luck.

Captain informed Chaseur, who was on deck walking with Silent Lady, of his intention and ordered him to change course towards coast. Hearing this, our lady guest started screaming lots of gibberish and trembling, the only words we could understand were "no" and "death".-

 

Ganmar lit another cigarette and continued:

- She just couldn't stop screaming and Chaseur took her below deck. -

 

Ganmar drank some more and continued

 -That night I was on night watch. Night was moonless and only light was coming from captain's cabin, who was, judging by his silhouette, pacing nervously.

 

Just around midnight I heard muffled scream from below deck. I ran downstairs and slipped on something wet. I moved my wet hand towards my oil lamp and saw it was red. With fear I went with lamp to closest hammock. And there was Konrad, with his throat cut from ear to ear. Hastily I checked all hammocks and everyone in them were slaughtered.

I ran to Captain's cabin, and just as I open the door I heard our "silent" lady yelling at Chaseur - Do it, do it now - and as I was yelling -Nooo- Chaseur pulled Captain's head and cut his throat. For a moment there was eerie silence, Chaseur's and mine eyes met and he looked like a man possessed. Then I heard her yelling - Kill him too, kill him, you know I can't leave this ship if anyone is left alive- I ran out on deck, Chaseur closely following me, with cutlass in hand. And all I had was pocket knife, to peel bloody apples.

 

I tried to hide behind row of empty wooden barrels that were made for keeping whale's fat and oil in them. There were fifteen of them in row, tied with rope so they do not move around the deck. When Chaseur, looking for me, approached them opposite of where I was hiding, I cut the rope hoping it will hit him and get him out of balance so I can get a fighting chance. Barrels started to roll left and right, some of them fell in sea, and while Chaseur was evading barrels I ran towards him, trying to ram him. We both went flying to deck railing, and he dropped cutlass when we hit the railing. I punched him several times with my fist in his jaw and he started to slide towards deck. At that moment I heard something behind me and turned. There was Silent Lady, swinging cutlass towards me. Instinctively, I rose up my right hand and moved backwards. Cutlass went through my fingers like through butter, blood spurting, but I didn't really feel any pain. Cutlass went further and cut of Chaseur's hand at wrist. I was in shock, especially when I saw Chaseur crawling towards me, saying - I'll kill you, I'll kill you- while all that time his cut off wrist was following him. Finally, when he stopped for second, it attached back to his hand. I was moving back from them and when I arrived at deck railing, I decided that I won't be killed by some witch and whatever Chaseur became. So I jumped in pitch black sea, and first time that night I got lucky. I bumped in one of the barrels and cling to it. That's really ironic when you think about it; you bang your head and call it luck.

 

While I was drifting away, I could hear their conversation:

- Find him and kill him- Silent Lady was telling Chaseur.

- I can't see him, and besides he'll drown anyway, or maybe is he already dead-

- No he isn't, I can feel it, I am still bound to this ship. If he doesn't die by morning, you'll go ashore, through the breach. To Malifaux, and bring me seven soulshards. That'll free me my love and we will be together forever-

- Forever.... - Chaseur was repeating.

 

I guess that at that point I drifted to far from ship to hear anything. Next morning I reached shore. In town, blacksmith made me my metal fingers, and since I wasn't dead, I knew Chaseur went through breach to find those shrad thingies. So I came through the breach, to kill him and then I'll go back for witch. -

 

*

 

-And that's my story. Now tell me where the bugger is.-

Bartender said - I'll tell what I know and give you some extra info but you'll still own me-

Ganmar felt rage rising in him - What do you want now?-

- Nothing now, we'll just shake hands in understanding that you own me one, and when I'll need favor from you, I'll call for you.-

Ganmar thought - So, this is how selling your soul to devil feels like-.

Then he thought of his crewmates, lit a cigarette and put out his hand. Bartender shook it, Ganmar felt light jolt and saw exact copy of his anchor tattoo forming on bartender's hand.

-Weird place- Ganmar thought.

 

-Ok, listen now, - bartender said - two days ago one of the guild guards got really wasted here. He was talking about some guy braking into bank, but so clumsily that all alarms they had went immediately off. Like he didn't care. Seven guards showed up. Guy had cutlass in his right hand and, as guard said it, left red hand. It might be your rose tattoo. And backpack full of shards on his back. They started to surround him, telling him to drop sword and surrender.

Apparently he was murmuring something to himself and ran upstairs. They followed him to the roof, four stories high.

 

As they were closing upon him, he moved backwards, towards edge. Then he sheathed cutlass and draw gun. Guards started to shoot at him, and force of their hits threw him over the edge. Guards rushed down to get to his body, well, more likely to get shards, but my guy stayed on roof. He moved to edge and saw perpetrator slowly stands up, starts walking and then after while running down the street.

Guards that rushed down tried to follow him and got split up at various crossroads.

Next day they found remains of two guards, they had stab wounds which could have been made by cutlass; their internal organs were missing, and judging by teeth marks, probably eaten.

 

Your Silent Lady changed your First mate in her pet monster, and I bet you'll find him near some cemetery, because fresh corpses make easy meals, and these monsters are opportunistic buggers. Go north from here, there is Woodridge cemetery, for poor people, nobody cares there.

And the extra info I promised, to get to your Silent Lady, to even hurt her, you will need to get her real name, and it won't be easy. Your First mate, since she made him her pet knows it, so try not to kill him before he tells it to you. If he is still sane enough to talk-

 

Ganmar nodded towards bag of gold coins on bar and said - Now I need to you sell me something for gold. A gun.-

Bartender took a bag, retrieved few coins and gave a dark glass gallon bottle from under the bar to Ganmar. - Just break the bottle in some alley outside-

 

*

 

Ganmar took bottle and went outside. He entered first alley, checked if anyone was there, and broke the bottle on pavement. With his gloved hand he removed glass, and took gun that was there. It had two barrels, and trigger for each one. Both barrels were already loaded, and there were ten extra bullets. He took out his bucket hat out of his coat's pocket, put it on, put a gun and bullets in pocket and went north.

 

Streets were mostly empty, the more north he got the more beggars he met. But rain and wind kept them down to tolerable numbers. He actually found himself enjoying the weather, it reminded him on his days on ship, when you were always wet, if not from rain, then from seawater that waves splashed on you.

 

He felt the handle of his newly acquired gun in his pocket and felt assured by it. He did have his razor blade with him, and his new claws seemed to have potential in fight. But he still didn't understand them, and for razor blade, well he didn't want to be a man who brought a knife to a gun fight.

 

Finally he reached to the gates that looked like gates of cemetery. There was wooden sign on wall next to the gates, and only letters that were still visible were "w", "dg", and "ery". The rusty iron gates were ajar so he entered without problems. Cemetery seemed huge, maybe more so because of dark. There were some lit lampposts scattered around which seemed odd, but at least it was not totally dark.

 

He moved behind trunk of big pine tree, near the entrance, partly to avoid being seen, partly to get the feel of place, to accustom his eyes to this level of darkness and to listen for sounds. Ganmar thought - Digging out graves to get somebody's internal organs must produce some noise, so I'll wait to hear it and get my bearings. Wandering randomly probably required too much luck. And I am in short supply of good luck lately; just loads of bad luck. Then again, if I didn't have any bad luck, I would be totally out of luck.-

 

After about then minutes he heard some noise from northeast. He started to home in on noise. Carefully going from one tombstone to another, he came close to the grave from which noise was emanating. He could only see tip of shovel when digger threw soil out of grave. He took out his gun and approached grave.

- Drop down the shovel - said Ganmar, pointing gun at digger. He was disappointed, because by the glow of oil lamp that digger had in grave; it was obvious that he wasn't Chaseur.

- Anyway, digging somebody's grave doesn't feel right, no matter who is digging- Ganmar thought.

- Get out, you bloody grave robber - Ganmar said, not sure what to do when man actually get out.

- Kill him?- he surprised himself with this thought, it felt like it came from somebody else, and he shuddered. - I'll tie him up and threw in in the street. Some kind of guards will take care of him.-

 

 

Digger slowly climbed from grave, with hands above his head. He definitely knew the drill.

He said - Ok, officer, you caught me. As usual, let me donate few coins to our respectable law enforcer and ... -Digger stopped talking, he realized this was no officer of law.

 

He starred at the barrel of the gun, actually two of them, and gulped. Then he said - Of course, my organization is more than happy to give donations to - he eyed Ganmar from his boots to bucket hat - our naval organizations?  Or for that matter, to any indivi...-

- Shut it- Ganmar said- What organization?-

- Well we are actually very charitable organization that helps people...-

- How is robbing them of their rings and golden teeth helping other than yourself?-

- Ah, I see the confusion now. I am not some lowlife grave robber, after few rings. No, no, sir, we are, shall we say, harvesting dead man's good body parts, like heart, or arm and use them to surgically attach them to people they need them-

- So, you are like doctors?-

- Something like that but with much less bureaucracy...-

And then suddenly, Digger hit, with his leg, Ganmar in groin. Ganmar bend over from pain, and fell on his knees, instinctively grabbing sore place with his hand, and remembering at last moment to do it with left hand. He didn't want his claws near that body part of his.

 

He looked up and Digger was sprinting towards gates.

He cursed himself for his lack of caution. - Good thing this guy wasn't something more sinister than a body parts harvester- he thought, hardy believing himself thinking that. How this place is changing him, when he thinks that meeting with "only body parts harvester" is good thing.

 

He picked up gun from ground, cleaned it from dirt and put in pocket. Ganmar heard faint noise in vicinity. The lamp from grave was throwing some light around grave too, and he thought that he saw some movement at the edge of darkness.

He decided to move back to darkness like first time, and wait for noise from graves. Then he stopped in his tracks, remembering what bartender said about those monsters being opportunistic.

He started humming and old sailor song and jumped to grave. There were crowbar, shovel, oil lamp and bag, he presumed for body parts. He probed it with his leg and it was empty. He threw some dirt around with shovel. Then he put bag, shovel and lamp outside the grave, climbed up picked them up and went towards exit, whistling cheerfully all the time.

 

He noticed moving shapes at the edge of light from his lamp, but nothing bothered him. It looked like they are even making way for him, making sure he doesn't see them.

When he came near gates of cemetery, he threw away bag and put out lamp. He took shovel, he felt he would enjoy some head bashing with it. He slowly retraced his steps back to grave he "robbed". And there already was a man, dressed only in trouser staring into the grave. Ganmar thought - Come on, jump in, I got nice shovel for you. -

Then another man showed, beside trousers he had torn red shirt on him. They looked at each other, then in grave, than at each other.

Than the one with no shirt, Ganmar named him in his mind, Dumby, said - No meat? No coffin?-

-Dam - thought Ganmar - they are used to open coffins, they probably just jump and eat. I interrupted Digger too early-

The other one, Ganmar called him Smarty, said - Let's dig it out, I can see the top of it - and jumped in.

Dubmy waited a second and jumped in.

- At least they sound relatively sane, maybe some info can be torn out of them. One with shirt sounded smarter, maybe he noticed someone around with rose tattoo.-

 

Ganmar crawled towards grave, his eyes accustomed to night conditions, and watched over edge. Two of them were using their hands to dig rest of the soil from the coffin. And they were fast, obviously not feeling any pain. Finally they removed all soil from coffin. It was pretty sturdy one, wooden, secured with ten big nails. They looked at each other, caught lid, one from each side and pulled it up.

- Bloody hell - thought Ganmar - they are strong-.

 

In coffin was a body of a teenage girl. She looked asleep. Dumby said - Liver mine, we talk about other things-.

The other one said - No way - and hit Dumby with crowbar in head. The strength of impact of crowbar at his jaw threw Dubmy at the opposite wall of grave.

Ganmar thought - That's one bugger less to worry about-

But Dumby straightened up his jaw with audible click, and got up, helping himself with one hand on wall. - I kill you - he said to Smarty, not a threat, but a statement.

Smarty said - You are welcome to try, idiot-

Ganmar rooted for Smarty, he definitely seemed like one you could extract some information from.

 

Dumby jumped on Smarty going for Smarty's neck. Smarty was not only smarter but also more agile than Dumby whom being hit in jaw with crowbar didn't help. Smarty evaded Dumby and, while Dubmy was passing next to him, slammed him with crowbar at his neck. Dumby hit the ground, twitching with all his limbs. Smarty stood over Dumby and pushed pointy end of crowbar in Dubmy's neck several times, until he severed his head. Dumby finally stopped twitching.

 

Smarty threw crowbar aside and turned towards dead girl in coffin, with a visible hunger.

Ganmar just couldn't stand to let this man, no, this monster, to desecrate this girl. So he lit the lamp, stood up and pointed a gun at Smarty's back and said - Not so fast creep -

Smarty froze. Ganmar said - Turn around. Slowly.-

Smarty turned around and looked up at Ganmar. Now that he was so close to Smarty, Ganmar realized that Smarty's shirt was originally white or some other light color and that red color came from blood and gore that stuck to it. And when wind changed direction, the smell coming from Smarty almost made him throw up.

 

Smarty had big bags under his eyes. For a moment, Ganmar thought his eyes are red, but then he saw that it was just extreme case of bloodshot eyes. There was mist forming when he was exhaling, so Smarty was obviously alive, and not some undead creature he heard in different tales told in taverns.

Ganmar asked - What the hell are you? -

- To became immortal, sacrifices have to be made- Smarty said

- What? You think you'll become immortal by eating human bodies? - Ganmar never felt so disgust in his life, and then he continued - Are you immortal now?-

- Not yet but I am almost there and if you let me go I'll tell you...-

- Enough! So if I shoot you now, you will be dead forever?-

Smarty gulped - Well, yes, but please don't do it. I'll do everything...-

- Have you seen around here someone like you, with rose tattoo on his left palm.-

Smarty visibly started to shake, and Ganmar thought he looked scared.

- You are looking for boss? -

- Where is he?-

-I don't know, I swear, he just appears, and when he does, we all run and leave corpses to him. Nobody is stronger than him, and when he catches somebody, and they beg for mercy, before he kills them, he says I might consider your plight If you asked me properly, by my rank. So we just call him boss. -

 

Maybe it was tone of Smarty's voice, maybe it was his shaking or maybe it was just this bloody place beyond breach, but Ganmar believed him. He was sure that Smarty doesn't know where Chaseur is, as sure as he was sure that Smarty will never get his immortality. Then he shot Smarty right between eyes, and half of Smarty's head disappeared. Ganmar admitted to himself - Rum that bartender was selling was watered crap, but bullets are top notch.-

 

As Smarty's body hit the ground, Ganmar heard applauding behind his back. He turned around, with his gun pointing in general direction of applause.

 

- I didn't think you have it in you. Shooting unarmed man is so not you. - Chaseur said and continued - Ah, Malifaux, what a beautiful place to drop morality and live forever.-

 

Ganmar kept Chaseur at gunpoint. Chaseur looked paler, his skin was grey with bluish tint, there was thin black line where his wrist reattached to his hand, and, as his shirt was short sleeved, there were quite a number of thin black lines around his arms. And the rose tattoo didn't lose any color, it even seemed brighter.

 

- You seem in a very good mood for a man who'll die soon- said Ganmar

- You won't kill me Ganmar - said Chaseur nonchalantly.

- I might spare you if you tell me the name of witch we picked up at sea. After all, I am sure she made you do it. And I mean real name, Chaseur-

 

Chaseur glanced involuntary towards his rose tattoo and said - Our Silent Lady's real name?  I'll never tell you her name. But I might arrange that you join us, for old time's sake.-

Ganmar smiled as he noticed Chaseur's glance and said - Don't you have to kill me to get her of the ship?-

- Well, that is one way to do it, but yesterday I send one of my slaves to bring soulshards to Pazdehova Bay where she is waiting on ship. In few days she'll be free and come here where my power will be even stronger. Try to understand what I am offering to you, I could kill you now and free her this moment but instead I offer you to be my first lieutenant, and when she returns, Malifaux will be ours for taking. -

- I am really getting bored with your speeches. I didn't like it before and after all this you are still boring like hell.- Ganmar said and shot Chaseur in chest.

 

Chaseur fell on his back, with hole in his chest, big as fist. Ganmar went to him, got hold of his left hand, intent to turn it around to see tattoo and finally see the name he was sure was written there. He didn't mean to stop here, he is going to kill witch too.

But as he was turning Chaseur's left hand, Chaseur moaned and hit Ganmar in ear with his right fist. Ganmar jumped back from Chaseur, not so much by strength of his attack but more from shock that Chaseur is alive and kicking.

Ganmar stood up and started looking for bullets in his pocket. Chaseur was slowly rising, while the hole on chest was closing up, leaving only thin black lines, like drunken spider's web.

 

- You fool, I told you won't kill me- Chaseur said - I already died for her. And I will die again. -

- But I blow your bloody heart out- Ganmar said, still frantically looking for bullets.

-So what? I died for her again. As long as she is alive I cannot be killed. You should have accepted my offer-

Ganmar finally put bullets in his gun, but Chaseur jumped at him before he could pull the trigger, making him drop his gun.

They rolled on the ground and fell in grave of teenage girl. In grave, they both stood up, looking each other, Ganmar with serious expression on his face, and Chaseur with smirk.

- It looks I'll be dinning your liver tonight- said Chaseur

Ganmar thought - He is probably right, I have no idea what to do, but fight to death. And it looks like it will be short fight-

 

Chaseur caught Ganmar by throat and slammed him at the grave wall. Ganmar just slipped down the wall to the ground. Chaseur caught him again and threw him at opposite side. This time Ganmar fell on beheaded body of Dumby. He turned on his back, just in time to see Chaseur jumping towards him, teeth barred, going for a throat. Ganmar saw crowbar Smarty dropped after killing Dumby, reached for it and put it, pointy part upwards, between him and Chaseur. Chaseur impaled on crowbar, and Ganmar used momentum to turn around both of them. So now Ganmar was on top of Chaseur, who was impaled on crowbar. Ganmar looked around and found big stone. He started banging on crowbar to pin Chaseur to the ground as securely as possible.

- Fool, you cannot kill me - Chaseur was saying, full of impotent rage - soon my mistress will come and release me. -

- There is slight change of plan Chaseur- said Ganmar - I am going to kill your mistress first then come back for you-

- You could never kill her, and even if you do you will never find me again.-

- Oh, don't be so sure about that -

 

Ganmar took from his neck a bag he used for keeping gold coins. He put coins from it in his coats pocket. - Hmmm- he said as he was eyeing the bag - I think there will be enough room-

 

Chaseur was eyeing him suspiciously.

-I don't like the way you look at me - Ganmar said and took of glove from his right hand. His claws now didn't feel like extension of his fingers, they felt like his fingers. He opened money bag, used claws to thorn Chaseur's eyes from their sockets and put eyes in bag. There was no blood. He didn't pay attention to Chaseur's pleas.  

Then he opened his razor blade and cut Chaseur's left hand just around wrist. He looked at rose tattoo and there was written a name. Ganmar smiled and put hand in his money bag.

Ganmar exited grave, put money bag around his neck and felt light tug towards Chaseur.

Chaseur was now shouting - I will kill you when I find you-

- You see Chaseur, your eyes and hand will always point me to you. It must be hard to be betrayed by your own. So, I will find you. And then, I will kill you-

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Ryin   

Rise n' 'Shine

 

“‘Ptooo!” The beady eyed gremlin spit out the gulp of shine and carefully sniffed the clay jug in his hand. “Somethin’s wrong with the shine! Boss’ll have our heads if we keep bringin ‘im skunky shine!”

 

The other, slightly scrawnier gremlin wrinkled his pointy nose in thought. “Been usin the same stuff we always have. Same mash, same old swamp water. Nothin’s changed at all!”

 

“Then we need ta spice it up with some flavor or try somethin different!”

 

The smaller gremlin snapped his bony finger and perked up. “Boss is always talkin about gettin hold of one of them soul stones. Says if he had one of ‘em, he could do anythin!”

 

“Yeah! Like finally winnin a pig raid!” The slightly more rotund of the two narrowed his yellow eyes. “What’s pig raidin got ta do with bad shine?”

 

“He said anythin, right? Well, ain’t makin shine part a anythin?

 

“Yeah… you know, youse real smart! I’ll bet it’ll make the best shine we ever drank if we toss one of em in there!”

 

The smaller gremlin pulled on his overalls proudly. “Yeap! We already know it’s right powerful. Remember when we was junkin in the city and we saw that feller use one?”

 

“Haaa!” The pudgy gremlin slapped his knee, remembering the scene.

 

__________

 

“Get BACK! I command you!”

 

The pallid faced man stopped. His mouth opened and a slow, guttural groan escaped past his cracked lips. His head tilted and his sunken eyes regarded the man in front of him as though what was left of his decomposing husk was capable of curiosity.

 

“Matthew, it’s me. You know me. It’s Edgar. Look!” Edgar held up a wooden bat that was aged and chipped and waved it in front of him. Edgar himself was dressed in black slacks and had a cloak over his dress shirt. His thin mustache was cured at the ends and his hair matted in in a short wave that parted in the middle. His other hand was clutched against his chest, a soft glowing light illuminating his chest and fingers. Unlike Matthew, he seemed thoroughly vibrant with life.

 

Edgar nodded carefully as Matthew stopped moving. “We’re old friends. This is the bat we used to play ball with when we were younger.” He smiled and brought the hand at his chest up and wiped away a bit of sweat from his brow. “Had to fend off a few of the other nasty kids with it once or twice too.” Edgar laughed nervously and nodded again, expectantly to Matthew.

 

“Heeeeehhh..” Matthew groaned and lifted his head. “Ed-gar?” The voice was gravely and struggling, but clearly understandable.

 

“Yes! Yes, it’s me!” Edgar excitedly encouraged. “Now… do you know who you are?”

 

“M-M-Matthew?” The living corpse motioned to itself and gave something resembling a nod.

 

“Yes!” Edgar stepped forward and gave his friend an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “Absolutely brilliant! Retaining intelligence in a corpse is a very real possibility, I know it.”

 

“B-B-Batter uuuuup?” Matthew lifted up his arm and pointed at the bat.

 

“You remember?! Oh, Matthew, you’re revolutionary!” Edgar held up the bat, offering it to Matthew who clumsily took it in his hand. At first he fumbled, but his fingers slowly began to clutch the bat with both hands and approximate a stance. “Like thiisss, Edgar? Rememberr?”

 

Matthew’s words began to take shape with each spoken. His flesh slowly losing its pallor. He even blinked for the first time since his untimely demise and the thin, cracking lips rose up to his gumline to show off a sickening, yet genuine smile.

 

“It’s.. unbelievable….” Edgar marveled and held out the hand that was glowing. He opened it to reveal a small stone, shining brightly and pulsing with energy. “It’s not perfect, but with this, maybe the two of us can begin the process of making the unfortunate life in Malifaux a little less painful- even for the unluckiest of us.”

 

Matthew’s eyes, sunken as they were, focused on Edgar. His crooked grin never faded and he nodded with real enthusiasm. “It’s good to be back, Edgar.” He said in a clear voice that was only scratchy because of the decaying body. “I feel like... I could play nine innings right now!”

 

Edgar shook his head and weeped.. “All the skulking about, all of the secrecy. Talking to those despicable Resurrectionists… they were only concerned about the amount of bodies, not the quality of the subject.”

 

Edgar suddenly grew angry as he thought about where he had come from and squeezed the glowing soulstone in his grip. “Using the undead for menial tasks or to tear apart more lives! More people! There’s so much death here in Malifaux as it is, yet it’s never enough! They have the power to reunite families, to bring loved ones back from the brink and yet, they insist on desecrating decency and morality even further!”

 

The stone began to glow even more as he stalked back and forth in his tirade, but Edgar didn’t notice.

 

“Edgar, you shouldn’t-”

 

“Shouldn’t what, Matthew?!” Edgar cut the man off with a sharp word and swift gesture. He growled at his newly revived friend. “I shouldn’t help my friend?! You were a rotting corpse a minute ago and now… well… you’re healthy enough to swing that bat and clear thinking enough to know what it even is!”

 

“You’re.. Urgh… right…” Matthew coughed, suddenly overwhelmed with a shiver. “About... “ A throaty growl followed the struggling words. “About one … of those… things!”

 

*Crack!*

 

The hissing growl was the only warning Edgar received before the bat swiftly crashed against his skull. Edgar was flecked with his own blood as he dropped to the ground. One hand pressed against the bleeding gash while the other held the soulstone aloft in front of him. Through the dizzying haze, he saw his former friend deteriorating before his eyes, the state of his being even more ferocious than it was before the process of rejuvenating him began.

 

“No! No! No! Remember who you are, Matthew!” Edgar screamed. “It should have worked!” Edgar looked around frantically, but Matthew loomed over him. There was nothing in his eyes. The man, his former friend, was nothing but a creature now. A creature who still knew how to deftly, murderously, swing that awful bat.

 

Matthew raised his arms over his head and swung downward. With blood starting to seep into his eyes, his only instinct was to hold up the brightly glowing stone in front of him. There was a sharp, resonating hum followed by a cracking noise and the pair were engulfed in blinding light.

 

“I’m sorry, Delia…”  Edgar thought as his world was slowly consumed by brilliant light and then sudden darkness.

 

__________

 

“Shoooot!” The plump gremlin slapped his knee again. “He flew near a hog pen’s distance, I reckon!”

 

“Til he wrapped around a lamp post!” The skinnier of the two laughed as well. “What a sight! Too bad for as fancy as his dress was, he didn’t have anythin on him and I wasn’t goin near that dead feller he was chattin with.” The gremlin shivered as he thought about it.

 

“Just those few scraps a paper with those weird ingredients on it. Wonder what it’s a recipe fer?” He patted his pocket as he spoke. “Thought we might have had some new ingredients fer shine what ta make the Boss happy, but even the old hag didn’t know what anythin on it was and she’s got all sorts’a weird food!” He shrugged as he stuck a finger in his ear and wiggled it around. “Didn’t see the stone he was holdin either. Where we gon get one of them anyway?”

 

“Back in the city, I’d say! Bring Betsy! She’s our best sniffin pig. If she can’t find one, maybe we can at least trade her for one. IBetsy’s worth at least a dozen rocks, right?”

 

“Two dozen fer sure! We’ll have the best shine in the bayou!”

 

The two gremlins saddled up their fat hog, grabbed their shotguns and headed out of their camp.

 

__________

 

Delia only winced the first time the needle poked her skin. The shot of whiskey she was given and the cigarette that hung languidly between her fingers helped with everything after. The room she was in was hot, and sweat dripped from her body but, as uncomfortable as it was, she wished she could spend a few more hours here. Once she stepped outside of the shack, things would change forever.

 

The grimey man who had been with Delia the last few hours wiped the dirty rag down the slope of her breast, brushing off the last bit of blood that remained on her newly marred flesh. Her ample bosom was propped up by a ravishing deep red corset and upon her pale flesh, across her left breast was scrawled in ink the word “EDGAR.”

 

“That your husband?” The man asked as he wiped off the pen he was holding with the same rag and set it on a desk nearby. He hadn’t said much more than a word after she entered other than discussion of payment and a comment about not seeing too many women in his shack..

 

Delia’s green eyes focused on him and shook her head. “Not yet. We’re betrothed. I saw him off recently. Once I meet him again, then, I’m sure we can take the next step.”

 

“Well, that’s good.” The man said as an exchange of scrip was made. “I make most of my money off of drunken fools. They come to me after a night of drinking, asking for the name of their special girl on their arm and the next morning, they stumble back in hoping I I can turn ‘Rosey’ into an actual rose or ‘Lillian’ into an actual Lilly.” He shrugged. “I’ve gotten good at flowers. I’m just sayin, I hope you love that guy, cause that tattoo’s forever.”

 

“So is our love. Good day.”

 

It was dusk by the time she stepped out of the shack. She needed the cover of darkness to escape to the outskirts of the city. She took a gamble remaining in the city as long as she did, but she had hoped that no one would think to find her there. Anyone who would be looking for her would, hopefully, think she was already well past dead. When she got the news of Edgar’s passing, she thought the worst thing she would have to deal with was the unbearable grief.

 

The Guild guard that came to her house had informed her that his body had been taken to the undertaker’s office and, if she could afford a funeral, preparations could be made with him. Edgar was wealthy enough to afford a proper ceremony, so she met with the undertaker. An older gentleman with a deep voice that assured her Edgar would be well taken care of. He had been surprisingly compassionate and Delia had even felt like, in time, she could begin the healing process. However, everything changed when she received the second loud knock at her door of the evening, though it was hardly a knock.

 

__________

 

The thunderous bang on her door startled Delia as she was shaken from her grief stricken sobbing. Before she could even stand or call out, the second loud crash cracked the door and sent it buckling forward off its hinges. Stepping through the frame was cloaked figure wearing a wide brimmed hat, his face skeletal in appearance and wreathed in a blue-green arcane fire. In one hand he clutched a bladed pistol in the other, a length of chain that dragged a horrible wooden coffin behind him.

 

Delia gasped, forced upright so she could stagger and recoil from the sight. She had never been this close to a Death Marshal in her life and, as she shivered and met the empty stare with a terrified gaze, wished she never had.

 

She tried to tell herself to act natural, to greet the man with respect and comply to whatever he demanded. “C-c-can I help you… officer?” She managed, feeling a bead of sweat roll down her cheek.

 

The Death Marshall walked into Delia’s home, inspecting the house carefully, his head swiveling in a disconcerting manner. He walked past Delia as he spoke and continued deeper into the house. “We have reason to suspect your fiance was involved in necromantic arts.”

 

“W-What!?” Delia recoiled and shook her head vigorously. Without thinking she reached out to grab the marshal’s shoulder and turn him to face her, but she regretted her decision and quickly retreated as she came face to face with the unmoving skull. “How can this be!?”

 

“Necrotic energies were found at the scene of his demise.” The Marshal said simply and began pulling books off the shelf in the next room.

 

“P-Please stop!” She called out from the other room. She took a step and stopped. The response of the Death Marshal was to overturn the bookcase completely and inspect the wall.

 

“You are claiming to know nothing of his illicit activities?” He said as he continued, pulling open chests of drawers and discarding them, overturning the mattress in the bedroom and stabbing a hole in the wall where he thought there might be secret compartment.

 

“I don’t know a THING!” Delia screamed, outraged enough by the words of the marshal to set aside her fear.

 

“Obstruction of justice comes with a high penalty.” The man said as he completed his tour of the house and returned to Delia. “If you cooperate with us, then you may only spend your days in the chain gang instead of the hanging tree.”

 

“If I knew a thing, I would TELL you!” Delia growled. “I am certain Edgar is innocent of whatever you’re accusing him of! You turned my place upside down and found nothing!”

 

“I have found nothing of obvious guilt. It’s a step in the right direction, but we will be returning for a more thorough investigation.” The Death Marshal turned and stared at Delia for a long moment, holding up the coffin and letting the chain skitter menacingly along the wood. “If you flee, it will be seen as an immediate admission of guilt and you will be caught.”

 

With one last threat, the Death Marshal vanished through the door frame. Delia nearly fainted, exhausted from the brief encounter. They were coming back. Probably sooner than later, after they took Edgar and desecrated his corpse. She couldn’t bear the thought. She changed, gathered her belongings and headed out.

 

Delia pulled the wooden door open with a crowbar and  pushed her way inside. She pulled out a small pistol as she cautiously stepped into the darkness. The woman had felt a little bad for wrecking the nice old man’s door, but the concern passed. There were more important things than the condition of a door. She looked around at the blackness inside the parlor, only the moons’ light gave her any indication that there was furniture to avoid. She struck a match and lit a cigarette. Aside from providing her enough light to navigate, it calmed her nerves. Just the day before, she could never conceive of breaking into someone’s home, let alone stealing a body.

