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Aaron

Storied Soundtracks

48 posts in this topic

BIG TROUBLE IN CANTIGO MINES

 

1

After a year and half in prison, I decided it was the worst I’d ever been in. And when Burt Jackson says a prison is bad, that’s saying something. I’ve been in just about every jail and prison up and down the east coast. Even Riker’s had been better. At least they had a movie theater.

            I had been sentenced for forty years confinement for armed robbery and arson, neither of which were really my fault. See, I’d set the whole thing up.  Framed myself, kept the evidence of my innocence hidden.  That sounds pretty darn stupid, right?

I may look like an idiot, but I ain’t.  My contacts just took longer to arrange everything according to my specifications than I’d anticipated. The year hadn’t been wasted though, as I’d managed to find my mark and arranged for him to get the same deal.

It was a great deal-in exchange for mining in Malifaux, we’d get our freedom.  My sentence was reduced to ten years of labor. Convincing my mark to take the deal was a bit harder-kind of a weedy-looking guy, definitely not the mining type-but in the end he signed his name on the dotted line.

So here I was, waiting for the prison cart to take us to the train station. My mark, Johnny Kang, was sitting across from me. He had the look of a man condemned to die. Which, if the rumors about The Breach were true, could still be possible. A man’s head exploded during the crossing once.  I wasn’t going to tell Johnny that. I just smiled at him.

            Johnny stared at a space between his two feet. He was small and bony with short black hair and wore a thick pair of wire-rimmed glasses alongside the standard-issue black and white striped prisoner garb we all wore. Johnny had worked as a bookkeeper. What he hadn’t known was that one of his clients was filching money from Guild coffers.

The Guild ran an investigation on him, tried to get Johnny to sing, but he never did. He didn’t talk because he was loyal or anything, just professional. He kept the confidences of all his clients.  The investigators ended up killing his girl and pinning the murder on him as some sort of domestic dispute gone wrong.

Johnny’d been a tough nut to crack, but eventually I won him over. I needed someone trustworthy for my plan to work. I wasn’t going to screw him over either. Burt Jackson never screws people over unless they do it to him first.

“Hey man,” I patted his knee, “Cheer up! It’ll be over so quick you’d think we’d only been there a day.”

“My grandfather was a miner during the San Francisco gold rush, Mister Jackson,” Johnny replied, “A tunnel collapsed on him. Mining is dangerous.”

“Everything’s dangerous,” I shrugged, “Ya just gotta know when to take a risk.”

Johnny shook his head. I rolled my eyes. Out the barred windows of the prisoner’s carriage, I could see that we were close to the train.

            The train to Malifaux wasn’t like other trains.  For one there, there were the armed guards, all Guild members, manning turrets on the top and sides of the train. Then there was the armor that covered every car except one or two cars at the back. The front of the train was reserved for passengers of wealth and privilege.  Those front cars had been gussied up for the journey, well-painted and gilded in gold. Behind those were the comparatively plain cars for the middle class and the even plainer and far less decadent cars for passengers on contract with the Guild.

Our car was at the very back, right behind the storage car. We got out of the carriage in a single file. One of the guards shoved me towards the awaiting chain car. The chain car was a special addition for us prisoners who’d signed our lives away.

The chain car was a huge metal container with slats in the walls so the guards could see into the compartment.  One end of the car was fenced off with a guard stationed in the small space behind it.  The guard was a brute of a man, which isn’t a very accurate description, since it. He eyed us with disdain, his bristly upper lip lifted in a sneer.  I winked at him.  He spat on the ground as I walked past.  

The guard behind me jabbed his stick into my kidney and walked me into the middle of the chain car where sturdy metal poles had been welded floor to ceiling.  He clapped my chains to the pole in a few practiced clacks. I tested the limits of the chains and found I my fingers could almost touch the floor. It was going to be an uncomfortable ride to the mine.

Johnny got chained to the pole next to me. He glanced around the car and nervously polished his glasses on his jumpsuit. For a guy who worked with gangsters he was really jumpy. It got on my nerves, but I needed him.

I scratched my back, where the compass had been tattooed. I’d had it inked in two years ago, just before I’d set my plan into motion. It was pivotal to pulling off my heist.

The guards finished chaining up all the prisoners before they retreated back to the car in front of the chain car.  While we were exposed to the elements in the chain car, they’d be knocking back beers and playing cards.  I didn’t envy them.  Soon I’d have enough money to buy the prison they worked for.

“What’s that on the bars?” Johnny whispered.

I glanced over to the bars, where runes had been etched into them. “Runes to limit the amount of magic we absorb during the crossing. Also keeps critters out.”

“That’s good, we won’t explode or get mauled.”

“It also prevents you from awakening any magic. The Guild doesn’t want witches in a soul stone mine.”

“Oh.”

The train gave a few short whistles before chugging out of the station.  Our destination was the Breach which lay a scant hundred yards down the tracks.  Each clack of the wheels brought us closer to my salvation-and possible doom.  The Breach was dangerous.

            A few moments later I felt a cool cold breeze and a whistling sound, like wind through a keyhole. It grew louder as we approached the crack between worlds. Johnny had his hands against his ears and his eyes screwed shut.

My heart dropped in my chest as the train entered The Breach.  Shadowy shapes twisted and shifted out in the darkness beyond the train’s lights.  Something shifted above the train, something so incomprehensibly huge it sent my heart racing.

            Cold and stale air blew between the metal slats that made up the wall of the chain car. The wind smelled of cinnamon, dust, and old leather. The world between worlds smelled like a tomb.

Something was bothering me. The tunnel was only supposed to be a few hundred feet long at most and yet the train was still chugging through it. I counted to myself, trying to see if my adrenaline was throwing off my sense of time, but I made it to ten. My mouth went dry. We were stuck in the breach.

A deep voice giggled and muttered from somewhere out in the darkness. The sound was loud enough that it carried over the chug of the train’s engine. Outside, little gold lights blinked and twinkled at us. After a moment, I realized they were eyes, and they were staring at me.  

My heart skipped a beat. The tattoo on my back began to burn. Next to me, Johnny gave a ragged gasp and jerked away from the wall, the chains on his wrist jangling.

Johnny caught me staring, and looked away, breathing hard. I didn’t blame him. I’d been through The Breach before and it hadn’t been this bad.

“What’s wrong with these people,” Johnny hissed at me, “It’s like they don’t even care that something’s out there!”

I blinked. Now that he mentioned it, there was a distinct lack of reaction from the rest of the passengers. The rumbling and shaking of the train moving had stopped.  The Breach was completely silent, save the whistling of cold wind. The guard in the corner was the only other person moving, he was flipping the pages of a penny dreadful.  

I swallowed, “The Breach does this sometimes, throws time and space for a loop.  Give it a minute and don’t panic.”

Panic and fear could very well attract whatever monstrosity lurked in the dark limbo between worlds, but I didn’t tell him that.  Sometimes not saying anything gets a better result than the truth.  Johnny stood shivering in his chains.

Out in the dark, the little gold glows were following us, keeping pace with the train. My tattoo itched and burned painful. I didn’t understand what the connection was between my tattoo and the monster and I sure didn’t want to find out.

The monster began to creep closer and closer to the chain car. I couldn’t see it clearly, only the eyes stood out, but I could see a vague outline of tangled limbs propelling it forward. In a few moments it would hit the train.

Everyone else seemed to be outside our time stream. No one would notice what I did right now except the guard, but he was too engrossed in his reading to care. I dropped a hand to my thigh and pulled out a shiv made of sharpened pipe.

Something slapped against the side of the train. The guard jerked and looked around, taking in his surroundings. Then he saw the golden eyes staring at him from the darkness and gave a shout.

“What the hell’s goin on here, what is that thing?” The guard screamed, raising his gun to his shoulder and firing through a slot in the car.  The bullets dimpled the beast's hide but no blood flowed from the wounds.

“Burt, we need to get out of here!  Run for The Breach on foot!” Johnny whispered urgently.

            “Hold your horses Kang! I’m working on it!” I whispered back, fumbling with the lock.

            My mind worked frantically through the problem as I tried picking the lock on my cuffs. Running through The Breach wasn’t a terrible idea, but I didn’t know how fast the monster moved. It had some sort of time dilation ability, stretching the seconds into minutes, which made judging speed and distance a touch and go kind of thing. Maybe if we pried a bar off the car, used it as a weapon, we could fend it off.

            The thing pulled itself over the car and stared unblinkingly at me with a thousand gold eyes. Slender tendrils extended from the creeping mass and reached into the chain car.  Sparks shot from the runes covering the bars.  The creature squealed, jerking its tendrils away from the cage.

            Instead of giving up, it circled the perimeter of the car, tendrils probing for an opening, flinching when the bars sparked. I was breathing through my nose to calm myself. The creature was learning. Sooner or later it would find its way in.

            The guard was raising a ruckus, firing at it and screaming. He’d hit an eye and pop it in a spray of watery yellow pus, but the eye would regrow a second later. I felt like calling him an idiot, clearly he was wasting bullets, but I understood his desperation. I was feeling it too.

            My shiv wasn’t thin enough to pick the lock and slipped out of the hole and impaled itself into the meaty part of my palm. I swore and clenched my teeth, taking deep hissing breaths. The blood made my chains slippery, so I tried wriggling out of them.

            “Burt! Bleed on my cuffs!” Johnny screamed, casting frantic glances at the golden eyed thing.

            I shoved my hands over his. Johnny started wriggling his hands and tugging at his cuffs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tendril worm its way under the wood planked floor of the guard’s cage. The guard saw it too and began firing through the gaps in the floor.

            “Johnny,” I said, keeping my voice low but urgent, “If there is any time for you to show me that your meek accountant facade hides hidden depths of badassery, right now would be that time.”

            Johnny glanced over where I was staring and watched the tendril seize the guard’s leg and then begin tugging him through the floor. The gap between the floorboards was only half an inch, so what followed was a series of sickening crunches and splurches. He screamed the entire time.

            “I’m free,” Johnny whispered.

            I nodded absently, still staring at the bloody spot on the floor where the guard had died. If we survived there’d be no need to come up with an excuse. The other guards would just assume he’d disappeared or exploded or something, not that he’d been eaten. I felt sick.

            “Burt,” Johnny tugged at my chains, “the shiv!”

            I handed him the shiv and watched as the thing rose up from under the floorboards, the muscles of the monster squeezing and roiling their way in. I clenched my teeth in disgust. There was something violently wrong with the monster. I’d seen a Neverborn or two when I was in Malifaux last time. They’d been hideous, but this thing blew them out of the water.

            The golden eyed monster finished pulling itself through the floorboards and turned towards me. The creature was vaguely humanoid with eyes studding its body at regular intervals. The body was made of snake-like coils of muscle, the head bulbous and lumpy. I couldn’t see what color it was, but I could smell it.  It smelled like ozone and stagnant water.

            The monster was mincing down the car towards us, careful to avoid touching the bars. It didn’t have far to go. I looked to see what Johnny was doing and saw that Johnny hadn’t moved a muscle since the thing had gotten into the chain car.

            Great! Just when I needed him, he froze up! The thing loomed over me now, the golden glow of its eyes dazzling in the darkness of The Breach. One long, slender tendril snaked up from the ground and touch the tattoo on my back. A sharp lance of pain shot through me and I gasped.

            “At last,” it hissed, its voice a wet lisp, “I will be free!”

            Johnny moved in a sudden blur, planting the shiv into one of the larger eyes. The eye punctured and collapsed around the shiv. The thing screeched and lashed out at Johnny, but he ducked the blow and stabbed another eye, sending hot yellow ichor spattering everywhere. The thing recoiled and stumbled into the bars.

            The bar shot sparks, sending the monster reeling back into the bars on the other side of the train. Pinballing back and forth between the sides of the chain car, the monster fled back to the safety of the guard’s cage.

            As the creature fled, shrieking and hissing, into the darkness, I turned and slapped Johnny on the back. “You’re a damn hero!”

            “I was saving myself,” Johnny shrugged.

 

2

 

            As soon as the creature fled, the time resumed. Prisoners started blinking and the train resumed its rumbling. Another guard from the car in front of us came in to check on us and found the remains of the dead guard and shook his head. He left and emerged with a bucket and washed off the boards before taking the seat the dead guard had vacated.  Everyone knew bad things happened in The Breach.

A few moments later the train emerged from the darkness into the eye-blinding brightness of the noonday sun. The track slipped through a tall cluster of buildings.  The buildings reminded me of Earthside architecture, all stone pillars and menacing statuary.  A large welcome sign stood at the end of the Breach.

The train station in Malifaux was thronging with people and security guards.  The Guild made sure no one came through that might pose a threat to the stranglehold they had on this world. The government of Earth did not take well to a private enterprise controlling the resources of an entire planet.  The Guild needed to be on guard for any armed excursions a government might attempt on the Breach.

The train stopped for a few minutes, passengers departing and entering. After we reached the Cantigo Mines the train would have a day-long layover before departing to Innocence. That was the timetable I was looking at for my plan.  The train loaded up on passengers and departed.

Whoever had designed Malifaux had never heard of the concept of city planning.  The avenues twisted and doubled back onto themselves.  The housing grew so thick it overtook the sidewalk and spread into the streets. It was clear that no one had thought to make the streets wide enough for carriages to pass through.

Beyond the inhabited part of the city of Malifaux the buildings of the city grew smaller and closer together. There were no streets, tangled alleyways where skeletal figures lurched. Some alleyways had collapsed, revealing the turgid waters of the sewers below. Rats the size of small dogs took flight, disappearing into the waters with a splash. Whole sections of the city were razed though the damage was a hundred years old. Vines and small trees grew from the rubble.

Ahead, past another train station, was the rubble of an old wall.  Skeletons covered the area below the wall as though they'd died trying to get out of the city.  Scorch marks marred the trestle which bore the track as if someone had tried to destroy it.

“What happens if someone actually managed to destroy the track?” Johnny asked.

“We’re going eighty and chained to a pillar. We’ll be ripped apart.”

The train passed out of the city, the tracks elevated thirty feet over the ground.  Wretched hovels and demolished buildings lay scattered across the plains.  They were all that remained of civilization this far from Malifaux.  

Here and there, pipes struck out of the ground in clusters. The thick copper pipes varied in size, the smallest was a foot around while the widest could fit an entire carriage inside of it. The pipes were spewing great fans of brackish muck, the black liquid settling in stinking ponds.

The metal slats that made up the walls of the chain car offered no shelter from the putrid stench of the wastewater pools.  I gagged and snorted but the smell clung to my nostrils like napalm.  Johnny dry heaved.

We cleared the filth a few minutes later.  Prisoners rushed as close to the slats as their chains would allow, desperate for a breath of fresh air.  I held back from the slats for a minute before making my way towards them.  Burt Jackson has some pride.

Johnny had none of that, and had lunged for the slats as soon as the air started to clear, sucking in deep breaths. I joined him, taking a big gasping breath. The fresh air cleared my head.

“That’s the worst of it,” I said.

“We’re being sent to work to death,” Johnny replied.

 “Don’t be such a negative Nancy, Johnny. My plan will work.”

“No one’s ever broken out of Cantigo.”

I snorted. Plenty of people broke out of the prison mines. The trick was surviving The Guild when they put a bounty on your head.

“Allow me to clarify, Johnny. No one’s broken out of Cantigo and survived long enough to get back through The Breach.”

“Then how-?”

I placed a finger on my lips. “Not here. I’ll explain everything when we get there.”

“How did you know which mine you were going to?  They never told me.”

“I have a good lawyer.  Now, listen.  Once we get off the train, ya gotta stick to me.”

Johnny furrowed his brow and frowned, but nodded. He was a great guy, but he asked too many questions. A train full of eavesdropping prisoners was not the best place to discuss a breakout plan.

The train picked up speed again, forcing me to find my balance again.  We were passing over the tops of palm trees and weeping willows.  Below us, the trestles descended into the dark waters of a swamp.  Gremlins, green skinned creatures with pointed ears, rassled in the mud.  Gremlins were notorious for being dumb, mean, and murderous.  They were part of the reason the track passed so high over their heads.

“If you look down there, you’ll see the most American people on this world.”

“The Gremlins?” Johnny asked, peering through the slots.

I tugged him away and to the ground, “Yes, and that’s why we should duck.”

Gunshots echoed from below us, bullets pinging off the armored sections of the train. A prisoner was struck and sagged to the floor in his chains, clutching his side. He coughed, blood frothing pinkly from his nose and mouth.

"Ger offa my muck!" A voice squeaked far below us.

“My God!” Johnny gasped, staring at the prisoner drowning in his own blood.

“Yeah,” I wiped a tear from my eyes, “that was a fantastic shot.”

“A man just died!”

Johnny looked paler than usual and was staring at the dying man in horror. I clapped him on the back, my manacles clanking.

“You know, in times like these, ole Burt Jackson has a saying-.”

“How often do people die around you?”

“More than you’d think. As I was saying-.”

“I don’t want to know,” Johnny spat. He turned and started staring out the slats.

The track climbed upwards, far above the trees, throwing my stomach for a loop, before I saw the other reason the tracks ascended so high.  Malifaux mosquitoes perched on the tops of the trees.  They were huge, misshapen things with three foot long proboscis.  The giant mosquitoes buzzed angrily from their perches in a swarm as the train passed them by. Every so often I would spot a swarm of them feeding on an animal, the blood turning their translucent proboscis pink.

Johnny shivered and turned away from the view below us.  “How long will this trip take?”

“A few more hours,” I said, watching a giant heron with exquisite plumage spear an eel with the tip of its beak with the dainty elegance of a noblewoman spearing a hors d'oeuvre with a toothpick, “until then, enjoy the beauty of Nythera.”

“It’s horrifying,” Johnny whispered, voice shaking, his eyes transfixed on the heron.

I nodded, “They say the horrors of Nythera rival those of Australia.”

The tattoo on my back pulsed suddenly.  Flinching, I tried to act like nothing had happened.  Johnny had noticed me flinch and eyed me.

“Are you okay?”  Johnny asked, eyes flicking from me to the vista outside the slats.

“Bee must have stung me.”  I said, trying to wave the question off.

If the other prisoners noticed my tattoo at this point, I was done.  The Guild did not give sorcerers to the mines.  They killed them or converted them to their cause.

I’d been to Malifaux before and I hadn’t been riding in the chain car.  My powers had awoken the second the train had entered the Breach. Magic was my ace in the hole.  With it, I stood a chance of escaping from the mines.

Johnny avoided me the rest of the journey. The hours passed by in awkward silence as the landscape beyond the slats changed from swampy wetlands to arid mesas.  The soil was the varicolored red orange and yellow of sandstone and cacti rose from the dunes.

The sun beat down on the metal slat walls of the chain car, turning the car into an oven.  Sweat dripped down my face and oozed out of my pores.  I’d thought the scent of raw sewage had been the worst part of the trip, but this was far worse.  My chains were starting to heat up.  If the ride didn’t end in the next few minutes I was going to be burnt.

“Where the hell are we going?”  Johnny said, breaking the silence, wiping his sweat-soaked brow with his sleeve.

“Old guild mine by Innocence.”  I said, adding, “It’s a town in the badlands,” when I saw a look of confusion pass across his face.

“Why here?”  Johnny asked.

I cocked an eyebrow, “Meaning?”

“You could go anywhere, right?  Any mine in Malifaux?  So why this mine?”

“My inside man can’t be in every mine, you know.  Besides, this mine is special.  It was one of the first mines discovered with a large lode of soulstone. It was practically lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up.”

“So it’s played out?”

“No, but it’s getting there.  See, the best soulstones are at the bottom of one of the most dangerous shafts in the mine.”

“What makes it so dangerous?”

“It’s haunted.”

3

 

It was near sundown by the time we arrived at the mine. The mine had been carved out of the side of a towering mesa and was a multistoried affair. Caves had been dug out of the mesa’s cliff face for living quarters. The smoke of a dozen fire wafted out of holes in the sides of the cliff. Ladders and rope bridges linked the caves together in a way that made me question their safety.

The mine was fenced off to protect it from the Neverborn and the guard’s quarters had their own extra set of fencing. The prisoner’s area was wide open. The space was deceptive as there were guard towers with snipers set up at the top of the mesa.

My tattoo pulsed again with more urgency than last time. I was ready for the shock and braced myself. Instead of convulsing I stood ramrod straight. Some of the prisoners gave me weird looks.

Johnny gave me a funny look but refrained from comment. The train rolled to a stop a few moments later, saving me from his questioning gaze. By the time the guards unloaded us from the sweltering heat of the chain car, several prisoners had passed out. My own head was pounding but I fought through the haze of pain, knowing they’d give us plenty of water.

Cantigo Mine had a water problem. Below the soul stone formation was one of the largest aquifers in the badlands. On top of that, the mine had a tendency to flood after rainfall. Mining progressed slowly. One wrong move could drown the whole mine or worse, collapse it, bring the whole community down.

A guard uncuffed me and led me out of the car. I stumbled for a moment before catching myself and walking to the trough. Clean water poured through a crack in the sandstone through the trough. The guard gestured for me to clean up, so I did.

“Hey, hurry up, everyone else needs a drink!” A jowly old guard in need of a shave growled.

If I didn’t have a mission, I might’ve said something, but I didn’t need attention right now. Instead, I nodded and walked away from the trough to the growing line of fellow prisoners in front of the mine’s outfitter office. Johnny had gotten off the car ahead of me and stood in line directly in front of me. He gave me a questioning smile when he saw me walk up.

“If this is a prison camp, why aren’t we locked up?” Johnny asked.

“Cantigo Mine is the only source of water for the next hundred and fifty miles. Unless you’ve got a real good escape plan, you aren’t going to survive.”

“I thought there’d be guards beating people.”

I shushed him and pointed. The line we’d been waiting in had shortened enough that the outfitter could hear us. I waited until after the man behind the counter shoved a bag of supplies and a pickaxe into my arms before responding.

“Due to the nature of the location and the dangerousness of the mine itself, they can’t afford to break you. The mine is supposed to do that.”

I looked around for Tommy Chen. He was my inside man. He’d ‘earned his freedom’, but found that he had no money, so he was stuck supervising the other prisoners. Tommy was supposed to have met us when we got off the train. He probably got drunk and forgot what day it was. I struck off for his cave near the top of the mesa.

“Where are you going?” Johnny asked, huffing along behind me on the rope bridge.

“To see Tommy, he’s an overseer here. A contract laborer, not a prisoner. He’ll put us to work on the right shaft.”

“What do you mean, ‘right shaft’? What’s-”

I held up a hand, “Not out here. When we meet up with Tommy I’ll explain everything.”

Motioning Johnny to follow, I hiked along a hewn path along the side of the mesa. Tommy’s cave was somewhere on the upper north cliff face. He should have met me back at the train and I was a little worried. This wasn’t something Tommy would forget.

“Why me?” Johnny asked.

“Because I know you didn’t kill anyone, Johnny.”

Ignoring the shocked look on his face, I returned to the task of ferreting out Tommy. My legs were getting tired and the sun had started hitting me full on when I’d rounded the corner so the climb was taking a lot out of me. Something positive did come out of the long hike up the cliff-Johnny was far too tired to ask any more questions.

The cave entrance at the top of the cliff had a blanket hung over it. I hesitated, wondering whether to knock on the blanket or to just go in. I opted to walk in. Pushing aside the curtain revealed the corpse of Tommy.

He lay sprawled on the floor next to a makeshift wooden table. His chair was tipped over, the metal cup he’d been drinking out of was half-empty. The jug of moonshine sitting next to his mug was half-empty as well. Tommy had always been a drinker, but he wouldn’t have drank half a jug of moonshine. Not by himself, anyways.

I heard Johnny trudge up to the entrance behind me and freeze. He must have seen the corpse. Anger coursed through me. Tommy was integral to the plan, without him there was no way for me to be sure we’d get assigned to the right mine shaft.

“Is he…?” Johnny asked.

I nodded. “As a door nail. Get inside.”

Johnny swallowed and stepped into the cave beside me. Tommy, when he’d been among the living, had carved a multi-chambered home for himself. The man had a lot of time on his hands, I supposed. A straw-stuffed mattress made of uniforms lay in one of the chambers. In another chamber, plates and bowls made of glassy sandstone lined a shelf on one wall of the cave. A fire pit had been carved in the front wall. He’d been a fan of whittling as the carved wooden figures on a shelf attested.

All in all, it was a very homey cave. Too bad about the corpse. Tommy’s body was still stiff with rigor mortis-so he’d died earlier this morning. He hadn’t been throttled, as I’d originally guessed, his neck had been crushed. Tommy’s head flopped backwards and lolled when I flipped him over like a rag doll.

The grip strength needed to do something like that would have been enormous. I patted down Tommy’s body, checking for a key. His pockets turned up empty, but the toe of his boot yielded a few shards of soul stone, which I pocketed. They were one-shot items but the power I could throw around with them was enough to take care of some meddling guard.

The frown that had settled itself on my face deepened. If Tommy had been careless with his words and disclosed any of the secrets I’d shared with him, my plan might be ruined. Of course, I could be misreading the situation. Tommy could have gotten into an argument with a fellow miner and things had gotten out of hand.

“How are we going to get out of here now?” Johnny whispered.

“Getting out isn’t the problem Johnny,” I said, stalking around the corpse, searching the area for the keys to the mine. “Getting in was the hardest part. Normally they’d have shipped us to a granite quarry to train for a few years first. Had to make friends and pull lots of strings to get on that chain car and get shipped here directly.”

“Why go to all this trouble? Why befriend me?”

I stood up and brushed the dust off my knees. “My great-great-grandfather discovered this mine over a hundred years ago. He wrote home about it and was preparing to return Earthside when the Breach collapsed. The last thing he sent was a compass and letter. The letter explained that he’d hid a large cache of soulstones somewhere in the left mineshaft.

“He never specified where he hid them?” Johnny asked.

“That was what the compass was for. It's enchanted to the location of the treasure.”

“How did you get a compass through the Breach?”

I took off my shirt and turned around. “Because I’m the compass.”

Johnny gaped at the tattoo of a compass on my back. “I-it’s moving!”

“I told you I needed someone I could trust to watch my back. Literally.”

I shrugged my shirt back on and studied the room again. If I were Tommy, I’d have made copies of those keys in case the originals were lost or stolen. I’d put those copies somewhere accessible but not obvious…

Turning to the entrance I scanned the ceiling of Tommy’s cave, looking for an indent above the entrance. In the corner was a tiny alcove a foot above my head. I had to stretch to reach the hole and scrabbled around for a moment before my fingers touched wood.

“So he had his key after all.” Johnny said as I pulled the key out of the hole over the doorway

“No, this is a whittled copy. Whoever killed Tommy has the original set.”

Johnny’s eyes widened, “Then the murderer is after the soulstones!”

I shrugged, “The murderer doesn’t have a magic tattoo that will lead him to the cache. He knows what shaft the cache is in, but finding it is a completely different story. My great-great-grandfather was a magic user as well.”

Johnny rubbed his chin, “You didn’t share that information with Tommy?”

“Of course I didn’t, I’m no rube. Although, this does mean we’ll have to deal with the murderer,” I pursed my lips in thought, “I think a guard committed the crime.”

Johnny nodded, “Could have been. I’m guessing you sent letters in code to Tommy and the guard caught on, figured out there was treasure. Then he got Tommy drunk, forced him to spill the beans, and then killed him. But if he was a guard, he’d have his own set of key, why steal Tommy’s?”

I paused to consider, “Prevents us from following him. If Tommy told him about the treasure, then he could have ratted me out. Taking the keys and killing Tommy takes me out of the picture.”

“We could just wait for the killer to give up and come back.”

“He’ll kill you and torture me. Then, once I’ve led him to the cache, he’ll kill me too. So we really need to take him out now. Grab your gear, if we hurry we might be able to ambush him!”

4

The mine was nearly empty by the time we’d hiked to the entrance. The sun was almost fading and the supper bell was set to ring in a few minutes. We’d gone without supper, but it was a small discomfort I’d gladly exchange for the cache of soulstones and my freedom. Johnny stumbled along behind me, the mining cap and boots too large for him, the helmet falling into his eyes and the boots causing him to trip.

It didn’t matter. He wouldn’t be using them for long anyways. I tightened my grip on Tommy’s pick, my fingers tracing the worn wood grain. All we needed to do was kill the guard and find my grandpa’s buried treasure. Everything after that would be a cakewalk.

“Should’ve worn gloves,” I muttered.

Johnny nodded, walking beside me, “Those would have helped prevent blisters.”

“Not for blisters,” I said, my eyes staring off into the darkness, “For all the blood.”

Johnny tripped, but I caught him. “W-we’re going to-!”

“Yep.”

We bypassed a group of miners chatting amongst themselves. When they were out of sight, we made our way down the maze of smooth-hewn corridors, the passage lit by oil lanterns. A guard went past, so we ducked into a corner and waited for them to walk by. As soon as we’d made it safely out of the main passageway I removed my shirt.

“Now we need to follow the tattoo. Grab a lantern and guide me.”

Johnny nodded, eyeing my tattoo.

“Scared?” I asked after we’d traveled down a few winding corridors.

“Of course, I’m in a world I know nothing about with an idiot.”

“Come on, Johnny,” I turned to him, grinning, “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“...My girlfriend was horribly murdered.”

Right. My face fell. I turned back to the tunnel ahead.

“If I could-” I said, but Johnny cut me off.

“Left up ahead,” Johnny announced in a flat voice.

I pursed my lips and continued forward. The corridors ahead were sparsely lit, the lanterns that had been strung along the corridor were spaced farther and farther apart. We were closing in on the fenced off tunnel.

“Why do these tunnels go in a loop?” Johnny asked after a long moment.

“Sandstone is prone to collapse and difficult to mine. Watch,” I swung my pick at a spot in the wall. Big chunks of sandstone splintered and collapsed. “So the path has to curve in the direction of the grain of the sandstone.

The sounds of Johnny’s footsteps stopped. “Found the fenced in mine area.”

I turned. Johnny had the lantern raised high, revealing a wall of metal. I cursed, the sound echoing down the passageway. The fence was sheet metal welded together. A small door was inset in the wall.

“The key will work, right Burt?”

Wiping my hands on my pants, I shoved the key into the door and turned it. The key wouldn’t budge. I shoved on it harder and the carved wooden key snapped.

I slammed my fist against the sheet metal. “Damn it!”

I hefted my pickaxe and then struck the lock with all the forced I could muster. There was a small dent, but other than that the lock remained undamaged. I rubbed my hand, which had gone numb.

“Let me give it a go.” Johnny said.

“I couldn’t break the lock, Johnny, you aren’t going to have any luck with it.”

Johnny ignored me and inspected the lock before pulling the dried fish out of his pocket. He stripped it of flesh and started fiddling with the bones. I waited, impatient, listening for the sounds of guards coming down the path.

Johnny shouted. The door clicked and swung open. I stared at him.

“I grew up on the streets,” Johnny shrugged, “I learned a thing or two before becoming an accountant.”

I grinned. “So I made a good choice in an accomplice after all! Let’s-”

That’s when I noticed tracks on the other side of the door. There were footprints in many different shapes that had walked through this area recently. What had caught my attention were the pair of conical indentations in the dirt.

“What’s wrong now?” Johnny asked, following my gaze to the floor.

“A Warden’s down here too.”

“Oh great! Now the warden’s going to be after us?”

“Not the warden, a Warden. It’s an automaton.”

Wardens were giant metal-plated monstrosities that could easily subdue prisoners. The guard must have set the Warden to patrol this area. Getting past the Warden wouldn’t be easy. Along with the plate armor they were covered in, they also had a pneumatic fist that could punch holes in concrete and a rocket claw with a kung-fu grip. Today was not turning out to be a good day.

“Well, it was a good run, Burt, but I’m afraid I need to be going. I’ve got a long, hard life of backbreaking labor ahead of me-”

I grabbed him before he could run. “No. We can handle a automaton. They make lots of noise. We’ll avoid it.”

“Or it kills us, Burt! Come on, let’s just skip right to the end of your plan and escape.”

“Without the soul stones? On the run from the Guild? Now that’s what I call suicidal.”

“It is suicidal! We don’t even have weapons!”

I bent down and picked up a tiny white shard. Holding the stone up for Johnny to see, I activated my power. Small globes of moisture lifted up from the sandstone floor and floated around me.

“You can make water float,” Johnny rolled his eyes, “My goodness, whatever will the automaton do?”

“Right,” I said, and shot the globes at a sandstone formation.

Johnny looked at the door and looked back at me, crossing his arms. “Well?”

The sandstone split into pieces and fell over. Johnny gaped at the rubble. I smirked.            “That’s what I can do with a soulstone shard. Imagine what I can do with a fully powered soulstone.” I said, trying not to sound too smug.

“You said most of this mine was played out!” Johnny sputtered.

“It’s just a shard. Easy to miss and worth far less than an intact soulstone. Since this mine shaft is haunted, I doubt any serious mining has been done here so no one’s been around to clean up.”

“Maybe the mother lode is down this shaft. This part of the mine hasn’t been played out.”

“We aren’t here to hit the mother lode, we’re here for the cache.”

“But,” Johnny said, “For the sake of argument, let’s say we manage to hit the mother lode. How much time would that shave off our sentences?”

“Oh, you’d shave off enough you’d be allowed to leave the mine without a penny to your name in a hostile alien world with only the clothes on your back.”

“...alright, so where’s this cache again?”

I grinned, “Just follow the tattoo.”

The tunnel sloped sharply downwards, the path strewn with boards shoved roughly into the sandstone walls as a makeshift stairway. The further down we went, the orange-brown colored walls became darker and darker in color as water began seeping through the sandstone. Moisture started dripping from the ceiling a few hundred feet down.

No wonder my great great grandfather hid his cache down here. He’d hidden his cache well below the water table. No sane person would venture so far down.

The passage down opened up into a wide cavern, the ceiling far above us. On the far end of the cavern was a pit. A few hundred feet in front of us was a pool of water. My tattoo was vibrating.

“Johnny, the tattoo’s going crazy, which way is it pointing?” I asked.

A loud pop echoed through the cavern that sounded like a giant champagne bottle being uncorked followed by a snapping noise. I whirled, facing the source of the sound and froze. Thirty feet behind us against the wall next to the tunnel we’d just exited was a giant metal automaton. Its right arm was extended and where the hand should be a chain jangled.

My eyes followed the length of chain to Johnny. A claw was attached to the chain and had clamped itself around Johnny’s throat. Johnny was desperately attempting to remove the claw but his fingers were slipping off the smooth metal. A mechanism in the Warden’s arm whirred and the chain began to wind itself back.

Johnny struggled but was slowly drug through the sand back to the Warden. The Warden raised Johnny a foot off the ground where he dangled, his legs kicking and jerking as he tried to escape. Johnny’s face was turning a mottled red color. If I did nothing, his throat would be crushed.

Hefting my pickaxe, I turned and faced the Warden. The automaton stood eight feet high and was humanoid in construction with a slotted helmet covered a sensor dome where the head would be on a human. All vital areas-the wires and joints-had been armored with thick steel plates. Diodes and glass tubes crackled and spat sparks that skittered along the surface of the steel plates.

I tried to recall my run-ins with Guild automatons in the past. Wardens had no weaknesses that I could recall. My pickaxe might be able to penetrate the steel plates. If I could plant the pick in the automaton’s motion processor, I’d win. There was also the left arm to deal with.

The automaton’s left arm was overly large, with vents built into the metal forearm. Pistons were set into the back of the arm near the shoulder. A Warden’s fist could break a brick wall. The pistons required a warm-up period to build up pressure. It had probably already built that pressure up, all I needed to do was bait out an attack.

I ran forwards, pickaxe raised, directly towards the left side of the Warden. The vents in the forearm shrieked and spewed noxious smoke as the giant automaton fist rocketed at my face. I ducked under the punch and jammed one end of the pickaxe into the arm holding Johnny. I was hoping to score a hit on the hydraulic pump.

The pickaxe clanged off the metal armor sheathing the arm. The shock of impact left my hands numb for a moment and I struggled to hang onto the pick. The Warden spun and smacked me in the face with Johnny.

I was sent toppling backwards and sprawled on the rocky ground, the pickaxe flying from my grasp. My body landed on a ridge of sandstone, the impact knocking all the air out of my lungs in a whoosh. Choking back a gasp, I rolled onto my hands and knees and scrambled out of the way of the Warden’s next piston-powered punch. Sandstone shrapnel went flying and pelted my back and engulfed the cavern in a cloud of dust.

The dust cloud filled the room, blocking the Warden’s line of sight. I used the Warden’s loss of vision to my advantage and crawled to where I had last seen my pickaxe. I found it by the wall next to a column of sandstone.

Grabbing my pickaxe, I dove behind the blocky column of sandstone and took a moment to catch my breath. The automaton’s grip on Johnny must have loosened because I could hear him taking ragged gasps of air as well. The Warden was shuffling around in a circle, his servos making mechanical buzzing noises as he searched for me in the dust cloud.

My palms were slick with sweat. I picked some dust off the floor and rubbed it between my hands. The plate armor on the Warden had a flaw. I’d noticed it when I’d tried to crack the steel shell protecting its innards. The armor had gaps in it that allowed for movement. If I wanted to damage the warden, I had to hit it in the gap.

I peered out from behind the column and watched the Warden scan the area. Johnny was still grasped in the claw-hand, but the Warden’s grip was looser. Greasy green liquid dripped from the limb. I must have damaged the pressure hose when I dented the arm.

The Warden’s search brought him closer and closer to my hiding place. I crouched on the balls of my feet and waited until the automaton had begun to pass by the column before stepping lightly out behind it. Servos hummed as the Warden detected my movement and began to turn-which opened the gap between the sensor system and the main body.

I slammed the pickaxe into the gap in its neck. The automaton shuddered and ground to a halt. The Warden’s claws relaxed, releasing Johnny, who dropped to the ground and laid there, chest heaving.

“That was scary,” I grinned and held out a hand to Johnny, “Let’s go! No time to rest, it took us an hour to get down here, it’ll take us an hour to get back. We need to be back on the train before dawn.”

Johnny sat up and stared at me, disbelief plastered across his face. “Your timetable is a day?”

“Less than a day. Right now, the train is being loaded with water from the mine. When they’re done, they leave. We need to be back on that train before that happens.”

We made our way to the pit at the far end of the cavern. It was a dark, foreboding hole. Wind whistled up from the darkness. It reminded me of the Breach. I shivered.

“I’m assuming the cache is down here?” I asked, looking over my shoulder.

Johnny checked my tattoo and nodded, “What are we going to do about the ghost?”

I shrugged, “Might be a relative of mine. Not too worried great-great-grandfather’s disappointed in me. No, what I’m worried about is that guard. That automaton was reprogrammed.”

“That doesn’t sound like something a guard should know how to do.”

“No, it doesn’t. Leaves a few possibilities.”

There was a shelf of rock that spiraled around the sides of the Pit. I went first, shuffling down the spiral. Johnny followed after and we descended the winding path.

“Such as?” Johnny asked, shimmying down the path behind me.

“He could be a spy,” I said, stepping over a hole in the shelf, “I met an Arcanist on my last venture in Malifaux.”

“Are they bad?”

“Well,” I wiped sweat off my brow, “Sort of? They’re not Guild so you’re dealing with an assortment of individuals instead of some bureaucracy. So the answer varies.”

We continued climbing down the hole in silence for a few minutes. We were closer to the bottom now. I could feel a cool breeze flowing up from the bottom of the pit, carrying with it the scent of moisture. An underground river or spring lay at the bottom of the pit.

After a few more minutes we made it to the bottom of the pit. The floor of the pit was covered in sand. Near the wall coursed an underground river. I made sure to scout the room, but apart from the sand on the floor and the roughly circular walls, the only thing of interest was the underground river. On the edge of the water was an old rotted hemp rope attached to a pin that had been hammered into the rock.

“No tracks leading back up the stairs,” Johnny murmured, eyes focused on the floor.

I nodded at the rope, “Wanna bet the compass is pointing at the river?”

Johnny stared at the dark, churning waters before looking up at me with wide eyes, “Really? Can we just...not?”

I gave him a sad smile, “What does the compass say?”

Johnny scrutinized my back a few moments before he slumped to the floor and sobbed, “I never wanted this! I never wanted any of this!”

I was tempted to let him stay behind, but there was the possibility that this was a one-way trip. He’d get stuck down here until someone found him. Then, he’d blab my plan to whoever was interrogating him and I’d be caught. No, whether he liked it or not, he was going into the water.

Johnny must have seen the look on my face because he scrambled back to the spiral rock shelf. I heaved a sigh. Of course something like this would happen.

“Johnny, do you know why I chose you?” I asked.

“Because you somehow know I’m innocent and you need a co-conspirator that won’t kill you when you let your guard down?”

“Got it in one bud! But think about it, what is it that you want to do?”

“Not jump into icy water with a fast moving current for a treasure that might not even exist?”

I shook my head, “I meant, if we get the treasure, what would you do with your share?”

Johnny stared at the ground for a minute. “I’d kill the bastards that killed my girlfriend.”

“Right. Is jumping into icy water worth that?”

“Yes. But what if we die?”

I shrugged, “Then you get to be reunited with your family. Like I always say, revenge is a win-win.”

5

“I wasn’t kidding when I said I didn’t ask for this.” Johnny said later, wringing the ice cold water from his outfit. I’d told him to stick his clothes in his bag, since the bag was mostly water-proof, but does he listen? No.

The light from the lantern fluttered. It was windy down here, but the air smelled dusty, as though it had traveled miles underground to reach us. The sound of air whistling and water rushing made a horrific cacophony. It was difficult to hear over.

I heaved myself out of the icy water and flopped onto the sandstone floor. “Really need to keep it down. That guard is down here somewhere. How’s my tattoo looking?”

Johnny raised the lantern, “It’s not moving.”

Nodding, I pulled out a piton and gestured for Johnny to hand me the hammer. If the tattoo wasn’t moving we must be very close. I worked quickly, securing the rope to the sandstone floor. It was far more difficult in the dark with this stale wind.

A slow, full throated chuckle came from the darkness beyond the lamplight.

I froze. That laugh. I remembered it from the Breach. Johnny had froze in place as well, eyes wide and staring into the shadows.

Gritting, my teeth, I willed myself to move. We’d made it to the cache, which meant the guard was very close. I reached into the water and hauled out my oilskin bag and pickaxe. I pulled out my outfit, which I’d had the amazing foresight of removing before I jumped into the water, and put it on.

In front of us, in the lantern’s light, stood a twenty foot tall door carved out of sandstone. Runes that were etched into the door and had been blackened. Someone had blown out whatever protective spells had been cast on the door with force.

“Looks like someone beat us to it,” I whispered and stepped through the doorway.

The door opened into a vaulting, cavernous room. A giant rectangular sandstone box sat at the center of the room. The box lay opened, the lid leaning against the side of the box. A familiar cold, stale wind was blowing from the box.

All around the box were bodies, broken and twisted and very dead. A major battle had been fought down here not too long ago. Burn marks and small craters dotted the cavern and marred its walls. One body, lying next to the box with one arm outstretched, caught my attention.

The corpse was holding a pure white soulstone the size of a silver dollar in his hand. Next to the corpse, lying half-open on the floor by the box, was a leather sack full of the precious jewels. So he’d found the cache after all, but whatever was in here had killed him.

Taking the lantern from Johnny, I scuttled across the cavern and picked up the bag. I tried to remove the soulstone from the corpse’s grasp. The hand refused to budge. Gritting my teeth, I tried uncurling the fingers one by one, but the corpse refused to move. Frustrated, I lifted my pickaxe over my shoulders and struck it.

The pickaxe bounced off the limb with a metallic ring. My shoulders slumped. Great, a prosthetic automaton arm. Those were worth money too, if I could clear the room of whatever monster lay hidden here.

I went to investigate the stone box. Creeping around the base, I took a look inside. The interior of the box had runes carved into it and there was a hole at the bottom of the box. The lantern’s light could not penetrate the darkness at the bottom.

“Well that’s not a good sign,” I muttered, rubbing my chin.

There was a good possibility that the monster was luring people down here to eat. I could leave right now, hope whatever entity that had been sealed in here was still stuck in the coffin. There was only one way to find out.

“Oh no, Johnny, looks like we came all this way for nothing!” I mocked, “Guess we’ll have to stick this lid back on the empty cache box.”

The air coming out of the coffin grew colder and whistled louder. I smirked. Somebody wasn’t very happy. I rubbed a finger along the handle of the pickaxe and wondered if it could kill a demon.

The wind flowing from the box stopped and I heard the sound of boots dropping to the sandstone floor. Johnny shouted in terror and backed towards the entrance. I took a deep breath and faced the thing that had come out of the box.

It was the thing I’d seen in the Breach. In the light of the lantern, I could finally see it clearly. Its limbs were undulating ribbons of grey-green muscle. It was covered in eyes, the bumps marring the smooth surface of its skin. They were evenly spaced along his hand, lining the the sides of his fingers and the palm. They were tiny, like the eyes of a frog, with golden irises that glowed with an inner luminescence.

The stale air gave way to the acrid smell of ozone so powerful I could taste it in the back of my throat. The thing’s hand started twitching and convulsing. My eyes widened as I realized what was about to happen.

“Johnny, dodge!” I yelled and dove into a roll.

Johnny thumped to the ground when a white-blue blast of heat lit up the room. I finished my rolled and blinked the blindness out of my vision. Johnny gave a choked gasp and I spared a glance behind me.

The space I’d occupied a moment ago was orange-hot and smoking. The outer edge of the superheated sandstone was glass. That kind of power was something only a soulstone could bring to bear.

The monster seemed to have blinded itself as well. It groped for the edge of the coffin. The eyes covering the abomination had dimmed, their inner light a tad darker.

So the monster wasn’t as smart as it thought it was. I smirked. That meant I had a chance. But before I could act, I needed to get Johnny out. He’d get in my way.

I stuck one hand into my back pocket and tossed Johnny the bag of soulstones with the other. Johnny caught them, the bag tipping to one side. He righted the bag before it could spill its precious contents on the floor.

Johnny looked up at me in confusion. I jabbed a thumb at the door and held a finger to my lips. He nodded and began tiptoeing out of the chamber.

With Johnny out of the way, it was time to deal with the monster. It had recovered by now, the golden eyes seeking me out and focusing on me. I straightened up and brushed myself off.

“So,” I said, “I was supposed to open the box and release you, thinking some marvelous treasure awaited me. How’d you get my great-great-gramps to write those letters?”

From his writings I knew great-great-grandfather was not an idiot. He wouldn’t fall for some demon’s tricks. Not without a great reward.

“Your grandfather,” the monster lisped wetly, “was resistant while awake. His dreams were less well guarded. He was quite the sleepwalker.”

Poor gramps. I started circling the monster. I adjusted my movement to walk past one of the columns in the room where the sand had piled up along the base. Bending, I scooped up a couple of handfuls of sand and stuck them in my pockets.

“The spy freed you. Why stick around?”

The monster followed my movement as I circled it. The glowing eyes were growing brighter. It was about to unleash another spell.

“You’re marked for sacrifice. I cannot leave this room until I've killed you.”

I rolled into the next spell it cast, the air behind me imploding in a crack that burst my eardrum. Taking the sand I’d scooped up, I tossed it into the monster’s eyes. It shrieked and recoiled, limbs batting and rubbing at its eyes, trying to remove the sand.

“That’s a trick I learned from a buddy of mine in Texas!” I yelled.

I raised the soulstone and started powering my own spell. I channeled the water from the river outside the tomb. Twisting the water into the shape of a drill, I set it to spin with a gesture. Time to end this thing.