 

She patted her way through the well decorated part of the parlor meant for the grieving until she came to the hall that lead to the clinical part of the building. Delia could smell the death, the life preserving chemicals and with it the strong mix of perfume.even from the other side of the door. She pushed it open and looked down a stretch of stairs. It was down there. No, he was down there!

 

Delia took one step and shivered when the stair groaned loudly, sucking in a breath and looking around. She heard her heart beating in her head, but the light from the cigarette cast no light on a living thing. She clutched her small pistol tighter hand and took another drag from her smoke to calm herself before she lifted her foot to continue.

 

“There’s no smoking in the embalming room.” The deep baritone came from what seemed like everywhere at once. She gasped loudly and turned to see the undertaker, Nicodem was his name as she remembered it, looming over her, looking much more imposing than his gaunt frame should have been.

 

Delia stifled a shriek of surprise and raised her pistol. Nicodem did not flinch and continued.  “There’s flammable chemicals there.” He said again in his deep, penetrating voice.

 

“I need him!” Delia shouted and raised the gun higher, pointing it at Nicodem’s head. “Give me back Edgar and  I won’t hurt you! I’m s-sorry, but…” Delia sucked in another breath. She was no killer, but the situation was too dire.

 

Nicodem raised the hand that didn’t clutch his came in surrender. “I insist you put out your cigarette, madame.” He said calmly. “Then, I’ll listen to what you have to say.” His voice was somehow soothing to Delia and she nodded. She turned and spat the cigarette out and stomped on it, grinding out the sputtering flame.

 

“There. Now. I-”

 

*Crack!*

 

She had been so focused on Nicodem, that she had never even noticed Nicodem’s gravedigger Mortimer approach her until the shovel cracked against the back of her head.

 

Delia woke with a throbbing headache a few moments later. She was back in the parlour, the lamps casting a dim light upon her. On the table next to her was a cup that smelled of some exotic tea. Her hand came up and scratched at the bandage that had been hastily applied to her head.

 

“Forgive Mortimer.” Nicodem said as he took a sip from his own tea cup. “There are enough bodies here. I have no interest in adding my own to the collection. Now, have a sip of tea before explaining to me exactly what you’re doing here.”

 

“Got Whiskey if you’d prefer.’ Mortimer interjected with a snort as he took a sip of a flask he was holding and offered it to Delia.

 

She nodded and greedily took the flask. The alcohol burned, but soothed her. and she handed it back after a few deep swigs. She then softly nodded. “My Edgar brings me here. I was visited by a Death Marshal after returning home from your parlour earlier today!”

 

“Oh?” Nicodem had held a nearly emotionless expression the entire time Delia had spoken to him, but she notice his eyebrow crooked with interest for the first time.

 

“He insisted that Edgar was part of some Resurrectionist plot.” She scowled deeply. “After trashing my house, of course. The Guild.” She spat the words. “There’s always some plot or conspiracy with them. It’s just an excuse to cause everyone grief! Resurrectionists?” She shook her head, laughing at the thought. “What a notion! It’s the Guild’s boogie man. I’ll bet most of them are just grave robbers or serial killers.”

 

“Indeed.” Nicodem said simply. Delia continued.

 

“Edgar was a good man but the Guild won’t stop until they’ve found some evidence or, more likely, made it up! They'll drag his corpse off to some office and do who knows what to it! That’s why I broke in. I-”

 

Nicodem raised a hand to silence her. “And what would you have done with the body?” He asked.

 

“Buried him properly. I suppose. I…” Delia’s face tightened. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead, honestly. All of this has been overwhelming.”

 

“To be exhumed shortly after no doubt. Perhaps cremation?” Nicodem offered.

 

“No! Never!” Delia shook her head vigorously. “I couldn’t bear the thought of Edgar being burned like that.”

 

Nicodem’s hand came to his chin. Though Delia didn’t notice, Mortimer could see the subtle annoyance on the older gentleman’s features. She was asking a question and rejecting all the solutions. Still, while the undertaker was perturbed, he remained undaunted.

 

“The bayou.” He said after a moment. “The fetid lands can preserve Edgar’s body until things blow over with the Guild. About a week or so, I’d presume, provided  the body is properly seen to before hand and it is not discovered by a hungry gator.”

 

Delia’s eyes lit up and she stood. “Would it be alright?” She said, unsure of whether or not Nicodem was giving her permission. “Won’t the Death Marshals come to you asking questions?”

 

Nicodem stood up as well, tapping his cane firmly into the floor. “Malifaux is a dangerous place, even for the recently deceased. It is not completely out of the realm of possibility for a body to turn up missing on its way to the Coroner’s office.”

 

Delia was nearly beside herself with gratitude . The three took Edgar’s body and prepared it for the short rest in the murky swamp. Roughly an hour later, Nicodem and Mortimer were watching Delia speed away on a horse.

 

“You’re really going to let her go with the Body?” Mortimer said, looking over Nicodem. “What if he really was working on something under our noses?”

 

“It’s just one body Mortimer. I have so many more to keep track of. If he really did have anything interesting to offer us, we could always dig it up later.’

 

“Yes, boss.”

 

_________

 

That was a week ago and now, with the crumpled up map she had been given, Delia tried to find the location of her fiance’s corpse. Nicodem’s diversion, as promised, had bought her the time she needed, though the time was spent much differently than she expected.

 

She had considered fleeing, running from the Guild or returning through the breach to Earthside. Wherever she went, she would be hunted, but if she didn’t run, she would be thrown in jail or hung.She knew it in her heart.

 

After nearly a week of languishing, alternating between a morose stupor and fretful worrying, Delia decided to run. She pried up the floor board where she kept a small stash of money and jewelry just in case of emergency. Sitting on top of the small box was a leather bound journal and an unsealed envelope. She quickly opened the letter and scanned it. It was from Edgar.

 

Dearest Delia,

 

You must be cross to find out I know your secret hiding place but I assure you I have never taken a thing from it. Your secrets were always safe with me and, I hope now, that mine will be safe with you. If you are reading this, then my worst fears have come to pass. I am likely dead and for that, I am eternally sorry. To leave you alone was always my greatest fear, but my research was done in an effort to prevent that very thing.

 

Enclosed is my personal journal, with full details of all the discoveries I have made thus far. Death is something that comes to us all and I am not afraid to die, but so often life here in Malifaux is taken needlessly. People die well before their time and families can be torn apart by the cruel hand of death. I’m not some monster looking to spit in the eye of sacred life! It’s just the opposite, my dear.

 

When I discovered that I had a gift,  a gift to help bridge the gap between life and death, I knew it was my duty to use that gift for good. I have told you that my work sent me on long trips but it is not true. Please forgive my lies, but I have been spending my time in the Quarantine Zone. The line between life and death is much different there. The dead walk and creep about. There are people with powerful magic doing horrible things. I’ve been witness to it all.

 

“Edgar…” Delia blinked away tears as she gasped in disbelief. She had an idea where his letter would lead and yet, she found herself compelled to read further.

 

As I tested my own abilities, I knew that I was like them, yet so much different. These creatures were once living and breathing just as you and I. but they were most certainly creatures. I studied relentlessly to find a solution. The undead are soulless, but what if that gossamer thread of life need not be severed just because the flesh dies?

 

I found the answer, Delia! I’ve written everything in my journal. All of my research that I had gathered but the key is simple. To keep the dead attached to this world even after the body ceases to function requires something to anchor them. That, and the power of a soulstone is enough to create a permanent link!

 

Death has cheated us for so long here in Malifaux, it’s time that we cheat it back. I’ve taken out the last two pages of my journal and I’m meeting Matthew tomorrow to perform one last experiment. Then, I’ll come to your place and burn this letter as I always do.

 

Unless, of course, you find this letter. In which case, I am urging you not to burn the information, as furious as you may be at my untimely demise! Please, I have left you with enough resources to take my journal to the Quarantine Zone. I believe there is a woman there who can make use of my research.

 

Whatever you do, I hope that you will forgive me. My love for you is eternal and though we could not spend it in the flesh, I am certain we will in the next.

 

Forever yours,

Edgar

 

Delia spent the next few hours alternating between pouring over the journal and pouring out the contents of a bottle of whiskey down her throat. Aside from the letter and journal, Edgar had left Delia a few small stones. She had never seen them before, but she knew exactly what they were and what Edgar was going to use them for.

 

“The more fresh the body is, the better success we had when it came to raising the dead.” She spoke the words aloud, clutching her fist against her chest as her head slumped. “Has it been too long for you, Edgar?” She muttered. “Could I even?” Delia lifted the bottle for one more draught of courage only to find it empty. She laughed sharply and slung the bottle which crashed horrifically and scattered along the floor.

 

“Who am I kidding?” She slurred. “Raising the dead? What an absurd notion!” She collected everything in the stash and stuffed it in a satchel. She laced up her boots and stuffed her small pistol into its holster and threw on her cloak. It was still dark out, but dawn would be approaching soon. It felt like the perfect time to leave.

 

Delia took one last glance around the house and just as she was about to leave, the door, only flimsily reattached to its frame, flew at her with a mighty crash. She raised her arm  but was barreled over by the door. She crashed to the ground and whimpered as she shrugged off the door.

 

“Where is Edgar!?” The bellowing figure standing before her was a Death Marshall. Perhaps the same one as before, it was hard for her to tell. The flaming, skull-like countenance gave her no indication, though the bellowing voice seemed familiar.

 

“I-I-I” Delia stuttered as she crawled away from the advancing Death Marshal. She quickly drew out her pistol and shot. “Leave us alone!!” She screeched as she squeezed once, twice, three times. The first shot hit the Death Marshal’s shoulder but aside from the jerk from the initial bullet, he seemed unphased. The second bullet missed completely and the third struck his leg. The death Marshal hissed when the second bullet penetrated him, but Delia couldn’t make out whether or not he was in agony or angry.

 

The Marshal raised his Peacebringer and pointed it at Delia. He took one step towards her, the leg that was shot slumping. At least she might have slowed him down, Delia thought. “You know where Edgar’s body is and you will tell us! Resisting arrest is simply an admission of guilt! I’m taking you in and once you talk, you will be sentenced accordingly!”

 

Delia swallowed hard. She raised up the hand that held the pistol, but her other hand reached into her satchel. The Death Marshal motioned with his pistol for her to drop the weapon and take her hand out of the satchel. Delia screamed at herself to comply, but instead her body jerked forward. The Death Marshal fired his Peacebringer, but Delia’s stumbling made lining up a shot surprisingly difficult. The woman crashed into him and brushed past him, pushing through the door and tried to flee.

 

Instead of raising his pistol again, he yanked the chain on his coffin and brought it to bear down upon her. Delia froze and turned. The coffin opened and inside she saw an inky blackness that chilled her to the bone. She felt her breath choke in her throat and shook her head violently as the coffin raced towards her like a terrifying beast with an open maw. She did not want to be devoured. She fired one quick shot that did nothing but disappear in the darkness. She then jerked her other hand up. It clutched a soulstone tightly. The stone glowed as the coffin descended upon her and with a bright flash of light, Delia, the coffin and the Death Marshal were briefly consumed.

 

Delia blinked when the light faded, spots still blinding her partially as she looked around. Against the wall, inside the house was the coffin and underneath it was Death Marshal. Delia could hear soft groaning but looked behind her. She could run right now. It would buy her some more precious time before the full force of the Guild came upon her. Instead, she marched forward and shoved the coffin aside with a strained grunt.

 

As she stared down at the Death Marshal, his features seemed much more human. She felt like she was staring at a man instead of a monster for the first time. Her lips curled into a sneer as the Death Marshal lifted his head. When he opened his mouth to speak, she jammed her pistol into his mouth and hatefully squeezed the trigger until it clicked.

 

She threw her pistol down, snatched up marshal’s Peacebringer and stuffed it in her satchel. Delia went into her kitchen, grabbed another bottle of Whiskey and two shot glasses. She opened the bottle by smashing the top against the counter. She spilled half the contents into the two glasses and let the rest empty out onto the floor.

 

She took the slug of Whiskey in one gulp and tossed the glass. Delia pulled out Edgar’s journal and read through it again. She gripped one of the stones and walked over to the fallen Death Marshal. “About as fresh s it’s going to get.” She slurred and read through the incantation a few times, mouthing it until she felt she had it down.

 

With a sharp inhale, Delia steadied herself as best as she could and clutched the stone. Light burst from the stone as she recited the words from the journal and the Death Marshal slowly began to rise, the blood spilling from its mouth was now black and viscous as it drpped like saliva.

 

Delia’s gasp surprised herself. The intoxication she felt as she watched the body stand and look at her was more than any alcohol she had consumed. Her chest heaved as she felt her heart race. She let the dust of the expended soulstone slip through her fingers like sand as she turned the pages of the Journal to find the next piece of useful information.

 

“Until the process is perfected, only the simplest of commands may be given to the newly risen.” Delia smiled cruelly and looked at the Death Marshal. She leaned in and patted his cheek patronizingly. “Don’t worry, your task will be very simple.”

 

Delia grabbed a kerosine lamp, lit it and set it next to the filled shot glass. She pulled a chair up next to it and then motioned for the Death Marshal. “Come.” She commanded and it lumbered over to her, groaning as it did.

 

“Knock this lamp over. Then, have a drink. After that, have a seat. You’ve earned a rest, working so hard.” She smiled and took one last look at the house. She wasn’t ever coming back. She heard the crash of the lamp and felt the tickle of flames as it tasted the liquor on the floor and rapidly spread. The rotten smell of burning flesh filled her nostrils even as she darted out of her house.

 

__________

 

“Betsy! Woaaaahhh!”

 

The gremlin’s screech was nearly as loud as the pig’s as he was bucked off and watched the fat, squealing hog tear off faster than he’d ever seen her move in his life, kicking up dirt as she did and splashing the bigger gremling with muck as it dove to try and catch her, getting muddier as he plopped to the ground.

 

“Quit yer screwin around!” The thinner gremlin barked and yanked his compatriot out of the muck.

 

“Wasn’t playin!” The bigger gremlin said as he tried to brush off the grimy dirt, which amounted to him smearing it into his already dirty shirt. “Usually I can catch her! But, she never trotted like that before!’

 

“You think she found what we was lookin fer?” The smaller one asked. Both gremlins beady yellow eyes lit up and they chased after the hog.

 

“The last two pages are missing, but I think I can piece the rest together.” Delia muttered as she paused to look around the swamplands. She had been alternating flipping through the journal and looking at the map until she had given up on the map. Even though she could read it, everything looked the same. She was having trouble finding any of the landmarks written down. She turned to the journal while she wandered and  had gotten lost in it. While  trying to make sense of the final pieces, she failed to hear the sharp squealing until Betsy was already crashing into her.

 

Delia was tossed into the mud, tackled by the pig who began to furiously sniff at her satchel, trying to bite at it to get it open. “Get off me you fat pig!” Delia growled, shoving Betsy off her as best as she could. She knew that the Gremlins kept pigs, but she was told that crocodiles and mosquitoes would be the biggest danger in the swamps. Betsy was persistent even as Delia tried to fend her off but she noticed the pig kept going for her satchel.

 

She gave the pig a sharp kick to get some space and then reached in and pulled out some cured meat she had brought for the trip. She threw it to the ground, wrapper and all and Betsy began to tear into it. “Blasted beast.” Delia huffed and tried her best to flick as much of the dirt off her as she could. As she did, the two gremlins, breathless from their trot, scampered up to Betsy.

 

“Did she find em!?” The skinny one said.

 

“I think she just found food…” The bigger one said. He approached Betsy to get a closer look and steal some of the delicious meat, but a snorting growl and a sharp bite at the outstretched hand made him think twice.

 

“Is that your pig?” Delia asked.

 

The gremlins blinked and looked at Delia. “Yes, ma’am!” They said proudly in unison.

 

“We thought she was a special pig what could sniff out special things, but she’s just like any other pig: especially good at sniffin out food.” The smaller gremlin frowned and scratched his bald head.

 

Delia glanced behind her and turned back to the gremlins. She had never encountered them before. From the stories she heard, they were drunk and noisy pests that were better served with a bullet in the head but the two before her didn’t seem too troublesome, even if she was a little worried about the shotguns slung around their backs.

 

‘It must be fate. They can take me right to you, Edgar…’ She thought. She smiled at them. “What sort of special things?” She asked.

 

The two gremlins looked at each other with wary eyes and then back at Delia. After a moment of scrutinizing her, they both nodded. “We’re lookin fer some soul stones!” The smaller of the two bellowed.

 

Delia’s eyes widened. “What could you possibly do with one of those?” She asked.

 

The bigger gremlin leaned close. Delia wrinkled her nose and didn’t lean down any further. “Don’t tell anyone, but we’re gonna put em in our shine!” For his trouble, the bigger gremlin was whacked upside the head by the smaller gremlin. “Ow! What was THAT fer!?”

 

“You went an told her ‘not to tell anyone’ and then told HER! It’s a secret! Now she’s gonna go an try ta steal our recipe!” The smaller gremlin slung his gun around and pointed it at Delia who instantly raised her hands and sucked in a breath.

 

“Relax…” She said easily. “I’m not looking for the secret to perfect moonshine. I am looking for a secret something, though. Maybe we can make a deal?” Delia carefully lowered her arm and slipped it into her satchel.

 

“If you pull out a gun, I’m blowin that purdy head a yers clean off!” The gremlin barked and poked the gun at Delia. She shook her head and pulled out a small pouch.

 

“I have some. I need some, but I’m willing to trade.”

 

The bigger gremlins’ eyes lit up and he nudged the smaller gremlin. “You want Betsy!?” He asked eagerly. The pig just snorted and continued chewing on the paper the cured meat had been wrapped in.

 

“No, boys. I don’t want your pig. I just need you to help me find something.” She held out the hand that had been clutching the map and handed it to bigger gremlin who opened it up and showed it to the smaller gremlin. “I know there’s markings, but I can’t make heads nor tails of this swamp….’

 

The Gremlins’ eyes lit up. “This is right by where we keep our still!” The plump gremlin exclaimed.

 

“You’ll really give us one of them stones if we take you to this X what’s marked here on this map?”

 

“That’s right,.” Delia nodded hopefully. “I’ll need your hands to help me retrieve something I’ve put there, too.”

 

“Well, how about that!” The smaller gremlin held out his hand for Delia to shake. “And here we was willin ta give up Betsy fer one!”

 

“She really is a special pig, huh?” The bigger gremlin remarked as they scurried over to Betsy, who had just finished swallowing the last bit of the paper with a hiccup and a grunt.

 

__________

 

Delia unfolded the wrapping that had covered Edgar’s body. She didn’t know what to expect, but when she found the corpse was soggy, but still preserved enough, she breathed a heavy sigh and reached out to run her fingers along Edgar’s slick cheek. She shivered at the touch. It wasn’t what she expected at all. She choked back tears and redoubled her spirits. She wouldn’t need to cry when the deed was done. .

 

The smaller gremlin looked at the body. It had been tough pulling it out of the murk, so he was curious. When it was revealed to be a corpse, he poked Delia’s shoulder with a bony finger.

 

“How long’s that been there!?”

 

“About a week…” Delia muttered.

 

The two gremlins instantly looked at each other and then frowned. “That sure does explain it…” The smaller gremlin said. The plump gremlin nodding.

 

“Explains what?” Delia asked, but before she even got a response, she heard barking in the distance and tensed up. Both of the gremlins pulled out their shotguns. Their pointy ears perking up before Delia even turned.

 

“Friends a yers?” The smaller gremlin asked.

 

Delia shook her head fervently. She knew who they were or, had a guess. ‘If they all kill each other, then I won’t owe anyone a thing. But, they’d never buy it...”’ She thought. She looked over the gremlins. “I bet they heard about your secret recipe.” She said quickly and then winced, expecting them to challenge her claim.

 

“Like hell!” The gremlins said and marched forward with their guns drawn. Appearing in the distance was a hound on a leash led by a guild guard struggling to keep it in his grip. Behind him was a guard on horseback with someone saddled up behind him. She couldn’t make out who it was, but the unmistakable coffin drug behind the horse on a length of chain. Another Death Marshal. Delia looked to her satchel and fished out the Peacebringer as she watched the guard let go of the hound’s leash, setting it free as it raced through the murky swamp towards them. She fired a desperate shot towards the trio but she hit nothing. She quickly set the gun down and fished out the pouch of soul stones. She poured out the three remaining ones and snatched one up. She then took out the journal and began to read aloud the spell she had repeated to herself over and over again. 

 

The sounds of guns firing from both sides forced her to break the spell and turn her head. The Guild was engaged with the gremlins, both sides using the sparse trees as cover as they traded shots. ‘Good. Keep them distracted’’ Delia thought as she pressed the stone against her chest and continued with the spell, only to be interrupted when Betsy snatched up one of her soulstones that sat next to her.

 

“Betsy you give that back!” She screeched and swatted at the pig when it tried to go for the last one. The pig squealed as it was slapped on the snout and tore off away from Delia, crashing as it turned into the hound that had darted right for Delia. Both animals were sent careening in opposite directions and both flopped to the ground dazed.

 

“You see that!?” Delia heard the gremlins yell out.

 

“One of them fellers got a flamin head!?”

 

“No! Betsy headbutted that dog! Sent it flyin through the air like a one winged skeeter!”

 

“She’s real special-Ack!” The exchange was cut short by a burst of fire from the guards.

 

“Enough distractions!” Delia growled and held out the stone again. She repeated the spell and the stone began to glow. She tightened her grip and mashed it against her chest.

 

“Something connecting the dead to their previous life will help maintain the body’s anchor to this world. Well, Edgar… I don’t know of anything that could connect you to this life better than me.” She hissed as she felt the tattoo began to itch. The letters began to glow just like the soul stone and she looked on as Edgar’s form began to twitch. Soon his lifeless form’s sunken eyes opened. The stare was dull and glassy, but the eyes slowly shifted to gaze upon Delia. Edgar’s mouth opened and after a hiss of air escaped his mouth, a guttural groan followed.

 

“E-Edgar….” Delia continued to clutch the stone but gasped when it burst against her flesh. She opened her hand and watched the dust slip through her fingers. She stood up

and looked down at Edgar.

 

“Edgar! C-can you hear me?”

 

Slowly Edgar began to rise. Though clunky, and slow, his movements were far more fluid than she had expected a corpse’s to be. He rose, first to a crouch and then to a standing position. “D… Delia?” Edgar groaned the words, but Delia nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks.

 

“Y-Yes… Edgar, it’s me, it’s… URK!?”

 

Delia’s eyes widened as she looked down to see a blade sticking through her chest. It slipped slickly from her and she dropped to her hands and knees. Sht turned her head and saw the Death Marshal behind her.

 

“Everything in the report was true. Justice will be carried out here and now.”

 

“Nooooo!” The noise came from Edgar, clear as if he were alive and he lunged at the Death Marshal and tackled him to the ground. Delia watched, bleary eyed as the two struggled. With one hand clutching her wound, she crawled over to the Peacebringer and grabbed it. She stood back up and aimed it as carefully as her shaky hands would allow. Delia squeezed the trigger viciously until it clicked, watching the bullets rip into Edgar’s flesh and wincing as each did.. She quickly dropped the Peacebringer and followed it to her knees as both bodies slumped to the ground. The rest of the gunfire had stopped as well, but she didn’t look to see what happened. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she felt her life beginning to drain away from her wound.

 

“Oh, Edgar…” She whispered, looking at the still body. She pressed her hand against her chest and recoiled as her own flesh was hot to the touch.

 

“The stone.”

 

Delia gasped.”Edgar!?”

 

“Use the stone to heal yourself!” Edgar barked. He slowly rolled off the marshal and faced Delia. There were holes in his chest, but only a viscous black liquid seeped from him. The Death Marshal lay dead where he had fallen with holes in all the same spots.

 

Delia nodded quickly, grabbed the stone and pressed it against her wound. It began to glow and she watched it close up. She felt nauseous, but could feel the pallor leaving her. She crawled over to Edgar and held him tightly.

 

“I read your journal. I read everything and followed every note to the letter.” The words came out in one breath as she squeezed. The warmth she was used to wasn’t there. The sturdy frame and strong arms that had held her so many cold nights were thin and gaunt but she didn’t care. She had her Edgar back.

 

“But… won’t I need the extra soulstone to maintain the spell? I remember reading that you didn’t have it perfected without having to use them.”

 

Edgar nodded. “I hadn’t, but, I know I left you with enough stones.”

 

“No, Edgar…” Delia said and started sobbing.

 

“I had the last two pages with me. Weren’t they with my personal affects?”

 

Delia shook her head even more vigorously than before.

 

Edgar seemed unperturbed. “Well, it’s ok. The spell will drain magical energy from the imbued item. As as long as the item isn’t destroyed, I should be around. I can copy the pages from memory. Even if the item degrades, it should last long enough to get to a place where another item can be imbued. One or two more times and I can have the notes copied. Then, everything will be perfect! W did it, Delia! We actually DID it!”

“Oh… Oh, Edgar…” Delia said. Her sobbing subsided and she just smiled coyly at the man who had once been her living lover.

 

“D-Delia?” His voice quivered with confusion.

 

She smiled and pulled away from his grip and touched her breast, running her finger along the burning flesh. Somehow, even though it was incredibly painful, she didn’t even whimper. She just smiled at Edgar, even as the smell of burning flesh filled the air.

 

“Y-you… You used yourself…?”

 

Delia nodded silently. Her smile didn’t fade, but tears began to stream down her cheeks. The two embraced and held each other until the pain became unbearable. Delia shrieked into the air and was silenced when the newly growling, voracious Edgar bit into her neck.

 

When the Gremlins came back with their hands full of loot they peeled from the Guild guards, they balked at the scene before them.. Edgar was feasting on the flesh of his lover and the two gremlins shuddered. “Guess we’re gonna have ta move our still.” The little one said. “This here’s tainted water.”

 

“Yup.” The plump gremlin grunted as he walked over to Edgar and put the shotgun against his head. He closed his eyes, turned his head and squeezed the trigger, silencing the loudly masticating fiend.

 

“That lady didn’t even have any stones.” The small gremlin said, looking into the pouch. What a waste of a day. Boss’ll have our heads! Not only that, but Betsy’s still out cold!”

 

The smaller goblin trotted over to Betsy who was laying on the ground, whimpering and snorting. “Oi! She don’t look so good!” The little gremlin frowned. “Git over here!”

 

The plump gremlin nodded and waddled to Betsy. “Lift er up. We gotta drag er back to the pen, at least.”

 

The bigger gremlin sighed and bent over to pick the pig up. With his arms wrapped around her, he gave Betsy a squeeze and lifted her up. Betsy squealed, jerked and then coughed. The plump gremlin dropped her and Betsy tore off back to camp as soon as her hooves hit the muck,, shrieking as she did.

 

“Well, how bout that.” The smaller gremlin said in awe. “Guess she were fakin it! That coy swine!” He chuckled and scratched his bald head.

 

“Think she ate somethin what disagreed with her.” The plump gremlin said, pointing to the small pool of saliva with a small stone in it.

 

The thinner gremlin pulled the stone out and gave it a look over. “Huh… She really IS a special pig!’ He grinned and showed off the stone to his compatriot. “The Boss’s finally gonna have the best shine in the bayou!”

 

_________

 

“What’dya put in this anyway?” The gluttonous gremlin boss snorted as he lifted up the barrel and dunked his head in it, gulping down the shine straight at the source. “Best shine I ever had!” He snorted between gulps.

 

The rest of the gathered kin looked at the boss expectantly, licking their salivating lips. They all wanted a taste too.

 

“Uuuuhh….” The smaller gremlin looked at the fatter gremlin while the Boss had his head in the barrel. He elbowed his companion. “We can’t just say what’s really in it! Just read off what’s in that recipe we found! Boss’ll believe it and won’t ask questions!”

 

The plump gremlin took out the crumpled paper and struggled to read the arcane scripture out aloud. With each word, he gave a glance at the Boss who grunted. About halfway through the list, the boss raised his hand. “Never heard of any of that….” He pondered as he wiped a few droplets of shine off of one of his chins and licked at his fingers hungrily. “Whatever it is, it’s really good! I feel like I’m glowin fer real!”

 

“Uhhh… Boss….” The smaller gremlin said as he looked at the large hatted, rotund gremlin. His skin began to glow at the belly, even as his already impressive girth began to expand.

 

“You are!”

 

The gremlin boss began to shake. His eyes crossed with worry and he began to bleat obscenities, even as he continued to expand. Suddenly the gremlins who had huddled around the boss seemed to understand what was coming. The mass of green scattered like cockroaches and the girth of glowing green flesh gave one last shuddering howl before it erupted into a fiery ball that rose into the night’s sky and lit up the entire camp. From their positions, the gremlins watched in awe. The smaller gremlin shiner stepped out from behind the barrel he used as cover and looked up in the sky in wonder. Suddenly, the Boss’ charred hat flopped onto his head. He blinked at first and pulled it off him to inspect it. He looked at the other gremlins who were still struck with confusion at the whole scene.

 

He placed the hat back on his head and patted it, puffing out his small chest and standing on his tip toes. He then looked at the moonshine barrel. “Shine fer everyone!” He declared to the resounding hoot of the camp.

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Jason13   

The Irish Emigration

I was 10 years old when we left the emerald isle.  Uncle Martin had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, and my dad, being the strong family man that he was, bribed the judge and pulled strings to get Uncle Martin a lesser charge. The agreement was that he and Uncle Martin would work off the debt, mining soulstone in Malifaux. And so our families were sent through the breach, to our new home –Contract Town #12, where Thomas (my father) would labor away beside Martin, looking out for his brother.

If you’ve never heard of Contract Town #12, its unofficial name is Baile O’Shea, named after the fact that my father essentially founded it. Mining runs in our blood, and my father -ever the optimist, took the move to Malifaux as nothing more than a grand business venture. Before leaving he convinced the O’Reillys  and O’Conners to join the homesteading excursion, and the three families toiled and fought off the native denizens in the northern hills to create the little mining town.

Five years passed, and the town prospered, the hardships of the initial emigration a distant memory. As luck would have it, the mine was particularly lucrative, ensuring the Guild had a vested interest in seeing the town succeed. Unfortunately, this also meant the Guild had a vested interest in dragging out the debt owed as a result of Martin’s crimes. Shipment demand schedules increased and the miners couldn’t keep up. A new foreman was appointed by the Guild to replace Thomas, and safety precautions were cut to increase productivity.

Tensions rose between Guild personnel and the rest of the town as the Irish clans held strong to their familial ties. It was a mistake, overlooking the grassroots movement that was building as a result of the unwarranted oppression. While the debt lay only with Martin and Thomas, the entire town was looked down upon as criminals, as the initial mining venture was founded on convict labor. In the eyes of the Guild, this was a town blessedly free from the influence of the Miners & Steamfitters Union, the mine the sole property of the Guild, to be run as they see fit. The reality however was that the majority of the miners were honest laborers – extended family of Thomas & Martin.

********

It is the smallest of sparks that can light the flames of revolution. William, Martin’s first born, was working a double shift and accidently tipped an oil lamp onto a small collection of blasting caps.  The subsequent explosion claimed his eyesight. Martin was beside himself with grief, but the Guild held no sympathy, ordering him straight back to work. Martin blamed the accident on the Guild. Experience had taught him that accidents happen when workers get too tired trying to meet production demands. The cruelty of the guild knows no bounds he thought, they must pay for their sins.

James, Martin’s second born, was an aspiring tattoo artist prior to the emigration. As a sign of solidarity he designed a tattoo to honor his brother’s sacrifice. It was a mystical four leaf clover in the shape of a cross, bandages covering where the eyes would be if a crucifixion were to occur, and a scroll spelling the name William along the bottom inside a small rose blossom. The design caught on like wild fire, and soon the whole town was inked with William’s name. When asked how he came up with the design, James just shrugged, stating it came to him in a dream the night of William’s accident.

The unease of the Guild guard gradually grew as the days past by following the accident. For one, seeing the steady increase in the number of clover tattoos was an uncomfortable reminder of the Irish solidarity exhibited by the town; for another, the general attitude of the townsfolk bordered on that of defiance.  The wiser and more experienced Guild members began giving the townsfolk a wider berth. Unfortunately, the Guild appointed foreman, was not such a man.

********

Ivan stewed in his office, pacing back and forth. Irish filth, he thought to himself, Good for nothing lazy louts. “Thomas has the audacity to protest for a day off?” Ivan mumbled softly in disbelief. “He’s a bloody criminal! In fact the whole lot of them are probably criminals! Why else would someone move out here to this piece of %$^& for a town?”

“Do I whip them? No. Do I beat them? NO! They have no idea how good they’ve got it. One minor accident - no fault of my own, and the whole town is up in arms over the terrible work conditions…The boy will live, suck it up! Bad things happen in Malifaux; it’s a saying for a reason.  Obviously I’ve been too soft on them. I should have shipped Thomas and Martin to different mines when I was first appointed foreman. No matter, that can be easily remedied.” Ivan sat down and began filling out the transfer forms.

********

Thomas cursed, the man was completely unreasonable, and this would only fire up Martin even more he thought.

Martin was head strong, with a fiery temper that matched his red hair. Thomas wanted to keep him from doing something foolish but the foreman was not making it easy. The whole town was angry with the Guild, including himself, but violence would only make things worse, and Thomas could see the powder keg of emotions in people.

Thomas made his way through the dark toward Martin’s hut. He knocked on the door and Catherine answered.  “He’s at the tavern” she said coldly.

Thomas glanced down at his feet. “How’s William?” he asked.

“The doctor says he’ll make a full recovery, minus his sight. He’s resting but was up and about for a bit today. What are you doing about that new foreman?” she asked.

“I’m working on it. It’s not that simple. I’m no longer in charge,” Thomas explained.

“Then we should leave.” Catherine stated flatly.

“And go where? Martin’s debt still isn’t paid off. The Guild would hunt us down. We would be fugitives, constantly on the run. I don’t want that for Sarah or Peter, and I’m sure you don’t want that for James or William. ”

“James is old enough now that he can look out for himself, and fleeing is better than what Martin is planning.”

Concern crept into Thomas’ voice. “What is Martin planning?”

“You’d best head to the tavern and hear it for yourself,” she said. 

********

Thomas broke into a run. No Martin, not again, he panicked. It was Martin’s protest rally Earth side that had got him sentenced in the first place; a repeat could mean the noose. The Guild had little tolerance for political activists, especially ones that incited violence.

Rounding the bend Thomas could make out the Tavern lights ahead. Above the tavern floated a shadowy figure with a bag over its head. Thomas blinked, and the figure was gone. Great, he thought, now I’m seeing things.

Reaching the tavern door Thomas burst through, to see Martin standing on a table with a sizable audience. Nearly every man in the town was present.

“Good of you to join us, Thomas. No one could find you when we were spreading the word,” Martin stated.

“I was with the foreman, discussing the possibility of giving the town a day off,” replied Thomas.

Martin looked at his brother curiously, “And did he agree? Has Ivan realized that he is working the miners too hard?”

Thomas looked down in defeat, “No.”

“You see!” exclaimed Martin. “Extreme measures must be taken if we are to make them understand. We will go ahead as planned. We will blow up the mine!” The room filled with rallied angry voices. Martin had stirred the men into a frenzied state.

“Whoa!” Thomas shouted over the crowd, throwing up his hands in protest. “Blow up the mine? Are you serious!?! What’s that going to solve?”

Martin shouted, “It will force the Guild to listen to us! If we slow the supply of soul stone down, it cuts into their pockets, and will make them realize just how much we contribute, and how valuable we are.”

Thomas retorted, “If it's drowning you’re after, don’t torment yourself with shallow water. The Guild won’t tolerate high pressure tactics.”

Martin’s voice softened, “Thomas, everyone in this room respects you, and no one will judge you if you don’t want to be a part of this. You’ve been a great leader up until now, but your way is no longer working. Go home to your wife Sara, tuck Peter into bed and let me fight our battles for you this time, as you did for me.”

Thomas, emotions getting the better of him, choked, “I will not see my brother hung. They will hang you for this.”

Martin smiled craftily, “Let them try.”

********

The next day went by painfully slowly. Thomas knew Martin would not risk injuring anyone and so would wait till quitting time before executing his plan. Thomas was dead on his feet, having slept fitfully the night before trying to think of a way to convince Martin not to follow through. He was thus caught quite unaware when two guards grabbed and subdued him, chaining his wrists and ankles.

“What is the meaning of this?” exclaimed Thomas, who had been in mid-swing with his pick axe when he was thrust unceremoniously onto the cavern floor.

“You’re being transferred” replied one of the guards gruffly.

“Transferred? Where? Why?” asked Thomas.

“Malifaux City. Don’t worry, there are mines where you’re going, your job description ain’t changing”, sneered the other guard.

“But what about my family?” pleaded Thomas.

“The foreman never mentioned it. You can take it up with the new foreman when we reach Malifaux. Let’s go,” replied the first guard, and shoved Thomas forward.

As they slowly walked back toward the surface entrance, Thomas saw his brother emerge from an adjoining tunnel, chained and escorted much like himself, though looking worse for the wear. Martin’s nose appeared broken, and his lip was split open, blood slowly dipping from the nasty cut. Apparently he didn’t go along as quietly as Thomas. Guilty relief flooded Thomas upon seeing his brother in similar circumstances. This would throw a monkey wrench into Martin’s plan. The explosion would be called off and they could start anew wherever they were being transferred to, he thought.

“Say your goodbyes boys, you won’t be seeing each other again for a very long time,” jeered one of Martin’s escort.

It was then it dawned on Thomas, Martin had been right, there was no reasoning with the Guild. An example needed to be set. But even Martin was deluded if he thought blowing up the mine would change anything. The Guild would simply retaliate by subjecting the town to military rule and making everyone convict laborers. No, the Guild needed to be overthrown completely, removed from the town. They were a blight that needed cleansing by righteous fire. Thomas’ thoughts took a dark turn – No one can escape alive.

********

Ivan sat in his office, quite pleased with himself. With Thomas and Martin gone, the town would have no real leadership. Scare tactics and bullying should keep any outspoken in line. Through prison transfer requests he could slowly integrate more convict laborers into the mines – scary hardened criminals, till the townsfolk found working in the mine distasteful and either left or focused on more useful occupations, such as farming or ranching, that would help make the town self-sustaining. This would allow him to run a proper slave camp, and greatly increase productivity, earning him a fat bonus and possibly a promotion.  His eyes glazed over as he leaned back, daydreaming of the future possibilities, before narrowing in annoyance at the sudden pounding on the door. Whoever was rudely knocking would pay for it dearly.

********

Thomas turned to Martin, “Brother, I am on board with your original intent, though I can think of a number of improvements that need to be implemented. What say you?” Martin smiled bloodily, and let out a piercing whistle. Suddenly the road ahead was blocked by miners casually holding pick axes and shovels, save one was holding a welding torch.

“By order of the Guild, move or you will be charged with obstruction,” barked the lead officer... Nobody moved. The officer pointed his gun at the mob and caulked the trigger. “Move or I will shoot”. The miner with the welding torch lowered his visor.

Martin and Thomas tensed, ready to pounce. They used to practice wrestling as children. By the age of 15 each had won at least one tournament and they regularly rough housed with each other trying to best one another. Even chained they could occupy a guard each for a short time, leaving the other two for the mob to handle. But the stakes were higher this time. Timing was everything. They would only have one chance at this. Martin winked, giving an unspoken signal and they both stomped down hard on the foot of an escort, simultaneously twisting around and looping their wrist chains around the necks of the reacting guards. The mob responded an instant later, falling on the remaining surprised guards. The lead officer managed to discharge his peacekeeper once, before taking a shovel to the face. When the dust settled, the four guards were dead, and one of the miners wounded from a bullet to the shoulder.

“Change of plan,” Thomas panted. “Ivan is trying to take us out of the equation. Negotiating is no longer an option. The Guild will never listen to us now, especially after we’ve killed four of their soldiers. Our only chance now is to overthrow them, and leave no witnesses. If no one escapes it will buy us the time needed to survive the fall out.”

“How mercurial of you Thomas - from timid negotiator to brazen revolutionist in less than a day. What is your plan?” asked Martin.

“Forget blowing up the mine. We’ll use the explosives to take out the guards. Gather all the fuses you can find. We’ll arm everyone with sticks of dynamite. Use them to stun or distract the guards so you can get in close and put them down. Take their firearms as you do. I figure we’ve got maybe 10 minutes before they come investigate. We need to get out of the mines before then or we’ll be trapped. We have the numbers but we can’t make use of that in here. Peter, James, Martin & I will lay down cover fire with our newly acquired peacekeepers, and draw the attention of the guards. Everyone else will run out of the mine. Act like you’re fleeing from us in terror. If we’re lucky, the guards will ignore you, allowing you to attack from behind. Hide the sticks of dynamite under your shirts. Let’s go!”

********

*BOOM* - The sound seemed to rattle the small office. Something big was going on and Ivan was not likely to be happy about it. The door burst open as the knocking guard threw out protocol under the extenuating circumstances. “Sir, we have to leave immediately! We must get you to safety. The miners are rebelling!” shouted Guild Officer Smith standing in the doorway.

The anger that painted Ivan’s face a moment earlier flitted away, replaced by disbelief. “What!?! Then shoot them! What do you think you’re paid for?” exclaimed the foreman.

“It’s not that simple. They have guns, dynamite, and superior numbers. We need to leave and bring back reinforcements. Tactical withdrawal is our best course of action at the moment. Grab anything of extreme importance that you can carry. We’re leaving, now.”

*BOOM* - The office shook from the blast. The Officer cursed. They must be at the gates he surmised. “Change of plan. Our exit is going to have to be unconventional.” He walked over to the window and quickly scanned outside. No sign of miners from this angle. The office made up a partial second story of the Guild complex and was conveniently centrally located, making the first story roof a wide plain, directly outside the window. The roof extended nearly to the wall of the compound. They could use the roof to jump the wall, which would then provide cover. If they were lucky, they might not be spotted and could quietly sneak out of town undetected. The only drawback was that a leap from that height risked a broken ankle or worse. No other choice he thought, raising the sash and clambering out the window.

“The roof!?! Are you mad!?!” exclaimed the foreman, his eyes widening in fear. Ivan was not a very athletic man. In fact one might classify him as rather rotund. Years of paper pushing and administrative work had taken their toll on his figure.

“The longer we delay the less likely we are to make it out of here alive sir,” replied officer Smith, who calmly held out his hand through the window.  Cursing, Ivan grabbed it and squeezed his girth through the small opening. It was not elegant, but he managed.

********

 

The plan had gone off beautifully. The Guild had allowed the ‘fleeing’ miners to escape the mines and were occupying themselves in a shootout with Martin, Thomas and the boys. Just as they finished pinning down the O’Shea family with a barrage of gunfire and began advancing, the miners attacked the Guild guards from behind, bombing them with dynamite. The combined surprise rear attack and renewed frontal assault by the O’Sheas made short work of the immediate threat. Unfortunately two of the Guild’s sharpshooters escaped to the Guild compound, one of the O’Connor’s boys falling to a retaliatory strike, taking a .45 caliber right between the eyes.   

The element of surprise was lost to them now.  The mob had managed to take out the remaining scattered Guild militia throughout the town, but the last of the Guild forces were held up in the Guild complex – a large walled compound built to withstand assault. Guild riflemen in a tower were being very effective at keeping the townsfolk at bay, and had –at least temporarily, halted the assault.  

Pain and frustration flickered across Thomas’ face.  James just finished reporting that two of the O’Reillys had also fallen in the subsequent Guild manhunt through the town. This is my fault, he thought. I never should have convinced them to come through the breach. All of this blood shed is on me. Out of the corner of his eye, James caught a glimpse of that same floating figure he’d thought he’d seen the night before – a bag over its head and a noose around its neck. He glanced towards its direction and again it was gone. A chill crept down his spine. Keep it together O’Shea. Let’s finish this, he thought.

“Martin, how much dynamite do we still have?” Thomas inquired.

“I reckon more than enough to take out that tower if we can get close to it. I’m assuming that’s what you’re thinking?” Martin replied.

“You read my mind baby brother. Have the men pool together the left over explosives and fetch a few of the wheel barrels. We’ll use them as mobile cover,” Thomas instructed.

The men gathered the supplies and prepared the explosives, which were loaded into a wheel barrow. The plan was for two men to invert a wheel barrow each and run ahead providing cover while a third man would push the explosives behind. It was a dangerous proposition, and so Thomas volunteered to push the explosives but the men wouldn’t have it. Sean and Jack O’Conner volunteered to be the ‘shieldbearers’, while Liam O’Reilly volunteered to push the explosives. They were young and reckless, wanting to prove themselves. Ordinarily, Thomas would have said no, but there wasn’t time to debate. Thomas, Martin, James, and Peter, readied and loaded a series of long rifles, hoping to keep the sharpshooters distracted and pinned down once the wheel barrow run was underway. The rest of the miners prepared to rush in once the tower fell. The plan was ambitious, but if it worked, they’d be in the courtyard and able to finish this.

The crack of the first rifle shot singled the wheel barrow bombers to run. The O’Sheas fired in practiced staggered sequence. The plan started off well, the guards failing to notice the runners until they were half way across the street. Once they realized the ploy however, the sharp shooters ignored the O’Sheas and aimed for the runners. Thomas gave the signal and the O’Sheas increased the rate of firing, using the preloaded rifles to increase the frequency and passing back the empties to be reloaded. The barrage of bullets forced the tower guards to take cover and the explosives reached their destination. Liam lit the fuse and the three men ran as if the Devil himself was chasing them. A few seconds later the explosion blew everyone off their feet.

********

Once through the window the two quickly crept to the edge. The sound of gunfire below them masked their steps. Lying prone at the edge the officer surveyed the situation. No miners could be seen at this end of the compound. They must all be preoccupied at the front he thought, luck is on our side.

The stone wall stood approximately 3 feet out and 6 feet down from the roof ledge, was about 1 foot wide and flat topped. The road on the other side of the wall sloped heavily down toward the center of town, making it very easy to roll an ankle or break something if they simply jumped off the roof and over the wall - a vertical fall of about 15 feet. Alternatively they could try to land on top of the wall; a feat requiring considerable balance, but breaking the height of the drop into more manageable chunks. The officer reckoned he could do it, but his charge was less likely to succeed. Finally option three was to simply drop down onto the grassy court yard between the wall and the complex. This was the safest of the routes down, but then left the issue of having to scale a 9 foot wall. The officer weighed his options with haste, and decided to risk it.

“Give me your hand,” Officer Smith ordered, “I’m going to slowly lower you down.” Ivan, realizing he had no other choice but to put his life in the man’s hands, awkwardly squatted at the ledge and extended his arm. With one hand on the eves and the other death griping the officer’s forearm, the foreman slowly swung his feet over the edge, and lowered himself down into a hanging position.

“I’m going to lower my arm as far down as I can reach. I want you to grip both hands on my forearm and slide them down to my fist. Then let go, and try to roll forward as you land,” instructed Smith.

Ivan shimmied his left hand along the eves and grabbed the officer’s forearm. Officer Smith gripped the eves with his left hand while lowering his right arm over the ledge. Ivan, both hands death locked around the officer’s arm, looked down, eyes widening in fear. “It’s too long a drop! Pull me back up!” the foreman squeaked. The Officer didn’t respond. “What are you doing!?! I said pull me up!”

“Can’t,” strained Smith, who was using all his strength to anchor himself. “Let go!”

Ivan’s palms were beginning to sweat from both fear and physical exertion. His hands slowly slid down Officer Smith’s arm to his wrist, finally giving out and he fell, landing hard on his feet before rolling forward.

Lying flat on the grass looking up at the officer, the foreman gave a sigh of relief, he’d made it! Brushing the grass off Ivan stood up and cursed as pain shot though his right ankle. He must have twisted it during the landing. “I think I’ve sprained my ankle,” he called up to officer. Smith nodded, stood up, and disappeared from sight. A moment later Ivan watch the man leap off the roof, landing on the wall in a crouch.

“Grab my hands, I’ll pull you up,” barked Officer Smith. The foreman slowly limped over to the wall and reached up. Smith grabbed Ivan’s hands and inelegantly pulled him up onto the wall. He then lowered himself down to the street and held out his arms. “Try to lower yourself slowly. I’ll brace your landing.” Smith ‘man-hugged’ the foreman as Ivan slowly lowered himself down off the wall. Looping Ivan’s arm around his neck, he supported the foreman’s weight on Ivan’s bad ankle and the two made a hasty retreat toward the center of town.

********

The tower came crashing down onto the street, and a large gap in the wall emerged. The sharp shooters did not survive the fall.  As the miners rushed the gap Thomas and Martin ran to check on the explosives crew. Liam was flat on his back laughing hysterically. Sean and Jack were groaning beside him but through the grimaces had equally stupid smiles on their faces. A quick scan revealed all fingers and toes accounted for. “Fuse was a bit short,” Liam coughed as he smiled up at Thomas. Thomas just shook his head, and extended an arm to help Liam up. Other than some bruised ribs and superficial scratches all three men were no worse for wear. They’d been lucky.

“Sit this one out,” Thomas ordered. “I want you three to head back and spread word to set a perimeter around town. We can’t have any escapees.”

“Yes sir!” Jack and Sean shouted in unison, giving mock salutes before bursting into laughter mixed with pained groans, and the three boys headed back to the center of town. Peter and James ran up with freshly loaded rifles, handing one to each to Thomas and Martin.

“Well dad, are we doing this?” Peter asked.

Thomas’ face turned grim, “Yes son, let’s finish this.” And the four O’Sheas ran through the wall gap after the rest of the miners.

********

Officer Smith and the foreman carefully made their way through town, taking cover wherever possible. They needed to make it to the stables if they wanted to escape. Hearing voices they ducked into a back alley and paused, listening.

“I still can’t get over what we accomplished, can you guys?” asked Sean.

“Took the entire tower out, just the three of us; we’re gonna be town heroes at the end of this,” smiled Liam.

“I’m gonna get James to design me a tattoo of an exploding tower when we’re done here. I’ll have it inked right next to William’s rose and clover,” Jack declared.

“That’s a great idea! We should all get it done and script something like – The Wheel Barrow Gang, underneath,” Sean replied.

Liam snorted, “The Wheel Barrow Gang? Is that the best you can come up with? What about… ” *Gurgle* Liam’s sentence was cut off by a blade through the throat as he rounded the corner.  Officer Smith stepped out, the blade of his peacebringer still skewered through Liam’s throat, twisting his gun as he aimed and pulled the trigger. Sean, stared down in shock as blood started to well up, creating a red stain across his chest, and then collapsed face forward, dead. Jack hesitated but a moment, and then ran.

“Shoot him!” barked Officer Smith as he kicked Liam’s corpse in the chest, drawing the gun blade back.  

“With what,” exclaimed Ivan? Smith cursed and took aim, having freed his blade, just as Jack rounded the corner and out of site. Cursing again Smith rounded on the foreman.

“Don’t you carry a firearm!?!” Smith vented in exasperation.

“What for? I’m not the one who’s supposed to get his hands dirty. That’s YOUR job,” retorted the foreman, “and for the record…” Ivan paused mid sentence. Officer Smith’s eyes had rolled into the back of his head and his mouth was making little fishy movements. Smith pitched forward, a hatchet embedded in the back of his skull, as a blood splattered woman with a look of pure fury stepped forward, her tanned dress stained red. Ivan stumbled back, eyes darting to the officer’s fallen peacekeeper. It was out of reach at the moment, but if he could distract his attacker he might have a chance.

“It’s not too late you know. The Guild would reward you handsomely for my safe return. I won’t tell them about the officer, it can be our little secret,” Ivan placated as he backed up further while starting to circle toward Smith’s corpse. “I’m innocent in this mess you know. I haven’t killed anyone. I don’t even own a gun.” Almost there, he thought.

“Innocent? Tell that to William, Mr. Foreman,” the woman spat and lunged, hatchet in hand.

The foreman dove for the peacebringer, but the woman was quicker. The hatchet came down on his wrist, separating hand from arm. The foreman screamed clutching his stub in a futile attempt to staunch the blood, while the woman kicked the peacebringer away. Through the pain Ivan cursed the bitter irony that he would fall to the mother of the son who started it all. The foreman shivering uncontrollably, rolled onto his back. Floating above him was a strange looking man wearing a hood and noose. Yep, he thought, this is Malifaux – where bad things happen.

********

The miners had just finished clearing the Guild complex, when Jack was spotted running up the hill, tears streaming down his eyes. “The foreman,” he shouted, “He’s by Martin’s home. They killed Sean and Liam!”

Martin and Thomas took off down the hill, along with Peter, James, and several others. They arrived to see Catherine seated, seemingly in shock, on the front porch, the foreman sprawled out in a pool of blood at her feet. Officer Smith lay not far to her left, along with Liam and Sean. Martin rushed in and scooped her up in a hug. “It’s over my love, the fighting is finished,” he whispered as he held her.

The door opened behind Catherine and young William walked out. Bandages still taught over his eyes. He hugged Martin and Catherine, and then motioned over to James. “James, get in on this. Family hug!” he said smiling. Thomas watching, smiled at first, but then thought it odd. How did William know James was there. James too seemed startled but came in for the group hug.

“William,” James spoke softly, “Can you see again?”

William smiled and whispered, “After a fashion… I see through your rose tattoos.”

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Scarred Memories

 

  “So Blake, what was that about?” Jakes asked. His manager couldn't respond, due to being pinned to the wall with Jakes' sole good arm. His weaselly face red, Blake stopped struggling, instead raising his arms in a defeated shrug. “Because I distinctly remember you promising me a nice easy fight, didn't you? Did that look like an easy fight?”

Blake shook his head, his hands pawing ineffectually at the wall as his face went a bilious shade of purple. The locker room was silent beyond the two of them, the sole other occupant clearing staying well out of their conversation. He glanced over at said individual, but the Red Carnival's chief chirugeon returned the glance with naked indifference, clearly not willing to anger a prize fighter.

“Because to me, that looked like me being locked in a cage with a undead amalgam, didn't it?” Jakes smiled at his manager. “One made entirely of knives for that matter.”

“Excuse me sir,” the chirugeon stopped just out of arms reach, his expression politely neutral. “I do need you to sit still if you'd like that stitched up properly,” he said, pointing at the gash running up Jakes' arm. He'd never bothered learning the man's name, but he knew enough to listen to him. After all, he'd patched him up after every other fight he'd had. With a sigh, he let Blake go, the smaller man collapsing to the floor and gasping hoarsely.

“Sorry,” Jakes said to the chirugeon, sitting down with his injured arm facing the healer. The cut wasn't as bad as some he'd had, barely nicking the muscle below. It was just long and ragged, thanks to the piece of rusty scrap he'd been slashed with. The chirugeon tutted and produced a threaded needle from somewhere inside his apron.

“This will sting,” he warned, just before he lowered his needle for the first stitch. Jakes hissed as it slid through his skin, but by now it was a familiar pain, like the ache in his knuckles and the dull throb of his other, larger scars. Underground cage fighting wasn't exactly a safe profession after all. In a way though, it was almost welcome, a sign that he'd won yet again.

“I didn't know.” Blake pushed himself up against the wall, not ready to return to his feet just yet. His scrawny neck was red, darker blushes showing where Jakes' fingers had been. His voice was raspy, his lungs laboring to force a breath down his abused throat. “It was supposed to have been a normal fight, a silurid or something squishy like that. Someone must have changed the fight card after you'd entered the cage.”

“Is this a bad time?” Blake stiffened, looking up in shock as Jakes turned to their guest. Dannon was accompanied, as always, by his two bodyguards, two identical men who never seemed to speak. No one knew what their names were, but everyone called them Tweedledee and Tweedledum, though not to their faces. Given the huge pepperboxes they kept under their coats, politeness was less a virtue and more common sense.

“No of course not sir,” Jakes said as Blake pulled himself to his feet, attempting to stand at something akin to attention. “It's your arena after all.”

“True.” Dannon's laugh was expansive like the rest of him. His presence seemed to fill the room, dragging Jakes' eye back to him even as the chirugeon kept working, the constant nick of the needle oddly soothing. “How you feeling?”

“Alive.” In a way it was true. No matter how annoyed he'd been with Blake, the truth was that he'd enjoyed the fight. Sure, when he'd seen that thing approaching, a lurching mass of rusty blades and twisted flesh straight out of a nightmare, he'd almost screamed, but once the fight had started, it'd been a different matter. There was an ease there, just kill-or-be-killed, none of the faffing around that life normally had.

“Good man,” Dannon said with a nod. He reached inside his overcoat and produced a wad of scrip. “Here's your pay for the night with a little extra for the mix up. Take a week or so off, just until you're properly healed up.”

“Thank you sir.” That was why Jakes liked fighting for Dannon. Sure, it was dangerous, but the boss at least had the decency to be generous with his fighters. “I'll try and put my feet up.”

“Just try not to spend it all on girls,” Dannon said with a knowing laugh.

 

*****

 

It took about a week for his newest scar to heal up into a red line running up his bicep and by then much of his prize money was gone. The girls at Madam Felicity's had been suitably sympathetic when he'd shown off his wound (though he might have embellished the story a little) and he'd spread his gratitude around. Still, he'd put enough aside for the important stuff, like Trevor's.

“Well if it isn't everyone's favorite brawler,” Trevor said, looking up from his tools as Jakes walked in. The tattooist's shop was a tight fit, little more than an alcove with space for him and maybe two other people, if they were small. He was definitely one of those well-hidden secrets of Malifaux and not one of the ones that tried to bite your face off. “Need that arm covered up?”

“Yeah.” He'd been coming to Trevor ever since he'd started the gig at Dannon's. He specialized in covering up scars and Jakes had quite a few. Not any more though. Now he just had a lot of quality ink. “I kind of got cut by a, errr, saw.”

“You get in a lot of accidents, you know that?” Of course Trevor knew what he really did for a living, but fight clubs like the Red Carnival were illegal, even if no-one was going to be telling the Guild, but it wasn't like he could just admit it. There were rules about that sort of thing.

“I've been told.” Jakes lowered himself into the only other chair in the room and offered up his arm. Trevor gave it a quick once-over, tracing the line of the scar with his finger before turning to the line of books on his shelves. Humming, he leafed through them, finally stopping on a slim volume. He opened it without looking, placing it on the table between them.

“How's that look?” He asked, tapping a design on one of the pages. It was an exquisite rose, its petals only just beginning to open and a scroll curled around its stem. It was a cut above Trevor's usual work, the kind of thing that took pride of place on a man's arm. The girls would love it.

“Looks good to me.” Jakes took a slug from the bottle he'd bought before arriving. Weirdly, he could handle the pain of fighting far more than the pain of a tattoo. A little liquid courage took the edge off and made the whole thing a lot more endurable.

Trevor hummed as he began, some little ditty that Jakes only half-remembered. The pain was quick but muted by the alcohol. A soft burn, like day-old sunburn, spread across his arm as he drank, almost matching the rotgut's fire as it burned its way down his throat.

Jakes focused on his bottle as Trevor worked. Every now and then the tattooist would stop and nip into the back of his shop for more ink, but Jakes' didn't pay much attention to it. Trevor wouldn't tell him how to throttle a Nephilim one-handed and he wouldn't tell Trevor how to do his job. Besides, ticking off a tattooist half-way through the job seemed like an incredibly bad idea.

Like always, his attention wandered, partly due to the alcohol, but mostly due to the boredom. Trevor's shop wasn't the most interesting place in Malifaux at the best of times and he didn't really feel the need to watch what was being done. His thoughts quickly turned to how he'd arrived how he'd arrived in Malifaux, something he tried to avoid when he had the option.

He'd not chosen to come to Malifaux. Like many people he'd been a convict, destined for a short life in the soulstone mines. A few scraps with the guards later and Dannon had bought him off the mine. From there life had been simple: beat a monster to death once a week and get paid for the privilege. Sure it was dangerous, but it was better than back home and the the girls at the Felicity's certainly appreciated it. Life was simple, just the way he liked it.

“There.” Trevor leaned back just as Jakes finished off the last of his rotgut. By now the pain of the tattoo was little more than a soft warmth, almost undetectable compared to the fire in his belly. He stared down at it, his vision swimming for a moment. “What do you think?”

“Who's Jennifer?” It took him a moment to focus on the tattoo, his eyes blurry. The name was written on the scroll wound round the rose's stem and it definitely wasn't on the design he'd been shown.

“Dunno,” Trevor said with a shrug. “You asked me to add it.”

“Really?” Jakes stared down at the tattoo. He must have done. Trevor wasn't the type to just add to a tattoo without asking. “I think I've had too much to drink.”

“I couldn't possibly comment,” Trevor said with a laugh. “Anyway, the usual rules apply.” He produced a bandage and began wrapping it around Jakes' arm. “Keep it covered for the next couple of days. Also, try not to get cut there, would you? I don't like seeing my work getting destroyed.”

“I'll do my best.” Once Trevor was finished, Jakes pulled himself from the chair with a lurch and a nod of thanks. Trevor sat back on his stool, a smile playing about his lips.

“One thing,” he said as Jakes stepped into the doorway. “Next time, could you get stabbed somewhere else? I'm getting bored of arms.”

 

++++

 

Jakes wanted to kick himself as he got dressed the next morning. He'd been so busy with the fight and enjoying the money that he'd forgotten about the letter from Jennifer. She needed his help and she was going to get it. He was going to have to hurry, now that he'd wasted so much time. The throbbing pain of his head and tattoo was nothing compared to his irritation with himself. He'd never forgive himself if she got hurt.

Jennifer wasn't like him. She wasn't strong like he was, but she was definitely better than he was. She could help people, not just beat them to a pulp for money. Malifaux would chew her up and spit her out if he didn't protect her. He just had to find her first.

“Jakes!” His landlady's yell came the moment he stepped out of his meagre apartment, before he'd even managed to close the door. “You're overdue!”

Mrs Beauchamp (and never, ever anything else) was a wizened old woman who seemed carved out of pure spite. She seemed barely able to stay on her feet, but none of her tenants ever angered her. She'd been living in Malifaux since the Breach had reopened and it showed. She genuinely wasn't afraid of anything, let alone men merely twice her size.

“Sorry Mrs Beauchamp,” Jakes pulled out the roll of scrip he'd been planning to give her on his way out. Her expression barely changed as she counted it, before making disappear into one of her many petticoats. “I couldn't find you yesterday.”

“Well I'm here now aren't I?” She shook her head, a few grey hairs escaping out from under her purple hat. “Honestly, I don't know why I bother. I have people queuing up for one of these apartments.”