I began to fling my hand forward to impale the thing when a tendril lashed out from the monster. It wrapped around my hand and began to squeeze. My concentration wavered and the water dropped to the floor with a splash.

There was a cracking sound and I felt something snap in my hand, one of the tiny bones. I choked back a scream and struggled to breathe through the pain. The monster walked towards me, taking its time, like it was savoring the moment.

“Over a hundred years I’ve waited,” it chortled, the sound wet and low, “and now I’m free!”

Tendrils slithered across the ground towards me. I grit my teeth and waited for them to wrap me up and crush me in their embrace. As the tendrils reached me, a blast of air knocked the creature back.

I sagged, clutching my injured hand to my chest and turned to meet my savior. Johnny stood at the doorway, reading the runes that etched into the surface. They sounded like gobbledygook to me, but Johnny seemed to know whatever language it was.

Johnny gestured with a clenched fist at the monster and babbled a mystical mantra. Another gust of wind sent the monster flying backwards towards the sarcophagus. The spell was sealing the monster in.

It was fighting the wind and fighting Johnny. Tendrils had lashed out at whatever was in reach. The monster was not going to go back into the coffin. Its eyes started to glow, brighter than they had been the first time.

“Burt! Push it in!” Johnny yelled from the doorway.

Picking up the stone I’d dropped earlier, I resumed the spell I had been casting. Water sprang up from the river at my command and shot forward, drilling into the monster. It screamed and lashed at the jet of water before falling into the hole.

Running to the coffin, I lifted it up one handed, the lid moving too slow for my liking. Johnny came up behind me and helped me as I pushed the lid back onto the coffin. I leaned against the side of the coffin and slid down the side.

“Johnny, how the hell did you cast a spell?” I asked after catching my breath.

Johnny shrugged, “What can I say, I’ve got hidden depths, Burt.” He frowned at me, “Your hand looks bad, are you going to be alright?”

I nodded, the gesture a lie. My hand was throbbing. I’d need a doctor to set the bone right or I’d never use it again.

“I’ll make it to Innocence. Speaking of which, we need to go. Pumping should almost be complete.”

We grabbed the sack of precious gems and scarpered.

6

I stared out the window of the train. This was the first time I’d ever ridden first class and I could get used to it. The waitress set down another glass of wine in front of me. I thanked her and continued watching the scenery roll by.

The snow-capped mountains of the Ten Peaks rose in the windows. I was on my way to Ridley and from there, to Promise. I had no idea what was there or if the town even existed anymore, but I’d find out.

Taking a sip, I wondered how Johnny was getting along. I hoped he’d gotten his revenge. I was busy trying to find someone who could take off enchanted tattoos. I’d made so much money I’d thought it would be easy to throw it at my little problem and make it go away.

I haven’t been able to find a witch capable of removing it. Until I could, there was no way I was going through the Breach with the monster lurking in there somewhere. For now, I’d continue north.

I’d just gotten comfortable in the bare wooden seat when my tattoo started to hum and twitch.

THE END

 

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Well, this has brought me out of lurking, so here goes! ;)

In the Flesh

    The tat-tat-tapping of the tiny stone mallet on the blunt end of the bamboo needle beat sharp against the still air of Tan Tao’s Tattoos, a small shop tucked in a corner of Malifaux city’s southern slums. The acrid aftertaste of ink and stale smoke gave a sharp edge to the nostril-filling stench of old blood.

        Reclining in the threadbare padded chair that had seen much plumper days, Alan O’Neill dragged deep on the cigarette dangling from his puffed out lower lip. The rough warmth surging through his lungs fought against the rhythmic droning and the aches of his battered body that conspired to lull him to sleep as the artist, Tan Tao himself, hammered away at his thigh. He forced his eyes wide and traced the streamer from his cigarette as it rose like tendrils of aether through the still air.

        Alan cleared his throat and looked to Tan Tao, but quickly saw that there was no conversation to be found down that avenue. The artist’s full attention was on his work, and as the man traced the lines only his own mind’s eye could see, Alan’s thoughts drifted along the path that had brought him here.

 

*****

 

        Ducking under a looping haymaker, Alan threw a right hook, left hook combination into the ribs of his much larger opponent. The man’s retracting arm instinctively drew down to protect his body and Alan came at him with an overhand right driven by the entirety of his own not-insignificant weight.

        The punch connected with the larger man’s lantern jaw, snapping his shaven head down and up like a sharply tolled bell. He stumbled back against the dirt wall of the fighting pit, sliding down its sweat-slicked surface. As Alan was about to raise his hands in victory, his opponent regained his feet with a bellowing roar that sent the crowd into a frenzied cheer.

        “No, no, no,” Alan barely had time to think as the larger man lumbered towards him. He was supposed to stay down. That was the deal.

        Thorkild Berg, known to most simply as The Dane, had never been beaten during his time in the fighting pits of Malifaux. Although Alan had done alright for himself, the odds were definitely against him. Ten to one, in fact. He saw this not as a deterrent though, but an opportunity.

        The accumulation of Alan’s previous winnings, paid out tenfold, was a great enough sum that he had been able to offer the Dane twice his winner’s purse by splitting the proceeds of a bet on himself. All the big man had to do was stay down when Alan delivered his signature overhand right. Alan had put everything into the punch, but that had been agreed to beforehand. If it looked like he had pulled the punch at all, both men knew their lives could very well be forfeit. Everything wasn’t enough though, and as the Dane grabbed Alan in a crushing bear hug, he began to suspect that the gig was up.

        “What…doing?” Alan gasped, his legs kicking feebly as he tried in vain to wriggle free.

        “Got a better offer,” the Dane grunted in his ear before spinning on his heels, pulling Alan around in a throw, landing bodily on top of him and slamming the last of his breath from him.

        “No hard feelings,” he added before pulling himself up and dropping an enormous fist across Alan’s left temple.

        White stars filled Alan’s head with strange constellations as he dropped into unconsciousness.

 

*****

 

        Pulling a steaming cloth from a basket of woven bamboo carried by his apprentice, Tan Tao turned to Alan.

        “This will hurt,” the tattooist warned, running the cloth over Alan’s bleeding, swollen thigh before he could respond.

        The searing heat burned through the dull ache left behind by the constant prodding of the tattooing process, but as the artist pulled the blood and ink stained cloth away, revealing the finished work, Alan’s grimace turned to a satisfied grin. He admired the work as Tan Tao returned the cloth to the bamboo basket. Two razorspine rattlers seemed to rise from within his leg itself, one on either side of his knee, twining about each other as they slithered up towards his hip. Their scales seemed to shimmer and shift as if they were alive, and he wondered if he would be stricken by the poison of the bog-dwelling serpents if he touched the spines extruding from them. There would be time for finding out soon enough, he mused, though not through touching them himself.

        “You like?” Tan Tao asked, his near constant look of concentration replaced with a self-satisfied grin.

        “Worth every penny,” Alan replied as he pulled out what little remained of his savings after his losing bet.

        “How your other one? The flower?” Tan Tao asked, referring to the rose he had tattooed on Alan’s left forearm a week prior, just before his bout with the Dane.

        “It’s…ah…healing up fine,” Alan stammered, self-consciously pulling his sleeved arm close.

        Tan Tao gave him a hooded look as he took Alan’s proffered handful of Guild scrip. The motion pulled slightly at the artist’s rolled-up shirt sleeve, revealing a glimpse of his own tattoos.

        “Now that’s unusual,” Alan commented on the odd brownish-red ink.

        “My master’s formula,” the artist nodded, pushing his sleeve up further to show more of the tiger tattoo that climbed up his shoulder and onto his back. “He always said that the colour comes from the blood of a tiger, and that it would give me the animal’s strength. I rarely feel strong as a tiger though,” he laughed. 

    “Unfortunately he met an…untimely death before he could teach me the truth,” he added, casting his gaze to the ground.

        “People would go to great lengths for his work. I hope some day to be half as sought after for my gifts as he was for his.”

        “Well, I’d say you’re off to a good start,” Alan praised as he turned and left the shop.

        “It’s a shame this one won’t last long,” he added to himself, pausing in the street to light another cigarette before heading off into the dark of night looking for revenge.

 

 

        Wringing the blood and ink stained cloth into a rune inscribed bowl, Tan Tao reached for a jar high above the small work table in his tattoo shop’s back room. The spidery script on the jar’s browned, peeling label was almost indecipherable, which was probably for the best considering the properties of the substance inside. Doling out a careful measure into the murky water, he then knelt and pulled an aged snakeskin pouch from a hidden compartment in the leg of the work table.

        The soulstone dust sparkled in the meagre light of the tiny room. The spoonful he added to the mixing bowl swam like stars atop the sea as the liquid took on a life of its own. Bubbling as the magic-imbued powder came in contact with the blood and arcane ingredients, the mixture seemed to stir of its own accord. Clotting and clumping like spoiling milk, the blood coalesced in the middle of the bowl. What seemed at first to be one big bubble began to rise from the grisly gruel, but as the shape grew, a pair of limbs pulled themselves free, lifting the mass above the surface of the liquid. A wide mouth mewled open as ink-black eyes boiled to the surface of what could scarcely be called a face. Turning slowly, the newborn creature looked to Tan Tao, regarding him with emotionless eyes.

        “Take me to the one whose heart beats as yours,” Tan Tao ordered, opening a small hidden door in the back of the room.

        This led to a third room, unlit but for the faint light at Tan Tao’s back. The long shadows of a row of cloaks lined the opposite wall, and as Tan Tao donned one, three of the others stepped forth at a silent command. Lifting a barred trap door, the artist led the group into the sewers of Malifaux.

 

 

        Alan stood waiting in the shadowy overhang of a rundown two-storey building that leaned out across the alley at such an angle that its roof almost touched the wall of the adjacent quarantine zone. The odd thump-scrape and occasional heavy skittering coming from the opposite side of the wall did little to deter the man from his mission. Indeed, the proximity of his chosen ambush site to the edge of dubious safety was part of what made it ideal. Most people, even those hardy enough to eke out a living here in the slums of Malifaux city, gave the edges of the quarantine zone a wide berth.

        The Dane, however, was strong as an ox, and only marginally less intelligent. Alan wasn’t sure which of those traits it was that made the man so willing to brazenly and drunkenly strut so close to the edge of madness, but he was sure the combination of the two was what kept him from ever veering from the same route home, night after night.

        As for Alan, he trusted enough in his physical prowess to protect himself from worldly harm. After all, one didn’t willingly enter the city’s fighting pits without knowing how to get on in a scrap. Sure, there were plenty of poor souls who found themselves there without the barest notion of how to so much as make a proper fist, but Alan had gone by choice. Truth be told, he’d fought far more men for fun than he had for profit. And as for any problems his fists couldn’t handle…

        The raw tattoo on Alan’s thigh seemed to writhe in anticipation at his thought of its purpose, and he worried at the soulstone held deep in his pocket as he waited for the Dane.

        Someone screamed in the distance. In the twisted maze of the slums it was all but impossible to determine the direction from which the noise came, and it was cut off as abruptly as it started. For all their dangers, Alan thought, the streets of Malifaux could be equally wondrous. His own recently discovered powers stood as a perfect example.

 

*****

 

        Sliding the false brick panel from its tight-fitting spot on the wall, Alan reached into the dark recess of the hidden cubby. Retrieving the tattered notebook tucked away in the back, he placed it on the small table next to his bed and replaced the cover of the hole in the wall, leaving the soulstone in its place. Sitting down on his small bed, his back against the wall for support, he leafed through the book’s familiar pages. It was not his, though since reading it he felt compelled to add his own notes to the original owner’s, presumably a former tenant in the same room of the boardinghouse where he lived. Supposedly copied from an ancient tome discovered in the ruins of the quarantine zone, the scrawled notes detailed the process wherein one could summon objects into existence from a simple drawing.

        Never possessed of any magical talent himself, Alan at first dismissed the book as the crazed ramblings of a lunatic. The power that seemed to suffuse the very air breachside wore at his scepticism though. As did the drawings in the book of the very furnishings of his room, spartan as they were.

        Lacking any artistic ability of his own, Alan wondered at the possible limitations of such magic. Following the formula laid out in the scratched notes, the soulstone he found alongside the book in hand, he attempted to bring a second chair into being. Then another table. Then a small mirror like the one hung above his washbasin. Nothing seemed to work. Perhaps this was a limit to the summoning power. Perhaps the magic in these pictures had already been drawn out.

        Desperate to prove the author right or wrong, he was no longer sure which, Alan looked to the fading ink scratched in his upper left arm. The bulldog there had regarded him indifferently. His hands shaking from equal measures of fear and anticipation, he took up the soulstone and began the rites of summoning.

        The poor creature had not lived long. Given flesh, its cartoonishly oversized jowls pulled at its empty black eyes. Its breath came in ragged gasps. Undersized legs buckled under its lopsided weight. Alan’s elation at what he had accomplished was soon replaced with the weight of pity and disgust at the tortured life he had dragged into the miserable creature before him. He ended its life quickly, and cried himself to sleep.

        When he awoke the next morning, Alan disposed of the malformed body. He had hoped it would disappear back into the aether from which he had summoned it, but that was not to be the case. Returning to his room from his dirty work, an already half-emptied bottle of foul-tasting overproof swill in hand, he sat and stared at the notebook with an uneasy mixture of reverence and disgust. The insane claims it made were all too real. Alan put the book away and tried to forget it existed.

        It was three days later when Alan looked to his arm for the first time since the ritual. The tattoo, faded to begin with, had all but disappeared. The faint lines that remained were a perfect representation of the thing he had summoned. Could it be that the fault was not in his execution of the spell, but simply in the source material? Would a better drawing yield a better result? As he retrieved the book from its hidden niche, flipping through the notes and drawings there, the question of why the tattoo disappeared after being used as a focus nagged at the back of his mind. He pored over everything he had read, searching for answers, but there were none to be found.

        The only way to find out would be to try again.

 

 

        “For you, my dear,” Alan said as he handed the single rose to Lily, his favourite serving girl at the front of the house, as he passed through on his way to the fighting pit out back. He had summoned the flower the night before, keeping it fresh in his washbasin. Already he had thought he could feel his forearm tingling with the effects of the magic, though the rose tattoo had not yet started to fade.

        Taking it, she let out a sharp cry as a thorn caught her finger, drawing a bead of blood.

        “Aye, beautiful but dangerous,” he called back across the room. “Just like yours truly!” he proclaimed, dismissing her scowl with a wink as he pressed his back to the door, nodded to the bouncer perched there on a stool, and entered the small courtyard that housed the fighting pit.

        He would make it up her later, he thought. Proper-like. With the money he’d make from fixing this fight, he’d be able to set himself up with a place downtown. Maybe even take her with him. Of course, he hadn’t known then that his plans were about to unravel.

 

*****

    

    Tan Tao crouched low atop the wall, deep beneath the shadows of an overhanging roof. He held no fear of what might lurk on the quarantine side of the wall, knowing the two archers that had joined him from the safe room beneath his shop had their eyes to him as much as to Alan O’Neill, who stood half concealed in the shadows below. If he was trying to hide, Tan Tao thought snidely, he was doing a poor job. Even without the tiny abomination standing stock still beside him, extending an accusatory finger towards the man whose blood was its own, the artist had no trouble keeping an eye on Alan’s every move. He had planned to waylay the man and learn if there was any truth to the story his apprentice told after Alan had left the shop. Rumour was that the fighter had discovered the means to summon creatures from his own flesh, and the apparent disappearance of his tattoos, including the rose Tan Tao himself had recently done, seemed to lend credence to the claims. If that was the case, he may have inadvertently made the man much more dangerous than he seemed. His evident agitation had piqued the artist’s interest though, causing him to stall his attack.

    The archers waited, crouched upon the shadowed rooftops, arrows tipped with blackened steel nocked on the strings of their casually held longbows. The three ashigaru stood concealed at the end of the alley to Alan’s back, blocking his most likely escape route. 

        Increasing in volume as it neared, a deep, rumbling bass slurring a song thick with consonants brought every set of eyes in the alley snapping towards its source as the Dane hove into view. Even the blood creature turned its black-eyed gaze to the mouth of the alley, the unnatural pulsations of its body quickening with Alan’s anticipation as he stepped from the shadows.

        The Dane carried on a few more steps, ignoring the smaller man moving towards him. As he recognized the threatening posture in the shadowy form, familiarity flashed across his face, followed by a guttural laugh.

        “Not had enough, O’Neill?” the towering northerner asked. “Or are ya pickin’ through the garbage fer scraps?”

        “You cost me everything, you theifin’ bugger,” Alan accused, pulling his hands from his pockets and muttering something unintelligible as he closed with the Dane.

        Tan Tao expected a weapon, but the dull glow seeping through the fingers of Alan’s fist was not what he had in mind.

        Immediately picking up on the escalating threat, the archers let loose. Two arrows took Alan high in the shoulder, but not before he had triggered his spell. As Alan stumbled back, his thigh began to writhe, and within moments the serpentine forms of two razorspine rattlers tore through the leg of his pants, growing in size as they slithered towards the Dane.

        Alan slumped to the ground as the spell exacted its toll on his body. The archers opened fire on the rattlers as they arrowed towards the Dane, but their black-fletched shafts only added to the bristling hides of the creatures as they closed with their quarry.

        The dim clatter of armour on bone, muffled by concealing robes, approached down the alley as Tan Tao leapt from his perch. Landing in a roll, he came up with a fistful of shuriken, which he riddled the back of the closest creature’s neck with. Without missing a step, he produced two bladed weapons, each shaped like the claws of a tiger, and charged after the rattlers, his ashigaru close behind him.

        Staggering back on his heels, the Dane steeled himself against the approaching creatures. Too drunk to be suitably terrified, his fighter’s instincts naturally took over. As the lead razorspine feinted a head-on strike, the fighter launched a rocketing uppercut at its wide, fanged jaw. The rattler snaked back out of range a blink before the punch connected, redirecting and driving in from the side, clamping its fangs into the Dane’s upraised left arm. With a scream the man ripped himself loose, gobbets of flesh tearing free, clinging to the creature’s recurved incisors. A thundering right hook unhinged the rattler’s lower jaw, leaving it hanging limp and useless. Towering up to its full height, the injured creature shook out its spined cowl, raking at the Dane as he back-pedalled further.

        Tan Tao closed with the second razorspine rattler just before it reached the fight. Launching himself at the creature’s back, he grabbed a great spine on either side of its wide neck, throwing it off balance and riding it to the ground, his knees driving its head hard into the grimy cobbles. Springing up in a front flip, he narrowly avoided the rattler’s retaliatory tail swipe. The creature recovered quickly, and as Tan Tao landed facing away from it, it dove at his exposed back. The artist recovered equally as quickly though, meeting the attack with a backhand swipe from his clawed weapon. The creature reeled back, its skull laid bare and glistening in moonlit blood where the blades had carved through the thin skin atop its head. The straight-bladed tip of a yari punched through the creature’s throat before it could strike again. The razorspine writhed, pulling the ashigaru off balance and yanking the spear from its skeletal hands. It caught the undead warrior in its jaws, pulling it close and coiling its serpent’s body tight, crushing bone and armour alike. As it dealt with the first ashigaru, the other two joined the fray, skewering the engaged beast through the neck and driving it to the ground, where its own defensive thrashing only served to inflict further injury on it as the undead held it pinned.

    Turning, Tan Tao found the Dane beset by the remaining razorspine. It's broken jaw useless, it had wrapped its long body around the big man, goring him with the spines lining its body as he tried in vain to prise himself free. Arrows pincushioned the creature’s body, but still it fought on.

    Closing with the entwined combatants Tan Tao ripped furrows along the length of the razorspine’s serpentine body with his blades. It writhed in silent agony trying to escape this new threat, but the Dane, eager to sell his own life dearly if he must, grabbed the creature by the remains of its dangling lower jaw. As it pulled away in an attempt to free itself, it exposed its open throat. Black-fletched arrows shot forth from the shadows, driving through the soft pallet of the creature’s open mouth and embedding themselves in its simple reptilian brain. Even in death it continued to crush and writhe, eventually stilling with a barely breathing Dane still clutched in its coils.

    With the ashigaru standing guard over the still-prone form of Alan O’Neill, Tan Tao knelt beside the Dane. The two archers dropped from the rooftops, one of them quickly ripping a strip from his robe to use as a tourniquet for the Dane’s ravaged arm.

    “Leave it,” Tan Tao ordered as he examined the scores of incisions covering the Dane’s body. Already the edges were blackening as the tissue died and rotted, the razorspine's poison running rampant through his body.

    “Put him out of his misery,” Tan Tao ordered. “And send word to Mr. Samuels of what happened here. I would not have him blame us for his man’s death.”

    Turning towards the prone body of Alan O’Neill, Tan Tao could see that he too was close to death. Through the ripped leg of his pants he could see that the razorspine rattlers’ poison spines had struck him as the conjured creatures tore from his body.

    “You're clearly no sorcerer,” Tan Tao observed, kneeling over Alan, “ or you wouldn't have been so stupid,” he exclaimed with a slap to the unconscious man’s face. Not so much as a moan escaped his lips in protest.

    “I’ve no time for this,” the artist muttered. “I'll have your secrets, dead or alive. Kill him!”

With the order, the remaining ashigaru speared Alan through the throat and heart, dispatching him as they had his summoned beast.

    “Take him back to the shop through the sewers,” Tan Tao ordered, deliberately suggesting the route they should take. Once the brains had rotted from the skulls of the undead they were not exactly known for making the best decisions when left to their own devices. The last thing he needed was two skeletal warriors dragging a fresh corpse through the streets and right in through his front door. Even tucked away in the slums as his shop was, such a thing would not go unremarked.

    Climbing from the alley, back the way he came, Tan Tao paused atop the wall. Producing a small metal vial, he scraped up a sample from the puddle of drying inky blood that was all that remained of the creature he had summoned from Alan O’Neill’s blood. It had died with him, the life sloughing from it as The blood drained from Alan’s sundered heart.

    Tucking the vial away, Tan Tao disappeared into the shadows between civilization and the horrors of the night.

 

    Hunched forward in the barely padded chair in the middle of his shop, Tan Tao leafed through the dog-earred notebook as his apprentice hammered away at the tattoo on his back. Finding Alan’s rented room had been even easier than the basic necromancy needed to tear the knowledge from his mind, and a small bribe, with reassurance that the room could be rented out effective immediately, had been all the landlord required to turn a blind eye.

    In Alan’s eagerness for revenge, he hadn’t even bothered to tuck the notebook back in its cubby before leaving to seek out the artist and the vengeance that drove him.

    On the last pages of the book to bear any writing, the author’s hand changed. Where the first, larger section was the original scribe’s account of finding the grimoire he had gleaned his knowledge from, the second was the tortured diary of Alan O’Neill. It detailed his plan to fix the fight with the Dane, and his furor at the subsequent betrayal, as well as the shame and elation that followed his first failed attempt at summoning and poorly rendered attempts at drawing a passable rose. Without needing to read the words Tan Tao surmised that it was this lack of artistic ability that had first landed Alan in his chair. For a moment he pitied the man. He had stumbled upon a great power, but his ignorance proved his undoing.

    Sensing that his apprentice’s work was nearly done, Tan Tao looked back over his shoulder. Two tall, angled mirrors revealed a full view of his back. Amidst a swirling melee of dragons and tigers sat a calm blue pool. Two lotus flowers lined in dark red ink, the same dried-blood tone as the creatures in the outer ring, sat serenely on the water. A third faint outline gave the appearance of a flower sinking beneath the surface, and a fresh fourth flower dripped an angry red. As the apprentice finished her final strokes, Tan Tao felt a familiar power surge through his veins. Across the room the corpse of Alan O’Neill opened its eyes and regarded him coldly.

    “You’ll be glad to know you got your revenge,” Tan Tao told what remained of the man. “Though I doubt that’s much consolation considering your current condition.”

    Standing, he led his newest creation to the room hidden beyond the hidden room at the back of the shop. Returning to the chair, he looked questioningly to his apprentice.

    “How are your roses coming along?”

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Magpie

Ah. That's Malifaux all over. Took some work gettin' that in my mouth with no hands left and here yah just pick it out? Rude. Yah could've lit it and let me take a puff, first. No respect for the dying. Wouldn't've tried that with my da, sure as roses are roses, he'd've thrashed yah legs red for wearing those clothes, never mind for--

--roses ain't roses, here, are they? They go crawlin' down yah on all their little legs. Maybe yah would've.

"Uck. I hate how these things smell."

Toss it away?! Girl, yah pain me. Yah don't know what a treasure is, Treasure.

Ahhh, I'm not even talkin' out loud am I? To th'Neverborn with yah, then. I'll turn my face to the real treasure, and die that way. Don't frown, light o' my eye, little flower. Treasure shouldn't ever smile and yah shouldn't ever frown. Ah, why'd I have t'lose my arms? I've got to hug yah and tell yah I'll be fine, put the smile back on yah face. Doesn't matter how young yah are, now. I'm dying. Yah teacher can stop staring, tell him that. Tell him to take yah back to yah da. I ain't fooled.

Ain't fooled at all. Don't let her call yah trash, girl. Make her call yah by yah name.

I wish I'd guessed yah name, but I ain't got the time to, now. Busy dying. I'm sorry. That was a good game, but yah win.

 

It's that yah were starin', to start with. Weren't the first nor the last to stare when I handed over th'fish hot from the fryer. All those starvin' little kids and only one scoop out the bottom of the oil at the end of the day. But I knew yah were different, lookin' at the wrapper and the words on it. Told myself I wasn't green as the garden any more and I wouldn't be fooled by it. Yah have to understand, light o' my eye, it was years I was in the darkness before yah. I thought everything everywhere was dark. I ran away to Malifaux, yah understand? Better to stand half in the river in Malifaux and fish than to sail on the everliving seas.

I never lied to yah. I hated th'sea and every day I spent on it! Hated the stinking soaked prison walls of it, hated turning the rats out of the hammock when I got in and when I got out again, hated every man on it no matter whether 'twas rope or whip in his hand...never lied. Yah change me, light o' my eye. Tellin' yah about it now, all I see's the sunrise sparklin' in the wet hangin' off the rigging, all I smell's the way the salt air got deep down my insides like I was nothin' inside but air. I got nothin' to breathe with, now. Tryin' to grab onto the air and there's plenty of it but my heart ain't gettin' hold of any of it, somehow. Do yah need hands for that?

Don't fuss about it, don't frown. Say it to me again, the first words yah said t'me--

"Excuse me? May I read the old newspaper please, before you use it to wrap up the fish?"

Read! A poor little lost girl in Malifaux wanting to read! Not that yah little. I know. I was one o' them kids my own self. Ma called me a little colt, all arms an' legs an' a nose to match. I hope that was yah da's nose, or else yah ma has had an accursed life. But yah won't, light o' my eye, not with yah powers. There yah go. Smile. Like yah did when I let yah sit on the barrel and gave yah that whole Tattler not three days old and yah read it right out loud.

" 'Tat-teh-ler?' It ain't tau-ler like the candles?" I said.

"Tattler is from telling tales and tallow is from boiled tails," yah told me. I was wrong for it, but I got mad. I thought yah were makin' fun o'me and that's why I went to push yah off that barrel. And that's the first time I saw yah smile. When yah put them hands up and held me back from shovin' yah, and it happened.

"Teacher told me that rhymes aid the memory."

It started to hurt before yah smiled, where yah grabbed hold of me. After that I didn't care none.


Didn't expect yah to come back after that, after I treated yah so rough. Not the very next day and askin' after th'next paper. Yah remember, little flower?

"Didn't yah read that yesterday?"

"I didn't get to finish! There's going to be a new part of the story."

"News ain't really new. It's th'same stories every day, just with the names all painted over." I 'most told yah about the ship right then, and only knew yah that little!

"Not the news, the story!" I can still see yah moppin' up the fish juices with that rag 'fore yah opened up the paper on that barrel. "Yesterday the last of Dashing Dan Drummer's company was wounded by the dastardly Darlists--he was called...I've got to remember!--he was called Magpie, because he stole and wore the margravine's two-headed ring. Magpie threw the ring to Dashing Dan and told him to run! The next part's today. I wonder when the margravine is going to get her ring back. He can't keep it. He's the hero."

See, I thought yah were makin' it all up as yah went along, so where was the trouble in playin' along. "I've got fish t'clean, but why don't yah read that story out to me? I got no time to read!" And off yah went, never missin' a word, and me with my innards goin' to slush rememberin' the very things yah were readin' off that paper, 'til yah read somethin' which didn't happen. I weren't raised to interrupt, but I thought I was dyin' of shame, and I said, "That ain't right."

Yah didn't tell me not to, either, like no teacher. "How's it wrong? I mustn't get anything wrong."

"She weren't no Margret, and there weren't no faces on them rings. 'Twas just her wedding ring and her man's, and the faces in them were th'memories back on their wedding day. Margret were sixty if she were a day. Magpie, he were black'n'white with ink long 'fore he stole...that ring."

Bless me if yah didn't take out a pencil and write that down soon as I said it! "Let me write that down and send it to the Tattler! The story will be much better once every bit of it is true." And yah smiled, and it felt like I wasn't dyin' by pieces, with my feet in river muck. I heard ma and da singin' 'round me when yah smiled, and they were happy to see me. "And you'll have your name in the paper."

Yah got so sad, then, Lookin' back on it, I don't think yah heard yah ma and da sing, the way I did. If they treated yah wrong, I'll find them and flay them. I got to live long enough for that. But right then, I had to try an' make yah smile again. "It'll be yah name in the paper! Yah writin'."

"Teacher doesn't encourage me to share my name with strangers...."

Please don't laugh, little flower, but I didn't know how else to cheer yah up. "How about I guess it, then, and yah won't get in trouble. We'll play hot an' cold with yah name." That was the very first time. "Yah name is...Nellie. Like the one who writes the paper. I can read that much."

"But then you'd be Mister Fisher, because you catch fish!"

 

It felt wrong, then, the next time I dipped into the river to haul out a bottom-feeder. The river sucked at me, somehow, them great cold gills slappin' on my arms, though I weren't cut nowhere. Right where yah stopped me pushin' yah away. Think that was the first time I thought about wantin' to go under. So I heaved the fish into th'barrel, clapped the top back on, rolled it up to the dock, and that's when I stuck my head under th'water. Didn't do nothin'. Then I came up for air and stuck my arms in instead. Felt like they got washed away, and I was light and clean, like I never been since the first time I had to wash myself in the sea.

I'm dyin', now, but I never thought about dyin' 'fore then. Good girl. Yes, let me have a sip. Bleedin's thirsty work. Dyin' man's got no arms to reach out, may as well croak himself hoarse. Write it down, like yah did before, every word. Magpie's got one good story left in him, for yah.

 

I was Mister Fisher to yah then, and yah were a mystery t'me. Yah weren't Nellie or Frances ("Colder", yah said) or Mary-star-o'-the-sea ("Hotter", yah said), though I recollect yah liked that one. Said it was a good name for a treasure. I don't like Treasure, though she's prettier as the world reckons things. They ain't seen her smile. She had no call to follow yah and none t'snatch that paper from yah. Not to read it first, not to shred it and throw th'shreddings back at yah laughin' 'bout the train time-table. My da taught me not t'hit a lady, but she tempted me, I vow.

She ain't yah real sister, is she? Not even with those pretty dark eyes yah both got. Hers ain't warm. Every day'd be cold as the fishes' bellies an' stinkin' of river muck until yah came by for yah paper and bringin' the sunshine with yah eyes. Then I didn't care none. Yah'd read out the stories of Dashing Dan Drummer while I was drummin' the fish flat, 'til they turned into the stories of Fierce Phinn Fisher. How'd yah know how da spelled it different than plain old Finn? Did I tell yah how he dreamed o'being a learned man, with our name on the covers of a big fancy bound book?

"No! Tell me about the book. How big was it? What kind of fancy binding did it have? What did it smell like? Tell me. I have to learn everything."

Of course, little flower! Everything for yah! I found it in th'captain's quarters, once. Weren't even smellin' of the wet. Can't show yah how big it was, not havin' my hands, but back when I had them it was as wide as both of them and about as long. About two fingers thick and the first part o' four filled with strange drawings. I drew yah a picture of the drawings, then, and bless me if yah couldn't read that just as easy as print!

"This looks like a star chart for Earthside. This circle is supposed to be the moon because it's got a slice of the dark part of the moon inside it, see? But the rest of the stars aren't in their right places. There's never supposed to be a cross touching the moon and Jupiter's nowhere..."

Why'd yah ask me then what kind of coins we found? How did yah know about them? They weren't worth nothing.

"Teacher taught me languages we don't write with letters...."

Yah got sad, again, then. Such shining eyes yah got, little flower. Let me up from here, I'll strip off a piece of his skin for every tear he made yah cry. And I'll thrash Treasure twice for every one. My da, he would've thrashed a woman who put herself forward like that, never mind how I saw yah flinch when she sneaked up on us. I didn't mean t'forget that. I never lied to yah. I only forgot. Yah can take all my shirt, don't need to just cut off the sleeves. I won't mind bein' half-dressed at the funeral. Ink's as good as cloth. Ah, thank yah, sewin' me up all neat like that. Don't guess I would need armholes any more, neither, now I got them flaps of skin sewn down smooth.

"...If I bring this map back to him, I hope Teacher will be happy. Also one of the coins if you have any of them still. May I?"

Nobody'd buy them, too heavy as they were, so we kept them all for tokens at card games. I lost all but that one, but I was happy to give it to yah. I wasn't so happy to let yah go so soon that day. Was all fired up t'hurt them. I suppose it was all right because yah had my star chart and coin to give yah hope. Yah said things were lookin' up that day, as I had--yah said it so fancy--brought yah th'light of new knowledge.

"Don't go yet! I didn't get my guess today. Yah name is Hope!"

And yah shook yah head, no. "Colder," yah told me. I didn't want to let yah go without finishing our story that day, but yah said "I must, right away, when there's new knowledge to gain," and yah didn't leave laughin'.

 

It was colder that night alright. That cold got into my arms 'round where yah grabbed me. Kept walkin' along the dock hugging myself trying to find heat to hold in. Then I'd rub down past my elbows and found out I was cold and scaly as the dyin' fish, and I'd think I wouldn't mind dyin' except I hadn't heard the end of t'story today. It weren't over and that weren't right. Back and forth I went. Gettin' dizzy from how many times I walked it. Everything was goin' dim an' foggy.

And when it stopped being dim I was endin' the story, droppin' coins into a charity box. There's a door under th'docks, light o'my eye, with five holes over the door. Here's some o' that new knowledge yah were lookin' for. It ain't wrong, exactly, but it's hidden from the Guild on account of they like to take more'n a tithe's worth, on top of not much likin' an authority that ain't theirs. I didn't used t'believe, but I was raised that way. Remember that, when I'm not here any more for yah to run to. I paid coins there for yah.

And I'd talked, light o'my eye. I told him every thing we said. Not the way I told yah, easy an' joyful. He dragged it out o'me with a barbed net. How yah got a light to yah that takes the pain out o'living in Malifaux. How yah are so smart and know such long words and strange ways of writin'. How yah take a story out of the paper and turn it into my own story that I never yet told yah. How Treasure chases yah around th'city smilin' all wicked and how yah got a teacher I never yet met. I hadn't, then.

Ah, he didn't like that at all! He hasn't met yah. He don't understand. He stood up in my face and lectured me.

"She may be an immature one," he told me, and wagged a finger in my face like he was the teacher o'me, "but I did not welcome you in from the cold to send you out again to a belle's embrace!"

Did yah know, he had a ram's-head charm same as the guardsmen's, hangin' there on the same chain, and he held that up in my face swingin' off that finger? "By my authority, you will not leave here without a blessed symbol," he boomed. Proper ship captain's voice he had, all of a moment, and I wilted down inside. Not th'way yah turned me to slush. Yah took away my shame. He just took away my fight. I couldn't shout him down. "You will show it to her and it will burn away her unliving powers.

"We know of this...'treasure' and the company she keeps. They are unholy. Once you have shown the immature one authority, you will be able to do what you must do. Once you have done that, return here, quickly as you can." He backed off a little before he gave th'last order. "The older one isn't unliving and she bears us a grudge for 'breaking her toys'. She will shoot to kill. Dodge with every step you run, and don't stop dodging until I can slam the door shut behind you. Don't leave your blood on my hands."

Can yah imagine it, light o'my eye? The man was afraid of dyin' and it wasn't even his own dyin' he was afraid of! Yah best go visit him after I'm done dyin'. He needs yah, and I already paid.

 

Yah knew, didn't yah, little flower? The very next day, when yah didn't start readin' from the story of Fierce Phineas MacCool Coulihan right away (I heard ma and da cryin' with happiness when yah said 'Coulihan' for th'first time--our name, in print at last!) but folded up the paper all neat and watched me flatten fish for th'fryin' pan?

I didn't like the way yah were drinkin' everything in everything yah looked at, like it was the first day all over again and we were strangers. "What's th'trouble? If it's the name game we can stop it."

And yah looked right in my eyes. "No. I like the guessing game." Yah smiled. I'd do anything to see yah smile, did I ever tell yah that? Ah. It's th'blood loss makin' me forget, I guess. Magpies shouldn't ever forget. "Give me a guess and then I'll tell you the news. Not the paper's news. Mine!"

"I haven't got anything to guess with yet, for today. And I don't want yah to wait. Tell me," and I set down the mallet to listen better. And also to get ready to grab the charm.

Yah could've knocked me over with th'fish itself when yah pulled out a charm of yah own! 'Twas wooden like mine, wasn't it? A perfect little coffin like the ones the death marshals carry on th'posters, on a string around yah neck. "My news is this. I learned what people mean when they talk about a Malifaux handshake and they aren't talking about smuggling soulstones. It's got a meaning that isn't corrupt. Have you got an amulet as well?"

I didn't know 'bout Malifaux handshakes with stones or without, but I showed yah the little wooden ship the dock exorcist made. He carves every one different and lets th'sailor pick. Before I met yah I might've lied and picked a Malifaux riverboat. But yah are here with me now and I picked the ship I sailed on all those years. I had him glue on some paper with black an' gold for our banner. I'm dyin'. It doesn't matter now, who knows about it.

Yah reached up an' tapped the charms together. "There," yah said, playin' the teacher yahself. "That's a Malifaux handshake. Any time people can show an amulet and prove they're not something hostile. It doesn't mean proving you are human. Teacher says I'll never be ready for learning whether I can do that as long as Treasure lives. It means proving you are not inhuman. I must be precise in all my speech and acts. Especially here. Teacher told me that Malifaux is the land of unintended consequences." So solemn yah got, and put yah charm away. Looked right in my eyes again. "I'm sorry I felt it was necessary to challenge you."

I swear, little flower, until that moment I'd forgotten I had been wantin' to challenge yah myself! I was so ashamed. Didn't look up again 'til yah hugged me. Yah got quite a grip with them long arms. Felt like yah cut my arms off short where yah hugged me. Exactly where yah held me back, that first time, it was. I was wigglin' my fingers tryin' t'feel whether they were still stuck on me or not.

"Don't yah feel bad! Let's forget we ever did. Let's go back to guessin' names. Yah name is...Winnie!"

Yah giggled. I love how that sounds. "That's the coldest one yet!"

"Yah better read a story and warm things up, then. I've got t'heat the fryin' pan. Where did it leave off? Fierce Phinn slit the throat of the giant fish which'd leaped on deck with the waves...."

The paper crackled and so did the fat in the pan. Different kinds o' crackles though. "How's a fish have a throat to slit? They have gills. The giant fish swept its strong tail around as its lifeblood burst from the great vein--oh I see, the blood flows the same direction under the skin...."

They don't flow the same, little flower, but I didn't want t'interrupt.

 

It's time. I can't hold off of it any longer, little flower. Listen close. Maybe I'll get th'time to finish.

I took the charm back to the exorcist and told him yah weren't no undead. Yah didn't flinch. He took the ship and floated it in the fountain o'holy water. It didn't sink none. He watched it for awhile. It still wasn't sinking or listing or sailing around backwards or anything strange. He watched me watchin' the ship. I wasn't sinking or listing neither.

Then he said t'me, straight as yah look into my eyes, "Fisher, if fisher you are, dip yourself in the holy water."

I reached out my hands and went into the fountain same as if there was a fish waitin' for me, and same as th' first time, I felt light and clean and free o' my arms altogether.

And I heard them clearer than ever before, ma and da and all the voices alongside them. I'm not ashamed t'say it, little flower. I cried, I was so happy. Da never cared for nothin' but gettin' his name in print and ma died of a broken heart after he broke her back. It didn't matter none. Ma and da and the fish o' Malifaux and the fish o' the sea, they're all swimmin' together in happiness, and I was swimmin' a little bit with them and a little bit still here in Malifaux. I cried more when he pulled my arms free o' the holy water and I stopped swimmin' alongside all o' them dead people.

He didn't look very happy. I don't think he ever heard them voices. He fished the ship out and put it back under my hand and made me wrap my fingers 'round it.

"...Fisher. Folk don't live very long after receiving such a...visitation, here. Not in Malifaux. Let this be the last command I have to give to you: keep that with you, and pray it's enough protection that the doom which is coming to you doesn't raise you from the grave. If it isn't--I'll have to command you again, and it will be irredeemable."

I looked down at the ship and the black an' gold hanging off of it. "It's got somethin' special in it?"

"It has coin enough inside it to pay your spiritual debts. Not the worldly ones. If that isn't a sign of a spiritual debt in your eyes, then you'd best pray on its meaning again. Goodbye, Fisher." He turned my hand over so I had to look at the bottoms of my arms and went away while I kept on lookin'.

They weren't scales no more on my skin. They'd grown up thicker an' higher an' curled around on themselves. Yah set flowers on my arms, little flower. Roses, I think. Big wild roses growin' out of my skin an' meat. I know it's a long thread o' story but it's almost done. Hold on awhile, Magpie. Don't fly away.

 

I was all afire for th'next day, to show yah. I thought yah might be proud of what yah done. I was proud t'be marked by yah. "Let me guess yah name," I told yah, almost before yah said hello. "Yah name is...Rose, and I have th'proof!"

Could've knocked me over with th'fish when yah shook yah head no! "Hotter. But I'm not named Rose. What proof?" So I peeled back my sleeves and showed yah.

Light o'my eye, I'm so sorry, whatever I did in my life, it was nothin' next to the look on yah face. But yah didn't flinch. Surprised me when yah tried to sniff the flowers like they was real, and surprised me worse when it got quiet as my grave in my head. They never stopped singin' to me after I put my hands in th'holy water, yah see. Not until then, when yah got close to yah work.

"I think," yah told me all quiet like, "that we need to go see Teacher. Now."

 


My heart went out from me a little bit, light o'my eye, when yah let go my hand and went into the back of that trash-pile of a building, and when yah voice came twistin' back all high an' echoey, "It's only me". Turned my insides to slush to hear yah voice twisted around wordless, and Teacher clumping around and talking just as wordless. But they froze right up again when Treasure leaped out from behind somethin' and shouted "Boo!" right in my face. My life ain't hers to scare almost out o'me.

Then yah came back and grabbed onto my wrist, right onto the rose, and all th'fear melted away. It won't never come back so long as yah's close to me. Stay here. I'm almost done dyin' and ain't felt no fear. How many in Malifaux ever get to say that?

Didn't like that table yah all made me stretch out on. Didn't like Teacher's cold old hand twistin' mine around to see yah roses. Didn't like Treasure bein' told t'look, and hated how she looked all smug at yah while yah told Teacher about us. Almost didn't like the tellin', light o'my eye. "I messed it up. It didn't form properly. I don't know what to do."

"You certainly don't," he told yah, all curious like.  "You're supposed to detach flesh before you strip the soul out and consign it to the aether. How you managed to cleave the soul and only partially send it onward I do not know." Didn't like how that made the hairs on th'back o'my neck stand up straight. Yah were still holdin' onto my other hand so I wasn't screaming. Thought I might've started, though, if yah wasn't.

"So, what, he's part unmade? You can't do that." Treasure's got ugly eyes. They flash. "You helped her!"

"I amplified the entropic backlash, yes. But tell me, where did the excess go, if it isn't grounded here?" And he looked at yah, light o'my eye, like he'd caught yah picking the lock to the captain's quarters. But why'd he still look so stern when yah dolly climbed up the table and sat itself along with th'roses? "She made a doll and didn't unmake all of the man. Now, given those results, what did she fail to do?" And he looked at Treasure instead, like he knew she stole the captain's treasure and he wanted his share. Is that why she's Treasure?

Treasure shouldn't never smile! Teeth from ear to ear and th'flash in her eyes ain't no light at all. "And I'm going to show her how to do it right." And that's when she started takin' us to pieces, me an' the roses an' the doll all mixed up. That weren't right. Roses're yah writin' and they're showing that I belong to yah! They weren't her roses to pick! Not to tear them off with them metal fingers o'hers, not t'knot them together with doll strings with legs hangin' off the sides. I would've screamed, light o'my eye, if yah weren't there watching all quiet like, movin' yah touch up when she kept tearin' off the pieces where yah were holdin' onto my arm before. And yah weren't smiling none.

 

Look at that man, who's no more yah da than I am. What's he know of the land of joy everlastin' to hold onto that kind of crooked smile? Is that yah name? Joy? Joy, will yah stop that abominable rose o'yahs crawlin' up my leg? It ain't mine!...and that ain't yah name or yah would've done it. See. I sneaked in one more good guess. Hot or cold?

There yah go. There ain't no sin anywhere when yah smile. That's why he made himself Teacher to yah, ain't it? Needin' to be washed clean in th'light of yah smile. Never yah mind him--I need it! Every time yah left me they weighed me down again. All the fish whose throats I slit on the sea, all them I told yah about, them weren't the kind with scales and fins. They were plain people, in plain boats with plain flags, and just plain not enough guns. I did bad things, light o'my eye, and 'fore I met yah I thought they weighed on my everlastin'. I know better now. Yah will come to my funeral? Just to see me off to th'sea of happiness?

But, light o'my eye...shouldn't I already've been dead long before now? Magpie's been chattering an' bleeding for so long. Burnt through half a cigarette 'fore Treasure stole it, and now yah most sewn yahself a new doll from them sleeves I don't need no more. Were yah holdin' me here so's I could tell yah all my story before I left? Were yah holdin' me back from th'sea o'happiness?

I love yah, light o'my eye, little flower, and I'd've waited all th'years yah needed. But if yah can put yah hand out and hold folk back from th'sea of happiness...ahhhh, yah may be th'most evil creature here an' Earthside both.