“Err, Mrs Beauchamp?” She shot him a glare but he plowed on. He only had one piece of information on Jennifer and his waspish landlady was the best source he could thing of. “Have you ever heard of a company called Ambell Seamstresses?”

“What, are the whores boring you so much that you need to go chase proper women?”

“No, no, nothing like that. A friend of mine's moved into town and all she told me is that she works there. You've been here since the beginning, you must have heard of it?”

“One of your predecessors worked there a few years ago,” she said, glaring at him. “It was somewhere between Little Kingdom and the Quarantine Zone. If you get eaten by the dead, don't blame me.”

“Thanks Mrs Beauchamp.” Jakes smiled at her for the first time they'd met. One step down. Now if only his new tattoo would just stop hurting.

 

*****

 

“Could you just answer my question?” Jakes asked, for what felt like the hundredth time. He'd not been down to Little Kingdom for years now and the streets were far more twisty than he remembered. Dozens of new market stalls and shops dotted every corner and their colorful displays obscured the shape of the streets around them. He'd gotten lost a half dozen times and the locals had been even less use than the few signs he'd been able to find. On top of that, his new tattoo hurt more now than it had when he'd got it, though that was probably due to him being sober. Still, he'd eventually found Ambell's, but things weren't going well. “Does a woman called Jennifer work here?”

“You can't just barge in here and demand that!” The Ambell's factor was a small man, but he he was red-faced with anger and a few of his staff were hovering around his office doorway, not quite ready to charge in yet. Given that most of them were older women armed with little more than a sharp needle each, they weren't exactly a threat. “Get out!”

The pain in his arm flared alongside his anger, but Jakes forced it down. It would be oh so satisfying to beat the answer out of the shrimp, but it'd just cause trouble. Plus Jennifer would strangle him if he beat up her boss. He was going to have to do the one thing he wasn't very good at: not start a fight.

“Look, we got off on the wrong foot,” Jakes said, “and I really don't want to cause any trouble. See?” He did the only thing he could think of: sitting down. Folding his legs under him, he sat cross legged in the middle of the office. Somehow, that only made his new tattoo throb more. A murmur of surprise ran through the gaggle of seamstresses behind him and he had to resist the urge to glare back at them.

“Err..” The manager had to lean over his desk to look at him, surprise written all over his face. Jakes just shrugged at him.

“Look, I just want to talk to her,” Jakes said, again. “She does work here, right?”

“What is she too you?” It wasn't the manager who spoke but one of the women at the doorway. She was bundled up in a voluminous dress, but her eyes were sharp and clear. “She your girl?”

Jakes laughed and shook his head. That was impossible, even in Malifaux. The woman stared at him, like he'd grown a new head. No doubt she wasn't used to men like him having a sense of humor.

“She's got more sense,” he said, smiling up at the woman. “We're just old friends. I said I'd look her up when she got here, I've just been a little busy. That's all.”

“She left a while back,” the woman said after a moment, her sharp gaze never leaving his face. “After we tried to clear the basement.”

It felt like the temperature in the room dropped. Several of the woman's companions took the slightest step back and the manager audibly swallowed. Jakes knew the signs. Something had happened, something very Malifaux, and now they did their best not to think about it. No doubt the basement door was nailed up and buried behind a wall of junk, so that they didn't even have to look at it.

“Any idea where she is now?” The women shook their heads, a few of them a little more pale than they had been a moment ago.

“She was staying at Smythe's Boarding House,” the manager volunteered, flicking through a pile of files with a practiced eye. “I've no idea if she's there, but that's where she said she was staying when she started here.”

“Thank you.” Jakes pulled himself to his feet, his arm throbbing more than before. Things were worse than he'd thought. Jennifer was in trouble, proper Malifaux-style trouble, and if he didn't hurry, she'd be dead before he could do anything to protect her.

 

*****

 

It was only a little obvious that Smythe's was both a ladies' boarding house and most definitely not a whorehouse. The house sat a little back from the road and lacked the typical gaudy decorations of anything that hoped to attract customers. The parlor was equally restrained, with slightly faded wallpaper covered up by a series of cheap paintings. The distinct lack of large bouncers with blunt objects was also a bit of a hint.

Also, most whorehouses didn't have little old ladies armed with colossal blunderbusses on staff either. That was definitely new.

“Could you please point that somewhere else?” Jakes asked. He was slightly surprised that she could even lift the cannon, with her stick-thin arms, but it didn't waver in the slightest. His tattoo throbbed painfully, but he ignored it. It didn't hurt as much as the slice that had opened his arm up in the first place, but it was getting close.

“No.” Her voice was stronger than the rest of her, as hard as steel and just as forgiving.

“Okay, that's fine.” It really wasn't but he was pretty sure he could fit his head into the huge barrel, so he wasn't going to argue with her. Not getting shot had been a long-term hobby of his. “I'm looking for one of your guests, a friend of mine called Jennifer.”

“Never heard of her,” the old woman said. “Now, out!” She pointedly didn't use her blunderbuss to gesture, preferring to keep it pointed directly at his head.

“Look I've spoken to her employer, so I know she used to live here, so why don't you just let her know I'd like to speak to her. I'm not here to cause any trouble.” His tattoo was really beginning to get painful now, burning like he'd spilled hot water on it.

“Out.” She didn't even raise her voice, but there was steel in her voice.

“Look lady, my landlady once evicted a Resurrectionist with nothing but a skillet and a candle. I get that that's a big gun, but you're really not scaring me.” Jakes grinned at her. The best part of that was that it was true. Mrs Beauchamp really had evicted (though exorcised was perhaps a better word) a Resurrectionist from her building. She had the commendation fro the Guild on proud display and made sure to explain it to every tenant. There was a reason she owned one of the most peaceful boarding houses in Malifaux.

“A skillet?” The old lady asked, finally lowering her blunderbuss a hair. It wasn't enough that he was going to try something, but it was a good sign. “You're one of Evie's.”

“I only know my landlady as 'Mrs Beauchamp', but I don't think she'd ever tell any of us tenants her first name.” The burn of the tattoo was getting worse, coming in waves now that went from the merely painful to excruciating. He resisted the urge to rub at it as the old landlady studied him through her sights.

“That sounds like Evie,” she said and she lowered the blunderbuss, one hand carefully lowering the flint into a safe position. Setting it aside, she perched on the arm of a chair. “if you're one of her tenants, you're probably okay. The old bat's a good judge of character.”

“Not that she'd ever admit it.” She cackled at that, reaching into a pouch on her waist and producing a pipe and matches. Striking one on the stock of her blunderbuss, she stoked it up and took a few quick puffs.

“Your friend moved out a few days after she left her job. Only reason I remember that is because she left before I could ask her how she was planning to cover her rent that month. I haven't seen her since, but one of the girls said she'd seen her down at the copyist's a while ago.”

Jakes nodded. He knew the copyist, owner of one of Malifaux's few legal printing presses. He specialized in copying any book for any one. Dannon knew him for some reason and the copyist had been at a few of Jake's fights. They weren't friends, but he knew enough to find the man. He was getting closer to Jennifer, he could feel it.

Now, if only his tattoo would stop hurting.

 

++++

 

“Never heard of her.” Simpkins the copyist was tall and hunched from crouching over a desk at all hours. Combined with the black robes he wore, it made him look like a vulture, waiting for the opportunity to swoop on a rotting corpse. His claw-like fingers even looked the part, gnarled and twisted from holding a pen for years on end. He barely even looked up from his work as he spoke spoke.

“Her name is Jennifer. She has red hair and is really smart.” Far smarter than Jakes. She had her letters and some figures, the kind of thing you needed to make a way for yourself. She'd have been a perfect hire for Simpkins. If she'd come here, no doubt he'd have snapped her up.

“Look, Jakes is it?” The copyist looked up, his eyes dark and cold. “Dannon'll be upset with me if I have one of my guards break your arms, but he'll understand. So how about you go find a whore to bother instead of me?”

“I know she was here and I'm not leaving until you tell me where she is.” Jakes had to bite back a growl as his tattoo throbbed some more, actually reaching the point where it was beginning to seriously hurt.

“Out.” The copyist didn't raise his voice, but he did ring a bell on his desk. The office door opened instantly and one the copyist's conspicuously large bodyguards stepped into the room, the bulk under his coat clearly belonging an augmented limb or two. He didn't do anything, but the message was plain: there'd be no answers without violence.

For a moment, it was tempting to throw down with the copyist's minions no matter how many of them there were, but it was a bad idea. The pain from his tattoo made it hard to think, but Jakes held back. If he got in a fight with the copyist's bodyguards, then they'd inevitably call the Guard. No matter how good he was in a fight, he couldn't fight all the redcoats and that's where that plan ended.

More importantly though, it was obvious that the copyist wasn't all he claimed to be. No normal businessman had an augmented bodyguard. There was something else going on, some other lie, probably connected to whatever was going on with Jennifer. Jakes had no idea what it was, but he did know one thing: in Malifaux, some words shouldn't be copied.

 

*****

 

The only problem with spying on the copyist's all day was his tattoo getting more and more painful. It had gone from a dull fire to a raging inferno, a blinding agony so sharp it was all he could do not to scream in agony. Every couple of minutes he debated tearing off his bandage and examining the tattoo, but he trusted Trevor. For now he'd just suck it up.

Unfortunately, the only thing he could find to distract from the pain was worrying about Jennifer. She was definitely in trouble and it was hard to fight the urge to chase her down. If the copyist hadn't been his only lead, he'd have been tearing the city apart looking for her. As it was, all he could do was hope she'd be okay for a few more hours. If she wasn't, well, he was very experienced at breaking bones.

The copyist didn't leave 'til well past sundown, hours after all his staff had left for the day. The stack of books in his hands made it clear what he'd been doing while Jakes had been waiting. Unlike the ones in his office, the books in his arms were cheap and simply bound, little more than sheafs of paper glued together. It was a design Jakes was quite familiar with, for all he couldn't read.

The copyist wasn't very good at sneaking through the city. He put too much work into it, glancing round almost constantly, but worse was that he didn't know his way through Malifaux very well. Jakes simply cut ahead of him, taking advantage of familiar alleyways to cut past the crowds the copyist had to fight his way through. The lack of street lights made the whole thing easier, with the copyist's high bald pate like a flashing light as he forged his way forwards. Malifaux's deep, slightly-off shadows made it even easier to hide, even if they were slightly colder than they should have been.

It was tempting to just grab him now, but he didn't know enough yet to figure out just what the copyist was up to. He looked like he was just dropping off a delivery, but it was late and he had people for that. No this was something bigger.

He wasn't hugely surprised when the copyist came to a halt outside the Red Carnival. The copyist had clearly been working for someone sketchy and it wasn't like Dannon kept his hands clean. The copyist's furtive knocking on the side door, on a night when the hall wasn't in use, only made it more obvious that he was up to no good. After all, no one went to the hall to read.

Jakes grabbed Simpkins before anyone answered the door, covering his mouth so he couldn't cry out and dragging him round the corner. It wasn't even particularly hard, as the copyist seemed to be more a scarecrow than a person, little more than bones wrapped in a robe. He bit down on the hand Jakes put over his mouth, but the pain was nothing compared to the screaming agony that was coming from his tattoo. Whipping him around the corner and out of sight, Jakes slammed him up against the wall as hard as he could. The copyist squawked, the books fluttering from his hands.

“You know,” Jakes said, adjusting his grip so he was holding the other man up by his neck, “I've seen these books before. They're the ones the bookies use, aren't they?” Jakes kicked one of books until it fell open. The pages were covered in closely spaced text crowded around complex diagrams that made his eyes hurt. Jakes knew what he was looking at even if he was glad he couldn't read it: Magic.

“Well somebody's suicidal.” Simpkins let out a little moan of terror, going slack in Jakes' hands. “So here's the deal: you tell me what I want to know and I don't talk to the Witch Hunters.” The copyist nodded as much as he was able, so Jakes slackened his grip a little.

“I didn't want to, okay?” He said with a snivel, his throat working desperately. “They forced me, Dannon and the,” his voice dropped and he glanced around furtively, “arcanists! Who knows what they'd have done if I hadn't agreed.”

“I really don't care.” Jakes punctured his comment with a bone-rattling shake, making the copyist's head wave like a flag in the wind. “What I want to know is: where is Jennifer?”

“What, Dannon's girl? She's got nothing to do with this.” The copyist managed to look confused despite the way his face was turning an unpleasant shade of puce. “She should be inside somewhere. Never leaves the place apparently.”

“Thank you.” Jakes dropped the copyist, absently rubbing at his tattoo. It was even more painful now, every motion wince-inducing. He'd had worse, but that had been injuries from fights, not just tattoos. Once he'd found Jennifer, he and Trevor were having a little chat about that. There was just one more thing to do before then.

 

*****

 

The first thing you learned in the cage was that there were no rules. It was kill or be killed and Jakes was very good at avoiding the latter. The trick was to ensure that you'd won the fight before it began. The good news was that he knew that the battle was coming and they didn't.

Step one was easy. Jakes simply knocked on the door again. Tweedledee eventually answered it, scowling silently when he realized who it was. Jakes grinned at him, then punched the other man in the throat. A wet snap filled the night air as something broke in the other man's throat.

Tweedledee went white with pain, a gasp rasping wetly out from his lips, but he still went for the pepperbox under his jacket. Jakes caught his gun hand, holding the big pistol out of line as he rained blows on Tweedledee's face. To his credit, the other man stayed standing for a while, swinging clumsily with his free hand, but Jakes was an expert at this. Even the hits on his aching tattoo were nothing compared to the hits he took in the ring on a regular basis.

Jakes dragged Tweedledee's body out into the street and covered him with his coat. Given where they were, it was unlikely anyone would check a body before dawn and Jakes intended to be well away by then. Then he went back inside, after relieving Tweedledee of his pepperbox.

He found Tweedledum with Dannon in the latter's office. Jakes emptied the stolen pepperbox into the remaining twin's chest with a tearing roar the moment he walked into the office, barely breaking stride as he killed the man. Dannon simply gawped at the explosion of violence, frozen at his desk as Jakes dashed across the room and grabbed Tweedledum's gun, turning both of them on his boss.

“Jakes?” Dannon's mouth worked like a fish's, almost chewing the words as he struggled to understand what was going on. “What are you doing?”

“Where's Jennifer?” A surge of pain from the tattoo made his stomach flip and it took everything he had not to make a sound. Dannon's expression flickered, fear and suspicion warring for control of his face.

“How do you know that name?” He asked, his gaze flicking down to his fallen bodyguard for a moment before looking back at the guns pointed at him. He was surprisingly calm for someone being held at gunpoint, but then again, he seemed to much deeper into Malifaux's seamy side than it had seemed. No doubt he'd been in worse situations.

“It doesn't matter.” Jakes kept himself on his feet with an effort. He was going to have a long conversation with Trevor once he'd rescued Jennifer. “Where is she?”

“Downstairs,” Dannon said after a moment's consideration. He carefully put both hands on his desk, illustrating his lack of armament.

“Show me.”

 

*****

 

Dannon led him down into the depths of the Red Carnival, past the familiar corridors of the fight club and into the catacombs below. The crime boss kept his silence, neither trying to talk his way out of things nor blustering with threats. Instead he merely acted with silent grace, even being so polite as to hold the door for Jakes.

It was good thing he did so as well. The pain from the tattoo was so bad now that he could barely think straight. Icy shudders ran through Jakes every few seconds, barely distracting from the burning that had spread all over his arm. It was as if the tattoo was fighting against the completion of his mission, trying to to put him down at the finish line, but it wasn't going to happen. Jennifer needed him and he couldn't let her down.

Eventually, they came to a corridor of ancient stone, the walls worn smooth by time and weather. It looked like part of ancient Malifaux, one of those parts of the city that belonged to its original inhabitants, the people sensible humans didn't even think about. Wherever Dannon had locked up Jennifer, it was a long way from humanity.

Dannon opened the door casually, swinging it open with a polite gesture. The room beyond was small, little more than a tiny ex-storeroom with decaying shelves. A mattress had been shoved into the corner with a bag of clothes sitting on it as though the owner was planning to leave in a moment. A single lantern hung from the wall, its flame flickering as a breeze blew through the door.

Jennifer sat at a table in the middle of the room. She was a slender woman, her clothes hanging off her meagre frame. No one could call her pretty, not with her wide, moon-like face cratered with acne, but to Jakes, she looked like an angel. She was unhurt, scribbling on a piece of paper, her free hand playing with a pair of dice as she looked up.

“George?” She said in surprise, only for her eyes to widen in surprise as she saw Jakes behind Dannon. She half-rose, throwing the dice into the air with a reflexive toss. They burst into purple flame and orbited her head with an angry hiss. Her pen clattered to the ground and she made a warding gesture with one hand.

“Jennifer!” Jakes gasped. The pain surged in his arm again and his knees went out from under him. He fell to the ground, the pepperboxes dropping from his nerveless hands. Dannon took a step back, stooping for one of the guns as he did so. “Jennifer! You're okay!”

“Who are you?” She asked, glancing to Dannon in confusing. “George, what's going on?”

“Jennnni-fer!” The air seemed to shiver at the voice that came from his arm, accompanied by a fresh wave of nauseating agony. The other two took a step back as the bandage on his arm tore in an instant, a barb slicing through it like a moth escaping from a cocoon. “Jenniiiifer!”

Jakes screamed as the pain surged even further, unable to even move as Dannon pointed the rescued pepperbox at him. It didn't do the Red Carnival's master any good. A barbed lash, whip-fast and covered in leaves, smashed into him and threw him into the wall. Dannon gave out a pained wheeze and crashed to the floor, blood staining his strained shirt. Jennifer shrieked and backed up into the far wall, her face going white with terror, the two dice dancing around her head as though they were feeling her fear.

“I've been looking for you!” The voice from his arm took on a sing-song voice as more barbed tendrils erupted from his skin. Jakes forced his head around even as his vision blurred in agony. The tattoo had spread across his entire arm, the barbed stem rising out of his skin as though growing out of it. Worse though was the rose itself. The petals had unfurled, revealing the rasp-like teeth hidden beneath. His skin bulged impossibly as it tried to force its way free. “I found you! I found you!”

“No!” Jennifer gestured, a frantic flail, and her dice's fire billowed outwards. Two purple fireballs flashed across the room, slamming into the waving tendrils as they pulled themselves from his flesh. The pain lessened for a moment, but then it flared once more as fresh branches tore themselves from his flesh.

Jakes slumped to the ground as the whole tattoo tore itself clear of his arm, spraying blood in every direction. Bloody branches and petals the color of blood slithered across the room, their barbs sinking into both men as they swarmed towards the woman he'd been trying to rescue. The world went black as he heard Jennifer scream in terror.

 

*****

 

Trevor played with the two dice for a moment, careful not to roll them. The tiny soulstones set into each face glittered in the dim lamplight and he could almost taste the power within. Reverently, he tucked them into their leather pouch and returned them to the hidden drawer that was their new home. Closing it, he released the breath he'd been holding and leaned back on his chair.

“Not bad for a first try I suppose.” The walls of his basement rose beyond his lamp's light, yet the shelves on them were crammed with tiny bottles of ink that glittered temptingly. On each of them was a single name and he could recite the entire list from memory. The only one of them he'd managed to empty sat on the desk in front of him, an oily scum sitting at the bottom. Trevor turned in on its side and watched the last of the ink lazily slide down the side of the bottle.

“One down,” he said to himself, turning back to the rows of waiting ink. In their black depths, tiny roots stirred slightly. “Now, who's next?”

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Haunter   

Rose Tattoo

 

 

By Haunter

 

 

 

Anemic dawn light filtered through the threadbare sheet that served as a curtain in this two-bit flop shack.  Murphy flopped a tattoo-covered arm over his eyes in a half-hearted attempt to block it out.  He lay on top of the sad excuse for bed sheets.  It was too hot to sleep under covers, and he wasn’t sure what lived between them anyway.  He’d managed to kick off his boots and peel off his sticky, sweaty shirt before falling onto the bed last night, and that was how he found himself this morning.

 

He peeked out under his shielding arm to double-check that his prize was still there.  The canvas satchel dangled from the back of the rickety wooden chair on the other side of the room.  He sighed, resigned to the fact that he was obviously awake.  He fumbled for the half-finished cigarette he’d been too tired to smoke last night.  He stared at the ceiling, watching the trail of smoke rising to add to the yellow stain above the bed.

 

Last night’s adventures played through his thoughts.  It almost seemed too easy.  He’d known exactly where the courier would be and when, how many guards, and how to get the drop on them.  It had been like shooting fish in a barrel.  He blew a long stream of smoke out his nostrils.  There’s a certain advantage to getting your job from someone who can see the future.

 

“Who says you can’t cheat fate?” He muttered to himself, marveling at the little ironies of life.

 

Murphy scratched his stubbly face and hauled himself out of bed.  He stood before the polished tin mirror as he did every morning he could and looked at his hazy reflection.  His lean, rugged body was a canvas of tattoos.  He looked them over, mentally reciting the meaning of each like a litany.  It was a ritual he’d had since he was a young sailor back Earthside.  No matter where he was in the world those symbols connected him to home, to family, to who he was.  Since crossing the Breach the ritual had stayed the same, but it felt even more important now.

 

There was a loud thump and clatter followed by a curse out in the hall.  In a heartbeat Murphy had his collier revolver in hand and wary eyes trained on the door.  He listened carefully, not relaxing until the stumbling drunk in the next room had shuffled down the hallway to the bathroom.  Finally he lowered his gun and scrubbed a hand through his tousled brown mop of hair.  He would be glad when this bit of business was done.

 

He downed the last dregs of the whiskey bottle that sat on the dressing table and took one last drag on his cigarette before putting out the latter in the former.  He quickly counted a wad of crumpled scrip and stuffed it in his pocket.  He shrugged into his cleanest shirt and slung the satchel over his shoulder.  The pistol went into a holster in his waistband under his shirt.  He gave the grotty room a quick scan to make sure there was nothing that would tip anyone off as to his next moves if they came looking, then headed out. 

 

*                       *                       *

 

“Are you sure about this?” Julia sat at the kitchen table in their tiny Boston apartment.  The letter sat open in front of her.

 

“Aye love,” Murphy nodded, “It’s a better life than we can hope for here.”

 

“Here,” she mused, watching steam rise from the cup of tea she cradled in her hands, “As opposed to ‘there.’”

 

“Mad, isn’t it?  Another world.  Literally!  We keep talking about a fresh start, and this is it.  What’s left for us here anyhow?”

 

She looked down.  The truth was hard to swallow, but also hard to avoid.  Love him as she did, she acknowledged that his choices had left him with a rather dim future.  Captains talked, and once word got around about D.K. Murphy, mutineer, the jig was up.  It didn’t matter that the orders he’d defied would have amounted to piracy.  It had been two months since he’d worked, and better prospects seemed unlikely.  She looked up into his brown eyes, so full of optimism and confidence.  She knew he had decided, and she knew she would follow him anywhere, even there.

 

“And you’re sure Gordani will honor his offer?  I’ve heard stories about what happens to unemployed men over there.”

 

“It’s all right there in the letter.  He’s got his own riverboat now, a fat Guild contract running supplies, plus the passenger trade is booming since they started building the fort at Waterdown.  This is the chance of a lifetime, love.  Boston’s played out for us.  We’ve got nothing left here.  The job’s guaranteed and he’s offering more than I ever made here.  We’ve got enough scrip left to pay for the tickets, but that’s going to run out fast.  If we don’t do it now, we never will.”

 

Julia stood and walked to her man.  He enfolded her in a hug and kissed her on the forehead.  She let herself draw reassurance from the safe circle of his strong arms. 

 

“What are the Murphy words?” he asked.

 

“Sacrifice and Bravery,” she replied.

 

“That’s right, love.  This’ll be a grand adventure.  All we got to do is be brave.”

 

She touched the rose tattoo on his chest, the one with her name in the middle of it.  “I trust you.”

 

*                       *                       *

 

“A fiver says I can do it again,” Reginald was smug as Theo pulled the throwing knife out of the wanted poster on the wall. 

 

Garrett took a swig from a silver hip flask and snorted, “I’ll take that bet!  Blindfold this time though.  Just shuttin your eyes ain’t good enough when there’s scrip on the line.”

 

“Unbeliever!” Reginald feigned indignation, but produced a red silk kerchief with a flourish and tied it over his eyes anyway.  He made a great show of testing the balance of his knife and winding up for a few test throws.

 

Suddenly the door slammed open and in strode a stiff-backed captain and four uniformed guardsmen.  All mirth was immediately suppressed.  Reginald quickly tore off his blindfold and deftly pocketed both it and his knife.  The four regular guardsmen looked disdainfully at the undisciplined but well-heeled wastrels, who returned the looks with practiced indifference.

 

“Listen up,” Captain Farro snapped.  He hated working with irregulars. “We’ve got a job to do.  I’d as soon throw you lot in the brig, but Mr. McCabe seems to think you lot might be of some help.  These orders come straight down from Secretary Mattheson himself so believe me when I say I am disinclined to screw around on this one.”

 

Invoking the names of their meal ticket and the most unnerving man in Malifaux in one breath had a sobering effect and put an abrupt end to the staring contest.  The captain cleared his throat and continued.

 

“Last night a loyal and bonded courier was robbed at gunpoint in the slums.  Apparently he was carrying something of value.  Secretary Mattheson was most perturbed by this theft.  The assailant has been identified as one D.K. Murphy.”  He produced an artist’s sketch and laid it flat on the table for all to see.  “He is six feet tall, brown hair, brown eyes, and has numerous tattoos.  He was last seen wearing a black trench coat and wide brim hat.  He is to be considered armed and extremely dangerous.  The object he stole is noted as being extremely fragile.  He needs to be taken down without damaging the object.  Once we have retrieved it, Mr. Murphy is to be executed without delay.”

 

“What’s the loot then?” Garrett asked, unable to restrain his greedy curiosity.

 

Captain Farro fixed him with a withering look that appeared to have no effect, “The Secretary did not see fit to share that information.  I suspect it will be obvious when we apprehend Mr. Murphy.  Understand that the objective is to retrieve this stolen item and see it delivered to its final destination.  If it were to go astray enroute I assure you that we will all find ourselves before a firing squad by Thursday morning.”

 

“Don’t get your panties in a twist guv’ner,” Theo said, “We just likes to know what we’s lookin for.”

 

The captain blew a frustrated breath out his nose and discontinued the conversation.  Instead he unrolled a map of the city.  “The attack happened here,” He stabbed a smoke-stained finger in the middle of the industrial zone.  “The last known residence of Mr. Murphy was here,” He moved his finger an inch to the right.  “His most recent documented employment was on the riverboat Golden Ticket, which berths here.”  His finger jabbed a third time, this time at the river where it cut through the south-eastern slums.  “We’re to begin a sweep starting at the location of the crime and proceeding southward.”

 

“You think he’s just going to sit pretty and wait to be got?” Garrett rolled his eyes.

 

“Simpleton,” Reginald snorted, “We’re the hounds.  We’ll flush him out.  I’m betting the mask’s got a dozen more cronies out lurking.”

 

Secretary Mattheson,” Captain Farro stressed the name, “did not disclose the full complement of this operation to me in my briefing, however I would assume that there are other units in the field.  Regardless, our job is to begin in the north slums and sweep southward until we reach the south-east wharf.  Unless there are any more stupid questions, let us get to work.”

 

*                       *                       *

 

“Would you relax?” Ogden muttered out the side of his mouth that was not occupied by his cigarillo.  He ambled along a pace behind his companion.

 

“Would you fret a little?” Callie said in exasperation.  She tried to quicken her pace, which was difficult in heels on the cobblestones.  She stumbled a little, tipping on one precarious yellow shoe.  The poncho-clad gunsmith caught her under the arm and steadied her.  The flash of gratitude was lost in her anxiety. 

 

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a mite high strung?” he drawled.

 

Callie unsuccessfully tried to blow an escaped lock of hair off her face.  She shot a dirty look at him.  “Only you, Oggie.  Only you.”

 

“Well, I ain’t wrong,” he deadpanned, “We’ll make it with time to spare.  Nothing to worry about, Belle.”

 

“You didn’t see what I saw,” she said in a harsh whisper, “I’ve read his cards.  I know him, and I know what he’s going to do.”

 

“And you told me,” he replied, “And it don’t change the fact that we’ll get there on time… unless you go turn an ankle from walkin in them fancy shoes.”

 

The two walked the winding street through the slums, deftly sidestepping the worst of the night soil tossed into the streets.  Ogden, unshaven and stone faced in his poncho and dungarees might have passed for a local, but Callie stood out like a peacock in a chicken coop.  She wore a bright yellow dress with matching shoes.  Her hair had started the day artfully styled, though it was losing its battle with the humidity.  They could feel eyes upon them, sizing them up, parceling out their worth.  Such appraisals usually started with Callie’s fine clothes and handbag and ended abruptly when they caught a glimpse of the custom revolvers strapped to Ogden’s hips.  No one gave them any trouble, but their passage did not go unmarked.

 

Callie huffed a sigh of relief when they finally rounded a bend and spotted the Red Rooster Inn.  The dilapidated rooming house and tavern seemed to lean almost drunkenly on its neighbor, an equally sad looking haberdashery shop. 

 

“Remember,” she said, “Plan A is to take the friendly approach.  We give him a chance to do the right thing.”

 

“And Plan B is to shoot ‘im and loot ‘im,” Ogden replied, “Got it.  You just let me know when you’re done with Plan A.”

 

“I just hope he’ll listen to reason.” Callie said.  She knew enough to know it was a longshot.

 

*                       *                       *

 

Malifaux station was loosely organized chaos as the latest trainload of passengers and goods from Earthside were sorted out.  The trip had been harmless by the standards of such things.  No one had gone mad or exploded or been turned inside out.  Even so, the knowledge that they were no longer on earth weighed heavy on the couple as they disembarked. 

 

Murphy and Julia held tight to each other’s hands as they tried to navigate through the jumbled crowd.  They couldn’t miss the ominous hanging tree with its rotting dangling fruit backlit by the eerie greenish sky.  Julia shivered and squeezed Murphy’s hand as if to say ‘be good.’  They lined up in a queue and waited their turn for processing.

 

“Papers.” Barked a sour looking Guild guard with a ledger.  Behind him loomed an enormous peacekeeper.  Murphy handed over their travel documents and Gordani’s letter.  The guard scrutinized their papers closely, and gave them a suspicious once-over. 

 

“State your names and your business here,” he demanded, holding their papers so they couldn’t read them.  The construct turned its head to regard them impassively.

 

“We just gave y…” Julia started to say, bewildered.

 

“Murphy, Daniel and Julia. From Boston,” Murphy cut in, “We’re here on a contract with Peter Gordani to work on his boat, the Golden Ticket.  I’m a sailor by trade.”

 

“Uh huh.” The guard appeared unimpressed, “Malifaux is Guild territory, Mr. Murphy.  There is no room for layabouts, criminals or dissidents.  You’re not a dissident, are you, Mr. Murphy?”

 

“Uhh… no?” he replied, “I’m just here for a job.”

 

“Good.” The guard said, punctuating his word with the thunk of a stamp on their documents, “Welcome to Malifaux.”

 

They grabbed their trunk and hustled through the checkpoint and out of the station.  The city loomed before them.  It did not feel particularly welcoming.

 

“Well, I guess we’re here.”

 

*                       *                       *

 

Callie and Ogden stepped into the dim tap room of the Red Rooster.  The only occupant of the bar other than the double-chinned bartender was a tall man in a white shirt with tattoos decorating both arms from shirtsleeve to knuckles.  He looked up warily as they entered.  Ogden leaned casually on the doorframe with his arms crossed and smoke languidly rising from his cigarillo. 