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Jin looked over at the table, sighing.  Three heads perched precariously close to the edge, staring at him accusingly.  He hadn't found the bodies yet, but they were surely nearby, probably posed in some strangely mystical panorama.  At least this time, there hadn't been any children. 
He looked at the only piece of evidence he'd found, besides the heads.  A guild badge, bent nearly in half, left in the middle of the kitchen floor.  He still wasn't sure if it was left there specifically for him to find, or if it had just fallen there during the (likely very short) battle.  Either way, it was enough to convince him that this was the work of his target.  Between the macabre line-up of decapitated heads, their cauterized wounds, the fact that all three victims were low ranking Guild officers, and the smell of brimstone that still filled the room, it had to be Azazel.  And judging by the lack of uproar around the neighborhood, this was either being quickly covered up, or had happened very recently.  Jin sighed, and left the house quietly, scratching absently at the half-finished tattoo of a rose on his forearm.
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Azazel looked over the two dead before her, smiling.  Two more heads, to be placed watching for her pursuer.  She hadn't seen him yet, but he was surely nearby.  She wanted to leave him something to consider when he made his way down to the slums, searching for her.  She sheathed her swords and rubbed a spot of blood off one of her horns then licked her fingers clean.  These two would make seven tonight, a good number.  Three Guild Officers, two Gremlin scum, and a pair of corpse-botherers.  She could withdraw to the woods and rest for a time until she felt who her next targets would be.  The man chasing her would never find her, which was a pity, but he could be dealt with in time.  She smiled, and left the house quietly, scratching absently at a spot where one of the men had struck her on the forearm with a clawed finger.
-----------------------------
Jin sat at the bar in the Honeypot nursing a drink and considering his newest tattoo.  A red rose curled around the blank space on his lower forearm that was currently the source of his concern.  He was so engrossed in staring at it he didn't realize that a "house lady" had been speaking to him until she touched him on the shoulder.  He glanced up, and she gave him her best winning smile and said "I said, you sure have a lot of tattoos.  Do they mean anything?" 
He brushed her hand off his shoulder as he responded abruptly, "They're for the dead.  And I'm not interested." 
Ignoring the glare that swiftly replaced her previously hopeful expression, he stood and strode towards the back of the casino, following what he hoped was the man who had hired him.  He called out loudly over the noise of the patrons "Mr. Lynch?  Jakob Lynch?  Can I speak to you for a moment?" 
He pushed his way through the crowd that seemed to thicken as he approached, cursing the people around him, and shoved aside a waitress.  She stumbled into another patron, spilling her tray all over a very large (and now very wet and angry) man in the process.  Jin felt a hand with a grip like a vice on his arm, and his momentum was abruptly halted.  For a few seconds, he struggled vainly against the hand, watching as his quarry disappeared through a door and down a set of stairs.  Jin cursed, and turned to the man who held his arm, staring directly and defiantly into his chest.  "You addle-pated cretin, he got away!" 
Jin looked up, craning his neck, to see the man's lips draw back in a sneer, and years of experience with bar fights told him to duck.  The man's other fist brushed the top of his head, setting his ears slightly to ringing, but Jin used the momentum to spin his attacker to the ground, wrestling his arm free in the process (and losing a layer of skin, it felt like).  Jin's boot went to the man's throat in slightly less time than it took to draw both of his pistols and point one at each of the prone thug's eyes (which were quickly widening in fear).  "I would love to stay and satisfy your desperate need for vengeance for what seems to be your only set of clothing, chump, but I've had a very bad day, and I don't feel like bruising my knuckles or cleaning your blood off my trousers.  So how about you stay down on the ground for a good minute while I get my coat and leave?  Does that strike you as a fair compromise?" 
The man's nod was truncated, possibly by the boot slowly crushing his windpipe.  "Can you count to a hundred, Gremlin-spawn?  Did they cover that in whatever hell-hole in which you were raised?" 
Another short nod.  "Good.  Do that.  Slowly.  When you get to 100, then go get a drink at the bar on me."
A final nod of agreement, confusion showing the man's eyes.  "Good chap.  Perhaps there's a bit of brain in all that muscle after all." 
Turning away, Jin tossed some scrip on the bar as he gathered his hat and coat, looking around for Mielle.  He spotted her by the door, her rifle leaning casually at her side, chatting with the "working girl" he'd scorned.  She struck an odd note in the casino, with her long braided black hair and trail gear, but her easy assurance meant no one questioned whether she should be allowed in.  Jin glared at her as he stalked towards the door, annoyed by her wicked smile.  She fell into step beside him as they exited, still grinning.  "You know, Jinnie, that whole thing was pretty much your fault.  I think you might have been a touch hard on the poor animated statue." 
Jin's glare receded not a bit, and he hawked and spat disgustedly.  "You don't grab a man like that, Mielle.  Taught him a valuable lesson, probably saved his life." 
Mielle laughed again, brightly.  "You are such a giver, Jin.  Truly a gift to the city."
----------------------------------
As they sat around the campfire, finishing their meals, Mielle's face took on that look.  Jin sighed.  "Has it been a week already?"
Mielle shrugged.  "If you don't know, then yes, yes it has.  It's time again."
Jin shook his head in resignation and reach down, pulling off his shirt.  In the flickering fire light, his tattoos almost seemed alive, but he knew for a fact they were not.  Despite some very strange offers from a witch at the Honeypot to change that.  "Front or back?"
Mielle considered.  "Hmmm.  We've done 9 on the front, and only 7 on the back.  But the one about you on the pirate ship, chasing down that fleeing Arcanist was a fantastic story.  And that was on the front.  It's just so hard, Jinnie!"
His wince at the use of that name never ceased to amuse her, but right now was not the time to annoy him, if she wanted to get a story.  She pointed to a tattoo on his left shoulder that had always seemed odd.  "That one.  The shovel.  Tell me about that one.  Was it really someone named 'Ratty’?” 
Jin smiled.  "That one's not a bad story at all, actually.  Pretty short, too."  Mielle pouted exaggeratedly, but Jin ignored her. 
"This guy was some freelance stitcher- he wasn't big enough to get someone like Lady Justice interested, but he was definitely someone that needed to be taken care of.  So I got the job.  He had gotten the nickname of 'Ratty' because he was either very picky or very sloppy - before he found a body he wanted he'd always end up digging up three or four others and just leaving them in open graves.  And he liked fresh bodies.  So pretty quickly the local rat population - which is a lot smarter than you'd expect - started following him around at night, waiting for a feast.  I don't know if he was too dumb to notice or if he just couldn't figure out what to do about it, but pretty quickly, you could find out where he was by watching the rat population in an area suddenly empty out.  So it was pretty easy to...."
Jin paused, holding up a hand for silence.  Outside of the crackle of the fire, the sounds of the forest were hushed.  Jin slowly reached down to his revolvers, prepared for trouble, until the roar of some large creature echoed off the trees in the distance.  Jin relaxed, but didn't take his hand off his revolvers.  "Huh.  Something's out there hunting." 
He shook his head.  "Anyway, I just took to spending time in some dark alleyways, and watching the rats.  After a few days sitting in garbage, I found a swarm heading towards the cemetery, and followed them to my guy.  When I drew on him, he tried to smack me in the head with his shovel.  So when the time came to get him inked after I got paid, it seemed like the natural choice." 
He stood, pulling his shirt back over his head.  "I'm going to look around a bit, make sure whatever is out there hunting isn't coming near us.  You get some sleep, eh?  I think tomorrow may be busy...."
-----------------
Azazel sat in the dark, beyond the light of her pursuer's fires, and finished her meal.  The rabbit had ceased struggling as she ate it, but it had still been filling.  She had been considering whether tonight was the night that she would try her skill against the two, but it did not feel right - the time for the conflict was coming, but it had not arrived yet.  Still, she had listened as the man told his story, smiling as she remembered one of her hunts.  It had been a pair-bond of magicians.  They had begun researching spells that would allow them to control the minds of the Nephilim, so she had been dispatched to stop them and destroy their research.  She had taken a pair of younglings with her and set out for their home. 
Both had been inside, but they had been prepared for her.  She had set the first of the pair bond alight, drawing upon her own essence to create the fires, but the mageling had not died fast enough.  Her partner had some skill with, of all things, a two-handed battle axe.  Dispatching her was proving tiresome thanks to the distractions of her partner, so Azazel had reached out to the essences of the younglings, drawing from their strength to make herself faster and stronger.  One of the younglings had died, unable to withstand the transfer, but that was no matter.  With their essences enhancing her own, the warrior-maid had fallen, and then it had been trivial to slay the other.  Her surviving youngling had found a child that presumably belonged to the pair-bond, and dispatched it, which was regrettable.  The child was not intended to be a target, and should have been let free.  Still, done was done.  They had arranged the bodies to leave a message to others who would defy the Queen, destroyed the research, and returned home.  It had been an excellent mission.
She was shaken from her reverie as the man by the fire rose, speaking to his companion.  He seemed suspicious, and was likely to begin investigating the forest, but that did not concern Azazel - she could easily elude him in the darkness.  However his companion had drawn her rifle and was scanning the darkness beyond with some sort of mechanical device, likely something that allowed her to pierce the darkness.  It was not quite time to confront the pair, so Azazel rose to her feet unhurriedly and began making her way back towards her shelter to await her next assignment.
----------------------
“It’s been six days, Mielle.  She’s never gone this long without killing before!”  Jin gestured about the streets, his annoyance making his normally controlled and subdued gestures into wide, sweeping movements.  “One of the things you can always count on with Neverborn is that they’re blood-thirsty monsters.  We know she’s not averse to killing, so why is she hiding?”
Mielle shrugged, sipping from a flask on her hip.  “Bet we scared her off, and she’s run back to whatever hell-hole she came from, bud.  Better go tell the esteemed Mr. Lynch that you couldn’t complete his contract, and tell your bosses in the Guild that you failed to apprehend a known crim….”
Jin’s sharp gesture cut her off and she burst out laughing.  “Okay, fine.  You’re not in the mood.  Not that you ever are.  But think about it.  We know this one is smart.  We know she’s a hunter, but it’s not like she’s eating the bodies or something.  She’s killing for a reason, whatever it is.  Maybe she likes it.  Maybe she’s looking for something.  Maybe it’s some convoluted Neverborn ritual to drive all us top-siders out of Malifaux and back to our homes.  Whatever.  But she’s not done.  You know that, and I know that.  She’s just drawing it out.  Maybe waiting for us to get sloppy, or give up, or just look the wrong way.” 
Jin sighed, scratching at his stubbled head.  “I know.  I know.  But I hate this.  All we can do is wait for some innocent person, some family, to get murdered, and try to follow her back!  That’s not how this is supposed to work, Mielle!”
She nodded.  “I know.  But it’s what we’ve got.  It’s not like she’s just going to announce her presence and….”
Mielle’s head snapped up at the sound of a booming voice, echoing across the neighborhood.  She grabbed her scope, peering around at rooftops.  “There!  On top of the church!  Apparently she’s got a keen sense of timing and irony.”  Jin followed her finger, and saw a woman crouched atop the steeple of a church, swords in her hands, wreathed in fire.  It had to be her.
“It’s not irony,” he muttered to Mielle.
“What?”
“You said she had a keen sense of irony.  It’s not irony.  Just a coincidence.”
“You really want to argue about this right now?”
“Just pointing it out.”
“She’s talking.  Might want to pay attention.  Probably important.”
“You know how these things go, Mielle.  She’s going to announce that we are going to suffer terrors the likes of which, et cetera, et cetera.  Listen.”
The booming voice continued, predictably.  “You will suffer terrors the likes of which you cannot imagine!  This is Our land! Ours! You have 3 days, and then there will be…”
Jin nudged Mielle.  “She’s going to say Hell to pay.  Listen.”
“She just did.”
“Told you.”
“You want I should take a shot?”
“Seems like a good time for it.”
Mielle nodded, smoothly unslinging her rifle and bringing it up to her shoulder.  She sighted in quickly, held her breath, and fired.  The figure on top of the church rocked back as the bullet struck her, but she did not fall.
“Doesn’t seem to be dead.”
“I see that, Jin.  Thank you.”
“Thought it might be worth pointing out.”
“That’s why you’re the leader.”
“Sure enough.”
“And not your winning personality.”
“Might want to shoot again.”

As he finished speaking, she fired a second shot, aiming for the leg this time.  The figure moved, impossibly quick, spinning around and began to scale down the church, still moving far faster than she should.
“Still not dead.  I reckon you didn’t even connect that time.”
“Yes, Jin.  Thank you for your perceptive insight.”
“Next time, might want to hit.”
“Yes, oh great and wizened leader.”
“Wise.”
“What?”
“Wise.  Wizened means small, shrunken.  Wise is … well, full of wisdom.”
“I know what I said.”
“I think she’s coming this way.”
“Seems like it.”
“You might want to get clear.  This is like to get violent real fast.”
“Now that is wise.”
“Thanks.”
Mielle slung her rifle over her shoulder, already running for cover.  Jin unlimbered his revolvers, habitually checking that the cylinders were full and ready to spin.
Seconds later, the creature appeared on a nearby roof.  Jin spun to aim at her, but as he did, she leapt from the roof, both swords aimed squarely at his heart.  He barely managed to dive aside, and the flames that licked around her body blistered his skin painfully. 
He rolled to the side and came up firing, but Azazel had already sprung from her landing towards him.  His shots skimmed her head, and then he was forced to dive away again to avoid getting skewered.
Mielle called out from a nearby window.  “She’s fast, boss! Real fast!”
Jin cast about for any advantage.  “Thanks, Mielle.  Had that figured already.” 
“Just making sure you knew!  Get her clear and slower, I’ll shoot her in the head!”
Jin holstered a revolver and fanned the hammer on his remaining gun, spraying the area where Azazel stood.  He was certain at least two of the bullets hit - pools of her acidic blood sizzled through the wood porch where she had been standing - but she didn’t seem dissuaded.  But she was slower, definitely slower. 
He swapped guns quickly, again spraying her with lead.  Another bullet struck her in the shoulder, and acidic blood sprayed out again.  He heard a sharp crack, and watched in surprise as the entire porch collapsed on his prey.
He reloaded as he charged, both guns at the ready.  As he reached the pile of debris it suddenly exploded outward, catching him in a blast of nails and wood planks.  One of them caught him square in the head, and he tumbled over, his vision blurring.  He could still make out Azazel bounded away, smashing through the door of a nearby bar to the sound of horrified screams.
“She’s getting away, boss.  Probably don’t want that.”
“I can see, Mielle, thank you.”
“Just making sure.  You took a porch to the head.  And you’re not getting up.  Seems like you might be in a bad way.  And your nose looks broke.  Gonna ruin your pretty face.”
“Your concern is noted.”
He rose to his feet slowly and unsteadily and followed the Neverborn as quickly as he could.  The bar had gone strangely silent, and he didn’t like that one bit.
-------------
Azazel stood beyond the door, surveying the room quickly.  Most of these people were prey, their essences corrupted and foul.  She spotted a large woman and a lithe man standing behind the bar, axes in their hands.  “You.  You will suffice.”  They bristled, readying their axes, but Azazel wasn’t concerned.  She sheathed Ignus and Rime and gestured at the pair.  She felt a bit more of her flagging life essence leach away as she ripped pieces from their spirits, but they were too weak to resist.  As they fell to the floor gasping and dying, her wounds quickly closed and the fire around her body reignited with a roar.  But she could hear shouting beyond the windows, difficult to make out, but likely the arrival of a handful or more of Guild guardsman.  She wasn’t worried about them, as they were prey as well.  But she couldn’t afford to be distracted fighting her hunter.  Besides, she had taken his measure, and she was satisfied.  She ran up the stairs, seeking a path to the rooftops and then to the forest beyond.
----------------
Jin held a bag of ice to his nose with one hand while he gestured to the barkeep with the other.  “Another.  And I’ve got all the ice I need here on my nose.  Keep it out of the glass.”
As the barkeep poured him a drink, he turned to Mielle.  “I am concerned.”
Mielle raised an eyebrow.  “Concerned?  She throws half a building at you, steals the souls of two of the toughest mercs around then leaps across rooftops while on fire, and you’re concerned?”
Jin nodded.  “I am.”
“I’d hate to see what makes you worried, then.”
“Worry is a waste of time.  Worrying about a thing has never made a damn bit of difference in what happens.  Planning and evaluating matter.”
Mielle sighed and shook her head, something she seemed to do rather often around Jin.  “It was just a joke, Jin.” 
He nodded.  “But it wasn’t accurate.  That’s not funny, it’s just wrong.  ‘Why do zombies make bad cooks’ is a joke.”
“Look, it’s … never mind.  Wait.  What?”
“What?”
“Did you just say ‘Why do zombies make bad cooks?’”
“I did.  It’s a joke.”
“….why?”
“Why is it a joke?”
“No.  Why do they make bad cooks?”
“Oh.  Because they always throw themselves into their work.”
Mielle laughed, despite herself, and gestured for her own drink. 
“Okay.  Back on track.  Flaming demon girl.  Swords.  Shrugs off bullets.  What are going to do about her?”
Jin considered her question.  “What do we know?  She’s fast.  She’s strong.  We’ve killed fast and strong before.  What makes her different?”
“Well, and I’m just guessing here, it’s that when we shot her, she didn’t fall down and die.  That’s pretty much our go-to move in these situations.”
Jin nodded, tapping his lip.  “Right.  So we either change what we do or we do it better.  Assume you don’t have any undivulged skills with axes or magic?”
Mielle looked at him, shocked.  “Magic?  Jin, you know magic is forbidden to people like us!” 
He gave her a withering look.  “No, Jin.  I don’t have anything but a couple trinkets that you already know about.”
“Review them.”
“I have a knife that can cut any rope.  I have a spyglass that can see in the dark.  And I have a pair of underwear that never needs washing.”
Jin blinked.  “You…what?”
“Just checking if you were listening.”
Jin rubbed his eyes and leaned back on his stool, wincing as pain throbbed down his broken nose.  “Those are no good.  She can probably see in the dark already, and she does not seem interested in capturing us.  So, we can’t change what we do.  So we do it better.  Guns are top of the line.  Means bullets.  Better bullets.  Perdita does it.  Why not us?”  He tapped the rim of his glass considering.  “But where?  Likely to be expensive.  Not even sure what we’d need to do the job….”
Mielle patted him on the shoulder.  “How ‘bout this.  You go get some rest, see about letting your nose shift back into place.  And in a real bed!  No camping out tonight!  Get a room here.  We can afford that at least.  I’ll ask around a bit, check in with some of our more creative friends.  Maybe I’ll get lucky.  If not, we can go to the Guild offices in the morning and see what we can scrape up.”
Jin nodded, exhaustion sweeping over him at the thought of sleeping in an actual bed.  “Fair.  Tomorrow, then.”  
Something small but heavy landed on Jin’s chest, knocking the breath out of him and snapping him awake quickly.  He reached for his revolvers as he tried to roll out of bed and in to cover, but his hands grasped only empty air.  He struck out as he swatted away whatever had landed on him, but was brought up short by Mielle’s voice.
“Honestly.  See if I bring you presents any more if that’s how you respond!” 
Jin sat up, blinking, to see Mielle picking up a wooden box from the floor.  “Presents?”
“Presents!  Well, present.  I think I’ve solved our demon problem.”
“Well?”
“What, no ‘Thanks, Mi!  You’re the greatest partner!  I’d be nothing without you!’?  No grateful words about increasing my pay?” 
“Depends on what you brought me.”
She sighed theatrically.  “I need to talk to someone about these working conditions!  They’re unlivable!”  She handed the box over, spinning it around to face him.  On the front of the box was a stylized bee hovering over a pot of honey. 
Jin raised an eyebrow quizzically.  Mielle gestured impatiently, and he shrugged, opening the box.  Inside were 12 bullets which seemed to somehow absorb and distort the light around them while glowing with a wan purple light.  He reached out to touch one, but Mielle stopped him with a gesture.  “Wear gloves.  Definitely wear gloves.”
“What are they?” 
“As far as I can tell, they’re basically Brilliance, in bullet shape.  They feel pretty lethal, even just being around them.  A little bit wrong, a little bit scary, and a lot like they’ll sting like the Breach if they hit.”
Jin considered the box.  “Brilliance, though?  Why?  How will that help?”
Mielle shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I just shoot things that are far away, remember?  But here’s the thing.  I was out and about last night, talking to some of our old friends.  I’d just left Gresham’s place.  You remember Gresham?  Weird guy with the mechanical eye?  I still think he removed the original himself…. Anyway.  He was the sixth person to say ‘Sorry, can’t help you.’  I was starting to get concerned.  But as I stood there, trying to figure out where to go next, this woman walks up to me.  She was clearly some kind of “performer,” and I was ready to tell her to piss off, I wasn’t interested, when she brought out this box.  ‘I heard you’re looking for something to kill a Neverborn.’  Just like that.  No introduction, no small talk, just a cryptic greeting, and a box with 12 bullets.”
“Seems like a bad idea to trust an unexplained box.”
“Yeah, yeah it does.”
“Any other ideas?”
“Nope.  Not a one.”
“Want to give up?  See what failure feels like?”
“Can’t say that I do.  ‘Sides, you got that rose on your arm, needs a name inside it.  Hate to see you waste it….”
“Fair enough.”
---------------------
Jin could feel the strangeness of his revolvers, loaded with the mysterious bullets.  He didn’t like it.  He didn’t like any number of things.  But it didn’t seem to matter now.  Not much mattered now.  Not the fact that he’d solved the pattern of murders, learned every dead person was involved in a raid on Neverborn territory some 10 years back.  Nasty thing, bloody and savage.  Didn’t matter.  Not the fact that this could well be the last day of his violent life, though he was worried about Mielle.  She thought she understood, but she didn’t.  She thought that she was ready to die, but she wasn’t.  Jin was resolved that, whatever happened today, Mielle would make it out.
He walked the perimeter of the house again, looking for any minor changes, anything to indicate today really was the day.  He was peering suspiciously at a pile of garbage that he swore had moved since the last trip when he heard the whisper of a body passing through the air.  He dove instinctually, rolling into cover behind a pile of barrels while drawing both his revolvers.  Mielle’s voice rang out from the second story window.
“Boss, I think she’s here.”
“Yes, Mielle.  She is.”
“Just making sure it weren’t some other flaming demon woman come to kill you.”
“Doesn’t seem to be, no.”
“Okay, good to know!”

The fact that the barrels he crouched behind hadn’t burst into flame worried Jin.  He’d been sure that Azazel would try to flush him out immediately, but he’d been back here for a good ten seconds.  Far too long.

He cautiously stuck his head around the side of the barrel and surveyed the alleyway. Nothing.

“Mielle?”


She didn’t respond.

“Mi?  You got her?”

Still nothing.  That was bad.  Real bad.  Another tuck and roll to the other side of the alley.  No attacks, no sound.  Even worse.  Jin spun around, still seeing nothing.  Then, heart sinking, he looked up to the balcony above.

There she was.  They were.  Mielle knelt before Azazel, clutching at her throat.  Azazel stood over her like a queen, hand raised, some sort of black energy pulsing around the two of them.  Whatever that was, it had to stop.  He sighted quickly and fired two shots at Azazel.  The bullets sank into the creature’s back precisely where he’d aimed, but she didn’t even flinch.  Mielle fell to the floor, eyes wide and staring, unblinking.  Jin fired another pair of shots, and Azazel flicked her wrist at him, the dark energy leaving Mielle and streaking his way.  He dodged to the side, but still felt it wrap around him, enveloping him in foul eldritch power as Azazel leapt smoothly from the balcony to stand before him.  She drew her sword in a lazy gesture as Jin struggled to move.  “You have done well, human.  But this ends now.”  Her sword flashed, and Jin felt a searing pain in his left arm, and, distantly, heard someone screaming.  It took him a few long seconds to realize it was his voice.  And several more to realize the arm on the ground in front of him was familiar.  Very familiar.  Azazel drew her other sword and the eldritch energy drained away, leaving Jin to collapse to the ground in a macabre mirror to Mielle on the balcony.  As Azazel raised her swords above her head, Jin felt a strange pulsing at his side.  His last seconds stretched out before him as he grasped his revolver and raised it, firing blindly as he did.  The gun spat blue and purple fire and Azazel screamed, knocked back before she could complete her execution.  He fired again, and a second burst of fire exploded from the gun as he succumbed to the darkness inside his head.

-----------------------

Jin woke, groggily, swimming up through a fog of pain.  He could hear a voice, but could not make out what it was saying.  He struggled to recognize it, to move his mind toward it.

“.... at least it was the left arm, right?  Not the right arm.  The right choice.  You’ve always favored your right.  And besides, the left was all full of tattoos.  Stories I’ll never hear, probably, but basically, you didn’t need it any more.  If you wake up.  When you wake up.  So it’s almost a blessing, if you…”

“Mi?”

Her voice was thick with relief.  “Yeah, Jinnie?”  
“Shut up.” 
“Sure, Jinnie.”

-------------------

Azazel struggled through the darkened streets, pain burning in her chest, swimming through a fog of it, stumbling towards what seemed to be a beacon to her right, calling out to her.  The bullets pulsed in her chest, sending an incredible mix of ecstasy and agony through her body as she drew closer.  As she stumbled towards the building that held the beacon a woman swung the door open.  “Welcome to the Honeypot Casino.  Mr. Lynch is waiting for you in the basement.  He can help you right out.”

-----------

“What do you think happened to her?”
“Told Mr. Lynch she bled out and died.”
“Think he believed you?”
“He paid me.  Seems like he did.”
“So we call that a win?”
“Better than nothing.  I got a new metal arm.  We both got paid.  You got that fancy white hair.  Seems like we came out ahead, overall.”
“Sure enough.”

----------

As Azazel stumbled down the staircase, she could see the source of the beacon.  It moved and writhed behind a man, an amorphous form that seemed to reach out to her wounds.  “Ah.  Ms. Azazel.  Do come in.  My associate and I have been waiting for you.  I think that, with the proper arrangements, we can help you with your injuries.  We can discuss payment after we’re done…..”

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True North:  A Compass Rose

 

A lesser man would have walked away.  A greater man would have pulled the trigger.

***

His captain’s words echoed through his mind as recognition set its teeth and growled.  “The Arcanists are planning something.  Take position and watch the Western edge of the old warehouse on Alpine and Truance streets, just south of the northern Quarantine district.  Eliminate them.”  He was perched obediently, the cold barely registering against his practiced resolve, in a derelict old building that overlooked a side entrance and a mostly boarded-up cafe.  It was within this much smaller building that the three forms had gathered, standing and exchanging pleasantries, just a few moments prior.  This close to the quarantine wall, patrols kept the curfew in firm effect, but the crafty had always managed to find their way.  He had waited for this moment for upwards of nine hours, yet now was loathe to act upon it.

Staring through his scope, out past the mist as it swirled free and wild, Kelhan saw her tilt her head back in a laugh that rang out in his memory, if not on the air, as it  echoed back through the ages.  He’d never expected to see her again.  He’d thought she surely must have died.  Her passage through the breach had not been smooth, and word had come back that only a handful of passengers had survived that particular crossing.  That had been the worst day of his life, and it had heralded a lifetime of absent letters and absent good news.  Shifting faintly against the cold and his rigid training, his fingers traced the etchings on the facing of his grandfather’s rifle.  For a great many years, he’d held this piece as his closest treasure, never once believing that it could deliver unto him a fate worse than his most hated grave.

A few hours had yet to pass until the dawn trudged wearily above the horizon to scowl down on the scene below.  His scope’s steady crosshairs clashed with the hesitation in his fingers.  Loyalty was his guiding star, but, with her, the sky was always mired in cloud.  He sighed and put up his weapon, pulling a cigar from a front pocket and setting this -- unlit -- between his lips.  He stared into the past and felt the mist creep over and around him, the unsettling laughter of children lost long ago flitting from buildings a few stories below.  Try though they might, the Guild could never fully quarantine the evils that beset the city.

Smiling darkly, Kelhan felt the familiar burn on his chest and shifted faintly, imperceptibly, as memories drew him down.

***

There wasn’t much in the way of countryside, back in his home district Earth Side that was, but what little pushed through had been his sanctuary.  Kelhan smiled at the still fresh memory of  packed clay and dry grass under his feet, the sun beating down as, distantly, a thunder that had nothing to do with rain pounded to the South.  Smoke and nectar filled the air.  It had been while he was out hunting pheasants that he’d met the one who would mean so much to him, the girl whose laughter was brighter than her golden hair.  

The meeting hadn’t been as spectacular as he  thought it should have  been,  but it had meant more than even the lines of ink on his palm suggested.  She’d been balancing on a half-submerged log, crossing a fetid stream with a fishing rod over her shoulders, when he’d crested the hill.  He would always remember the expression that had lifted her from that mire.  Though he’d held the high ground, the gun, and the right to hunt that stretch, she’d held something much more powerful.  Self possessed, she’d outranked him in that instant and evermore.  Even now, with the Empire’s stamp on his chest, the Guild’s coin in his purse, and years separating their history, it felt fundamentally wrong to cross her.

A lesser boy would have pulled the trigger.  A greater boy would have walked away.  He’d descended, soaking his boots, and offered his aid.

He’d liked to imagine, while back "in the trenches" and waiting for death to call his name, that they had liked each other straight off, that he’d helped her find the road back to town, and that she’d relied on him in some manner; the truth was much simpler and much less heroic.  He’d been afraid of her.  Chivalry, or his interpretation of it, had given him an out, providing him an opportunity to rescue when otherwise his aid could not have been tendered.  A slow, dry smirk creased the decades and he pulled on the unlit cigar, watching the young girl of then morph into something very close to what smiled at the end of his barrel.  He’d never aimed a weapon at her like this, not in all the childhood hikes that he’d gone out hunting and found her trespassing.  She had a knack for finding her way back into his path and old memories flooded his mind.  It was done to irk him, he knew.  She would hide in the underbrush and wait until he came around the corner before rushing out, startling his game and making sounds like a boar.  He’d always moved his gun away, even when she’d shown off the red and grey of her family’s crest on her bicep.

He hadn’t known they were rivals until she started wearing tank tops.  The ink had been fresh and she’d been more sensitive to sun scorching the silver grey of the stylized lynx with a sprig of red berries from a Guelder Rose.  Her perfect gold locks, now gleaming with health and perfectly coiled, had then been perpetually snagging little bits of lichen and dried leaves.  Somehow, with the little scratches on her cheek and with forearms splotched with pitch, it had gleamed brighter back then. Above and below the marks of her house had been words in the old tongue, though a little squiggle indicated she’d not remained completely stoic.

The feud had run deep, and he’d goaded himself into saving enough to take a place on the local tattooist’s reclining chair and bleed for the green and gold of his forefathers within a week.  Tradition dictated it be done in the old way, without the automation of modern steam-powered guns.  His brother had promised to meet him there after work, but she’d been giggling at a magzine in the waiting room when he’d arrived.  He’d invited her to stand by his side and watch it happen when she admitted she’d closed her eyes for her own.  His brother had arrived a few minutes in and, glaring at but not displacing his golden haired companion, had held his left shoulder firmly.

She’d laughed at him when a drop dripped from his eye instead of just his right arm.  His older brother, holding his shoulder until that moment, had drawn a hunting knife and hauled her out of the shop.  Alone, that moment revealed just how much her presence meant to him.  He hadn’t seen her again until his mother’s funeral, a scarf about her neck, when she’d waited until after the wake to dance upon the freshly laid headstone.  It had seemed so innocent; her movements had been absolutely carefree.  He had known, then, that his soul could belong to no other.  

As he did now, he’d remained frozen while the family had discovered this latest trespass and responded first with horror and then with malice.  Had she been older, there would have been another grave dug, this one without a marker.  Instead, his older brother had enlisted to avoid the scandal of incarceration and the bone saw had managed to set everything else to rights.  It had taken an hour to drag her back to town, and his kin had not spoken to him when he returned.  To their minds, his betrayal marred him.  After that, he’d vowed never to act again with disloyalty.  In all ways save the one that mattered most, he’d always lived up to that creed.

Across the way, she kissed one of the other Arcanists on the cheek and they sipped something from each other’s mugs.  That, too, had been a far-too-common sight, though, then as now, he had no reason to believe it more than her ebullient nature.  It had cowed him, though, to see her as he did when their formal education had begun.

It had taken years to work up the nerve to ask her father, the man’s pistol pressed to his forehead as he earnestly asked for the most precious hand he’d ever known.  The click had sounded heavy.  The scar on his temple introduced many lies of great deeds and daring feats, but it had been with wet drawers and a steady gaze that he’d asked a second time.  Silence, then, and a turned back had been all the ascent he’d thought he needed.

***

He felt his finger drift over the intricate filigree on his rifle’s trigger.  His grandfather’s invisible hand on his shoulder, quietly reminding him to breathe, would never leave so long as he held the ancient piece.  It mattered naught that nearly every part  of this weapon had been remade; it was now and always would be his grandfather's gun.  The old man's voice was as much a part of the wood and metal of this weapon as the oil he treated it with nightly.  “Steady the barrel with your hand on the stock.”  The familiar litany, spoken softly so as not to disturb the foul, returned to his ears again.  “Don’t rush.  Feel the woodgrain.  It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing gloves, your palms will remember.”  His breathing calmed, removing the turmoil of the present.  “Ease it into your shoulder.  The kick’s nothing to laugh at, but that’s important.  You should feel it when you take a life, even if it’s just the life of yonder mallard.”  The little twitch of palsy from his grandfather’s hand all those years ago was always gone the instant the weapon settled.  Kelhan wondered if he’d develop the same tremors, though, so far, he’d been blessed.  “Now ease into the trigger, like you’re brushing a fly off of soft butter and don’t want to leave a mark.”

The trigger, though, was precious.  His grandfather had said many things about what a trigger was and what it was not.  Poetry was not a tradition of the family, but for guns, they could stomach the occasional verse.  Was not an arrow piercing a bear the center for their crest?  Was not their family  motto Death only by Fire, Death only by Iron?  This latest trigger was custom made, with his late mother’s golden band cast as a herd of rams and fitted on the front facing, hiding the heavy iron sear.  The twin diamonds from the ring that had been sacrificed to honor that trigger formed the eyes of the twin rams on either side of the stock.   It was a thing of beauty, and, just as had the woman in his bullet’s intended path, it obliterated hearts with its monosyllabic retort

She was talking to someone now, or two someones, and the talk was turning serious.  Flipping her hair, he caught sight of the scar on her neck.  When his brother had died, she found him at the pub and run a blade over the old scar, leaving it fresh.  “To remember what pride and loyalty are made of.”  Grimacing against a pain that lived in shadow, he let his steadying hand’s thumb caress the forestock as he waited patiently for his heart and mind to settle their score.  The cut of her dress -- much too cold for a night like this -- revealed the stylized ink of a heart on the back of her right shoulder, bare and exposed for all the world to see the recipient of her love.  It was not as it had been -- as his still was -- empty.  Rather, the colors flowed out and rushed forth from its center, fading as they moved up her shoulder and down below the cut of her dress.

He remembered that night with fondness, the night they’d last been close, with fondness. That the outline of that heart that first he’d pushed into her flesh with the tip of a flattened hook and a bit of coal rested on his shoulder, utterly unfaded.  In her, however, the colors that filled it overflowed out across her back, pouring forth and filling more than just that void.  It was with bitterness that he remembered the feel of the pen under his hand, the little smile she’d shared as she, too, signed herself to the service.

Conscripted to defend a port blockade that had dared to refuse the edicts of the Empire in lou of the Guild’s specific interests, they’d been shipboard when the chaos of a seaward battle had claimed propriety.  How they and a few other survivors of a cowardly captain’s folly had managed to board the enemy’s vessel was just as much a matter of speculation for himself as it had been for all the rest. They’d turned traitor to turn hero, and they’d done it all at her gumption and his diktat.  They were not honorable, but they were effective.  Ships sank by droves, as the sailors feared him more they did the sea.  By his side and in his head, loyalty had set that mutiny as both viable and wise.  

In the end, the local ship they’d commandeered, a false flag playing a merry game from above the crow’s nest, had swayed a battle and the Guild had again taken the helm.  Another officer, one who’d begged for his life on hand and knee, had been gifted medals and hailed for his valor, but, for a moment, destiny had relinquished her searing grasp and left him to face the bitter cold of genuine freedom.  She and he had sat on benches in the brig, waiting to see if they were to be executed for treason or if their subsequent actions had rendered them acquitted, and she’d pulled out a fish hook and a tray of powdered charcoal ink.  With fetid water, she’d revived the stain and bid he trace her heart on her shoulder, saying only that she wished it smooth and empty as Hades' sea.  When it was done, his own back had received a like favor.  There’d been no blindfold, no last cigarette, but, while he’d been reassigned, she’d been dishonorably discharged for the ingenuity and brash courage she’d shown.

She’d written him often from wherever she’d run off to.  “Treason’s just a point of view,” she’d said.  He wished he’d written back after that, but it hadn’t stemmed the flow of ink on her end.  A child was born.  It died of plague.  A husband, and then an accident at the factory.  She’d planned to try her luck in Malifaux, and he hadn’t blamed her.

Raising her hand to rest her weight against the frame of a door as the mist pushed past and obscured her two companions again, pooling and dissipating over the hauntingly empty street, he saw that she’d inked her palm as he had.  He felt himself laugh at the notion.  He’d sent her a picture of that -- no words -- drawn in charcoal.  It was astounding that she’d understood what it meant, or, rather, that she’d taken the same inspiration to herself.  The sound, rough and strange in his throat, was muted by what remained of his foundering discipline.  When he’d taken his reassignment and become a sniper, he’d had it done.  It should have lost its significance on the day he’d lost her.  Instead, it meant all the more.  A circle with eight prongs within, a N, E, S, and W adorning the edges, had pulled him through the ranks after that news.  He’d shot more men than birds, now, but hearts were no less obliterated for the size of his shot.  True North, by the compass on his hand, pointed to his ringless finger, while North East pointed the those lights which were soon to extinguish.

He hadn’t taken advantage of either the Guild's or the Empire's gifts until that last dewdrop of hope had evaporated.  After, there had been fine things draped in cheap silks.  Always, gentle music played, silent but for ambiance and masked fully by the empty patch of skin at the base of his ring finger.  That finger, no less adorned than the rest yet far more empty for this fact, screamed her name when he took his pleasure of the soft things dangling on his every coin.  In the field, alone, however, it spoke with gentle fondness.  Now, with his North Eastern finger caressing the gold that should have been hers, True North smirked in silence.

Pulling his right hand from the trigger guard and crooking his left elbow, he drew the cigar from his mouth and stared bleakly at the circle of pink at the edges of his roach.  The perks of being a well kept Guild Dog included being, well, kept.  The women meant nothing.  They scratched an itch.  He watched them smoke because she never did.  Setting this down on the windowsill as a talisman to ward against the order he would shortly obey, he raised a flask and drew a swig, knowing it more as a ritual than as a necessary fortification.  Around his neck and hidden under the regulation duster, his late father’s medal of honor for offering the ultimate display of loyalty hung beside a polished and oft blessed dogtag.  So proudly he’d worn it, yet in her like moment before the mutiny, she’d thrown her younger brother’s name overboard.  He’d never made time to ask why.

After, the trenches had taken too much of his time.  It wasn’t war so much as the Empire, or his corner of the United Kingdoms, sending him and his to sort out little spats between distant localities and the Guild.  His contract changed hands so many times after that… he was a specialist.  The target didn’t matter.  The range barely mattered.  The pay, well, as long as he was kept in pleasant company, soft sheets, and had a little extra for his personal use, it was of little importance what one or the other would pay.  By and by, the Guild came to hold his contract with greater regularity, though. He was comfortable sniping from the deep bush and shipboard, had no qualms about killing women, and was patient enough to sit out in a field for a month and drop into another mission hours after reporting the first a success.

That cup of beer, that game of darts, and the pleasant little dove chain smoking on his lap, he would never forget any of them.  They weren’t the important things, of course.  No, what had corralled his attention and shored his thoughts had been MacKelly’s letter from back home -- the man kept records of everyone and especially of her -- and a signed and sealed envelope with a familiar rectangle with the fully rounded edges pressing against and almost through the paper.

He’d lost them both that night, though their loss had spanned two months. As it was often viewed an unnecessary distraction and a possible burden on the flow of supplies, news didn’t come quickly to the enlisted Guild enforcers.  To snipers, it absolutely crawled.  He’d only ever drunk a few beers at a time before that, except, of course, when she’d been around to dare him into taking shots of amber instead of lead.  After that, drinking something so comforting as beer seemed like… it was vulgar.  He switched to rum, brandy, and whisky by turns.  Each sip, from that telegram onward, felt like a renewed goodbye; this moment was no different.  He and the other hounds were well kept in the nectar of fire and lament, a fact that had kept him from advancement and pushed him to board that final train.  With hands too steady for the chittering in his soul, he smoothly raised the gun back into position and aimed again for a point between her skull and the base of her neck.  

***

A lesser man would have pulled the trigger.  A greater man would have walked away.  He held perfectly still, watching the past slide neatly into the present as he took up the hammer’s play while his finger compressed by atoms.  The mark of his company burned his chest: the cleanest facility to paint his flesh and still it burned and bubbled as with plague.  He waited for that last micron to fall into place, feeling the weight of the spring on the hammer, and caught the flash of movement just off to the side.

His first thought was that the creature was some necromancer’s pet, though the mists failed to deliver on this notion.  Fear gripped him and his finger slowly relaxed as his eyes took in this newer, greater threat.  Legs moved in ways that could not be natural, yet the form was entirely too human to be mortal.  A timelessness filled voids that shown from eyes far more mundane as his own, and the rush of energy that came and fled left a sensation of null space chilled him far worse than even a mythic Decembrist could have managed.  Neverborn.  His loyalty beckoned yet further and his barrel shifted as the fore and aft sights aligned.  There was no hesitation.  A hole appeared just under the left eye, shattering skin as though it had been made of porcelain and not the flesh of natural things.

While Kelhan was sure he’d seen Neverborn once or twice since his crossing, he’d never seen how inhuman they could cause a human form to seem.  Two legs, two arms, skin and hands and blood -- they were all wrong.  The thing’s face and torso seemed to be male, though he’d not have questioned had the creature worn a dress.  Ideas of things present and yet not flitted behind his eyes:  a pair of wings, dancing will-o-wisps, shadows that were more alive than the figure that cast them.  It was not alone, either.  Appearing as though from the space between light and shadow, men and women, some horribly maligned and mutated and others normal but for the unholy glow about their eyes, seemed to step into the reality as though they’d always been.  But for his shots, they’d have taken his intended quarry entirely by surprise.

Sliding the bolt with the practiced ease of a true veteran, Kelhan felt the new round chamber as the remaining lifeless eye rose to look beyond his soul to the void within his heart.  His Northeast finger pulled again, the butt, though firmly pressed, shoving forcefully against the backstop of his right shoulder.  Another hole and spiderwebbed pattern appeared just below the right eye.  From the mist and ignored by the ghostly lost children, five men and four women with Brilliance spilling from their beguiled eyes to dance upon the cobblestones charged forward, seeming ready to mount his perch and roust him from his nest.    Four times, his gun offered retort.  Four times, addicts dropped, though one slipped beneath the rotted porch at the base of his perch.  Across the way, she and her two partners flared with arcana as soulstones gave truth to faction they represented.  His magazine fell smoothly to the floor as its replacement slammed into place and his mind began counting.  Four seconds later, another six shots plowed into the eyeless figure walking so calmly down the center of the street.  At ten seconds, he heard a crash on the second floor.  Another magazine slid home and unleashed its torrent at fifteen seconds, and he pressed his final magazine into the rifle, taking care to obliterate the last of the Neverborn’s heart and skull as the Arcanists took the opportunity to jump into this fray.  Enemies in arms, their arms united in shared enmity.

At twenty two, he whirled, a dagger at his hip blurring as training drew an unerring path to the center of the poor waif’s skull.  This triggered an ungodly, monstrous transformation.  Kelhan watched the woman’s chest explode outward, her ribs becoming glowing, barbed mandibles, each three feet long and oozing with a glowing purple light, while it seemed her spine detached from the base of her skull to form an elongated wip with energy pulsing from the tip, her head lolling unnaturally back from her shoulders.  Kelhan set his pistol into place over his shoulders, the sling perfectly fitted like the collar he felt it was, and backed out of the building as she -- it -- charged.  Energy lanced from the cafe he’d watched since dusk as the addict disintegrated, his remains   drifting on the wind and blending with the mist.  Kelhan’s left hand sought a handhold that was just out of reach, the northern star and anchor on his wrist showing through his lifted sleeve.  He’d put that ink into place the day his talent had gotten him transferred from the infantry to the sniper’s division.  He never explained why the mark was so important, he mused.  Kelhan wondered if she would know it for what it meant.  On the close of that breath, his back and left arm met with gravity.

The debris and porch below didn’t so much break his fall as they broke him, but he was alive.  Around him, children bathed in a paltry green glow approached, knives appearing in their tiny hands as their eyes widened unnaturally. He saw only what would have been.  That one, with the buck teeth and pigtails, could have been their first born. Another, a with one tooth missing and a lazy eye, could have sat on his lap while she spun yarns with the rich abandon he recalled.  To the side and watching with hungry terror, that little mite could have sat on his shoulder while he waited for foul to land and she, the wife she’d declined to become, had twitched the line such that the fly had fairly danced above the water.

That last drew him from his back to his knees.  The love they’d shared had died with the report of the tragedy aboard the great line while hope for its resurrection had been smothered by her silence these long years past.  A single, blank piece of trifold paper had once lived in his breast pocket.  It had chased away the amber for a spell, but whisky had ways of winning at the game of heartbreak and regret.  He drew the twinned pistols slung low over his hips, his left arm failing where the ulna pushed through his forearm, and ended the searching of these five diminutive souls with the expulsion of spent black powder.  They lay as lifeless as the arcanist she’d kissed, though their wounds were infinitely cleaner.

With the haunting laughter and sorrow of the lost vanishing on the echoes of his rounds, all that remained to soil the air was the soft patter of tears hitting cobblestone.  Kelhan had heard those tears only once before, though that had been enough to sear them into his memory.  He’d found her on his property again and thought to surprise her.  Grinning, he’d tried to sneak close, as he had with so many harts, hares, and quail.  She’d sensed him, though, in the way she’d always been able, and she’d looked at him with wide and wild eyes.  When her throat had cleared enough that she could release his tear soaked chest and speak, the story had seemed almost, but not quite, heartbreaking.  “My dog died.  He goes hunting with my brother and a rabid fox bit him.  When he showed signs, Mother put him down.  He was looking at me, though, and, when it came, he looked like he wished I’d been the one to pull the trigger.”  The tears didn’t stop, and Kelhan felt their phantom in the blood seeping from his right shoulder.  He hadn’t known what to say then, as he had no words for the present.  “Always.  Even gone.  He’s right here.”  He’d held his palm to hers, and her tears had shifted from a trickle to a torrent.

She was in the street now, one of her colleague’s bloodied on the ground, her hands pressing to his chest to stem the flow, and the neverborn no more before her.  He felt her with him in that moment, as he had in all moments.  Staggering from his knees to his unsteady feet and pulling from his flask once with his hand steadying both grip and vessel, he allowed gravity to lay claim to the latter and gift the guild’s silver flask to the cobblestones. He straightened his right arm, extending it and the gun he gripped toward her.

His aim was unwavering.

He remained just so.  Blood fell from her wounds and she brushed it aside, the anchor on her wrist, just below her own compass, flashing briefly.  That was a new tattoo, and the matching mark on her wrist… she must have gotten it after she arrived in Malifaux.  This close, though, he could see the roiling sleeves of blue and green and pale yellow-brown were of a shipwreck.  Up his own arms were similar sleeves, though his ink was of a ship braving the worst of the onslaught with mast high and sails furled against the might of the storm.  He’d sat for the marks first, “because, no matter how bad the storm, my ship will always find its port.”  She’d laughed and called herself naked.  The next day, her own forearms had similar sleeves.  “Because my ship sank long ago, yet I refuse to surrender to the sea.”  

They watched each other for the whole of those endless moments as the failing moon cast shadows through the mist.  

 

A greater man would have walked away.  A lesser man would have pulled the trigger.
 

He pulled back the hammer and waited patiently as her body moved reflexively.  He knew he was dead even before the arcana perforated his body and was glad.  His pictures he’d had painted so as to never be alone -- not to draw eyes or share his tale.  Wherever his soul was to rest, he knew his compass would always point toward the ghost of a ring with her name and not the monstrosity he’d formed from its remains.