 

“Hey sailor,” Callie said, sliding up to perch on a barstool next to him, “Buy a girl a drink?”

 

Murphy gave the two of them a quick appraisal, in particular noting the gleaming irons on Ogden’s hips.  “Charmed I’m sure, my lady,” he said with a friendly smile that didn’t reach his eyes, “but my heart belongs to another.” 

 

“It’s discourteous to leave a lady to drink alone in such an establishment.  What would people say?” Callie said playfully.

 

“Look, I intend no disrespect, but I don’t know you and I got no beef with you.”  Murphy said firmly, rising to leave, “but I got places I need to be today and I got no time for pleasantries so if you’d be so kind…” He gestured for the intimidating gunsmith to move aside.

 

“Buy the nice lady a drink.” Ogden ordered.

 

“I assure you Mr. Murphy,” Callie said earnestly, dropping the charming tone, “We just want to talk to you.”

 

“You’ll forgive me my skepticism,” he replied, still keeping an eye on Ogden.

 

“Oh he’s all bark.  Besides, he’s mostly here to keep me safe.” Callie said dismissively, “Think, Mr. Murphy, if we didn’t want to talk, why would I be here?”

 

“Fair point,” Murphy said cautiously, “What’re you having then?”

 

“Gin please.”

 

“A gin for the lady, and another whiskey, neat.” He addressed the bartender, who had been making a very thin pretense of not eavesdropping.  He nodded dumbly and set to filling their order.

 

“Don’t you have an elsewhere to be right now?” Ogden cocked his head at the bartender after he’d poured their drinks.  He nodded, his small chin disappearing into his flabby neck with each motion.  He shuffled into the kitchen without a word.

 

“Now then, Mr. Murphy,” Callie said, “my name is Calliope Doucette, and this here is Ogden Cross.  We’re here because you’ve recently come to the attention of the Guild in a rather bad way, and, well, that tickles us some.  We’d like to help, and I’ve got a feeling you need all the help you can get.”

 

Murphy scrutinized Callie a little more closely now, “You look awful familiar.  Have we met before?”

 

“Why yes, I believe we played a few hands of poker at the Ram’s Pride a few weeks back.  You lost a fair bit of scrip as I recall.”

 

“Right,” he nodded slowly.  That night was a bit of a rum-soaked blur.  “And now you’re here to ‘help’ me with what exactly?”

 

“You’re in a world of trouble, Mr. Murphy.  You’re in deep with things you don’t understand, and now you’ve tweaked the noses of some very powerful folk.”  Her voice turned deadly serious, “There’s no good ending to this story for you… but maybe we can help you duck both sides of this nasty game and disappear.”

 

“And what will this miraculous disappearing act cost?”

 

“Only that trinket in your bag.” She looked pointedly at the canvas satchel.

 

“Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s spoken for.”

 

“Do you even know what you have, Mr. Murphy?” Callie appeared genuinely concerned, “Do you know the dange…”

 

The door suddenly burst open, knocking Ogden off balance.  He stumbled forward, drawing his pistols as he spun to face the new threat.  Callie hopped awkwardly off the bar stool and palmed a deck of playing cards into her hand seemingly out of nowhere. Murphy vaulted over the bar and disappeared as four guardsmen rushed in with their pistols drawn. 

 

There was a tense moment of silence as the two sides sized each other up.  Captain Farro stepped in behind his squad, looking irritated by the whole affair.

 

“What seems to be the trouble, officers?” Callie said as casually as she could.

 

“D.K. Murphy, we know you’re here.” the captain called, pointedly ignoring her, “By order of the Governor-General, you are ordered to stand down and relinquish your arms.  Show yourself.”

 

There was no reply from behind the bar.

 

“Is there a problem, sir?” Callie tried to grab the captain’s attention.

 

“You are impeding an official Guild investigation,” he replied, regarding her and Ogden with naked hostility, “Drop your weapons and stand down or my men will be forced to take action.”

 

“Might want to rethink that, Cap’n.” Ogden drawled, his custom pistols trained on two of the guardsmen.

 

“Now boys,” Callie said, stepping carefully into the middle of the standoff, “There’s no need for all this!  My friend here’s just a mite protective.”  She began casually shuffling the deck of cards, drawing curious looks from the tense guardsmen.  “Look, I’m just a performer from the Star Theatre, not a seasoned soldier like you fine young men.  I don’t go in for all this gun play, but I know some grand tricks.  Would you like to see a trick?” 

 

Without waiting for a response she drew a card and held it in front of her.  “Now, watch the card closely.  You don’t want to miss this.  Watch the card closely…”  She released it, leaving it suspended briefly in mid-air.  The card began to sparkle and glow, quickly growing brighter and brighter.  “Now, watch this!”

 

She clapped her hands suddenly.  The card erupted in a flash of blinding light and a loud bang, drawing pained and surprised shouts from the guardsmen.  In the momentary confusion there was shouting and gunfire, followed by screaming.

 

When Captain Farro’s sight returned a few seconds later he saw two of his guardsmen rolling on the ground holding their mangled knees and screaming.  The two dissidents were nowhere to be seen.  Nor was his quarry.  He cursed loudly and kicked a chair across the room, then ordered the two guardsmen still on their feet to follow him as he charged out into the street.

 

*                       *                       *

 

Murphy was startled awake by his wife’s cry.  “Another bad one?”

 

Julia sat up, her arms wrapped around herself, trying to rub away the goosebumps.  She had a far away look in her eyes as she nodded.  Murphy got up and poured her a glass of water.  He sat down beside her on the bed and wrapped a supportive arm around her.  She sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder.

 

“I’m sorry to wake you,” she said, “You’ve got to work in the morning.”

 

“I’m fine,” he replied, “It’s you that deserves worrying about.  What was it this time?”

 

“It sounds so foolish,” she demurred.

 

“Tell me,” Murphy pressed.

 

“It was… this sounds so silly… It was a carousel,” Julia said, staring off as it played through her mind again, “Like we rode when the faire came to the Commons, only it was… wrong.  The horses, the music, it was all just wrong.  Dark and sinister and frightening.  And the children… the children riding it had these blank white eyes and they were all staring at me.  That was it.  I couldn’t stand it.  I screamed and… and then I woke up.”

 

“I’m sorry love,” he said, stroking her hair and kissing the top of her head, “I’m sorry I brought us here.”

 

“There’s no fault,” Julia replied, “We’re here now.  We got a new start, just like we needed.  It’s just taking me a while to get used to it.”

 

“We can go back,” Murphy said, “Maybe back to Belfast, maybe down to Australia.  Surely I could find something.  I can’t stand that being here hurts you.”

 

“Don’t be so foolish,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she felt, “It takes more than a bad dream to scare off a Murphy, right?”

 

“You’re something else, you know,” he said, squeezing her tight and breathing in the scent of her hair, “But you don’t have to be invincible.  Say the word and we’re back on a train to Earth.”

 

“I’m fine,” Julia said, patting him on the leg.

 

“You,” he said, placing her hand on a tattoo on his arm, “are my sun and moon.  I would do anything for you.  You know that, right?”

 

“I know,” she said.

 

*                       *                       *

 

As soon as he had cleared the bar Murphy had scrambled through the kitchen and out the back door.  He was halfway down the alley when he heard the strange bang and gunfire.  He sprinted past the waddling barkeep, flipping him a apologetic little salute as he passed.  He zigged and zagged through the winding and broken streets of the slums until his legs would no longer carry him.  He hoped he had lost anyone who might have pursued him.  Finally he ducked into an unoccupied doorway to catch his breath.

 

“Well, that was bracing,” he muttered to himself between panting breaths.  He had expected the Guild to come for him, but the Arcanists had been a surprise.  He ran a hand over the satchel and wondered just what he had gotten himself into.  It didn’t matter.  He’d do anything for her, no questions asked.  He looked around and tried to get his bearings.  A few slum dwellers shuffled by, going about their sad little lives.  No one paid him any mind. 

 

He knew the Quarantine Zone was nearby to his right, which meant the train track was just a few blocks to his left.  The tracks would be the fastest way to the river, but risky.  Crossing through Little Kingdom was an option.  The Guild held less power there.  The Quarantine Zone had the least odds of encountering a Guild patrol, but best odds of being eaten by zombies or worse.  He rolled up his sleeve and stared at the compass tattoo on his inner forearm, searching for an answer.  Little Kingdom, he decided.

 

Little Kingdom was a world unto itself.  The closer he got, the more the street scenes changed.  Paper lanterns replaced cheap tin ones.  Distinctive music reached his ears from the odd bar.  The smells emanating from the pot shops were fragrant and exotic, a far cry from the rat-and-turnip soup smell that seemed to dominate elsewhere.  The faces changed to.  With every passing block there were more Asian faces and fewer Europeans.  Soon enough he found himself in the heart of the Asian enclave, standing out like a sore thumb.  He did his best to walk with purpose, like he knew exactly where he was going, though in truth he had never been here and had only a vague notion that he was heading towards the river.

 

As he walked down a broad street he noticed that the bustling crowd evaporated rather suddenly, as if by some silent accord.  Elderly women shuffled hurriedly into tea houses.  Previously sluggish porters became filled with zeal and hustled their loads down the street and around corners.  Shop keepers pulled shut bamboo doors and rolled down curtains.  A rickshaw boy abandoned his carriage and dashed into a shop before the door closed. 

 

The hairs on the back of Murphy’s neck stood up.  He turned in a circle, taking in his abrupt solitude.  When he turned full circle he jumped because before him stood a man in a grotesque green oni mask.  A quick glance over his shoulders found a red oni mask to one side and a black one to the other.

 

“Mornin lads,” he said, keeping his hands low and open, “It’s a bit early for a costume party, isn’t it?”

 

The green oni slowly drew a wicked looking sword. “You should not have come here, gaijin.”  His thickly accented voice was deep and raspy, and was made even more menacing by the obscuring mask.

 

“Well, look, I’m just passing through, so if you’d just be so kind as to not stab me, I’ll be on my way.”

 

“You must honor the Oyabun of the Ten Thunders Clan with a gift to pass through Little Kingdom.  Your purse,” he gestured at the satchel, “is a fine token of your respect.  Leave it and you may go about your business.”

 

“Afraid I can’t be giving what ain’t mine to give, friend,” Murphy said, reaching behind his back with exaggerated nonthreatening slowness, “but I got an offering for your Oyabun here.”

 

He quickly drew his heavy collier pistol and fired a shot into the green oni’s belly.  He sprang forward as his foe doubled over and drove a knee into the steel mask, dropping him in the dust.  He felt the air move as something swooshed through the space he had just been in.  His knee sang with pain from bashing into the sharp tusks of the mask, but he turned to face off against the red and black masked men.  They both dropped into a fighting stance and moved to flank him.  The red oni whirled a length of weighted chain while the black oni brandished a pair of sai. 

 

“So, talking it out’s not likely, eh?” he said, swiveling his attention between the two flankers. 

 

In response the red oni swung his chain and wrapped it around Murphy’s arm.  He tugged hard, trying to pull Murphy off balance.  The Irishman stumbled towards his attacker and managed to heave himself into the smaller man, hoping to knock him off balance too.  The red oni was not so easily defeated.  He deftly sidestepped the attack and used it as an opportunity to loop the chain around Murphy’s neck.  The move pulled their faces so close together that Murphy could see the human eyes hidden behind the intimidating mask.  The masked man snarled menacingly.  Murphy responded by unceremoniously shooting him twice in the stomach.

 

The black oni was on him in a flurry of stabs and kicks before he even had time to untangle himself from the chain.  Murphy ducked the first assault and shrugged out of the chain, dropping his pistol in the process.  He came up in a boxer’s stance and squared off with the third opponent.  He stepped back to gain some ground, nearly tripping over the green oni, who lay bleeding on the street and groaning weakly.  He grabbed the dropped sword, then scrambled backward again to avoid a rain of blows.

 

They squared off again, jabbing and feinting to test each other.  Sword play was not Murphy’s strong suit, and the way the man in the black oni mask moved suggested that he had been born to it.  The masked man maneuvered Murphy about, keeping him on the defensive.  Recognizing that he was doomed to lose the contest, Murphy did the least conventional thing he could think of.  He threw his sword at his opponent, and stepped in behind it with a haymaker to the side of his head.  His gamble worked better than he had hoped.  The blow knocked the masked man right off his feet.  Murphy was pretty sure he’d just broken two fingers on the mask, but he’d worry about it later.  He scrambled gracelessly for his gun and picked it up awkwardly in his off hand.  The black oni hopped to his feet with practiced grace and crouched in an aggressive stance.

 

“Look mate,” Murphy said, staggering slightly and aiming at his last opponent, “We can walk away from this.  It doesn’t have to…”

 

The man in the mask launched himself, weapons leading, at Murphy.  Even with his unsteady off hand it was impossible to miss from five feet away.  The shot shattered the mask and the face behind it, and dropped the man like a sack of meat.  Murphy looked at the carnage around him - two dead and one probably not far from it.  He didn’t see a single face in any window or door, but he was dead certain everyone on the block had seen every beat of what had just transpired.  He hobble-ran down the street as fast as his battered body would take him, praying he would make it out of Little Kingdom alive.

 

*                       *                       *

 

“Careful with that, you klutz,” Gordani hollered from the forecastle, “You drop that case of rum and they’re liable to just shoot you when we get to Bishop’s Creek.”

 

Murphy slowed down and carefully deposited the crate in the hold.  He was distracted, he had to admit.  He was adjusting pretty well to life in Malifaux.  Gordani was a good boss, and the work was steady and not too hard.  It was a damn sight better than the American privateer he’d been working for back on Earth.  Still, his thoughts kept circling back to Julia.  His beloved wife was not thriving.  She was plagued by nightmares, and despite her protests that she was fine he could tell they were taking a toll on her waking hours as well.  She had not wanted to come here, but in his enthusiasm he had allowed himself to only hear what he wanted to.  Now they were stuck here for all intents and purposes.  Even with Gordani’s generous salary it would be months before they could afford tickets back Earthside, assuming they could actually get any.  He had wracked his brain for anything that might make it a little more bearable for her to be here.

 

“Hey,” he said, sauntering up to the foredeck, “How’d it be if I dragged Julia out for a jaunt?  We’re heading to Latigo and on to Waterdown next week.  It be a problem to take on an extra passenger?  I think she could use a little getting out.”

 

Gordani snorted and shrugged, “If you think floating through a foul swamp filled with gators and gremlins on the way to the least popular posting this side of the Breach is going to lift her spirits, she’s welcome.”

 

“Can’t hurt,” Murphy said, then trying to muster a little more enthusiasm added, “It’ll be a grand adventure.”

 

*                       *                       *

Murphy ran like the devil was at his heels.  The devil or a bunch of angry ninjas.  He didn’t stop running until he stumbled into the open easement of the railway line.  He skidded to a halt in the gravel and detritus, stumbled to his battered knees and dry heaved several times.  He was dizzy and barely able to control his breathing.  It took several minutes before he could focus in any meaningful way.  When he did, he found himself being stared at by a scruffy looking vagrant.

 

“Tough day?” the man asked amiably.

 

Murphy chuckled weakly, wincing.  He was a sorry sight - bloody in several spots, drenched in sweat, his broken hand swelling like a red balloon.  He nodded, “Tough day.”

 

“Ya look like ya need a drink.”  The old codger offered a bottle wrapped in a paper bag.  Murphy gratefully accepted and took a swig, coughing as the sour liquor burned its way down his throat.

 

“Thanks,” he wheezed.

 

“If ya don’t mind me sayin, ya look like shit.”  The vagrant reclaimed the bottle and took a swig.

 

“My dad always used to say ‘some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statue.’” Murphy said, looking down at the hammer tattoo that represented his father, “Today’s a statue day.”

 

“Fair nuff.”

 

“Listen friend, I’m trying to get across the bridge.  When’s the train roll through?”

 

“You plannin to walk ‘cross the train bridge?  No wonder you’re havin such a bad day.  You got no sense!  Nobody walks ‘cross.  Them rams got it guarded day ‘n night.  Can’t even take a piss off the abutment without getting a rifle butt in the eye.  They don’t like folk like me down there, an I’m damn sure they’d take a keen interest in the likes of you.”

 

Murphy sighed.  He looked at his compass tattoo again, though he had to wipe away some blood and dirt to see it clearly. 

 

“You know that don’t tell directions, right?” the old vagrant joked.

 

“My wife used to tell me the same thing,” Murphy said with a sad smile.

 

“Hope she was prettier than me.”

 

“Pretty as a rose.”

 

“You’re a lucky lad.”

 

“I’m going to see her today,” Murphy didn’t know why he was still talking to this smelly hobo, “That’s what this is all for.  Makes it all worthwhile.”

 

“Lucky lady.”

 

“Better than I deserve.”
 

“Probably.”

 

“Listen, and I mean this in the least weird way possible,” Murphy asked, “but would you be willing to trade clothes with me?”

 

The old man chuckled, “Oh it’s a statue day for sure, boyo.  You doin this for true love, right?”

 

Murphy nodded, “Always.”

 

“Well, who’m I to argue with that?”  With a shrug he started peeling his grimy clothes off into a pile.  Murphy looked around to make sure no one was watching, then followed suit. 

 

“Thanks friend,” Murphy said earnestly, standing and patting the old man appreciatively on the shoulder. 

 

“Keep your head down, son,” the old man called as Murphy, now looking and smelling like a proper slum denizen, crossed the tracks and trudged back into the labyrinth of streets.

 

*                       *                       *

 

“I don’t know,” Julia said, smoothing the front of her dress and staring out at the street, “I’ve got a bad feeling about it.”

 

“You said yourself you just needed some time to adjust, to find your feet,” Murphy gently pushed, “Well, maybe a change of scenery will help.  I mean, it ain’t County Antrim by a long stretch, but the bayou’s got a certain charm if you squint just right.  Besides, you know what your ma always said - sometimes a change is as good as a rest.  It’s two days down and three back.  Latigo, Waterdown, and back.  Just don’t be getting any notions of running off with one of those Latigo pistoleros.  I’d take that kind of hard,” he joked lamely, trying to lighten the mood.

 

Julia sighed and looked out the window. The street lamps were just being lit.  The lamplighter paused and looked up at her standing in her window.  She thought there was something sinister about his look.  His face was shadowed by his cap, but she swore his eyes reflected the light like a cat’s.  She shivered and looked away.  When she looked back he had moved on down the street, lighting lamps and looking perfectly normal.  Maybe he was right, she thought, maybe a change of scenery would do her good.  It couldn’t be any worse than this dreadful city with its sooty black bricks and long shadows.  Clasping her hands so they wouldn’t shake, she nodded.  “Perhaps you’re right.  A couple of days.  What harm could there be?”

 

*                       *                       *

 

Captain Farro and his two remaining men searched the crowd.  The criminal was on the run and needed to get out of the city, and there were only so many ways to do that.  The bridge created a chokepoint that he could control.  Let the bastard try to sneak past. Let the bloody terrorists try to get the drop on him again.  He was determined to catch this filth and earn the Secretary’s good grace.  He would present his head on a platter.  Literally, if possible.

 

Looking dispirited and downtrodden didn’t take much acting for Murphy as he shuffled along in the steady trickle of foot traffic heading for the bridge.  He peeked under the limp edge of his battered hat as he approached the crossing.  Sure enough, he spotted uniformed guardsmen in the middle of the bridge hassling people, checking papers, and scrutinizing peoples’ belongings.  There were only three of them, but that was more bodies than he had bullets in his gun.  Seeing no other option but to trust fate, he shuffled on and tried to look as pathetic and unappetizing as possible.

 

The captain barked orders at his two lackeys, directing who to question and who to let go.  He eyed every man that came close, and some of the more robust women too.  He didn’t know what tricks this Irish character might have up his sleeve, but if he was in league with the Arcanists, then anything was possible. 

 

A shambling vagrant caught his eye.  His clothes were tatty and caked with dirt, and he limped along as one with the weight of the world on him.  Still, there was something about him that felt wrong to Farro’s suspicious eye.  “Rackam,” he called, “That one, in the hat.  Bring him here.”

 

The guardsman, Rackam, dutifully moved to intercept but stopped to look when shouts and screams began at the north end of the bridge.  The steady shuffle of people became a surge as people fled something.  He had to stand his ground as people fled past him.  He drew his pistol and craned his neck in an attempt to see what was causing the commotion.  The filthy vagrant was forgotten when he caught sight of a stumbling figure in a garish green mask flanked by two men who appeared to be carrying bows and arrows.  He blinked twice to be sure he wasn’t hallucinating, but the strange trio remained.  The man in the mask had a bloody sword in one hand, and clutched his bloody belly with the other.

 

“Halt!” Captain Farro shouted, “By order of the Governor-General, I command you to stand down.”  When they did not acknowledge him he added, “Failure to comply will be met with force.”

 

In response the two archers drew arrows and shot at him, forcing him to duck behind an unfortunate woman who was trying to flee.  She collapsed to the bridge deck with two arrows protruding from her back.  Farro and his guardsmen returned fire, but had to duck as another hail of arrows flew at them.  It occurred to Captain Farro, as several arrows landed among the fleeing crowd, that they were not the only targets. 

 

He had no time to ponder the meaning of that observation as the wounded maniac in the green oni mask bore down on him with sword raised high.  The captain stood resolute and calm, aimed carefully and fired.  The charging swordsman’s neck erupted in a gout of blood as he crumpled. 

 

The two archers continued to fire arrows at an astonishing rate.  One guardsman was pierced by three arrows before he fell to his knees.  For a fleeting moment Farro marveled that technology had moved past the bow and arrow.  Rackam threw lead downrange as fast as possible, hoping to hit something.  He managed to take one of the archers in the arm, slowing his rate of fire.  The more disciplined captain lined up and shot the other in the dead center of the chest.  Another careful shot shattered the remaining archer’s shoulder.  Clearly now on the losing end, the archer hurled himself over the edge of the bridge into the dark water.

 

Captain Farro looked around at the brutal scene.  One dead guardsman, two dead attackers, four dead civilians.  Amid the bodies and carnage he spotted a tattered wide-brimmed hat and a filthy brown coat laying discarded on the ground.  His face turned beet red and a vein pulsed on his forehead. 

 

“Dogs,” he said to his remaining henchman, “Send for the dogs.”

 

*                       *                       *

 

Julia had never been much for guns, but Murphy had been teaching her to shoot as they floated lazily downriver.  She was excited when she managed to wing a wild pig they’d spotted rooting around near the shoreline.  It had bolted off into the bush, and so she found herself and Murphy scrambling through the most inhospitable terrain imaginable following a trail of blood. 

 

“Bloody hell,” Murphy said as they ducked under a thick vine, “Would have been more considerate of him to just tip over where he was, not make us chase him halfway to nowhere.”

 

“Well, you did say you wanted me to get out and see the world,” Julia quipped to cover her fear.  The swamp was like something out of a half-remembered nightmare.  Her heart pounded, and it wasn’t all from exertion.

 

Murphy stopped suddenly and put a firmly cautioning hand on Julia’s arm.  His eyes were fixed straight ahead.  “Don’t.  Move.”

 

Julia froze.  She followed his eyes and found another pair of eyes looking back at them.  They were small, beady and yellow, and set in a narrow, chinless green face under a battered straw hat.  The little gremlin had a crude rifle pointed at Murphy.  Julia looked all around them now, noticing a half dozen other gremlins lurking in the trees.  Their green skin and dirty clothes blended remarkably well with their surroundings. 

 

“Okay… Ooookay,” Murphy said slowly, “Let’s all not do anything rash.”

 

There was a flurry of incomprehensible chatter and debate among the gremlins before one spoke up in a squeaky voice, “Yous gone done fer wit on’em hawgs!  Sur’n Speet figrin fer pay it back.”

 

“Right.  Hogs, payback.” Murphy tried to sift a little meaning out of the babble, “Fair enough.  Let me just…”  He was reaching into his pocket when one of the gremlins’ muskets went off into the air.  The owner of the gun was as startled as everyone else, but the damage was done.  Murphy and Julia both raised their rifles and fired at the first green creature they saw.  The mob of gremlins all started blasting away with abandon at the humans, at each other, and in some cases straight up into the trees. 

 

When the smoke cleared and silence descended the gremlins were all fleeing or dead, whether by mishap or design.  Julia lay in a heap with dark blood welling through her clasped hands over her stomach.  Murphy threw down his gun and knelt beside her.  He cradled her and stroked her hair.

 

"You’re going to be fine, love,” he said, “No worse than a bayou mosquito bite.”

 

“Some mosquito,” she replied weakly.

 

“You’ll be okay,” he said without much conviction, then looked around desperately at the all-encompassing greenery.  “Help!  HELP!”

 

*                       *                       *

 

At last Murphy limped down to the marina.  He had wrenched his already wounded knee in the flight from the bridge.  Despite his fatigue and pain he still thanked his Irish luck for the timely distraction by the masked lunatic and his friends.  He hobbled down to the pier where the Golden Ticket was moored.  He was almost home free.

 

“Ahoy Gordo,” he called as he hobbled aboard, “Wake up you old sod!”  He stopped dead when his foot slipped on a spot of blood.  He clumsily pulled his gun from the waist of his hobo pants with his unmangled left hand and looked around warily.  “Gordo?”

 

“Not to worry, chum.  Mr. Gordani’s quite safe for the moment,” said a voice behind him on the dock.  He turned to see a tall gentleman in green designer coattails stepping off the boat berthed across from the Golden Ticket, “However, if you would like for him to remain so, then perhaps you’d best hand over that bag of yours.”

 

“Not that I doubt you, but…” Murphy said, “Well, no, actually I just doubt you.”

 

Reginald whistled sharply.  There was scuffling up on the bridge as Theo and Garrett appeared holding a bloodied and bound Gordani at the top of the ladder.  The burly boatman struggled against the two wastrels who held him.  Garret held a boarding axe with the spike pressed against his hostage’s thick neck.

 

“Now, I propose a simple exchange,” Reginald said from the dock, dexterously flipping a wickedly sharp looking knife up in the air and catching it without breaking eye contact with Murphy, “You very gently hand your bag over to me, and my friends leave your friend with all his parts where he likes them.  As an alternative we could simply kill the both of you, take your bag, and toss you in the drink.”  He pulled out a gold pocket watch on a chain, “I think thirty seconds ought to be adequate time to ponder your options.”

 

Murphy looked up at Gordani, who looked mad enough to bite his captors’ heads off with his bare teeth.  He looked at the three thugs, all smugly confident and enjoying their little game.  He looked at his gun with its two bullets, held so awkwardly in his off hand.  They had every advantage.  Then he looked past the ringleader and spotted two people striding towards their little standoff.  Suddenly he wasn’t sure if he should curse or kiss his four leaf clover tatoo.  One way or the other, Fate was really having a field day today. 

 

Ogden Cross strode down the ramp onto the pier with grim purposefulness.  Callie hurried awkwardly along behind him,  taking small steps and trying not to get her fancy heels caught between the boards. 

 

Reginald followed Murphy’s suddenly intent gaze and cursed rather colorfully.  He quickly glanced up at his companions, “Gut him!” he shouted.

 

Before Garrett could even move his axe, the gunsmith’s gleaming pistols flew out from under his poncho.  Two deafening blasts shattered the tense scene.  Garrett and Theo’s heads simultaneously disappeared in a spray of red mist and brain matter.  Gordani, suddenly released by the collapsing bodies, fell on his rump in a pool of gushing blood.

 

Reginald spun to face the new assailant.  He flung his knife at the approaching gunsmith with uncanny accuracy.  Ogden managed to dodge at the last second.  The blade spun past him and planted itself deep in Callie’s midsection.  She shrieked in sudden pain and doubled over.  Murphy charged at Reginald, smashing his heavy revolver into his temple and shoving him across the unstable dock.  He swung again and again with clumsy fury, hammering down blow after blow on the once-smug ringleader.  With one last shove he launched Reginald, fancy coat and all, into the dark water of the Fortune River. 

 

Ogden crouched protectively over Callie, trying to calm the near-hysterical woman.  He looked up over his shoulder to see Murphy cutting the mooring lines and shoving the Golden Ticket out of its berth.  He half-heartedly leveled a gun at the escaping Irishman but then just scowled and turned back to his injured friend.

 

Murphy let the boat drift a little as he hastily got the engine fired up.  In short order Gordani was untied and guiding the Golden Ticket down the river toward the bayou.

 

*                       *                       *

 

Murphy cradled Julia in his arms, rocking her gently.  He alternated between offering empty soothing words of reassurance and hollering impotently for help as she grew paler and paler.

 

“It’s okay,” Julia whispered, placing a shaking hand lovingly on his chest, over his rose tattoo, “What are the Murphy words?”

 

“Sacrifice and Bravery,” he replied.

 

“That’s right,” she said, her voice fading away, “You just have to be brave…”

 

Murphy screamed one last time for help before wrapping her in a tight hug, determined to hold her to the last.

 

“My, what a racket,” came a creaking voice from behind him, “Well now, you do seem to have got yourselves into a pickle.”

 

Murphy’s head whipped around to stare agog at the unexpected visitor.  She was old beyond the telling, stooped and wrinkled.  She wore a rough spun dress and open-toed sandals that seemed wholly inappropriate for the swamp.  Fetishes festooned her belt and a little straw doll dangled from the top of her gnarled walking staff.

 

“Please,” he blurted, “she’s dying.  You’ve got to help her.  Please.”

 

“My dear boy, what makes you think I can help this poor young lady?” the crone asked cagily.  The faintest hint of a grin crinkled the corners of her mouth.

 

“You’re… you’re the swamp hag, aren’t you?” he replied, “I’ve heard the stories.  They say you can cheat fate.”

 

“Is that what they say?” she gave a short cackle, “Well, supposing I can do the things the stories say.  Why should I do them for you?”

 

“Please, save her,” Murphy begged, “I’ll do anything.  Anything.”

 

*                       *                       *

 

“Are you absolutely sure about this?” Gordani asked as he killed the engine.  They were deep in the bayou.  Drooping, mossy trees obscured vision beyond a few feet on the shore.  It was familiar territory.  All too familiar. 

 

Murphy was resolute.  His one good eye gleamed with determination.  His other had swollen shut.  “She’s out there, Gordo, waiting for me.  I’ll find her.”

 

“It ain’t right,” Gordani muttered as much to himself as to his friend, but he nodded nonetheless.

 

“Just don’t float off without me,” Murphy said as he lowered a flat-bottomed skiff into the muddy water, “I’ll be back before dark.”

 

“Better be.” Gordan replied, settling in to a seat on the open bridge with a high-powered rifle in his lap and a clear view of the swamp in all directions. 

 

Murphy gingerly eased himself into the skiff and paddled to shore.  The peat was squishy under his feet when he stepped onto land.  It squelched and oozed brackish water around his boots with every step.  He hiked deeper and deeper into the swamp, guided by muddled memories and blind hope.  Mosquitoes nearly the size of dragonflies hovered just outside of swatting range, waiting for a moment of weakness to feed.  Tangled foliage grasped and tugged at him, seeming to impede his progress with almost collective malice.  Every muscle and bone in his body ached from the morning’s mad flight, but he persevered.  He had no other choice.

 

He had lost track of how long he had been walking when he heard the first thundering report from Gordani’s massive rifle.  Murphy paused to listen.  There was another shot, then a flurry of shots from smaller weapons.  Then silence.  Murphy tried not to think about what that meant.  He trudged on, determined to reach his destination come hell or high water.  He stopped a second time a few minutes later when a loud horn blast cut through the oppressive air.  The baying of hounds followed.  Cursing, Murphy limped faster.  He needed to reach her.

 

At last he stumbled into a small clearer patch in the swamp, as though the rest of the vegetation had shied away from the huge rose bush that bloomed in the middle of the patch.  Murphy, nearly delirious, collapsed to his knees in front of the bush.

 

“I’m here, love.” He panted, “I’m here.  I’m here.  I’ve brought it.”

 

The branches began to twist and writhe.  From the center of the bush rose a vaguely human shape.  She was naked but for the vines and leaves that sinuously climbed her body.  Below her waist her human flesh blended into stalks and roots.  Her eyes were the blood red of the roses themselves, but they looked at Murphy with tenderness and she smiled wistfully.

 

“I told you I’d come back,” he said, looking into her alien eyes with unabashed love.  “I got what the witch wanted.” 

 

He fumbled the satchel open and pulled out a pink and white miniature carousel.  He held it up like an offering.  The rose-woman took it reverently in both hands and drew it to where a space opened deep in her roots.  Murphy never took his eyes off her mostly-human face.  Hot tears ran down his cheeks and mingled with his sweat.

 

“Are you okay?” Murphy stood and stepped as close as he could to her without stepping on any of the branches, “Do you hurt?  Is it okay?” He tentatively placed a shaking hand on her face. 

 

The rose-woman smiled wordlessly.  A red tear streaked down her face as she reached out with a vine-laced hand, the fingertips ending in delicate new branches, and touched the rose tattoo on his chest.

 

Rose Tattoo (Storied Songs) - Haunter - March 2017.docx

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WDeseron   

Every Rose Has Its Thorns


Murder is big business in Malifaux. It's even comes in such a wide variety of heinous acts and suspects that it wasn't even news worthy most days. This was my second murder of the day and it wasn't even lunch. I took a drag on a cigarette, letting the smoke fill my lungs.

"Foster. You're never going to smell the clues if you keep fuming the place up." Lt. Piter was young for an officer. He was honest too, which made him a unicorn breachside. We'd been together for a couple of years now. Same unit when the breach reopened. First ones through. Now we were both investigators. Piter was married to the Guild. I preferred to see other people. It was starting to show. Piter was dressed immaculately. The very portrait of an officer and a gentleman. I, on the other hand, slept in these clothes last night, and maybe the night before too. I ran a hand through my dark hair, suddenly self conscious.

"That's why I started. I don't lose my breakfast nearly as often if I can't smell the crime scene."

"Maybe I should take it up so I don't have to smell you." He almost smirked. It was nice to see him crack a joke again despite the victim's home being so depressing. Even by the slum's standard. The little house never saw sunlight living in the shadow of the buildings on either side. The yellow light from the kerosene lantern pushed futilely against the shadows. The corpse in the center of the room wasn't in pieces so that marked the majority of Neverborn off the list. Always a positive start to a murder investigation. The man was in his fifties. His skin was tan and leathery. I picked up his hand, examining it. Hands can tell you a lot about a person. The calluses indicated a life of manual labor. He had enough scars to get his money's worth from a palm reader. His nails were too dirty to tell if he'd fought back. McMourning should be able to tell us more after the autopsy. Doc practically spoke with the dead. The thing I figured he'd notice first was the deceased's face, or should I say lack of one. It had been cleanly removed leaving a mess of red muscle and ligaments. It looked more like my Friday night steak than I cared to think about. Piter started giving me a summary of the case.

"Leroy Strauss. Guardsman Sims says the neighbors confirmed he lived here alone with his son. He was a sailor on a fishing trolley. Retired. His son runs a tavern next door. They've had a bad run lately, but they were nice enough."

"Bad enough for someone to remove his face? I've seen some loan sharks send a message, but this would be a damn right riddle." I blew a smoke ring introspectively. "I'd put my money on a Ressurectionist or some of the more cunning Neverborn. Either way we'll probably wind up handing this over to the elite division." Case opened. Case closed. Piter shook his head.

"Not until we know who to refer it out to. It could just be a kook. Stranger things have happened."

"We're never that lucky. Besides. In Malifaux bad things are all that ever happen."


The hand yawned and languidly reached for the seven. A gear took off on its morning jog completing a circuit around the aethervox. The announcer was in the middle of a story about Arcanist terrorists, and their latest crimes against the poor and downtrodden. I blindly felt around the night stand for the ashtray. My fingers traced the length of the butts until they found one longer than the others. The box of lucifers was more adept at hiding. I slung the pillow off my face with a grunt. I lost my balance reaching under the bed. A fall, a thud and a few moments later I was puffing the last breaths of a cigarette. I rinsed my mouth with a bottle of whiskey, and started getting ready for work. I might even eat breakfast today.


Another faceless body. Literally just around the corner from the old man's house. This time a lady of the evening in a back alley behind some godforsaken bar. The Painted Swine? Where do they get the names for these places? Piter was hovering over the body. He glanced up when he saw me walk through the line of guardsman. I nodded at Sims. He was honestly the only one of the bunch I could ever remember the name of. I knelt down next to Piter so we wouldn't be overheard. It wouldn't be the first time a story was leaked in the Undercity Chronicle. She might have been cute with her long blonde hair. Honestly hard to say with the face missing. World's oldest profession Earthside, deadliest profession breachside.

"Two makes the start of something. Small area too. Maybe something marking its territory," Piter said in a hushed tone.

"Sounds like someone, or something, has a hobby. Who found her? "

"Morning patrol. I've got a sketch artist coming in. We might be able to get a composite from the locals. A name if we're lucky. If she used her real one. Going to be difficult to pull a Guild record on this one."

"Is this tavern the one that belongs to the old man's son from yesterday?"

"His name is Daniel."

"We send Sims to get Daniel's statement?"

"That seems like something that you might find on your desk... at the office... where we keep the records. You know. That place you work, but only ever come in to get your pay." Piter's face turned red in frustration. Finally he sighed. "He didn't know anything. Swore they didn't have enemies and mostly kept to themselves. Sims said he was a timid fellow. Didn't look like he could hurt a fly. Claims he left home early that morning to take inventory."

"We should talk to him ourselves. Could just be a coincidence, but let's be honest there aren't any coincidences." Piter had a right to be frustrated. I knew I was walking a line. Well I had been walking a line. Lately I was so far on the other side of the line I'd need a compass and a map to get back. He'd probably been covering for me with the captain. I should do something soon. I don't want to drag his career down with mine. Thing is when you see something like this poor woman almost every day it eats a piece of your soul. It wasn't that I didn't care. I just preferred to be comfortably numb with a bottle to get through the day. Hell it was the only way I could. I needed to focus. Get my head back in the game. Deal with my personal short comings later. "McMourning find anything on the first body?"

"Cuts were started with a tool. Then pulled the rest of the way off by hand. He seemed surprised how cleanly the face had came off. It was such a rough job he said there should have been more tearing. I think we can forget about the rest of the Neverborn. He said the nail marks were probably human."

"So Kook or Ressurectionist. Let's go talk to the son. The sooner we can hand this over to the Death Marshalls the sooner we can get to the back log." Piter shook his head.

"I'm not done here. I'm going to concentrate on figuring out who she is. She deserves that. Someone out there deserves to know what happened to her. The Death Marshalls aren't going to take that burden." I nodded, dusted myself off and turned to go.

"Foster?" He paused. "I don't need to send someone with you do I?" The question hung heavy in the air.

"I'll be fine." I think we both knew I wouldn't.


A miner came crashing out of the tavern door.

"And stay out until you have money!" The bouncer, or waitress, flashed me a smile and held the door open. It was really more of a lopsided grin. She was a large woman. She had to be to throw an M&SU man around like a rag doll. Frankly I was pretty sure she could take me in a fight, and I didn't want to find out.

"Ma'am..."

"It's Brenda," she interjected.

"Brenda, if you don't mind stepping outside I'd like to ask you a few questions."I could at least make an attempt of being professional. She looked over her shoulder into the bar, shrugged, and joined me outside.

"What can I help a fine gent of the guard with?" I really didn't think she thought that highly of me. I ran through the standard questions to warm her up before cutting to the meat of the matter.

"How was the relationship between Daniel and his father?"

"I'm not one to speak ill of the dead... or my employer." Her chin lifted defiantly. Loyalty. I could respect that.

"It's okay, Brenda. These are just standard questions. We just have to clear him before moving onto the next suspect." I gave her my best disarming smile.

"Daniel's father was a good man. He raised the boy by himself after his wife died in childbirth. He was a bit stern. A little too generous with the switch if you take my meaning." There was a flicker of doubt in her eyes. I needed to dig deeper into that.

"That had to be ten or more years ago. Does Daniel ever talk about it?"

"Begging your pardon, sir. He, Mr. Strauss, never really considered Daniel an adult. Any child of mine under my roof and all that. There've been times Daniel opened the tavern with a bruise or two. Never mentioned it though, and I didn't pry, but Mr. Strauss came in from time to time for a drink. I saw it once when I went downstairs for a new keg. He was giving Daniel what for in the storeroom." The fact that she carried a keg by herself did not surprise me at all.

"Why didn't Daniel just stay here in the tavern?"

"Mr. Strauss gave him the money for the tavern. I'm not sure either one ever really felt like it was Daniel's to do with as he pleased. He didn't run things directly, but one could tell some of things around here were more his idea." She shrugged, looking sullen. I think the conversation had made her reconsider the Strauss family a little closer.

"Did either of you know a blonde belle that worked this street? Did anyone hear any kind of commotion last night?"

"Not really. We had some miners in. They were so loud I couldn't hear my own thoughts half the time. Belles come and go. I've seen more than I can count come in here with a date. Some you get to know, but usually they move on after a few weeks. I didn't see any last night. Generally they start work after I do, and quit before I get out."

"Is Daniel in?" She opened the door and motioned me inside. This time the lopsided grin was replaced with a sad thoughtful look.

If I had to describe Daniel in a single word it would be weasel. He had squinty eyes, a pencil mustache, and wore his hair parted down the middle. I immediately hated him. I'm not a perfect person. I know that, but there was just something about him beyond how he looked that just grated on my being. The bar on the other hand had a certain charm to it. There was a lot of dark wood, and a stone floor. It had ambience. It was also empty. There weren't a lot of bottles behind the counter. That might explain why they were having such a hard time of it.

"Get you a drink, sir?" He had a high and nasally voice. I shuddered suddenly positive I knew where the real lack of business stemmed from. Surely one drink wouldn't hurt though. Right? Might open him up to conversation a bit. I ordered a whiskey. Then another.


I woke up at home in a pool of drool, and something not drool. Ugh. I vaguely remembered drinking songs with Brenda and a few miners. I didn't remember getting anything from the weasel. I really needed to get a hold of myself. Of course I thought this to myself while I cleaned my mouth with the last of my whiskey. There still weren't enough pieces on the board to bring someone in. I needed to catch up with Piter and see if he'd found anything. First I was going to find a bath, and some clean clothes. Well.. less soiled clothes.


Sims. Damn. Victim number three. He was a good kid. I thought the case had gone cold the past couple of days. There hadn't been enough in the belle's, Mildred's, Guild record to lead us anywhere, and no one was admitting they knew her to Piter's boy scouts. The killer was getting bolder murdering a guardsman. Sims had pulled night patrol in the slums this week. He'd probably ran afoul of a moody sergeant. It had gotten him killed. He was only a couple of streets over from our other two crime scenes. Piter looked like he was taking it hard. His jaw was clenched. His brow was in rebellion against his usual stoicism. He nodded at me.

"There was a witness this time." He said quietly.

"Good. We need a break in this case. Especially for Sims. They're not getting away with this."

"I'm not sure how much it's going to help. Witness was drunk in the gutter. There was a woman's cry for help from the alley. He saw a guardsman rush in. It was too dark for him to see, but he could hear a scuffle punctuated by a groan. He assumed it was Sims discharging his duty. Then a pretty blonde belle walked out of the alleyway. Her hands were covered in blood and she was carrying Sims' face."

"Did he give us a description?"

" Yeah. He was deep in his cups, but he still gave us a description that sounded eerily like our second victim. I brought in a sketch artist. Different one this time. I wanted to make sure what I suspected wasn't just the artist reading into the situation. It looked so much like the other sketch I called McMourning to make sure she was still in the morgue. The good news is she's still dead... That's a phrase you can only say in Malifaux. Sounds like the murderer was not only wearing her face, but the exact clothes we found the her in. He did notice a rose tattoo on her left arm. McMourning said the victim didn't have any markings. That might be something to look into."

"Isn't it time to hand this one over to the Death Marshalls? This is getting above our pay grade. We know it's not just a kook now." Piter balled up his fists.

"He was one of ours. I'm not handing this over. Not yet," he all, but yelled at me. I held my hands up defensively. I could see the war behind his eyes. He was torn between loyalty to his men, and to Guild protocol. I used my best conflict resolution voice.

"Why don't we take 48 hours to wrap up our leads? That way we can hand over the case file with all the usual, mundane leg work completed. We'd be doing them a disservice if we handed it over otherwise." Piter's shoulders visibly sagged, and he let out a held breath. "Let me have the first sketch. I'll see if I can hunt down any of the other belles that know her. Maybe someone was jealous and used magic to get even. You follow your lead on the rose tattoo. Maybe have the men see where those clothes are sold. We'll meet back here tomorrow evening to debrief." He waved for me to leave. The gesture felt like there was a weight of finality to it.


It was dark when I met up with Piter. I was only fifteen minutes late. Personal best for me this month. "How do I know you're you?" Piter asked. It was a genuine question all things considering.

"Who would want a face like this?" I snorted.

"That's a good point, Foster." There was a touch of humor in his voice. He mostly sounded tired though.

" I think we've got our man." I quickly recounted the story some belles had told me over drinks the night before. "Seems young Strauss had a crush on a certain Mildred. Despite her profession she politely declined his advances. Guess he didn't listen. He started following her. Scared off some of her business. She had to get an acquaintance of the primitive type to give him a more firm understanding to leave her be."

Piter scratched his beard.

"Nothing spoils a temper like money problems. or family issues. Rejection from the fairer sex... Daniel definitely has motive for the first two victims."

"Sims interviewed him, and came away with a poor opinion. Maybe Daniel took offense at something he said." That was a reach for me, but damn it I just had a hunch about that guy. Even after drinking all night in his tavern I still didn't have an inkling of positivity for the man, and that was not usual for me. I can always find common ground between a drink and another man.

"He's definitely the one factor in common that stands out. Let's see about bringing him in." Piter was determined to do right by Sims. The tavern was closer than calling the Death Marshalls. It wasn't against protocol if the suspect was a flight risk. I don't think so anyway. Regardless I wasn't going to take this away from him. If we made the collar the worse that was going to happen would be another promotion for him. I knew there was a captain's slot opening up in Ridley. Whether Piter looked for the opportunity or not they seemed to find him, and water cooler gossip, which I got from the bar, from a guy that actually went in to the water cooler, was that he was their first choice. I wanted this for him. My days were numbered and I knew it. I wanted to see him out of the rank and file before I went. Just one more for the road.


We walked the two blocks to the Painted Swine in relative silence. We arrived just in time to see Sims, Not-Sims,  leaving the tavern. I shouted and yanked my collier from the holster, but Not-Sims was faster. He closed the gap before I could get the pistol up. The punch felt like a sledgehammer against my jaw. There was a moment as time seemed to slow, I felt my feet leave the ground and I floated in the air. Then the cobblestone ambushed me from behind. To add insult to injury there was a pebble prodding me in the lower back. Black spots flickered across my vision. My consciousness was trying to swim against the current, desperate for breath. I could see Not-Sims through the polka dots put his hands around Piter's throat. A manic look of glee lit his face up like a little girl, who just got a pony for her birthday, and now she was choking the pony... Did I mention my head hurt? My hand was shaking so bad the revolver couldn't get a bead on him. If I tried to shoot Not-Sims I might hit Piter so instead I aimed higher. The first shot went off wildly into the dark. The second struck the post holding the tavern sign above the door. Splinters showered the two men locked in combat. The wood cracked under its own weight. The heavy lumber swung downward against Not-Sim's head. Piter was thrown to the ground with him. I could hear him gasping for air. I had meant to do that. Actually I just thought it would break the two of them up, but that wasn't how I was going to retell this story later. I crawled towards Not-Sims, my head swimming too much to stand. When I was close enough to be sure I wasn't going to miss, as in six inches away, I unloaded the four remaining shots from the chamber into his chest.

"Stay dead. Damn it." I don't know what kind of mojo he's working. I just hope it's the kind where he can't come back from that.

Sim's face shriveled into a hideous looking mask. The guardsman uniform dissolved into dust. Piter pushed himself off the ground. That was just the stuff of legends to me right now. The ground and I were dear lovers never to be parted. I may have heroically threw up a little.

"Are you alright?" His voice had a raspy quality to it. The ladies were going to love that.

"My head feels like a soccer ball after a match using Queensberry rules."

"Good. For a second I thought you might be hurt." Piter stumbled over to the now much thinner and less muscular corpse. He reached out and pealed Sim's face back. It was Daniel Strauss alright. There was an irony to him being taken out by his own bar sign. It made me laugh a little.

"Hey, Piter?"

"Yeah, Ben?" The formality had slipped from his voice. I couldn't remember the last time he used my first name.

"How much do you think a place like this costs? Market should be good. I heard the owner wasn't around anymore. I've been thinking of retiring, and I'd like to not have to move anymore tonight." He shook his head in exasperation.


The embalmer prepped the body for entombment. He didn't mind the macabre chores of his occupation. It was usually quiet and gave him time to think. He paused, turning toward the parlor door. He thought he'd heard an indiscernible whisper. He returned to his work, clearly mistaken. As he started removing the blood soaked shirt he heard it again. This time it was closer. This time he could almost make out what it said, but there was still no one else here besides him. Fear gripped him, but so too did curiosity. He pulled the shirt free letting it fall with a wet slapping sound against the floor. The whispering intensified. He understood perfectly now. The rose tattoo on the bartender's forearm was speaking to him. He traced it with his finger. The thorny stem reached up from the corpse and wrapped around his finger. The rose tore itself free as the stem dragged it across the embalmer's arm. As he stared with awe and reverance, the rose bloomed. The petals spread open to reveal the face's of  its sacrifices: mothers, fathers, children, lovers, strangers, friends. It whispered arcane secrets in his ear. He knew. The most powerful things in this world are nameless, faceless things unconstrained by labels or definitions. He could become forgotten. He could gain the power of the unknown. The rose would show him how...

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Auswin   

Life, afterlife.

 

Her eyes sprung open without blinking. The world immediately came  into focus. Light seeped through the ornate windows, as particles of dust waltzed in the errant sunbeams which somehow found a way to pierce the dense curtains. Three steps. It took three steps to walk from the bed to the window. With each came an overflow of anticipation. Perhaps there would be something different outside the walls; a new person, a new place -- a piece of unfamiliar landscaping or a hare -- anything. Imagination swirled with every step and hope renewed where it was unwarranted. The young woman pulled apart the velvet-like drapes and saw the same lawn as always, with the same trees and shrubs, as always.

Elizabeth McMillan was intelligent, inquisitive and utterly empty.

A stately home can become the cruelest prison to an inquisitive mind. This concept might seem ludicrous, but it was real to Elizabeth. Her days were occupied with nothing of consequence or interest. She’d stroll down to the lake in the hopes of seeing a tortoise, or read one of father’s books about Borneo or Saigon, but nothing more. Never anything more.

Elizabeth was a disappointment. Those were Lady McMillan’s words. The family’s matriarch was was far too censorious and craggy than her fifty-six years should give purchase. The mother of three had two children who found an acceptable place in high society -- Elizabeth had not. On the precipice of thirty, her middle child didn’t marry, had no suitors and seemed utterly disinterested in every opportunity the family presented her with. She lasted two weeks as a teacher at the preparatory school in town, just ten days as a research assistant and failed to make it until teatime after her father pulled considerable strings to have her learn the family business in one of the factories in their holdings.

“How many times must I tell you, Elizabeth,” he mother scowled, “You are not to come downstairs whilst my visitors are over.”

These “visitors” were friends -- but that didn’t sound formal enough for mother. They would gather in the drawing room every Wednesday to play cards and gossip, braying like prodded donkeys as soon as one would make a quip that contained little-to-no wit, and even less cleverness. Elizabeth had a stern warning she should never come downstairs during these visits. Her dinner would be delivered to her room and she would remain there until they left, but on this night she heard a rustle in the leaves below the window and thought it might be interesting so she walked outside, and through the drawing room as a result.

“I just don’t know what to do with you anymore, Elizabeth.” Her mother said pointedly. “There isn’t a day that goes by where I didn’t wish you were more like your brother or sister instead of -- you.”

Of course Elizabeth’s married older brother was sharing a bed with the pub owner’s daughter, which was never mentioned, and her sister spent most of her afternoons in an opium den -- this was never discussed either. They were married, that showed success and appearances were everything to Lady McMillan.

“We’ve given you every opportunity and you’ve hastily ruined them all.” Her mother continued. “You cannot keep living under this roof without finding something to occupy your time. It’s just not proper.”

Elizabeth pretended to listen to the ceaseless prattling and gave an air of interest to satiate her mother, but her mind was elsewhere. Plans began to permeate in her head and the promise of possibility fired synapses like tiny controlled fireworks. For the first time in a long while she was excited. The disappointing daughter who amounted to nothing was leaving, perhaps forever.

***

 

The old mahogany desk was more than the place father conducted business, it was his sanctuary. Immaculately organized, the only wear it showed was a small strip of worn away veneer near his chair where meticulously brushed varnish had disappeared from years of shuffling papers in precisely the same way for a decade. Elizabeth knew Lord McMillan would be in his office, just as he was every morning.

Once known simply as Edward McMillan, he was a self-made man of immense stature. From an early age he rebuked any offerings the family name and title gave him. He instead chose to make it on his own. Edward spent time in the Royal Navy, where he learned not only discipline but became worldly -- qualities he one day hoped to instill in his children. He took a wife upon returning, and Lady Jane Sinclair was his betrothed.

Long before she became the stern matriarch of the McMillans, Jane Sinclair shared Edward’s passion for the world. She painted, wrote poetry -- dabbled in a great many things that expanded her creatively. Though they differed in how they viewed their lot in life, the two shared enough commonality that they were prepared for running a household, or so it would seem. Shortly after marrying the now Lady Jane McMillan changed. She treated the family’s servants with disdain, her creativity evaporated, and soon so did the relationship between the couple. They did their duty and gave the family heirs, but their lives had become separate. Like ships passing in the night, Edward sank his energy into his work, while Jane clung to her title and filled that role classically. On paper the pair were together, but there was no passion for each other.

Though he’d never mention it, Edward was ashamed of what his family had become. His wife seemed only interested in ensuring the family moved in the right circles, two of his children followed their mother’s path -- far more interested in appearance that substance. There was a single beacon of hope. One person who brought Lord McMillan happiness -- Elizabeth. She inherited his spirit in a way the others didn’t, she hungered for life and experience and it didn’t matter to her if her pockets weren’t heavy with coin. Being around his daughter let Edward remember who he once was, as if he was staring into a reflecting pool and saw his younger self. Every moment with her made him happy, and precisely for this reason Edward would find himself devastated in a few seconds -- he just didn’t know it yet.

“Father, I need to leave.”

“Where are you off to today, dear? Walk into town? Trip to the woods?” he replied, taking a short puff on his pipe and only briefly glancing up from his newspaper.

“Father, I need to leave,” Elizabeth’s voice trembled ever so slightly, knowing that if she didn’t spit out the next words the courage would never fill her again.  “I need to go. For a while. Maybe forever.” The emotion creeping into her voice undermined Elizabeth’s confidence, but it wasn’t for worry of her father’s reaction, but rather the inescapable fear that she was disappointing him.

Lord McMillan put the paper down, let out a long sigh before wiping the newsprint off his fingers with a handkerchief, and folding it neatly back into a square. He was planning, thinking -- Elizabeth knew it. Her father had a tendency to mask his own nervousness with exactness, a trait he likely picked up in the Navy.

“What about Rhodesia? You uncle Benjamin is there. You could travel for the Summer, Elizabeth and return in time to come to Scotland with us in Autumn.”

“That’s not what I had in mind, father.”

“Or Australia. I know it’s far, but I have a few connections down there as well. It would take a long time by ship, but what an experience it would be.”

He was stalling. Elizabeth knew he was stalling. With each suggestion Lord McMillan’s voice trembled a little more, a characteristic nobody but she would have noticed. He knew what she was saying, he just didn’t want to admit. He didn’t want to admit it out loud, or to himself -- he didn’t want his daughter to confirm his greatest fear.

“I’m going through The Breach,” Elizabeth said matter of factly.  

Lord McMillan was an expert at hiding his emotion, it was one of his best and most devious skills -- but it was his eyes. His eyes never lied.  They widened, and for a brief moment his pupils dilated. From head to toe he remained a stoic vision, but those eyes were full of something Elizabeth never saw, fear. The pause felt like hours, cogs turned in the patriarch’s head as he tried to muster an answer to a horrific suggestion. It wasn’t often that Edward found himself at a loss for words, but this was one of those moments.

“You … you can’t,” he stated simply. His voice softer and more unsure than his daughter had ever heard.

This was an answer of resignation. The man knew there was nothing he could do to keep his daughter earthside. She was too strong-willed. It wasn’t until this moment that his admiration for his Elizabeth’s independence and character had turned to disdain. It wasn’t until her suggestion that he wished she was nothing like him, wished she was more like her siblings and content to indulge on what earth provided instead of wanting to see beyond the streets and cities. His mind continued to race, strategizing, looking for some sort of exit plan -- but Elizabeth cut the silence.

“I must father. Thank you for doing me the courtesy of lying about Malifaux and telling me it doesn’t exist. So many do, but you know that I have learned a great many things about your life, our family and those who travel through The Breach.”

“Yes,” Edward continued. “I know that you probably understand that I used to make many trips there. The family name provided opportunity, but we did not live as we do until recently -- until I oversaw the family business and began bringing soulstone from Malifaux.”

Elizabeth didn’t know this. She didn’t know her father had gone through The Breach. This realization stunned her, but she kept a straight face and simply nodded. To do otherwise would be a weakness her father could prey on, and twist into a justification why she shouldn’t go on her journey.

“You might know about that place, but you don’t know what that place is. The way it absorbs those who venture into it and swallows the inquisitive. I will lose you forever, either to the allure of that wretched place or something far worse, and for my own constitution I must believe the former.”

“Of course I’ll come back!” Elizabeth said earnestly, “One year abroad, then I’ll return. I’ll even apply what I learn over here. I just need something more in my life.”

Her father stood up and tugged at his waist coast. “There are only two types of people who willingly travel to Malifaux, Elizabeth. The desperate and the hopeless. My only regret is that you don’t see this and won’t understand it until it’s too late.”

“But father, don’t you see that I’m both?”

 

***

 

Elizabeth preferred to pack light. A habit that routinely infuriated her mother. She didn’t believe it was necessary to have a different set of clothes for every day of a trip, and abhorred toting finery. It was a constant point of contention whenever the family would stay at their summer house. Elizabeth didn’t fill any of the large steam trunks they would normally strap to their carriage in preparation for her trip to to leave for Malifaux, instead she selected a small, well-worn suitcase her father would use on overnight trips to London. It felt appropriate. Anything she didn’t have she could buy through the breach, and with that every outing would be a new adventure.

The morning Elizabeth set to leave was cold. Thick beads of due clung to blades of grass like passengers overboard on a ship, clinging to the mast for life. She loved these mornings and would often take a walk, to fill her lungs with air and appreciate the sensation of the droplets  on her ankles as she traipsed down to the lake. This morning, however, wasn’t to be lazily appreciated slowly -- there was a bigger goal in mind.

Life in the McMillan house had been decidedly different since Elizabeth announced to her father that she would be leaving. Her oft-surly mother failed at hiding her excitement. Her problem child would soon be out of her house, and it made her her sickeningly joyful. Her father, on the other hand, retreated from view like a recluse. Lord McMillan always gave the air that he was jovial, and consistently had an excuse as to why he was around less. It pained Elizabeth, though she didn’t show it. It hurt every time he left to hunt without asking her to join, as he customarily did -- and it was as if a dagger had been plunged into her heart when her father visited  town without her at his side. This was a special, private time for them and moments like these didn’t come up enough. It devastated her when he efficiently removed his hat from the shelf in the foyer and climbed in the carriage without saying goodbye.

The mood created a milieu where Elizabeth was more sure than ever that she was making the correct decision, and it fueled her to leave as soon as possible. It was mid-morning before she was finally ready to go, and she walked down the grand staircase to see her mother waiting, positively beaming that her festering wound was finally being cleansed.

“Darling,” she said in a genuine but unsettling manner, “Do take care of yourself, will you? You father and I will miss you ever so much, but I know you will have a wonderful adventure. In many ways I admire you, Elizabeth. Have fun.”

The words made Elizabeth’s skin crawl. They were so cold and clinical, as if Elizabeth was a visiting dignitary and not a member of the family. She quickly glanced around to lock eyes with her father, but he was nowhere to be found. Placing the suitcase in the middle of the floor, solely to be irksome to her mother, Elizabeth walked into his office where her father was parked, as always, at that worn mahogany desk.

“Well, I’m off.” Elizabeth bellowed, trying to push the stagnant air out of the room with her exuberance. “You are coming to the train station to see me off, aren’t you father?”

She already knew the answer.

“No, I don’t believe I will.” He said, barely looking up from his paper. Glancing up he saw right through his daughter’s cheery exterior and could tell how upset she was. “Elizabeth, I need you to understand something. I admire you so very much, and this trip you are taking has hurt me more than anything. Naturally I want to spend every last second with you before you get on that train, but I can’t. To do so would be watching as my child dashes herself against the rocks.”

“But father, I’m going to be back.” She replied quizzically.

“No, you won’t. But I have to accept that.”

Edward pulled pushed himself out of the chair and walked around the table. “I’m going to miss you.” These were the last words her father uttered.

On the verge of tears, but terrified to show them, Elizabeth strode out of the room, picked up her suitcase and left the house for good. Clambering into the family’s carriage, the driver took her on the familiar route to the train station. All the while Elizabeth soaked up every part of the scenery during the trip. She began to wonder if he father’s words were accurate. Was this the last time she’d see this land? The lake at the bottom of the hill, the lemon tree she climbed as a child. It was a thought that simultaneously excited and terrified her.

The train station was more sparse than usual, likely a product of the time she was arriving. The mid-morning train was a vestige of an era where people leisurely took their time in travel, now it was only the early or late train that was sufficiently busy. The driver retrieved the suitcase and said “Goodbye Miss McMillan, have a good trip.”

As she climbed the iron steps of the locomotive she turned back one last time, half-expecting her father to be there. The platform was empty. At that moment there was no excitement about her trip to Malifaux, no joy at a new adventure -- only the familiar feeling of emptiness. Elizabeth wasn’t one to get emotional, but she could feel thick tears welling in her eyes as if their viscosity was a product of not being used enough.

She sat on the deep maroon colored leather bench and the tears began to flow more quickly. She opened her suitcase in search of a handkerchief and found a small parcel, no bigger than a journal, which was carefully wrapped in paper and tied with a simple piece of twine. Curiosity dried her tears as she began to read the handwritten letter, written earnestly and without flourish.