 

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RECRUITER

 

I watch the needles flow seamlessly through my toughened, aged skin. Watching the needle bouncing effortlessly up and down as Thomason works it with practice hands. I liked the man, of nearly my own age, with years of mastery in putting ink to flesh. I nearly felt bad that i sought his skills for just a simple name to join the growing list on my inner right forearm. The list now nearly reaching my elbow. I guess I’m gone have to choose another spot soon to continue it. As my mind reaches back through time to the memories of my first tattoo, my left hand automatically reaches to my heart. A flash of sadness crosses my eyes and i am happy that Thomason is to busy focusing on the tattoo that he doesn’t catch my sudden shift in emotion. I compose myself and shift slightly. Making Thomason grunt a little before getting back to his task. There is no one else in the shop either, they all left as soon as i walked in and took my hat of, lit a cigar. The scrawny kid that had been getting a pistol with a rose done had nearly started to argue till he turned around and looked up at my face. He quickly grabbed his jacket and fled like the others with just the butt of the gun displayed on his chest. Thomason had only gestured to the chair now vacant and asked the simple question ‘Name?’. He had been the one to add the last 4 names to the list and no longer jumped or looked startled at my appearance or presence in his shop.

 

While my thoughts dwell on that my mind is reeling back through time, past the point of my first tattoo and to the face of the girl who had inspired it. And whom was to set my life on a strange and deadly path. The face i still dream of, the face is young and friendly with a spark of devils fire in her eyes. The owner of that face is far past that age now and that smile has not been seen for many many years. But the fire is still there, and more deadly than any could have every foreseen.

 

As the needle leaves the skin to top up on ink before Thomason starts on the second letter, i don’t feel the needle re-enter my skin. I am now lost completely to my thoughts and am back there, all those years ago. In that dark alley, seeing that searing fire followed by a sweet little voice ‘Boy, are you alright?'

 


 

I blink, blinded by the sudden burst of fire that has lit up the alley, the Illuminated that had been right in front of me is gone, only his silhouettes is left on the wall to the right. When my eyes have adjusted there is a girl of my own age, I’m guessing, surely no older then 9, standing in front of me with a outstretched hand, ‘Boy’. Past her hand i see her face, locks of red hair, the end of which seem to shimmer like fire, but that could just be my eyes still adjusting themselves. She wears a fitted cream dress, the sleeves of her right arm reaching neatly to her wrist, but those of her left hand are singed up to her elbow, the veins in her outstretched hand are a bright red that seems to radiate. ‘Boy, are you alright’. I release the question is aimed at me and give a weak nod as i reach out and grab her hand. I’m surprised to find it a pleasant warm rather than a burning hot which I was expected. ‘what are you doing out here', ‘what are you doing all alone’. The questions don’t have the warmth that her appearance portray. The questions are direct and pointed and are asked in such a manor that you don’t want to not answer them. ‘I am an orphan, i life round the corner under the bridge, i am sorry to have troubled you, I didn’t know that this patch was yours’ as i ramble my answer out in one long stream i try to take my hand back now that i am standing up and turn around to run away. She looks very pretty, the prettiest girl i have ever seen. But she smells of danger, and thats the last thing i need right now. As i turn to move away I feel her grip tightening.

’Nonsense, you are cold, wet and hungry. I can see that you are so don’t argue. Come with me’. Her words are intoxicating, and i want to go with her. Not that i have a choice either way as her hand is till firmly holding mine as she takes me along to the main road and up out of the slums to the nicer part of town. I still feel she is dangerous, but she is also intriguing. What is a girl, dressed in such a pretty and i am sure expensive dress, doing around this part of the slums.

 

Once out of official slum territory i start to feel suddenly self conscious about my appearance. My trousers that are not nearly long enough for my legs, stained with rips in all the wrong places. My once silver shirt that i had appropriated of a dead nobleman down one off the many alleys around the old ’SERG’ pub (years of weathering had reduced its name from ‘sergeant' down to just ‘serge'), some weeks back, suddenly lost all its class and sophistication which i was sure it had granted me so far. The slum which was now getting lost from view the more corners we went round. As much discomfort and self consciousness as I was feeling, the girl showed quite the opposite. She headed down the road, around corners with her head held high with an air of belonging that copied that of everyone else around these parts. But i can tell from hints in her posture that she is also ready to dart away and duck for cover if the need arises. That was a posture I am far more familiar with.

 

As we head around another corner we stop and my senses are overwhelmed by a sweet smell that i have never smelled before. I instinctively look at the girl but the smell is not coming from her. As i look past her i see an open loading door and a big cart with baskets that are being offloaded. I can just make out the letters B-A-K on the cart but nothing more, the rest is rubbed of or something. The girl finally lets go of my hand and heads to one of the big bulky man that are busy offloading. I can’t hear what she says but I see her point at one of the baskets and give the man two or three coins out of a little bag round that I hadn’t noticed she was wearing. The man takes the coins, walks to the basket an throws her two golden brown round looking pieces. She catches them neatly and walks back over. She chucks one of them at me, I nearly don’t catch it. ‘Eat’. I stare at it in disbelieve. ‘Its bread you dummy, now eat, before it gets cold. They are the best when they are still warm’. Without a further thought I dig in, of course I had had bread before in the slum, but never like this, it was usually stale and you had to wrestle a rat or two for it, if you were lucky. If you were unlucky you would get beat up by someone exactly like you just bigger or with a sharper knife. I look at her as I eat the bread roll and for a moment my mouth stops working and fall open as i see the most beautiful smile spread across her face. She giggles when she notices. ‘Now come, lets get you cleaned up bit, I can’t have you going around with me, looking like that'

 

The next few years flip by in a blur as my mind fast forwards to where we are older. 15 years old again.

 


 

Walking hand in hand down the road, the main street. Happily smiling and giggling. With no care in the world. After having saved me from the Illuminated. Sonnia had fed me, clothed me and given me some money for a small room to rent. Her parents never missed the money and she seemed happy to keep me around as a friend. It wasn’t long before she showed me her magic. It ran through her veins and she could call forth fire from within it. The night that she saved me she had been wondering around looking for trouble because she got very bored being indoors and not allowed to use her powers by her parents. Her parents had called upon many religious types from various places because they wanted to rid there daughter of her powers. It scared them very much. Instead of her finding any trouble that night I had. I had accidentally wondered down an alley where a tall man in a grey suit and top hat was muttering in a strange language over the bodies of two recently dead body. I could tell they were recently dead because the blood was still flowing there open wounds. The couple had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like he now was. It was because it was so out of place to see a man of his stature and dress in the slum that I froze for to long. I should have know better, in the slum you never stop in the open. The man was speaking in a strange tongue and as he spoke the words a purple haze settled over the bodies and the wounds started to grow closed but not in any way that a humans body is meant to. The hands of the male started to twist, the fingers merging into a talon like shape with a hook at the end. With a shudder it got up. The female seemed to physically loose muscles of all her limbs till they were slender and balanced on all four as if she was part of some sort of circus act. I of course had heard the rumours of a trickster walking around and of the stories told by drunkards about the illuminated. But I had never seen them before.

Suddenly the tall man turned around and looked right at me, a wicked grin appeared. ‘Enjoyed the show did you son’. With an absent minded gesture he pointed at me and the Illuminated darted forward. Not waiting for a invitation I run for my life. The female was a lot quicker than the male. She ran and leaped on all fours like a malformed dog. I ran into the next alley and found my way blocked by a fence. Before I was half way up she leaped at me and carried me straight through the fence. I ended up on my back breathless while she rolled a little further and regained her balance. I slowly got up and looked right at her. I knew I could not outrun her. My palm started to twitch. She was not quite the same as a little rat but i could feel the purple hues of energy pulsating against my hands. Knowing it was life or death, I reach out and rapped myself around the energy. Now that she was back up she started towards me, put off my the tendrils of light yellow smoke that reached around her and meddled with the purple. As she reached me and leaped, I ripped my hand back. With it the yellow strands tightened around her and as it jerked back to me the purple energy dissipated into colourless smoke. The females body slammed into me a second time. But this time the body is once again a dead heap of a once quite attractive woman, I guess by the remnants of clothing that hang of her and the make-up that stains her muscle drained face. Its then that I notice a shadow in the alley as the male has caught up, with a cry of rage he charges. I stager back against the wall. All my energy spent in the last few seconds. With my back against the wall and the illuminated nearly on top of me, i look up to the sky at what ever god is watching and take what I am sure is my last breath. That's when Sonnia came around the corner, not bothering about her neat dress and used her magic to light up the world.

She told me later that she was not set on saving me when she saw me crash through the fence that she had just spotted as she came down from the other way. She had side stepped the female as it had rolled away from me and took position in a nearby doorway. She had grinned as the creature didn’t even recognised her but instead leaped back towards me. She was about to turn around and leave when she spotted the yellow strains of magic flow from me and rip the necromantic energy out of the females body. That had gotten her attention right away. She decided to intervene before the second creature ripped me apart out of sheer curiosity at what she had seen me do.

 

We turned round another bend and saw a apple merchant in deep discussion with a traveller. The price of apples had been rising every week by a little and would soon become a delicacy like so many fruits nowadays. I looked across at Sonnia and saw that familiar spark of devilness gleam in her eyes, her mouth twisting up in a smirk. It made me smile to and wonder what she was planning, no matter the last 12 years, i never am able to predict her actions. That is one of the things I love so much about her. I catch the subtle orange glow and the casual flick of her wrist just before a small flicker of a flame can be seen on the back of the jacket of the traveller who’s argument with Jackie our local merchant was starting to get more verbal and potentially physical. In his tantrum he doesn’t even realise the back of his coat is one fire and only when the flames start nipping at his belt and forearm does he turn around wildly. His eyes growing alive with panic as he tries to put it out. I look back at Sonnia and see the fun in her eyes and she is positively smiling now. Such a beautiful sight to behold, her precious red lips tilting up to show a row of lovely white teeth. Behind which is one of the quickest tongues capable of ending any argument with quick ease. I catch a new spark in her eyes just in time, I squeeze the hand I am holding to distract her before she turns the slightly singed man into a helpless fire ball. She suddenly glares at me. I smile and whisper “Careful now, you don’t want to end up setting Jackie's apples aflame too”. Her glare turns soft again and now she laughs loudly. The traveller in the mean time has lost his taste for the apples and is hurrying away, unsure of what just happened and how the fire had started so suddenly and died as quickly as it came. As we walked past the apple stand, Jackie caught Sonnia’s eye and with a short nod of thanks threw her an apple. Which was caught easily in mid air. Sonnia had never been very secretive about her powers, her parents worry had spread easily enough through the surrounding area. But she had managed to not be to open and forward with it. There were only a handful of people who knew the extend of her powers. I know more than anyone else who powerful she is, although sometimes I think that she is even hiding her full ability from me. Even though we share our hearts and I her bed. I worry that there is a lot she hasn’t and might never tell me. I realise she that we have stopped. I feel her tuck my hand and I look up, I suddenly realise that from where we were laughing not a moment ago I have now become silent and still, thinking gloomy thoughts, and she has noticed. As I look at her and into those beautiful feline eyes I see curiosity as she wonders what I am thinking, her mouth start to move as it forms the words to the first of many questions i will now have to answer in order to satisfy her curiosity. But she doesn’t get the chance.

“SONNIA!… SONNIA CRIID?” the voice booms through the alley we are standing in, the hairs of my neck stand suddenly on end. Such a voice of authority in a place as this can only belong to one sort of man. “Who is it that wants to know?” Sonnia spits the words out as she turns on her heels to scowl at the man in full Guild attire, two companions flanking him at either side. “My name is Captain Isaack Malnoy, Captain of the Guilds guard. I am here to accept your transition into our ranks and order. Your are herewith, and will be from this day until you pass from the planes of malifaux, a member of the order of the Guild”. I stare at Sonnia speechlessly, she never said a word about this to me. How could she not tell me that she had chosen this path. Sonnia nods at Isaack and turns slowly to me. “This is my path, I do not need you to understand my choice, only to accept it. My gifts are wasted her and although I love you deeply, I cannot stay here with you. With you my fire has burnt brightest, and i thank you for that. But now it must be used to burn for justice. Goodbye my love. She leans forward and kisses me, the kiss is deep and hard, as everything we have every know in this place is. Seconds pass and before i know it she has released me and is walking with purpose towards Isaack and his man. “I am at you service”.

I don't cry as she leaves me standing there, I don’t show any emotion as she strides away with them and rounds the corner, without a further glance back. I walk swiftly to the other end of the alley and circle my way back to the place I called home with her. It is when I am safely inside those walls that I feel my eyes fill with tears and emotion. How could she have left me like this. How could she not have told me! The hours fly by as i rave and rant and cry from sadness and anger. After three hours I am spent and collapse onto the bed we shared, I stare up at the ceiling. I follow the patterns of burnt wood that streak it and remember the fonds memories of night is passion with the love of my life, my fire princess.

 

The sound of a door scrapping open returns me to the now, back in Thomason's shop where he has just finished the third letter of the newest name added to my skin. I glare up towards the door, and the young man who has disrupted my reminiscences so ruthlessly. He stands paralysed as my eyes pierce his. The unholy sight of the pure black abysses that are my eyes. It is to much for the youth to handle and his knees buckle. He collapse on the doorstep in a heap. Leaving the door stranded half open on it squeaky hinges. The breeze it brings in from outside is quite welcoming. The youth, now recognise as the son of the local butcher, won’t be getting back up for a few hours I’m sure. So I ignore him and look back to where Thomason has just topped up his needles with ink and starts on the fourth letter.

 

 



 

I had deep blue eyes once. Blue like a cloudless sky in mid-summer. But that all changed so quickly. Magic always has a toll. It is said often enough, but you never know what the toll will be.

As the needle digs in once again to toil under the gaze of Thomason’s skilful eye. I remember the day that my life and magic changed. Sonnia’s leaving had a big part to play in that. But in the end the choice had been all my own. My own magic had grown stronger through my years with Sonnia. It never rivalled hers but it still grew strong. My magic being not as explosive as hers, mine was more subtle, forming shapes and bonds in visible yellow magic. Restraining becoming my speciality. It always makes me smile as I remember our more intimate times. But something I had never dared to do was to extend my reach into another persons energy and manipulate it; like how I had done that night that the illuminated attacked me. Never had I dared to tangle with the auras of others. I felt them of course. I could always feel them. The energy of people was always a tangible something to me. All I needed to do was reach out and take hold of it. To take hold and manipulate it. Sonnia was always very straight forward about good and evil. I never explored my abilities in worry I would anger her or that she would abandon me if she felt me evil. But now that she had abandoned me anyway. What was there to stop me. I started with some of the local girls. I was fair and handsome, so it wasn’t difficult to find company. During play I found I could twist and bend them to however I wanted, there objections came to naught as I twisted there energy and they could not but watch helplessly as there bodies abided to my needs. It felt empowering. And it felt wrong. I never did it again after that first time, I could not bring myself to it. The deep despair I had seen in that girls eyes as I made her do my bidding. It would haunt me for years to come. Instead I sought seclusion in an abandoned graveyard. Hoping that there my ever searching senses would stop there thirsty desire. It was here that iIwould meet the man that set me on a path with destiny and purpose.

 


 

The night was young and the crypt quiet. This deep into the graveyard only the crows dared venture. And they were fast sleep. The crypt was old, long abandoned by any loved once that would visit. Weeds had taken root in the stone and brought much of the walls down. Other parts were now as much plant wall as stone had ever been. The coffin of the decease to whom this belonged buried deep underneath the tiled floor. Their names lost to history. that wasn’t what had brought me there however. I had caught the whip of aura, which was weird so late in these parts of the graveyard. The aura wasn’t very strong. It felt more like a lingering presence. And I could feel it getting stronger as I got closer to this crypt. Now that I was here I examined the one remaining wall. A silver plate shown in the streaks of moonlight that had managed to fight their way through the clouds. The plate was new and must have been placed recently. The inset stone in the wall to. Placing my hand on the stone I reach out all my senses. There it is, resting on the cold corpse of it earthly form. The aura of the deceased. It was strange to feel it, where the living have an aura that is warm and vibrating. This one was till and cold. Yet it was there. I let my magic flow, guiding it along the energy that lies there, intertwining with it. I worry that if i try to take hold of it to rashly it will just fall away from this plane altogether. But even though I know I should step away. I continue to wrap myself around the energy that is laying there. Slowly I wrap myself around it trying to take a hold of it. The energy is not complete, the aura not covering the entire body like it used to in life. But it is enough. Slowly I exert my will and hear as well as feel the left arm swivel in the coffin and bounce of the top of the lid.

 

“Your playing a dangerous game boy”, I jump spin around quickly. The body in the coffin completely forgotten as I pull my energy back and get ready to lash out at whomever it is that is suddenly behind me. The man looks old and is drapped in a long coat. “It wouldn’t be wise for you to use that against me”, he rumbles. “Who are you! What do you want of me!” my voice sounds much more like a shriek then I wanted it to. As I speak I push my energy outwards towards the chest of the stranger. Hoping to put him off balance and create some more distance between him and me. A sound like a thunderclap knocks me flat against the wall as my energy bounces of a shield of blue light. I freeze as I recognise the energy being quite similar to my own. “I warned you not to try that, but if thats the way you want it” while his last words are still hanging in the air the blue energy crosses the distances between us in less than a heartbeat and swipes my legs from under me. I land hard on my behind, and quickly struggle to get to my feet. My own energy now recovered from the suddenness of the blockage it bounced of. I creatw two yellow balls of pure energy in each hand. The eyes of the old man widen slightly at the sight of them. He takes a step back. “I did not come here to fight you, I merely wanted to see your ability”. “Who are you and what do you want” my voice is a lot more controlled this time. I’m counting that as the first small victory. “My name is Abanon, and I am a recruiter” I wait patiently, not feeling the need to fill the silence. I know I have some control back, so I wait for him to continue to speak. “I am charged by the Lady of Justice to find people blessed with ability, so that they can be put to help in our cause” Now he waits for me while that information sinks in. Lady Justice, i can’t believe that a recruiter of lady justice herself would have found me. “What of my abilities, what are you after” I do not like the sound of being put into slavery because of gifts I had no choice in receiving, no mater if it is for a greater good. “You sense energy and have skill in manipulation. It is a rare gift, that takes great caution to be wielded wisely. For if un-carefully used, it can cause great destruction"

 

While he speaks and is distracted I reach out behind me to the failing fragments of energy that linger across the form of the deceased in his coffin. I draw on it, i draw it in. I let it flow through me as my own and let it mingle as it flows down to the balls in my hands. I notice the grey hue moving in amongst my own yellow energy. I feel empowered. I look back at the man. He seems to have noticed what I am doing. His expression has turned to shock and horror. "Whats wrong old man". "You....No.... DON'T" his cry is sudden but it is not a threat. He sounds genuinely worried. As the last of the strands of energy filter through me and moves with my own, I feel the surge of power and fight to control it. I manage to keep it from escaping in a random burst. "You must let it go. Do not try and hold onto it!" I smirk at the stranger "Whats wrong old man, are you sca..." I never finish my sentence. The grey energy explodes inside me and rushes through all my ligaments. The world goes black.

 

I blink twice, my head hurts and I can feel a patch of wet earth kissing me cheek. I get up slowly. I recognise the crypt. It is dark outside so I recon that I have not been out for very long. The memories come flooding back of the events just before the world went black. I sit up and look around. There are remnants of a small fire that i do not recall being there before. A small backpack is propped up against the wall, it is not mine. As I try to take all this in a shadow falls across me from the doorway, the stranger is standing there, he notices that I am awake and I catch a small smile across his face. He tosses a small bag at me. The aroma hits me even before I open the bag. Fresh bread! I look puzzled back at him "where did you manage to get this from, in the middle of the night, it is still hot!" He looks at me closely and shakes his head. "No my boy, it s not. Dawn broke a good few hours ago" I sway and try not to fall back down. How could that be possible. It's only now that my ears are back to functioning as they should and the noises of the surrounding city slam into me. I stumble past the stranger through the doorway. I look around. There are birds in the tree merrily chatting away. I know they should be red and blue and all sorts of colours but they are black and grey and white. I look up and the big white ball in the sky shinning down and casting shadows is doing so in a way the moon never has done. I slum down to the floor in panic. As I sit there I notice a small pool of water collected in to a puddle in the middle of a pavement stone. My reflecting stars back at me. But I do not recognise it. I look at that face in the mirror image and am transfixed as I gaze upon the eyes of this boy. There is no pupil, no blue, nothing. It is black. Two black, dead eyes. As I stare at my reflecting. I see a small tear roll down the right cheek. As it hits the puddle the water ripples but those two black abysses do not go away, they are there, they are mine, what did i do.

 


 

Thomason coughed louder then he meant to and spat a blob of blood in the stained cup next to him. He does not look up or look at me, he just goes straight back to work. Now one the last letter.

 

It had taken quite some time to get used to living in a black and white world. Luckily Abanon had been there to help and guide me. The one who had seen me meddle with necromancy and still took me as his apprentice. After nearly being killed by my own stupidity. My black eyes and change of sight being a lucky escape. It had taught me a valuable lesson. Abanon, having worked as a Death marshal, he was now a recruiter. Finding people with abilities and giving them a purpose under the disciplined employ of the Lady. He had heard stories of a boy with powers dwelling round the cemetery. The night of our meeting he had followed me and when he saw my powers he intervened before I would hurt myself or worse. Obviously he had underestimated my naivety and stubbornness. Instead of passing me over to the ranks of the death marshals Abadon had seen special value in my ability to sense the auras of others. He took me on himself and I worked under his employ. Learning from his years of experience and picking up the craft quickly. I learned to fear his whip as he taught me but grew very fond of the man. I worked under his watchful eye for 35 years. Until he passed away in a snow topped mountain assault by some arcanists. I will never forgot the way he faced down the December's blessed. Only to be killed by the demise of a tiny ice gamin. That is when I took up his mantle of Recruiter.

 

“Done, sir” Thomason's voice is more quiet than I usually expects but then he doens't want to interrupt my thought to suddenly I suppose. “Thank you Thomason”, I look down at my arm, the name neatly spelled out at the bottom of the list. 'Samuelle', my latest recruit to have passed into the ranks of the Ladies employ after my tutelage. With a nod to Thomason and leaving a small stack of coins on the arm rest of the chair, I step through the doorway and over the body of the butchers boy still laying there. Taking a deep breath in.

 

“Time to find my next recruit”

 

 

 

 

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A FOOL’S ROSE

 

They were hot on his trail, a pack of rapid men rushing through desolate streets and shuttered doors towards a scrawny thief whose appetite was only matched by hubris and desperation.  Sweat streaked down Cole Livingston’s face, staining the secondhand suit that dulled with overuse two years prior.  The weight under his right arm grew heavier with each frantic step leading him off of the primary streets and into one of the endless alleyways crisscrossing the byways of Malifaux.  At first the large, parcel-wrapped tome he carried felt like any other book.  Now it became the heaviest thing in two worlds.  Despite the layer of muscle born from two decades of impoverished labor and fighting for the scraps of life, twin fires blazed inside his lungs.  Rounding, backtracking, and never pausing, he eluded the shouts and footsteps that lingered behind him just out of sight.  Silence save his own breath overtook the atmosphere around him.  He had felt like he ran for days in those scant hours of escape.  Alone, if just for a moment, Cole slumped against the mold covered brick and dug into his breast pocket with his free hand.  His fingers brushed the comforting feel of his Peacebringer handle and the leather grip of poniard.  A grin worked its way across Cole’s face as he brought forth a silver flask adorned with a rose emblem and emblazoned with a name that would never leave his soul.  The whiskey deluged his throat and brought a brief moment of peace in the chaos of his mind.

Weeks of lying and weaseling out the information from seedy taverns and tetanus ridden brothels that couldn’t even compare to the shadow of the Honey Pot would apparently do him in this night.  But the allure of one last score and one final payday was too great.  To finally come home and embrace the warm softness of his wife’s form was worth the risk.  Still, Lara’s words still echoed in Cole’s head with the crystal chime that only comes with the perfect hindsight of one too many mistakes.