Dearest Elizabeth,

I am sorry I didn’t see you off. I hope you understand it was too hard for me. When you get to Malifaux you’ll understand why I believe I won’t see you again, but I need to know this: I am immensely proud of the woman you are and the person you have become. Your energy and zest for life will be sorely missed, as will your constant visits to my office to borrow a book or catch up on the day.

I hope you weren’t too upset that I left for town without you. There were a few things I needed to get and couldn’t have you present. In this package you will find a few things I hope you will find useful.

You are valuable. My greatest achievement. I am devastated you are leaving, but sincerely hope you find what you’re looking for.

 

All my love,

Father

 

Elizabeth had never heard her father like it, and it caught her off guard. For a moment she forgot entirely about the contents of the parcel and instead ruminated on the words in the letter. After a time she glanced down and saw what he had left.

The first, predictably, was a stack of crisp bills. Easily enough to keep her comfortable in Malifaux for several months until she was on her feet. The second, an ivory pocket knife. It was meticulously fashioned and razor sharp. She had been hunting long enough to know a good blade, and it worried her slightly that her father believed she needed a weapon of this quality. There was a small piece of paper that appeared as if it has been torn hastily out of a book. It read “Stephen Dunn, Malifaux Exploration Society.”

Finally there was a plain, seemingly boring brass pocket watch. Immediately Elizabeth realized it was her father’s. As a child she’d spent hours gazing at its hands shift across the face and begged her father to play with it. He always said the same thing “In due time, Elizabeth. In due time.”

The watch had never been ornate, perhaps that’s why she loved it so. Something was different about the watch, however. It had been changed. A rose had been engraved in its casing, and on the back some simple words etched into the metal. One final message from her father.

Never lose yourself.

 

***

 

The train to Malifaux was oddly juxtaposed with its surroundings. It was like nothing Elizabeth had ever seen before. It was sleek, futuristic and its passengers were the oddest collective of characters she had ever seen. There were businessmen in expected attire, surely traveling through The Breach to attend to one venture or another. Some looked like explorers or archaeologists -- perhaps they were scientists or even anthropologists. Whatever they were they felt important, and exciting. There was a final subset of people who looked like they didn’t belong at all. Unkempt, almost menacing. They weren’t surly, nor were they warm. These people made her uncomfortable.

Elizabeth made the conscious decision to keep to herself and pretend to be asleep to garner as little attention as possible. Soon fake sleep gave way to exhaustion and she woke after a bright flash started her, even through her heavy eyelids. She quickly realized the train had hurtled through The Breach while she was asleep. The light outside was bright, the landscape desert-like. She took out the pocket watch to check the time, it said 8:55 but there was no way it was night time. It dawned on Elizabeth that things would be different here, more different than she even anticipated.

The plan was simple: Get off the train, take a carriage to some lodging, get settled and then … there was no plan. That was the exciting part. As the coach pulled in to Malifaux Station immediately the mood on the train changed. Everyone was nervous. As if a spectre was creeping through the carriage and suffocating any remaining goodwill amongst the passengers. She saw an armed guard patrolling the platform, then another, and another. They were surveilling anyone who got off.  As the train slowed she heard man’s voice whisper in her ear.

“Don’t turn around. Keep looking out the window. When you get off the train don’t look at anyone and just keep walking. Even if there’s a commotion, don’t look.”

It caught Elizabeth off guard to such an extent that her natural curiosity caused her to spin her head around. There was nobody there. The man obviously gave her the warning in passing, and upon exiting she was soon happy for the advice. Guild guards were rounding up anyone who showed signs of being against their decree.

Elizabeth began to retrieve her bags when about a hundred yards down the platform an older man yelled “I saw her. Her eyes. They started glowing blue just after we passed through the breach.” He pointed a long, gnarled finger at a girl of about 20, who seemed utterly confused by what was happening.

Immediately a crowd gathered. The woman was screaming, pleading for mercy, desperately telling them the traveler has been mistaken. The only response were muffled voices of the guardsmen, who had no interest in her plea. The cries trailed off and nobody around Elizabeth seemed concerned with what they saw. It was deeply unsettling, but was met with such a lack of care that it must be commonplace in these parts.

Why were they dragging her away? Perhaps, more importantly, why were that woman’s eyes glowing? None of this made any sense. As far as she knew, Malifaux was a place where people made their fortune -- and soulstone had innate power, but how could an ordinary person change this much simply from arriving in this place?

The questions swirling in her head were quickly snuffed out by the realization that things had to keep moving forward. Elizabeth loathed procrastination, especially when a situation was dangerous. It’s how animals were caught during a hunt. They became locked in indecisiveness. She needed to get away from the station, into town, and continue with her plan. There was nothing that would be achieved by standing around Malifaux Station watching people get dragged away screaming.

Finding a carriage was surprisingly easy. Elizabeth had barely made it to the street before a black gilded buggy pulled up and the door swung open. It almost felt as if it knew she was coming. Climbing in the back a hauntingly familiar voice called out.

“Heading downtown, are we?”

Elizabeth was slow to reply, “Why yes, I am.” The voice sounded strangely familiar. It couldn’t be. No, that didn’t make any sense. But she had to know. Elizabeth paused for a moment, questioning whether it was foolish to ask her question or not. In the end curiosity gave way once again. “This will sound ridiculous, but did you speak to me on the train just now?”

“Yes m’lady I did. I hope you didn’t think it was too forward of me.” The timber of the voice sounded friendly, but oddly forced -- as if they were lines rehearsed in front of a mirror for hours and honed to perfection. “The name’s Sebastian. My business is identifying promising young women.”

A arm shot into view. Elizabeth never caught a glimpse of the driver’s face. The well-manicured hand held an impressive looking business card between its slender middle fingers which read:

 

Sebastian Baker

Agent. Muse. Advisor.

Turning dreams into reality and reality into fantasy.

 

Elizabeth paused for a moment before replying, caught quite off guard by the exchange. “I think you must have me confused. I’m not interested in becoming an actress, I …”

“You want to explore,” Sebastian curtly finished her sentence. “Come now, don’t look so shocked. Your riding pants gave that one away. Far too utilitarian for the stage. You see, I don’t merely work with actresses. I am attracted to potential, and you have that in spades my dear.”

Elizabeth wasn’t accustomed to compliments, but that didn’t mean she would blush or swoon the way other countless other women might had a charming man said the same. Instead she rummaged around in her coach pocket for the watch her father gave her and stared at it’s message -- “Never lose yourself.”

“Is that why you spoke to me on the train?” Elizabeth asked cautiously.

“That it is. That it is. The Guild loathe potential you see. They recognize it and snuff it out. Potential scares them. It’s bad for business -- that is, if your business is keeping people under your thumb.”

This made perfect sense. Elizabeth was relieved she’d crossed Sebastian’s path. Having a guide to understand this strange new place wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, it was very helpful -- and if nothing else she’d clearly met someone with extraordinary connections. This could be an unexpected boon, a chance to do even more than she expected and -- suddenly the carriage lurched to a stop outside the Knotwood Arms. It was a charming enough inn, at least for Malifaux. The door swung open, seemingly on its own, and she climbed out.

“If I decide to take you up on your offer,” she asked “where will I find you?”

Sebastian tipped his tall hat, frustratingly keeping his face from view. He replied, “I will find you. It’s what I’m good at.”

***

 

Day became night. Mornings passed. Elizabeth began to think less about exploration and more of Sebastian in the coming days. Instead of than breathing in her surroundings she couldn’t stop thinking of the timber of his voice, his intoxicating demeanor. The more people she encountered the more intriguing he became. People had a tendency to be unwelcoming in Malifaux, but Sebastian’s kindness and warmth was anything but expected in such an unforgiving environment.

Elizabeth finally began to shake the cobwebs from her head and soon realized that she had wasted time. She must venture into the slums and find the Malifaux exploration society. That’s where the innkeeper said her destination was. Surely there she would be able to find some purpose. An archaeological expedition perhaps, or maybe meet some scientists studying native people. Despite everything Elizabeth knew of Malifaux she’d never read about the land’s native inhabitants. Surely there was life before humanity arrived, and encountering it would be fascinating.

The old haggard man at the inn’s desk told Elizabeth to take a carriage, but she wanted to walk. Her odd obsession with Sebastian had kept her in her room for much of the week and she needed to reconnect with her surroundings. Walking long distances was never a problem for her -- hunting expeditions with father groomed her for them, and she had that pocket knife should anything happen.

As Elizabeth walked down the street there were things that kept feeling … not quite right. Small children lurked in alleys and seemingly glared their pupil-less eyes in her direction. Surely she was wrong, the idea was preposterous. Soon the sanitized walls of downtown began being replaced with run down, ramshackle buildings barely clinging to life as their foundations waned and creaked with every gust of wild. Wanted posters adorned lampposts. They warned of hideous monsters and unthinkable beasts. Elizabeth was unsure whether these were real, or a byproduct of Guild propaganda, stories told to a vapid citizenry so they could be controlled and herded into the “safer” parts of the city.

Soon even the friendliest looking curio shops took on a menacing aura. Storefronts changed, and placed which once sold cameos and letter openers were replaced with those offering haunting fetishes made of desiccated bone, and what looked like organs, suspended in thick glass jars. Who would want these horrible items? Perhaps more importantly, who was attracted to them?

It was late afternoon before Elizabeth found herself staring at the large oak door of the Malifaux Exploration Society. The building was smaller and more run down that its official sounding name suggested, and the operation looked  unsanctioned by any government entity. Perhaps this was why the society was in the slums and not closer to the seat of power, or maybe its members wanted it this way. The door knocker barely moved, rusted in place from what felt like years of neglect. Finally she managed to create enough of a sound that she heard the shuffling of feet from behind the door. It opened just enough for Elizabeth to see an eye peering outside.

“Who is it?” The voice said gruffly, carrying with it an indescribable stench of halitosis.

“I am Elizabeth McMillian. Here to see Stephen Dunn,” she replied confidently -- feeling that bravado was the best approach to hide her unfamiliarity with how to act in such an occasion.

The door creaked open revealing a slight elderly man who seemed grizzled from his surroundings. He gestured for her to come inside before looking both ways outside, seemingly to ensure his new guest wasn’t followed.

“What do you know about Dunn?” the man asked gruffly, interrogating Elizabeth before introducing himself.

“Well, not much I’m afraid. You see my father told me to meet him, and I just arrived in Malifaux you see. So, I …”

“Another one of them, eh?” He replied dismissively. “I’m tired of you silver spoon types coming down here for an adventure because London or Paris or wherever the hell you’re from is suddenly too boring for you. You don’t have the right to mention Stephen Dunn’s name. He was a true pioneer, a real explorer -- not like you Lords and Ladies with your titles. Dunn didn’t want treasure, he wanted experience. Something you wouldn’t understand.”

“Wait … Was?!” she replied emphatically. “You mean …”

“Dead. Deader than dead. Torn apart by a Peacekeeper a couple of months back after trying to visit a home in the Quarantine Zone. Dunn said he had a lead on something big, and … why the hell am I telling you this? I don’t even know your name!”

“Excuse me, but you do. I stated it as soon as I arrived. Elizabeth McMillan, daughter of Lord Edward McMillan and I was told to come here.”

The old man’s eyes widened and his complexion changed immediately. “Oh God, no. You’ve made a terrible mistake. You’re going to get us all killed.”

 

***

 

Elizabeth had been at the Explorer’s Society for what felt like a few minutes, but in reality it had been hours. Tome after tome was retrieved off old forgotten shelves by Fitzpatrick, the ornery old man who she learned was the society’s caretaker. He broke the difficult news that the society was nothing like it had once been. Started as a refuge for the curious, it had become a plaything of the wealthy and influential. There were no more adventures, no grand expeditions. The building may as well have been a tavern where sad old men shared their tall tales and stupid fishing stories to entertain the young and vacuous.

These days the “expeditions” were to visit a cathouse in the Southern Slums or a different saloon where new stories could be stolen and told to fresh travelers looking for excitement. Every revelation crushed Elizabeth a little more.

“Surely there’s someone trying to learn more about this land,” she postulated, hopefully.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” He responded. “There is no ‘exploring’ Malifaux. There is surviving, living and a few things in between. You best learn to do the former if you’d like to continue doing the latter.”

“Why would anyone want to kill me? Frankly, I’m not that interesting.” Elizabeth said earnestly.

“Yeah, not that interesting. Definitely.” He muttered with thick sarcasm. “It’s not like your father has one of the biggest collections of soulstones known to Malifaux, now is it? Or that he learned about the cache he’s sitting on when he discovered an abandoned mine full of corpses as part of an expedition was back when.”

He didn’t stop. It was if he was prepared for this moment and resolute that every line of his rant would be listened to. That or Fitzpatrick just liked the sound of his own voice and didn’t get enough opportunities to use it. “Right now the mere mention of the name ‘McMillan’ would cause every treasure hunter, bandit and thief in the city to descend on this rotten dwelling like buzzards and tear the walls off their foundation for the opportunity to blackmail your father.”

Elizabeth couldn’t move. The room started spinning. None of this made any sense. She thought her father had just romanticized his trips to Malifaux as a warning before she left. There was no way this part of his life was so hidden from her. They shared everything.

“Come now,” Fitzpatrick said, “Did you really think Edward left the navy and magically became one of the wealthiest men on earth by his own? He’s a fine man, but ‘fine’ doesn’t mean sucess. You need an edge to you.”

None of this made any sense. Why hadn’t her father told warned her more clearly? He knew that coming to Malifaux without a new persona would be a death sentence. Did he want her to be killed? Was that the plan all along? Send her to Malifaux and let her disappear. Perhaps he didn’t know the danger, that’s all Elizabeth could hope for. The realization that she was fodder and he father knew it was too upsetting.

Everything flooded back in an instant. The emptiness, the hopelessness. The feeling that nothing would ever be better. She was wrong about Malifaux, wrong about all of it. This place didn’t offer adventure or excitement, it was a pit of disease and decay without meaning or purpose. Conjured in the mind of a higher power as a sick joke for those who dared to think hope for something better outside their station.

“Thank you for your time. I’ll be going now.” Elizabeth announced, turning for the door.

“You can’t! Stay for the night, walk home in light. It’s too dangerous,” he pleaded.

“I just don’t care anymore.”

The door slammed shut.

 

***

 

There was no moon lingering in the cold sky of Malifaux on this evening. Everything was dark and still. Dusk fought to spread its tenuous light as long as possible, but the darkness won out -- just as it always did.

Elizabeth walked in a daze. Unable to feel the uneven cobblestones beneath her feet or noticing her surroundings. She pulled out the pocket watch and checked the time, it was 11:02. Elizabeth turned the watch in her hand and was disgusted by the phrase carved in it “Don’t lose yourself.” What a joke. You can’t lose something that’s never been found in the first place, she thought, before she heard a familiar, yet eerie voice.

“Lizzy, Lizzy, Lizzy. What are ya doin’ here?”

It was Sebastian, he found her -- but this time things were different. He sidled out of an alleyway so the street lamp shined on part of his face. Elizabeth saw him for the first time.

It was a strange visage. He stood well over six feet tall, and wore clothes that would have been finery -- in a past decade. Instead they draped over his sinewy body like clothes hung ona branch to dry. Sebastian’s airs were different. His traditional charm was replaced by a more sinister kind, an air that would only appeal to the kind of people who sought only to sew misery. Long mutton chops stretched down the man’s face, as if scared by his head and trying to run. His skin was an unhealthy pallor, striated with bruises and scars. The proportions of his body were unnatural. Nothing seemed to fit together in a way that made sense.

“Did you follow me?” Elizabeth asked timidly.

“Nup. Try again sweet’eart.”

“DId someone tell you I was here?”

“‘Fraid not. C’mon now. I thought you’d be betta at this.”

“You … found me?” She asked, hoping this game would end.

Sebastian smiled a horrific grin, the yellow of his teeth captured in the fleeting light of a streetlamp which illuminated only a small sliver of the street.

“There we go! I found you. Just like I said I would. I always keep a promise Lizzy, you’ll learn that about me. Now I’ve just one more request. Tell me a secret, something you wouldn’t tell anyone else.”

He got no response. Instead Elizabeth gritted her teeth is disdain. It was clear the man was used to getting his way, and while his demeanor was one of frustration, his voice was still hauntingly sweet.

“Come now, Lizzie. I promise that if ya tell me a secret I’ll tell you one, deal?”

Elizabeth had no intention of telling him anything, but this fog in her mind kept building. It was terror, the likes of which she’d never felt before -- but there was something else. It was almost as if someone had put their fingers through the back of her skull and was pushing thoughts out through her mouth without her will.

The expression on her face slackened and she said in a monotone drawl. “I was planning to take the knife from my pocket and stab you with it if you took a step closer.” As soon as the words left her mouth she was paralyzed with the fear of what this threat would mean. She was also terrified that now he would tell her something of himself, and she didn’t want to know anything.

Sebastian strode forward and reached out his hand. Elizabeth lost her free will and felt as if there was no choice but hand over the knife she had tucked away.

“Not bad this one. Nice balance. Solid steel. Right proper blade this is. Don’t get many of these down ‘ere.”

He menacingly tossed the blade from hand to hand, judging its weight with each throw and catch. He evaluated every inch of the knife with the exactness a musician uses when determining whether an instrument is any good or not.

“Where are my manners?” He responded after a while. “You told me your secret and gave me a gift and I’ve given you neither. Shame on me, bad me.” The man paced back and forth, building tension before delivering his crescendo.

“Sorry to say I lied to you Lizzy-wizzy. I know it’s bad and m’sorry. I’m not an agent, or a muse or any of that other guff. Allow me to introduce myself. The name’s Seamus. Feels so much better to say it. I’m Seamus, and I didn’t lie to you about one thing my sweet. I see potential.”

Elizabeth was frozen in place. He mind was fighting, racing, running -- but her body simply couldn’t be willed to move.

“You gave me two fings. You told me a secret and gave me a gift. I gave you one in return, now it’s time for the other.” Seamus strut towards Elizabeth with confidence, reaching into his coat pocket to retrieve something. She stared at the lapel of his coat, unaware that he was misdirecting her gaze before using his left hand to plunge cold steel between her ribs. Somehow she felt her heart puncture before collapsing on the rain-soaked cobblestones.

“A GIFT LIZZY! THE GREATEST GIFT! Fools think that death is the end, but they’re so very wrong. It’s the beginning!”

The last thing Elizabeth saw was Seamus, circling her body like a gleeful child playing “Ring around the Rosie.”

Her eyes shut.

 

***

 

The parlor of the old boarding house was dusty, decrepit and oddly comfortable. Elizabeth’s eyes sprang open and tried to parse her surroundings without luck. Where was she? Perhaps more importantly, how was she or what was she?

Seamus strolled into the roof like a proud farmer showing off his prize sheep at the fair. “This, is Lizzie.” He was flanked by women, dressed like performers in a macabre cabaret show. Their eyes were rotting and teeth clung to their skulls despite their missing jaws.

It was the kind of horror most people would recoil in, but Elizabeth didn’t. Everything felt -- normal. Her shirt was blood stained from where Seamus had stabbed her, but the wound was remarkably perfect. She couldn’t help but admire it’s shape and the deft hand with which it was executed. Physicians would dream of cutting into a body as cleanly as Seamus had done to her.

“I love a woman who appreciates good knife work.” Seamus quipped. “I was so right about you dearie. So very, very right.”

This praise was comforting to Elizabeth. It felt right. For some reason this felt like … home. Seamus was so sweet to recognize her and give her a chance to live again. He didn’t need to. He could have just killed her. He could have tortured her or eviscerated her -- but he didn’t.

“You ‘ave potential my sweet. More potential than I ever ‘oped for. Lizzie, you’re not one of them brainless things like the other lot. You’re special. We’re gonna do amazin’ things together you and me.” Seamus said with a grin, reaching out to take her hand.

Lizzie held on tightly and mirrored his smile. The pair stood together, and she was ready to see what would happen next.


She felt alive, for the first time.

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IN A ROSE TATTOO

The wind ripped at his face and clothes as Hugo worked his way across the desolate land.  He could tell a storm was coming as the wind was picking up.  The sun was setting on the horizon behind him, leaving an echo of light to bounce across the boulder field ahead.  In the distance, he could see ancient ruins of some great civilization.  To his left was the great craggy mountain he had been circumnavigating for a day. Directly ahead were just more rocks; more rocks and dust and hopefully the woods to which he was travelling.  Hugo was heading home.  Heading to Her.  Nothing felt better in the world, especially with success in his hands.

Hugo had succeeded but only just.  The Mademoiselle would be pleased with his success and hopefully not too angry about the damage to his body.  That cursed Witchling Stalker had gotten lucky with one shot.  The Stalker did not get a chance for a second.  Hugo had slipped through Malifaux’s south garrison fort and into a back-storage room unnoticed.  He had found the statue’s crate and pulled the statue out.  Thinking the worst had passed, Hugo had stepped a little too casually out of the storage room door right into the cloaked figure of a Witchling Stalker.  The Stalker’s chains rattled with the impact and the thief had nearly dropped the statue.  Hugo was shocked by how eerie the Stalker’s glowing eyes were and how dissonant the magical fields coursed around the diminutive figure.  The Stalker had reacted first and fired off his Peacekeeper, inaccurately, split seconds before Hugo quick drew his sword through the Stalker’s neck. After that, he had been much more focused in his escape.

At first, Hugo hadn’t noticed the wound.  Now, hours later, his ribs screamed with pain where the shot had ripped through his side.  It wasn’t his first time being shot but it was the first time he had taken a Witchling bullet.  The bullet had popped as it touched his skin, almost like a small explosion.  The result was a weird burning effect and a craterous hole in his flesh.  The damage extended much further than a bullet wound should be but at least it had seared shut.  Actively bleeding while out in the wilderness was foolhardy, at best.  Thank Fate the shot was only a graze.  If it had pierced his body the pop would have been inside his torso.  Hugo shuddered at the thought.

He would heal, though it would be a painful process.  He would heal much quicker if the Mademoiselle graced him with her touch but the Mademoiselle would only do that if she was truly pleased.  It did not matter to him; he was entranced with the Mademoiselle.  For Her he would endure the pain.  For Her he would suffer this and much, much worse without complaint.  The Mademoiselle’s beauty was worth all the pain in this world or the last.  She was more glorious than any sunrise, more wondrous than a thousand waterfalls, more breathtaking than a million roses.

The rose glistened on his arm, almost weeping like the day he got it. It often did when he drew closer to Her.  Inked into his skin forever, this tattoo would stay with Hugo till his dying day, just like his devotion to the Mademoiselle. The colors of the tattoo were more vibrant than anything he had seen before, the lines sharp and crisp.  The rose was so brilliant it seemed real, as if he could actually smell it.  The lines seemed to move as he looked at it, first like the petals were blown in the wind, then definitely as the design itself began to shift.  He blinked once and the rose’s true shape reformed before his eyes, filling him with a deep joy and peace.   The Mademoiselle’s rose was more precious than any soulstone, more powerful than the magic that the Breach had sparked, and more poignant than anything he had ever known. There was simply no more beautiful thing in the whole world, except of course for the Mademoiselle herself.

Hugo realized he had stopped moving and was simply standing and staring at Her rose etched into his arm.  He didn’t know how long he had remained there gazing at it. This happened to him often, losing time gazing at Her rose before being abruptly snapped back to the present.  He had to move.  He was losing the light and was not yet into the lee side of the mountain.  Not yet in the woods that would give him the cover he would need.  But the rose was just so…

“Marvelous Mr. Carlos,” the Ancient One said, shaking Juan into to the present moment, “Time to move on to another path.”  Like a distant reverie, the vision faded from his sight.  Juan had just watched someone else’s life through someone else’s eyes. He had breathed Hugo’s life, smelt it, felt it and it seemed so tangible.  Through this sight, it felt as if Juan was alive again.

“That was closer Mr. Carlos.” The Ancient One spoke again, his voice was warm and comforting, “but I need to see more; a face, a name.”  Juan’s eyesight was returning to him but the process was arduous.  Before him stood a tall, stooped man of exotic heritage.  He had a long, draping Fu Manchu and stringy hair tied into a unique top knot.  Both the Fu Manchu and topknot seemed white with age but it was hard for Juan to tell because of how his eyes were acting up.  The Ancient One wore comfortable looking robes and clung to a staff as though it was the only thing that kept him upright.  There was definitely a venerable feel to the man.  He had many wrinkles and moved with a slow certainty.  The deep mellifluous sound of the Ancient One’s voice and the knowing look behind his eyes gave the impression of wisdom beyond life times.  “You need to look deeper into the connection.  Do you have another path we can walk?”  Juan thought of him only as the Ancient One, though he never used the phrase aloud.  He had had better manners instilled while growing up.

“Sí Señor,” Juan responded to the Ancient One.  “I have met many more of my brothers and sisters of the Senorita before… before…”  Juan couldn’t quite say what had happened to him. Not out loud. Juan knew he wasn’t alive anymore but saying it seemed so crazy.  The Ancient One stood statuesque before Juan, an unreadable look upon his face.

Juan didn’t dare resist the Ancient One.  The Ancient One had promised Juan one more chance to see the Señorita.  Juan would grab onto that chance with both hands.  Even if it meant revealing Her to the Ancient One, Juan would do it. Just for one glimpse at Her face, one touch of Her hand, it was worth whatever the Ancient One would put him through.  Juan understood Hugo’s reckless abandon in his devotion to the Señorita, for he felt it too.  The Señorita didn’t like meeting new people unless She chose to meet them but Juan was sure the Señorita would make an exception in this case.  The Ancient One was nice, almost like the Señorita.  Juan knew they would just be perfect together.  Then maybe the Ancient One would let him stay longer and be with Her. 

“Focus again Mr. Carlos,” the Ancient One said to Juan.  He must have known that Juan’s eyesight still hadn’t fully returned from viewing Hugo’s life.  Everything Juan looked at had an odd rosy tint like he was looking through a bottle of brandy.  Also, the edges of his vision distorted and blurred.  Juan shook his head a few times but it didn’t seem to help. 

“Okay Señor,” he said.  The Ancient One then outstretched his hand and with a flick of his wrist Juan’s world spun before his eyes before refocusing into a garden scene… 

Juan could feel cool soil pressing into his knees and see a woman’s hands working a plant in front of him.  The air was crisp but pleasant, like an early morning in spring. The woman worked steadily, removing grubs from the tomato plant and dropping them into a bucket.  Her hands were moving with the certainty of long practice. 

“Marcy?” another female’s voice asked in the distance.

“Yes Annabelle?” Juan felt his lips answer and then his legs lift him to stand.  He looked toward where the voice had come from.

“Breakfast is only another hour away,” the first voice answered, the twang of her accent coming through clearer now.

“Thanks,” Marcy answered. Juan could feel the gardener was hungry but knew she was used to working for a few hours before breakfast came.

Marcy knelt, getting back to her work.  The bucket of grubs to her left continued to fill up as she worked through the rows of tomato plants.  She hated being here, working this menial task when she should be out serving the Lady.  The Lady had put her here, on assignment to watch this farm, but it seemed so mundane compared to what she had done for the Lady before and what she could still do.  She should be cutting down guild agents or spying on the Governor General; maybe even sabotaging the secret labs of the guild engineering division.

At least Marcy was outside and working with plants.  Marcy felt closer to the Lady when she was working with green, growing things. She didn’t remember liking gardening as a child, but she must have for how skilled she was.  And after finishing with the tomatoes she got to work with the roses today!  Roses had become Marcy’s favorite, ever since she had received her own rose from the Lady.  They reminded her of the nice old woman that tried to sell flowers in her neighborhood back in Soho.  They also reminded her of the Lady.  With that thought the gardener’s eyes drifted down to her arm.  

The rose glistened on her forearm, the colors shining like a wet leaf. The Lady’s rose was precious to Marcy. There was no more beautiful flower, living or otherwise, than the Lady’s rose. In fact, the rose WAS alive, more alive than anything Marcy had known. She was enchanted by it because it was a part of the Lady. Marcy felt more alive like the flower was growing through her, like the Lady was growing through her.  It was a great gift from the Lady and for it the gardener would work long and hard.  Hunger didn’t matter, nor fatigue.  She could work through anything for the Lady.  The Lady had enraptured Marcy, and Juan understood the feeling.  He had felt the same before and yearned for that link once more. 

She caressed her arm where the Lady’s flower was emblazoned; stroking its leaves as though it were a real plant.  At the heart of the blossom the colors started to swirl and coalesce into unnatural lines. The lines became shapes and shapes became words.  No, not words, but letters that formed a word.  More than a word… a statement… a power… The letters “h”, “n”, & “g” stuck out and others started to form.  However, before more of it could be read the lines had slipped away and only a rose remained. It didn’t matter to Marcy as she was lost in elation.  That flower was so beautiful, so red, a most magnificent rose. 

“Thank you Mr. Carlos,” the Ancient One chimed in again.  It was so startling whenever the Ancient One pulled Juan out, like having cold water thrown on his face while sleeping.  “That was closer, but your connection is thinning.  We are running out of time.”  The Ancient One’s voice was nicer now, like a distant purr of a house cat.  His voice was always warm and comforting.  It was just unnerving to be abruptly pulled back to his current state when Juan was seeing through someone else's eyes. 

“Sí Señor.  I’m sorry Señor.  I will try harder.” Juan was so worried he would displease the Ancient One.  Juan didn’t know why he cared so about the Ancient One desires.  He just knew the Ancient One was pleasant and he needed Juan’s help. How could Juan say no?

Juan’s vision was horribly distorted again.  The rosy tincture still colored everything but now there was a fuzzy line angled across the center his view, not just on the edges.  Juan blinked multiple times trying to get the blurriness to abate, to no avail. 

“Señor I cannot see so well.  Will that pass?”  Juan was concerned but tried to put confidence into his voice.

“It will, eventually, Mr. Carlos.” The Ancient One was as calm and certain as ever.

It was a little peculiar that as a spirit he was talking with someone.  When he was alive Juan hadn’t talked to any ghosts.  He certainly wasn’t an expert on what happened to a person after they passed but he figured that talking to the living wasn’t a normal option.  If it was, then why hadn’t Papi talked to him the past five years?  It just didn’t seem right.  Really, how could Juan be talking to this Ancient One? 

“Señor, I know I died…” Juan hesitated, struggling with how to best phrase the question.

“Yes Mr. Carlos?”

“So how is it I am talking to you Señor?  I mean…  I don’t think the dead speak?  Am I not supposed to be resting peacefully in Paradiso… or something?”

“That is a complicated thing to answer and we have so little time left.  Suffice it to say life, death and all states in between are split like paths in the woods. Each of those paths are usually separated from each other entirely.  I am the woodsman that helps connect those paths, finding the way that was not there before. Unfortunately those paths are not permanent.”

With a moment of reflection Juan asks, “Not permanent.  So there is no hope for me to stay?  This is no second chance?”

“No, staying will not be an option.  But there is a second chance to see the world and maybe affect it.”  There was a pause as the Ancient One gave time for Juan to think.  Juan had no interest in leaving his Señorita.  He had faithfully served her till death, and now maybe even beyond death if this Ancient One wanted to know Her too.

“What about his Path, master?” Juan heard a faint and distant voice say, stretched and echoing as if talking through a tunnel.  The voice was female and unfamiliar.  It had an accent that Juan couldn’t quite recognize, but English was not the speaker’s first language.  Juan could not see where the voice had come from but honestly, he did not want to move.  He was too disoriented still from his last vision and every time he tried to look around his eyesight got blurrier.

“Only as a last chance,” the Ancient One responded, never turning his head to look toward the speaker.  The Ancient One hardly ever moved. “It garners too much risk.”

“Risk of what Señor? I thought I was dead but you’ve brought me back and given me a great power. What could be at risk?”

The Ancient One looked a little perturbed.  “It’s not as simple as that Mr. Carlos.  Simply put, the risk is in your connection.  Time is of the essence.  Are you ready again Mr. Carlos?”

“Sí Señor,” Juan responded, a little confused but not wanting to push it.  Juan took a deep breath to clear his mind.  The old man stretched his fingers out and with a wave Juan was hurled into mystery again.

The smell was the first thing to hit him.  Hot iron, blasting powder, cut stone, and sweat closely followed by the scent of gas like from a lantern.  It was hot and the only light was a dim red glow reflecting all around him.  The air felt thin and stifling to Juan but this new life he was experiencing was used to it.  This person had been here half the night and still had several hours on his shift.  Looking to his left Juan could see the exit down the end of the tunnel; a distant speck of light where gas lanterns at the entrance flickered.

Juan felt himself stand up from a low squat and grab a pick axe.  He turned to the right and started walking deeper into the tunnel toward a crew he saw working alongside a steel, mechanical golem.  The rail golem was hulking in size, standing tall enough to nearly touch the top of the cavern.  Through its chest and face the fiery red-orange glow of its steam engine could be seen.  This light was the main illumination for the crew.  The rail golem’s steam pipes protruded from its back, puffing light white clouds of vapor as it worked steadily with its shovel. The tunnel got hotter as he moved closer to the end and the gas smell was a little thicker near the golem. 

“Zhang Jing it’s your turn,” Juan felt himself say.  Another worker, who had just struck into the cavern wall with his own pick, hoisted the tool onto his shoulder and turned toward Juan.

“Xièxiè Li Wei,” the worker said as the two traded places. Juan, now Li Wei, took his position on the line right next to the steam-driven golem. It was pulling hewn rock chunks away from in front the cavern wall with one of the largest coal shovels Juan had ever seen.  Li Wei put his pick axe down, resting the handle against his leg, then lifted up his hands to spit into them.  The railman’s gaze caught on the bandage around his forearm.  Though he couldn’t see it, Li Wei knew what laid beneath the gauzy wrap and it comforted him. The Mistress’ Rose was prized by Li Wei and though he kept it covered, only revealing it when he was alone or in the Mistress’ company, it still reminded him of his true purpose. Li Wei had no interest in being seen as a criminal, his culture held that only criminals wore tattoos, but he was deeply conflicted about hiding the rose.  The rail worker was compelled to openly bear his devotion to the Mistress.  He was completely bewitched by her loveliness.  It was only once the Mistress’ concurred about keeping it covered that Li Wei gave in to wrapping it.  At the time, she told him in a sultry way, to keep it as their little secret, which only made the railman fall for her even more.

The rose was truly exquisite Li Wei admitted to himself. It always called for his attention even through the wrap that covered it.  When Li Wei first received his rose he didn’t really care for the design but he did it out of his devotion to the Mistress.  The rose had proven to be no less seductive than his Mistress as it had become his favorite design.  It brings to mind the Mistress and there is no place he would rather be than by her side.

With effort Li Wei tried to pull his gaze away from the bandage, though honestly it was a screech from the rail golem’s engines that forced him back to the job.  Li Wei finally spat into his upraised hands and rubbed them together, then the pick axe was in his hands and he began to swing. The labor was rough on his body but it did serve to distract him from the painful awareness of how far away he was from the Mistress. 

Hours passed before the shift whistle finally called in the distance.  Li Wei stopped his work immediately and started to move up the tunnel, eager to breath fresh air.  In the distance Li Wei could see the flicker of the gas lamps at the tunnel’s entrance.  Like a pair of stars twinkling in an endless night, they helped guide his path to freedom.

Only a few steps up the tunnel Li Wei heard the screech of metal tearing through metal followed closely by the whistle of steam from an engine, screaming like a tea kettle left to boil.  Li Wei snapped a look behind himself, horrified to see the rail golem convulse stiffly and start to fall. With a visceral flash of fear, Li Wei barely stuttered, “LOOK OUT” before being drowned out by an earthshaking explosion. The rail golem erupted into a conflagration of steel and steam, turning into an expanding fireball the width of the tunnel.  Li Wei desperately dove for the ground before the explosion’s shockwave knocked him up the tunnel and into the side wall.  Everything went black.

“That’s quite enough with that one,” the Ancient One said in the back of Juan’s mind.  Juan could sense irritation in the Ancient One’s voice and felt the dream of Li Wei start to pull away.  Juan knew he wasn’t done yet and resisted the Ancient One, feeling the tug on his mind like the pull of a dog’s leash. 

“No Señor, Li Wei is not dead,” Juan responded. “The Señorita may come to him now.”

“Very well then.” The Ancient One relinquished his draw on Juan and allowed him to stay in the moment.  The darkness of the rail worker’s unconsciousness was thankfully short lived.

Li Wei woke; his ears ringing with temporary deafness from a close explosion.  Li Wei seemed to be moving slowly, the world shaking around him.  Or was that just his eyes?  The tunnel was brighter now, lit by dull flames coming mostly from where the rail golem erupted.  Looking back, he could see streaks of flame sticking to the tunnel walls and little burning lumps on the ground.  He assumed the lines of fire along the cavern walls were just splashes of fuel from the destroyed golem. However, Li Wei dreaded the thought that lumps on the ground were the burning bodies of his former crew.

Li Wei tried to push himself to his knees, hoping to move but immediately collapsed to his shoulder.  He had no strength in his arms to even crawl. The ringing in his ears was starting to subside, steadily being replaced with the crackle of fire, which made the flames seem even more intense.  The railman shoved against the ground again and his whole body shook from the effort.  He finally got to his knees and crawled two steps before collapsing again.  With this collapse a sharp pain exploded through his body.  Li Wei rolled to his back and looked down his body to find a length of twisted steel sticking out of his midsection. 

The wound was large and horrible looking.  He didn’t know how he hadn’t noticed it sooner.  The chunk of metal was probably a fragment of the rail golem. The cloth surrounding the wound was charred and hard to distinguish from his flesh.  Trying to move must have shifted the steel chunk in his belly as the wound started oozing blood.  His side was now throbbing and panic was building.  He held his belly in disbelief but didn’t dare touch the steel as he was sure it would only hurt more.  Li Wei moaned as the pain increased and hoped someone had heard the blast.

Moments later a shrouded figure appeared next to him.  The body was female and her heavy cloak flowed around her. The cloak’s hood was drawn up over her head, concealing her face.  It did not however conceal her to Li Wei for he knew the Mistress when she was near.  The railman stretched out a hand towards her. “Mistress!” he croaked with effort.

The figure crouched down to him and looked him over.  “Peace” she said to him, her youthful voice sweet as honey.  Li Wei knew there was no lovelier sound in the world.  The Mistress consoled him, “All things will be better soon.”

Li Wei reached towards her again but she shifted from his touch. “Be still,” the Mistress directed.  The Mistress’ voice was commanding, with a firmness that portrayed ultimate authority.  She pulled back her hood and revealed her face, a face that Li Wei and Juan both knew and loved to their core.  The Mistress’ face looked to be made of vines set side by side in tight rows that sculpted the exotic and beautiful visage of a young human female.  Her chin had an angular sharpness to it like the point of an acorn.  The Mistress’ lips were almost like a pair of purple beans in their pods; plump, full and healthy.  Her skin was as green as jade and her cheeks had a slight rouge tincture like ripening apples.  Her nose was unobtrusive which only helped to emphasize the wonder of her eyes.  They were buds of a vibrant ruby red, the flickering fire light enhancing their magical seductiveness. The Mistress’ rose eyes had no discernable iris but one always knew where she was focusing.  She looked into the rail worker’s eyes, piercing his soul. 

The Mistress smiled at Li Wei and a feeling of subdued peace spread through his chest.  The Mistress looked down, her hands digging through a belt pouch.  She pulled out a crystalline stone that reflected the tunnel’s flame light.  The Mistress’ ruby gaze flicked up to look Li Wei in the eyes again. “BE STILL” she commanded and her voice echoed in Li Wei’s ears like thunder.  Li Wei was rigid, unable to move.

The Mistress glanced at Li Wei’s gauze wrapped arm and with one quick motion her hands flashed, removing the bandage and sticking the stone to Li Wei’s arm, right in the center of the rose tattoo.  The Mistress was careful to not touch Li Wei’s skin but still he felt overwhelming joy at her closeness.  The stone felt cool to the touch and Li Wei’s pains started to fade.  Suddenly, with a flash of light from the crystal itself, the rail worker felt the pain in his side again, followed closely by a pain in his arm, then his legs, his fingers.

 “Mistress!” Li Wei looked to the Mistress in disbelief but her smile only spread wider, baring thorn-like teeth beneath her bean lips.  It felt like the man was racked with every pain he had ever felt in his life, all at the same time.  Li Wei’s back convulsed in spasm and his eyes ached.  His mouth snapped open as he started to scream and…

“Mr. Carlos!” the Ancient One shouted, Juan finally hearing.  “You were screaming Mr. Carlos.  Are you harmed?” Juan shook his head, as much to communicate with the Ancient One as to shake off the echoes of Li Wei’s screams.  Juan really wished he could shake off the look he saw in the Señorita’s eyes.  Juan had never seen a look like that on the Señorita’s face, or really anyone’s.  He’d never seen a look of such… such… hunger.  “Mr. Carlos?”

“I should be fine Señor, thank you Señor.”  Juan was dazed and could not deny it but he didn’t want to show weakness to the Ancient One.  Juan felt tired and out of breath from the ordeal, which, when he thought about it was laughable.  Juan had been dead for some time.  He didn’t have a body and he didn’t need to breath.  He was a spirit or an unbound soul or a ghost.  He didn’t know what to label his current state of… existence, but there really was nothing about it that should let him feel tired. 

Even after a few moments Juan couldn't believe what he'd seen.   The Señorita’s blatant disregard for the devoted rail worker was overloading.  Not his Señorita. Couldn’t be.  Juan could not account for who he had seen.  His head pounded, or would have if he was corporeal.  All the same, a headache-like throb was there.  To make it worse his eyesight was getting even fuzzier with another line of blur on his right side.  

"Mr. Carlos, I need you to focus once more.  One last time.  The work is almost done and we don’t have much time."  Time.  Time is what Juan needed.  Time away from the thoughts bombarding him now, away from this pain.  At least through someone else’s life the sensations of this current moment faded.  Juan ached at the idea of seeing more of the Señorita but the Ancient One needed his help.  Juan had to do what he could. He couldn't think now.  He just needed to make the most out of every moment he had.

"Uh, Si Señor." With the words barely put of his mouth the Ancient One's hand flicked again in that all too familiar hand motion and Juan was whisked through the vortex of power that brought him to someone else's life.
 

The trill of a distant guitar was the first thing to cut through the darkness.  It was a simple fingering piece that repeated after only a few notes.  It reminded Juan of something his Papi would play, usually just after supper as the family rested by the fire.  The music was lovely to hear and brought happy memories to mind.  The scene that opened before Juan was a farm with tall grass, an adobe style hacienda with a small livestock pen attached, and a rickety looking barn.  It looked like a farm very similar to those where Juan grew up.  This of course brought more feelings of nostalgia.  Juan started to walk toward the hacienda, the tall grass of the field battering his hands as he went.  Juan could just see the dark outline of a mountain range behind the farmstead as the last of the day’s light slipped below the horizon.

As he strode closer, the dusty smell of horses gradually overcame the smells of the field.  The guitar had grown slightly louder and was now accompanied by the low crackle of fire.  Juan felt a smile crease his lips.  If he didn’t know better this would be just like walking into the home of his childhood, right after dinner.  Juan rounded the corner of the house, moving towards the firelight, and was struck by the inviting odor of fresh tortillas and grilled peppers.  Around the fire, he saw a few adults leaning back in their chairs smoking or sipping drinks. There was a young boy and a slightly older girl laying on the floor playing a game with rocks and sticks.  Juan’s eyes scanned across the fire and froze as he saw the man picking at his guitar. The guitarist was his Papi.  Juan’s eyes flicked down to the little girl and realized she was his cousin Alejandra; he did not recognize the boy.  His eyes flicked to the other adults and he recognized his uncle and two aunts. 

At that moment, a voice called from inside the hacienda, “When is your boy supposed to be back Carlos?” It was Juan’s mother.  She always referred to Juan as ‘your boy’ or ‘your son’ whenever he did something she did not like.  “Soon Verónica,” Juan’s father called back, never missing a cord.  Juan had no doubt that instead of looking through someone else’s eyes, he was looking through his own, just many years past.

“This is too far back,” the Ancient One rumbled in the back of Juan’s mind.  Juan resisted the tug from the Ancient One; he hated to leave.  This was such a peaceful time in Juan’s life.  The music, the smells, the presence of family.  There really was nothing else that could replace the feeling of coming home, especially since he had not seen his home in over five years.  No, this was better than coming home.  If he came home now nothing would be the same.  Papi and his music had long since been gone, his cousin had grown older and his mother had remarried.  Papi’s death was why Juan left for America and the Breach.  Juan could not bear to stay home when after his father had passed.  With that thought all the pain of his father’s death welled up once again in Juan.

“Why did you bring me here?  Why am looking at my own life?”  Juan could feel the anxiety rising in his voice. 

“This was always part of the plan Mr. Carlos but I didn’t intend for it to go back this far. My deepest apologies for the recollections it stirred.” After a pause, he continued, “We must look further on.” The Ancient One’s voice was kind but insistent.  Juan knew he could not stay.  In fact, he did not want to; not anymore.  The pain of it was too great. As if reading Juan’s thoughts, the Ancient One snapped the vision of home from him.  The whir of colors and light that always happened when he entered a vision flashed once more.

The smell of wet leaves quickly pulled Juan into another world.  The air was chill with the crisp feeling of fall and a light breeze rustled dry leaves above his head.  He looked up to see fading afternoon sunlight piercing the canopy above him.  Juan knew exactly where he was – the far eastern stretch of the Señorita’s woods.  Juan even knew when he was. He had only just received his invitation to meet the Señorita the day before… 

At that time, Juan had worked the stables at Rancho Ortega but had greater aspirations.  Unfortunately, those aspirations had just been crushed as the previous afternoon he had failed again on qualifying as one of the Ortega’s pistoleros.  Juan hated himself for it, half for the shame he felt of only being a stable boy and half for the fear that his lot in life would never change.  The Ortegas treated the young stable boy well enough but he knew the true glory was in riding with them, fighting beside them, and proving his worth.

 Juan had found the invitation on his pillow in the workman’s house right after he was released from that day’s duties.  The invitation was made of crudely formed paper, green in tint, that seemed to have bark and foliage still visible in its pressing.  The ink was a vivid cranberry red. 

The letter invited Juan to come to a forbidden section of woods 10 miles from the bunkhouse.  Juan knew it was forbidden because all the maps he’d seen that included the area marked it only as “do not enter”.  The invitation promised Juan another chance to become a pistolero, greater than all other gunmen that had come before him.  He could only assume that this was a special chance that one of the heads of the Ortega family was offering him; a challenge to prove himself beyond what the other pistolero hopefuls had received.

Early the next morning, before the sun rose, he quietly dressed and slipped out of the workman’s house.  He slipped over to the store room, grabbed a few biscuits and one of the practice pistols.  Juan had gotten up so early that he able to make it a couple miles toward his destination before the first rays of dawn broke through the dark morning sky.  

Now, hours later, Juan crunched through the leaves as quietly as he could; hand on his holstered pistol and eyes still peeled.  He had walked deep into the woods, like the invitation had instructed, but he had trudged for so long that he had lost track of time.  Juan was starting to feel uncertain about being able to find his way back out of the woodlands.  His younger self looked back behind him, along the direction he thought he had come from.  It all just looked like more woods.  When he turned his head back he saw a cloaked figure kneeling not far ahead. The unexpected appearance made him squeak embarrassingly and jolt to an abrupt stop.

The figure was looking down but Juan had no doubt the character before him knew he was there.  The two stayed motionless for a beat before the cloaked figure stood up.  Juan felt himself called out to the figure just as he had that day, “Um, hola? Can I help you?”  It was strange to feel himself speak while he watched his past unfold again.  It was even stranger than feeling someone else speak mostly because Juan knew exactly what he was about to say, what was about happen. The cloaked figure’s head raised to look at him and of course he knew it would be the Señorita, but the zeitgeist of himself still took a step back in surprise.  Juan saw the all too familiar verdant face staring straight at him; the vine-lined skin, bean lips, rouge cheeks and rosy eyes. Juan remembered being so enamored with the sight of Her that day.  Looking at her again, through this vision she did not look as pretty.  Something looked… off, for lack of a better word.

The Señorita started walking toward young Juan.  At first her legs moved like any human but as she got closer Juan noticed that her legs looked more like vine-covered sapling stumps.  Her feet were the sapling’s roots that burrowed and unburrowed with every step.  Her face too was different.  It flickered between an attractive, seductive, and harrowing wildness.  The wild version of the Señorita had generally the same rosette eyes but everything else about Her was feral.  Her eye sockets had thorns growing in and around them and her nose hooked like a knot in a pine tree.  Her plump bean lips now looked dried and twisted and her mouth dripped a lurid bright green sap that had to be poisonous.  The vines that made up her countenance were not smooth, thin vines of a healthy plant but snarled, twisted and partially decaying things that squirmed like snakes in a nest. Juan of the past couldn’t move and showed no intention to.  He was fully engrossed in the Señorita’s spell, seeing only her sensual side, lost in a euphoria that Juan of the present recognized.  Older Juan was screaming out to his younger self to run but could not change the scene playing out before him.

Then, to the surprise of his older self, the Señorita snapped out an arm of twisted vines, coiling like a whip around young Juan’s arm.  Her whip arm stretched Juan toward her, stiff as a board.  The Señorita then lifted her other arm and, from within its bundle of vines, a spikey cluster of long nettles unfurled.  She started running her nettle fingers across his skin. Each nettle poked him quickly over and over again and each stab burned like a bee’s sting.  

Juan didn’t remember this happening before.  He remembered the Señorita walking toward him, them talking and Juan pledging his service.  It wasn’t until he had been on many missions and had proven his devotion that he received his rose.  Even then it wasn’t by the Señorita’s hand.  Juan had received his tattoo in the back room of a tea house in Little Kingdom in Malifaux… or was it in the barber shop of that mining town… no, it was back in Boston, dockside, right after he ran down a freikorpsmen that knew the Señorita’s secret.  Juan couldn’t remember precisely but he had been certain he got it in some legitimate tattoo parlor. 

Present Juan could feel the pain of the tattoo and it hurt, bad, but his younger self wasn’t even flinching let alone pulling away.  Soon the Señorita was done and she let his arm go.  Past Juan looked down at the rose design with an elated smile, but present Juan could not see past the oozing blood and putrid green slop.  Looking at the rose now, Juan was puzzled to see that it did not flicker or swirl at all.  He had always thought the rose had moved but now he saw only a static design.  At the heart of the rose was a name: Sheela-Na-Gig.  He realized her had always known the name but seeing it now, through the vision sight, brought clarity like never before.  That poor gardener Marcy had almost figured out the Señorita’s name on her own, though no other servant ever had.  No wonder the Señorita kept her tucked away. 

Sheela-Na-Gig, the Green Lady. Juan had heard a fable from an old Irish sailor on his boat ride to the Americas.  The sailor talked about a Lady of the woods, clothed only in loose and revealing foliage.  The old seaman’s story told of how she enthralled men’s minds and warned about walking alone in dense forest.  Juan had written the story off as pure fiction but before him, in writing, was the truth of it.  Malifaux had an odd way of turning tall tales into terrible truths. 

Juan looked up to the Señorita, her image still fluctuating between beautiful and baleful.  Her scarlet eyes peered at Juan intensely and her mouth moved to speak, “Now GO!!!” Her voice sounded like the scratching of tree branches on a shale roof. With the command, Juan’s mind was filled with many directions and a new mission to fulfill.  He turned to walk unnervingly back out of the woods and straight into a logger’s camp.  His pistola was in his hands and murder was on his mind.

“Well done,” the Ancient One pulled Juan back and he was relieved to be free of that memory.   Seeing the truly horrendous sight of the Señorita was even more startling then seeing her suck the essence out of poor Li Wei.  Her horrid visage had shaken Juan’s faith and confirmed his earlier fears about her wickedness.  This Señorita was not a marvel.  Juan saw her now for what she truly was; a twisted demon neverborn.  It was a startling realization to come to but not as startling as it should be.  In truth, Juan already knew.  It was as if he had always known but his mind had blocked that from consciousness.  The Señorita was a neverborn monster that preyed on humans; that had preyed on him.  No matter how he had loved Her, he knew She had to be stopped.  What he had loved was a lie and that lie would keep on beguiling and killing, unless he could do something.

“Señor we must stop her!” The words rushed from his mouth and it felt freeing to say aloud.  “I’m sorry Señor.  I know you wanted to meet her but you really couldn’t want to meet her now, not after the horribleness we’ve seen together.  We must stop her!  She is evil!  You must help me stop her!”

A smile quirked the corner of the Ancient One’s grin, only for a second as his eyes flicked down, then back to look at Juan, “Mr. Carlos, you could not be more right.  I have one more thing we can do but it will be quite taxing on you.” The feeling of a question lingered behind his statement.

“It does not matter Señor.  We must make it right.  I must to something to atone for things I have done at her command.” Juan’s resolve was unshaken by the Ancient One’s warning.  If he could do nothing else in this afterlife he would help the Ancient One learn the Señorita’s secrets and stop her.

“Steady yourself Mr. Carlos.” The Ancient One extended his hand and Juan nodded to in acceptance.  The Ancient One flicked his wrist and Juan’s view flashed with a prism of colors. 

The taste of steak filled Juan’s mouth as his vision started to clear.  The sound of a slightly mistuned piano plinked in the background and the smell of a burning cigarillo caressed his nostrils.  Juan was looking at a stage where an automated pianola was performing an upbeat arrangement.  The pianola was an upright, placed off to one side.  It’s keeps depressed in time with the notes of the song as if an unseen pianist stroked its keys.  The stage was much too big for it to be the only source of entertainment but no one else was visible and nothing else accompanied it.  Juan scanned the room with his eyes. 

To stage left was an extensive bar.  It was solidly built and its deep cherry and brown color was polished to a shine. The bar only had two patrons, both with long trench coats and tattered hats, sitting far enough apart to look like they weren’t together and weren’t there on duty.  A smile cracked Juan’s lips.  It was always amusing to see the Guard trying to blend in.  Behind the counter was a tall Abyssinian man with a nice blue vest over his eggshell shirt.  The bartender was organizing bottles on the shelves above the rows of glasses.  A mirror behind the shelves reflected his face. He was middle aged, clean shaven, and nervously focused on his task. 

Behind Juan were the double doors of the entrance. He was always aware of his exits.  As he scanned back to the left Juan saw a barmaid walk from behind the bar, pass in front of the stage, and continue out towards another table to left.  Juan watched her walk by, her movement directing his gaze back to his own table and directly into his dinner companion.  Across the table sat the Señorita.  She wore a gorgeous green evening dress complimented by a silken green scarf that shrouded her shoulders and draped over her head.  Amazingly her skin looked smooth and almost human in hue, though its ashen pallor was undeniable.  The Señorita’s eyes were still vibrant red buds that both fascinated and intimidated Juan.  She had just finished slicing through a piece of steak.

Juan knew exactly where he was.  This was the Merry Man Saloon on the day he died. 

Juan looked down to his own plate, a nice array of small potatoes and broccoli florets flanking a juicy T-bone.  Juan could feel his past-self delight in the bounty before him but Juan of the present only cringed at the realization of where he was.  Past Juan picked up the cigarillo from its ash tray, took a drag and placed it back.  He looked up to the Señorita.  She was reaching for her glass of wine.  The Señorita smiled at him and with the smile her face flickered from gorgeous to ghastly as the countenance of the Sheela-Na-Gig from Juan’s last vision flickered before him. 

“Is everything to your liking Juan?” the Señorita asked him.

“Oh most certainly Señorita!” Juan felt his lips say.  He wanted to vomit at the exuberance of his former self.  “Thank you for this blessing!”

“Is anything bothering you?” she asked in her special way that had always compelled Juan to be overwhelmingly truthful. 

Juan smirked and replied “I only wish some of the company was better.”  He made a head nod over his shoulder to express his unease with the Guild guardsmen at the bar. The Señorita nodded in understanding. 

“You’ll handle them fine,” she said comfortingly.  She placed her wine glass down and looked back to her plate.  Juan picked up his own glass, lightly rolling the liquid inside, and he brought it to his nose to sniff before taking a sip. 

Juan looked to the Señorita and said, “It’s good we take time to enjoy the small things; good for the soul I think.” She smiled politely but then her eyes shifted to look at something behind Juan and her smile widened.

“All right that’s enough,” a voice said behind Juan. The voice had tried to take on a tone of authority which was laughable because the only true authority here was sitting across the table from him.  “You’re going to have come with us.”

“I was just going to say we were having a nice dinner.”  Juan held back no irritation from his voice.  He slowly turned in his chair, as if bored, and looked up at the intruding individual.  It was one of the trench-coated men from the bar standing within arm’s reach.  His trench coat had flipped open revealing a Guild uniform and his hand rested on the peacekeeper hanging from his belt.  Present-day Juan knew this moment was coming but remembered feeling angrier about it; or at the least less giddy.

“Why, exactly” Juan spoke that word with painfully drawn-out emphasis, “are we supposed to go with you?”  

The Guild Guard’s eyes rolled away from the Señorita’s face to look down at him.  The larger man paused before responding, a look of contempt wrinkling his face.  As the Guardsman opened his mouth to speak Juan threw his wine into the man’s face, glass and all. Juan’s question was a simple distraction and it worked stunningly.  The Guard was caught completely by surprise as the glass tipped off his nose and smashed into his cheek and eye.  Juan was out of his seat before the first drop of wine hit the ground, bringing up his fist into the guard’s unprotected throat.  Juan’s boot snapped into the Guard’s knee, crumpling him to the ground as Juan brought his pistola out and leveled it at the second guard now standing at the bar.  The second guard was struggling to bring up a rifle from under his jacket but was just as flatfooted as the first.  Juan’s shot took him in the chest before he could bring his weapon to bear and the rifle fired off anyway in a spasm from the falling guard.  It went too wide to harm anything other than a bar stool.

Juan cocked his gun and dropped the muzzle to the head laying at his feet.  He fired without flinching.  Juan of the present recoiled at the manic joy he felt flood his past-self.  How could he delight in destroying the already subdued man?  Hearing the Señorita scream behind him, he jerked around to look at Her, pulling the hammer back once more. 

Past and present Juan’s saw a man in a nice grey suit and top hat.   The Suited Man had just slashed through the Señorita’s arm with a cane sword and the Señorita was clasping her arm in pain as she dropped to her knees.  Juan saw Her image flash to the wilder version of Herself but his past-self didn’t seem to register the change.  The Suited Man’s cane sword rippled with flames as he pivoted towards Juan, extending the sword point and dropping into an en garde stance.

Juan tried to train his gun on the Suited Man, but before he could squeeze the trigger the cane sword flicked and Juan’s gun was out his hand, skittering across the stage.  Present Juan screamed at himself to dodge but to no avail.  Juan’s old self still lunged towards his pistola and right into the Suited Man’s lunging blade.  Juan’s shoulder caught the blade, spinning him hard into a table and onto the ground.

Juan rolled over, blood spurt from his shoulder.  As Juan of the present knew he would be, the Suited Man was standing over Juan of the past, his sword reversed and raised for a downward stab.  Juan brought up his arm in defense against the attack but the stab never came.  The man’s face started to become gaunt and his jaw dropped open.  His skin paled and he convulsed in pain, his arms dropping weakly to his sides and the sword clattering to the floor. The Suited Man seemed to be rapidly dehydrating.  Juan looked down at the man’s ankles and saw the Señorita had slid her hand just under his pantleg and around his ankle.  The man collapsed to the ground, banging off of a nearby chair. 

The Señorita looked exhausted but her arm had already sealed itself.  There was a burn mark where the cane sword slashed her and a green liquid oozed from it but it was clearly useable.  Juan of past still felt compelled to rush to the Señorita’s aid and used his good arm to prop himself up.  Juan of the present screamed out “STAY DOWN!!!” forcing as much will as he could into the statement though he knew it would not matter.  Juan had his feet under him now and stood without hesitation.  He took one step toward the Señorita and heard the click clack of a rifle lever.  Young Juan turned to look toward the source of the sound, seeing the Guard at the bar, shirt soaked in blood but with the rifle trained on Juan’s chest. 

In all the stories Juan heard of men dying people said in their last seconds, everything slowed down.  That, in a moment like this, a person would almost see the muzzle flash and the bullet in the air speeding toward him.  A man would see the all the moments of his life flash before his eyes like the pages of a picture book.  If Juan could go back to all the people that told these tales and slap them, he would. 

Juan hit the ground before he registered the rifle’s report.  Juan of the present could do nothing to change it. He knew this was what happened and that in seconds his world would fade to black.  However, that was not how it played out today.

Juan laid on the wooden saloon floor feeling the warm flow of his life flooding out across it.  He could only stare up at the ceiling.  From behind him he heard the screech of wood on wood as a flash of green hurdled over him.  He heard a man’s scream followed by the sickening squish of meat and bone.  The Señorita had avenged him.  Before three heart beats passed the Señorita was standing over him in full vegetal Sheela-Na-Gig glory.  Her body was entirely made of plants, vines, and foliage, all of them writhing and slithering as if she was made of snakes.  Her red eyes looked him over as she knelt next to him.  The vines that made up her right arm dug into her body, like fishing in a pocket, while her left arm’s vines reached out for Juan.

Juan tried to speak but nothing came out.  He tasted the copper tang of blood and struggled to breath.  The Sheela-Na-Gig clasped his sleeve and tore it off with a jerk that tugged Juan closer to Her.  Present Juan kept trying to speak, to scream, to do anything but his zeitgeist was unresponsive.  The Sheela-Na-Gig’s right hand pulled out a crystalline stone.  She held it up to examine it in the light.  Juan of the Present knew what came next but could only watch helplessly.  At least now he knew how the Señorita truly cared for him.  Sheela-Na-Gig looked down to Juan, her rosy eyes staring into his in their uniquely eerie way. She lowered the stone to his rose tattoo and grinned wickedly; verdant sappy ooze dripping from her nettled smile.  Juan felt agony rushing through him replacing the blood in his veins.  His mouth snapped open and he tried to scream…

The antechamber of the abandoned factory echoed with Juan’s howl.  An old, robed man stood in the middle of the room.  He held a small crystalline stone in one hand and his other was wrapped around a long staff.  He peered at the crystal as the light it cast faded to nothing.  Many cracks stretched across the side of the gem he gazed into, though other sides were certainly smoother.  To his right sat a young lady in a pale fuchsia kimono.  A mask adorned her forehead and a bamboo flute was laid across her lap.

“And that is the tragedy of Mister Juan Carlos,” the man said, lowering the stone and turning toward the young lady.

“What shall I tell McCabe?” she asked him.

The elderly man handed the exhausted soul stone to her and smiled, “Bring fire,” He turned and walked out of the room adding over his shoulder, “And maybe a few Ortegas.”

“As you say, Master Yan Lo,” she responded.  Her eyes fell to the stone in her hand, a frown peeling her lips down.  She slid it into one of her sleeves and turned to follow the Ancient One out of the room.

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