            “Easy scrip leads to hard days and painful nights.”  Lara would say whenever she caught wind of one of his get rich quick schemes.  Then there would be the routine he came to expect, first the arguing, the apologies, the consoling, the lovemaking, then the vow his skillset would keep him and her safe, and lastly, that this was the final time and they could grow happy and fat anywhere she wanted.  That was the promise that always won her over, the pledge to whisk her out of their Irish-American neighborhood in Boston to places distinguished and refined.  It was the same promise Lara would hurl into his face like a deck of discovered trick cards whenever he came home bruised, bloodied, and poorer than before.

            The dream never came and instead Cole found himself alone in a strange land eking out whatever he could to pay for some way back home.  By hook, crook, in deeds nefarious and vile warped the stillborn dreams of striking it rich through the Breach.  His hopes of becoming a true man of enterprise had died, and it was back to old tricks to pay off new debts to the Ten Thunders by running jobs for the beasts who walked about the Honey Pot under the guise of men.  Too little the pittance resulted in second, riskier, ventures.  The pay in procuring rotting cadavers, descending into the Quarantine Zone, and embarking on other, “deeds” for the corpse-bothering fools that Cole found infested the city paid just as bad if not worse.  No job became too dirty for him, and every tainted payment was one step closer to Lara and the feel of his lips on the rose tattoo that adorned her inner thigh.  The memory of her was the Northern Light that guided him through the darkness that was his existence.  But in three years the light dimmed, letters crumbled into the dust of oblivion, and left only desperation and the sting of the sweetest memories. 

            That was what lead him to find the other players in these games of intrigue that were far above his pay grade. Cole knew that his chance came when his handlers mentioned a book coming en route towards the hands of eager Arcanists.  Whatever that was the book being transported caught Tannen’s interest but his eyes and ears were unable to produce a time or location of a changing hands.  Cole didn’t have the strange resources of Tannen or Lynch but he knew he had to try.  Lady Luck must have known the rose of Cole’s life yearned for his return as well.  Through those nights with girls enshrouded by rumors of their arcane connections to card games with drunken foremen and gunsmiths in corner rooms, Cole placed the pieces of the puzzle together and found that the recipients weren’t of the same affiliation as the transporters.  Instead of pale faced men and women shrouded in eldritch and forbidden lore, Cole discovered that it was a group of Freikorpsmen were hired to deliver the book instead.  Mages and aberrations were one thing, but men, no matter how well trained or armed could still be swindled.  Placing the flask back in his breast pocket, Cole shifted the burden under his arm into both hands.  The parcel paper crinkled in his grasp that seemed to echo just too loud in the corridors of the stinking alley. 

            He was already halfway done with the plan.  With the book in his mitts Cole just had to rendezvous with the Thunders’ and their indentured servant with the foremost knowledge, and hunger, for relics and forbidden treasures.  Of course, Cole never met Lucas McCabe in person.  The man was something a legend to him, and the towering bodyguard of his didn’t help matters in the slightest.  But after trading punches with a few of the wastrels that trailed behind McCabe’s coattails he was able to secure a meeting.  With the scrip in hand and the destination of the transaction at the nearest train station, all Cole had to do was survive this ordeal.  The glowing fire of Lara’s rose warmed his own resolve.   

            Feeling his curiosity bubble to the surface, Cole ripped away the paper to reveal what exactly he risked everything for.  The leather of the cover felt old, ancient in fact.  Golden gears adorned the cover with a front facing skull front and center.  With what little light was left began to wane but proved just enough for a moment to rifle through the pages.  The words inside were language of something alien and abnormal to Cole.  Dark red characters seemed to shift and twist within the pages as if to befuddle his senses.  The images proved no better to understand, bodies of a varying types were drawn in a every ghastly manner of vivisection and dissection along with alien instructions along with diagrams of foul and bizarre machinery.  Cole never imagined to see such a thing back home.  He chided himself, remembered that he was a stranger in a strange land.  The haze of the book and its alien language and his own daydreaming were halted by a violent shout.

            “He’s here!”  The man cried before drawing his pistol and letting lose the deafening cry of gunfire. 

            The two bullets whizzed just near Cole’s face and instead found homes embedded into the brick walls around him.  Taking no time to pause, he dove to the ground, one hand clutching at the text and another rushing back into his jacket.  Instinctively and confidently, Cole drew his own Peacebringer and responded to the barrage in kind.  Whatever was blessing Cole extended reach into the very barrel of his weapon.  Two of Cole’s bullets sped forth with one landing square into the abdomen of the Freikorpsmen and the second impacting against the man’s skull that sent his head arching back and taking the rest of his body with him.  He fell on his back lifeless.

            Cole shot upright and thought to rob the man but paused at the decision with the sounds of approaching footsteps.  Adrenaline flooded his blood and sent Cole back into his mad dash through the alleyways.  As he dashed forward the sounds of more gunfire blasted behind him.  Cole cursed at himself for letting his guard down.  They were closer than he anticipated. He knew then he had to escape this maze of winding paths and overflowing refuse. Lara must have invoked the gods or something devil on his behalf as he came to a wooden door waiting patiently for his arrival along a dead-end path.  Bursting through Cole found the fates deigned for him a choice, to descend or to climb upwards to the bleak heavens of the rooftops. 

            It’s always better to jump than to try to dig up for air, mused Cole.  The wooden steps squealed in pain at the impact of his full weight.  Cole climbed higher up the swirling stairs.  Moving upwards another gunshot shrieked from the darkness below.  A searing pain sliced across the outer meat of Cole’s leg as the bullet erupted through the steps and grazing his thigh but not lodging into his flesh.  Pained but undeterred, Cole climbed higher while avoiding the volley.  Small hope ignited in Cole’s heart as he glimpsed the exit to the balcony.

            Cole inhaled the clear air of the evening atmosphere, and felt the small glimmer of hope in his heart glow just a little brighter only to be snuffed out by the shattering impact of bone on bone collision.  Cole toppled down and his skin scrapped against the rough materials of the rooftop.   Hands shooting up on instinct latched around on another’s.  Cole’s eyes glared up to the masked visage of another mercenary.  He couldn’t see the stranger’s face but desire for murder was clear.  The brandished steel of a serrated blade maneuvered in the corpsman’s grasp, ready to land in Cole’s heart. 

            Blood began to trickle into Cole’s mouth stunting the flow of oxygen to his brain.  He knew there was at least another still out on the hunt for him, two on one were odds he never liked.  Acting on a gamble, Cole welled up more blood in his mouth and sent a spray of bright red juices into the corpsman’s face and covering his goggles.

            “Gah!” The corpsman screamed in a shock.  Blinded, he reeled back, taking off just enough force for Cole to shrimp from the other man’s grasp. 

            Able to move but still on his back Cole sent the tip of his well-polished shoe square into the mercenary’s genitals.  With a howl of pain that signaled every malign force within the city, Cole’s assailant to the ground next to him.  Not risking the one chance he had to reunite with Lara and the rose-sweet love, Cole dove on top of the Freikorpsman.  The tip of the poniard dove deep, charging past the leather armor, the uniform underneath, and puncturing flesh and bone.  The stranger gave a deep gurgle that sent a deep red gore rushing out of every opening in the man’s mask that was proceeded by one final breath then stillness. 

            Not taking the moment to access his own injuries Cole scrambled for his firearm and the book, deigning to leave his blade jammed in the corpse’s torso.  For a second he opted to return down the stairwell in hopes to beguile the last corpsman on his tail.  The noises of hurried rushing and frantic, multiple voices, forced his hand.  Cole looked ahead then around to the other rooftops that were scattered about the dingy landscape that had been his home for just too long.  Distance gauged and little to nothing else to lose, Cole swallowed his fear and pictured his love, her rose tattoo on display just for him.  With his resolve restored against all the pain howling throughout his body, Cole ran into a headlong sprint. The voices grew louder, then fainter as his eyes remained faithful, allowing the risk-laden leap to pay off and landing Cole across the rooftop just across from his previous posting.  He took one last glance at the men chasing him.  Two more figures stood where he had, inspecting the body of their comrade.  Not foolish enough to linger, Cole scrambled to find that he had no exit atop where he stood. 

            The voices shouted at Cole from a distance demanding that he halt.  Instead, Cole shot forward again in a madman’s dash and leaping once to another rooftop then onto another.  Cole’s breaths grew faster and his legs were heavier.  His desire to return home couldn’t fuel the flight to prosperity like he hoped.  Gun in hand he spun to see the figures behind him. Dusk had surrendered to night in mockery of Cole’s predicament but the stars allowed the shadowed figures of his pursuers.  The men stood, still and unmoving as their sights were kept locked on him and the book.

            Sweat continued to pour down half-blinding Cole’s aim, still he extended his arm and pulled the trigger.  The Peacebringer fired again, over and over.  The bullets flew with love’s anguished desperation but missed their marks.  The shadows remained away, stoic and determined.  One of them stepped forward.

            Cole winced and ducked to the side in anticipation for the return fire but it never came.   Instead, the figure raised an arm into the heavens.  A burst of light appeared above the stranger and driving a terrible realization into Cole’s brain with the force of a railway spike.  Pivoting back around, Cole attempted to resume his rush across the heights of the city.  His scant steps forward came with a burst of pain that enveloped his entire body and embedded itself like a thousand searing needles into his every corner of his being.  The agony didn’t subside and every nerve in Cole’s body begged for mercy while his mouth slammed shut, his own teeth biting into his lips.  A rush of wind gusted underneath, lifting Cole off of his feet.  His mouth opened, spewing out black red blood and a scream loaded with pain and fear.  He was on his back now, the gusts of sorcerous force shooting him off of the balcony and into the open air.  Cole floated like a feather, a beaten, worn feather torn from the wings of the only angel he would ever truly know.  There was a shift in his weight, the feeling his bowels jumping then dropping like a sack of lead.  Cole’s widened.  He was falling.

            In the dark Cole saw her, Lara, standing there in all of her naked beauty.  Light returned, and he found that he was back in his old tenement with her again.  They had so little but somehow their tiny apartment lodged in some forgettable part of the city seemed crammed.  He didn’t care, he was home again.  Cole fell to his knees and he began to kiss the lily white skin along her stomach while his hand moved up between her breasts to feel the orange curls that dangled about wanton and free.  An earnest smile emerged as he saw her tattoo proudly on display for him.  Cole whimpered then looked up to meet Lara’s tender gaze.  Tears welled in his own eyes.  Lara raise her hand and brush the side of his face. 

            The caress turned into a hard slap that tore Cole from his taunting dreams and back into the world of monsters and machinations.  Somehow he was alive, but injured and pain stricken.  It felt like he had indeed been struck by lightning and then fallen off a roof.  Ignoring his nerves shouting in resistance Cole turned his neck about to find himself now in a crate filled warehouse, gray, dull, nondescript, and forgettable.  He tried to move but found himself unable.  Cole stared at the ropes keeping him bound to the steel chair with a grimace.  Another hand smashed across Cole’s face.  His attention turned to a man who hovered over him like a viper ready to strike. 

            He was older, by decades and possessing the barely haired scalp and countenance of a scholar. His thin body was draped and wrapped with a flowing coat, arms behind his back like some drill sergeant.  Cole’s captor his eyes behind a pair of dark glasses that glinted in the dim lighting.  About the two of them a host of shadows mingled about and whispered to one another in tongues that failed to match anything of to the normal realms of speech Earthside. 

            Cole squinted, he was sure he had seen the man somewhere before.  It was then the old issues of the Tattler and Malifaux Times unraveled in his recollection.  Cole had been informed in the past by Tannen and Lynch about the wolves that prowl Malifaux with friendly faces and noble intentions but brushed them aside as idle cautionary tales.  He even heard stories from the miners and steelworkers around the taverns but he never suspected such drunk talk to be laced with truth.  Still, even now with the man before him Cole could scarcely believe it.  Another gleam flashed across the man’s glasses and his hand struck against the bruised flesh of Cole’s broken face.   

            “Brazen, I’ll hand that to you at the very least.  Still to assume I wouldn’t act immediately was ultimately the most foolish thing you could ever do.  Now who sent you?  Was it those fools at the Guild office?  Matheson?  Is that thing trying to set some deeds in motion again?”  Ramos’ voice flowed like ice water.  “Or was it someone else?”

            The scholar’s gloved hand brought forth the tome into view.  He caressed it in the way that reminded Cole of how Lara used to touch him. Cole opened his mouth in an attempt to respond but broke out in a choked fit of coughing before spitting out two broken molars.

            “I thought this endeavor well-wrought.”  Ramos continued.  From behind three shadows moved closer.  The men and women donned masks like the mercenaries but these were of a more abstract and intricate nature, pouches and vials adorned substantial amounts of territory beneath heavy cloaks.  “I had hired the Freikorps to obfuscate the more obvious, blackhearts that may have tried to rear their heads in my procurement of such a relished find.  Still, killing two mercenaries and eluding the Oxfordians is something to be admired.”

            “Well,” Cole said with a bloodied slur.  “If you liked that you should see what I can do on a right good day.” 

            “Don’t trifle with me you Neanderthal.  Rarely am I forced to dirty my own hands with trash such as yourself. Now, tell me who sent you and allow this interaction between us to end on a more, pleasant note.”      

            “Make it worth me while and I’ll sing the sweetest song you’ll ever hear.”  Cole said.

            “Don’t test me oaf, you’ve nothing and everything is in my hands.  Remember that you’re only alive on my accord.”  Ramos asserted.  “Now, speak!”

Cole’s tongue flicked at the empty spot where one of his wisdom teeth used to take residence.  Ramos had no idea who he was.  Absent title and reputation meant him all the more expendable, but on an occasion combining his status, or lack thereof, with a well-played bluff could prove advantageous.  The other didn’t know Cole was an independent party in Malifaux’s game of shadows. 

            “Well, who else do you think would want a pretty little thing like what you got in your dainty paws there?”

            The scowl across Ramos’ face deepened and curved into a jagged spike and his brow furrowed into a thousand angry lines of furious thought.  He placed the book atop a nearby table and began to rub the sides of his temples before turning to face Cole once again.  Doubtless to Cole, a slideshow of faces must have crisscrossed inside of the man’s brain.  In the blink of beleaguered eyes, Ramo’s hand turned into an iron fist and smashed down into Cole’s cranium.

            “Was it that scrap-monger?  Hmmm?  Did he send you?”  Ramos hissed. 

            “Maybe he did, may as well be he didn’t.  All these blows to my noggin’s left me a little fuzzy,” said Cole.

            “Are you really this eager to die?”  Ramos queried.

            “Ah, mate all that running around they’ve got me doing in the Quarantine Zone has got me a bit more fearless in the face of death.  If I keel over, I’ll just come back a little prettier.”  Cole answered with a chuckle.

            Ramos crossed his arms, turned to his faceless minions then stared back to Cole.  “Oh, so it’s those Resurrectionists you’ve allied yourself with then?  My boy, even I’d pity whatever pact you’ve struck with the likes of them.  But who?  Surely, something like the Codex wouldn’t catch the eyes of Seamus.  No, the instructions therein could only catch the interest of one among them.  Don’t trifle with me you foolish boy, is that who sent you?” 

            “Couldn’t say in this sorry of mine friend.”  Cole answered.  “Now if you untie and let me take a quick swig of my flask I might have a clarity about me.” 

“Do not test me.”  Ramos reminded him.

            Ramos leaned forward with his hand outstretched again, but instead of striking Cole it fell softly on his shoulder.  Like a man intent on breaking someone’s windpipe, Ramos’ hand squeezed deep and dug into the meat of Cole’s shoulder forcing out a weak, pain filled moan.

            “You will tell me who made the decision in sending you forth to meet your maker.  Or else I’ll cut my losses here and now.”            

            There was a rustle in scurrying underneath the fabric of Ramos’ arm.  A new layer of sweat entrapped Cole’s face as the movements increased in a climax of countless silvery shapes pouring forth.  The metallic forms moved with arachnid speed across the mass of Cole’s body.  From the top of his scalp, across his face and all throughout his clothing, Ramo’s spiders were everywhere.  Blinded and muted, all Cole could do was listen. 

            “I truly don’t know if you grasp the gravity of your situation.  Perhaps you’re not in league with someone.  Surely your ability to handle yourself suggests otherwise.  But if you are unwilling to cooperate or, if perhaps you haven’t realized that loyalty is fleeting joy to be shed once entering Malifaux.  Then I would suggest you take a brief moment to rethink your situation before you cross the point of no return.

            “I’ve been past that point ever since I made the deal to come here in the first place mate,” thought Cole out loud. He couldn’t fool Ramos or himself.  There was no way out of his situation let alone getting back home.  He couldn’t bluff the man and even if that were possible there’d be no way for him to get through the enforcers about the warehouse. 

Cole cursed his luck, but not the misfortune that landed him in such a predicament.   Instead he cursed the streak that laid out a path of small victories that blossomed a shred of confidence in seeing Lara again.  Living and dying in misery was one thing, but dying like a dog while just tasting the fruits of possible salvation was something else entirely.  Cole shut his eyes under the crawling furor of Ramos’ spiders and awaited his demise.  Instead, a deafening explosion tremored throughout the warehouse and into Cole’s core and sending him flying backwards onto his back.  The spiders around him moved in a panic, skittering back before returning to their master. 

            With his sight restored, Cole peered towards the gaping orifice that had once been the warehouse entrance.  It was Tannen, accompanied by a bald juggernaut of a man who Cole knew served as the menacing bouncer to the Honey Pot.  Behind Mr. Graves, a pose of dead eyed Brilliance addicts trailed behind, shoulder to shoulder with familiar wastrels whom Cole had met with in his hopes of reaching McCabe.

            A small and scrawny sort that made Ramos look all the more intimidating, Mr. Tannen stepped forward, unconcerned with the mages about the warehouse. 

            “Listen here, that’s our property you got there and we want him back.”  Tannen announced.

            “It’s our job to kill him when we see fit.  Not you.”  Graves added.

            “And we’ll take whatever else you got lying around here too,” said Mr. Tannen with a sharp toothed grin.

            Before anymore threats could be made, the shifting bodies of the Illuminated leapt forward, ready to protect Tannen.  Their bodies were warped atrocities scabbed with the strange, radiant, callouses only seen in the heaviest of Brilliance addicts.  Hands turned into hardened claws and mouths shifted into a grotesque maws eager for human blood.  They were on the Arcanists and the remaining Friekorpsman.

            The mercenary staggered back and quickly drew his pistol and firing a barrage of bullets into the closest Illuminated.  Hardiness from higher tolerance and dulled nerves proved beneficial as Tannen’s henchman brushed off the attack and countering with a clawed attack.  A howl roared from the Freikorpsman as his entrails spilled out of his stomach before he dropped to his knees and tumbling forward into a pool of his own blood and excrement.  The Illuminated turned to a mage but another attack was halted a sudden burst of blue fire and turning the darkened into a pile of ashes.  In his place two wastrels rushed the Oxfordian.  Chains and knife blades swung at the woman.  Taking a knife slice to her side, the woman staggered backwards unable to release another arcane volley.  Instead, it was Ramos who acted. 

Rage pulsed through the man but was stifled by a cold calculated countenance.  Ramos moved for a jab, something Cole would never have expected.  But with the ominous squeal of gears and bolts, Ramos’ blow landed with surprising efficiency.  The punch crashed against the wastrel, sending the forgotten nobleman’s son’s top hat flying into the air along with an eyeball and copious amounts of blood.  The wastrel fell, skull shattered and forced the second to move back in a panic. 

“Don’t you even think about falling back!”  Graves roared as he pushed forward, stepping over his dead men to meet Ramos with just a plank of wood in hand.  Before the mountain of muscle barely contained in a three-piece suit could take a swing the remaining Oxfordians moved to protect their mastermind.  A flurry magic erupted in front of Graves face but did little to deter him.  Off to the side the remaining wastrel and Tannen engaged in a beguiling flurry against the sole other mage. 

Free of the spiders but in the thick of the maelstrom, Cole wriggled against his constraints.  Cole shifted back and forth until his eyes spotted exactly what he needed.  Silently thanking the threads of fate, Cole kicked forward trying to reach discarded metal spider that whirred uselessly in its damaged state.  Kicking and nudging with his leg, Cole pulled at the hunk of shrapnel closer until it fell in reach of his hand.  A rush of pain from inside his palm spasmed through Cole’s arm as jagged edges of steel drove into his hand.  He focused his mind, imagined Lara, his rose, and started to saw through the ropes. 

            Ramos sidestepped another hammer blow from Grave’s tree trunk arms, but was forced to eat the attack from the oncoming wastrel.  The chain struck against the old man’s shoulder, but was deflected by the deceptive protection of his modified long coat.  Ramos outstretched again, but not with the rocket fist that finished the wretched existence of the last standing Illuminated.  Ramos palm opened, sending a batch of robotic spiders flying into the scoundrel’s face and exploding into an air of blood, smoke, and shrapnel.  Ramos cast a wicked grin at the form of Mr. Graves, confident his vast intellect and arsenal were a match for what was Brawn incarnate.   But a dashing figure holding an oversized codex shook his attention.  Even Graves cast a sideways glance at the retreating form of Cole Livingston.  Ramos stabbed forward snatching at the fabric of Cole’s breast pocket, but snarled a curse as his grip came apart. 

            ‘Hey!  Get back here, we still gotta ‘shiv ya’!”  Tannen shouted before dodging an elemental bolt.

            A wastrel rushed to block Cole but another footballers kick to the stones sent the blacksheep tumbling.  Cole didn’t turn to see if the two parties halted their ensuing battle to stop him.  There was no point.  All that mattered was to keep running.  Fueled by thoughts of love and home, of cards with hardworking men who thought monsters were only the stuff of children’s stories and being scolded for coming home late, Cole rushed, barely cognizant of his geography and towards the location of his rendezvous.

            The man waiting stood, his body growing tired from waiting half a day for an arrival that surely wouldn’t come.  Cigar in hand and a perturbed look on his face he remained.  He leaned against the railing around the station.  Taking one last drag and dropping the smoke he turned, ready to leave only to find a broke and beaten man ready to topple forward in exhaustion. 

            “Well, I don’t think you know how much trouble you’ve gotten yourself into.”  McCabe said with a chuckle.  “Or maybe you do, who the hell am I to judge?”

            “I-I’m glad you’re still here.”  Cole coughed.

            “Figured I’d wait and see if my boys managed to drag your corpse back, but I guess they’re still at with Tannen and whoever you up and decided to piss off.”

            “Look,” Cole said before showing him the book.  “This is what I’m talking about.”

            Lucas McCabe eyed the Codex in Cole’s hand and shrugged.  “Ah, I don’t know if that’s for me, books are hard to move, and I don’t know if I can handle the heat you just put on it and yourself.”

            A sinking feeling overcame Cole, his heart dropping down through his lower intestines and into the soiled streets. 

            “We had a deal!”  Cole sobbed.

            “No, I said I’d look at what you got.” McCabe corrected.  “Maybe we can talk to some of the other Thunders and see what you can get for it.  Pending my fee of course.”  

            Cole fought back the tears, he knew the effort and blood on his hands would be paid in a fraction of what he needed.  Unable to take another breath he reached his breast pocket to pull out his flask.  Instead of the last gift Lara gave him, he held a tiny spider reminiscent of the countless spiders that surrounded Ramos.  The rose and Lara’s name that adorned the flask could still be seen emblazoned on the spider.  The thing whirled and hissed with mechanical life forcing McCabe to jump back with a curse.  All Cole could do was sigh as moving bits of metal exploded in his open palm, his thoughts of Lara’s words ringing in his ears.

            “Easy scrip leads to hard days and painful nights.”

 

            END.

A FOOLS ROSE.docx

A FOOLS ROSE.docx

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Amazing work everyone! I'm not even remotely finished mine, I'll add it to my pile of unfinished projects and keep plugging away at it!

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Debts Unpaid

Five souls stood in the dying light of a faltering lantern, breathing the dust that had swiftly come to fill the stale air. After a moment of tense silence one of them spoke to break it.

"Well, safe to say this wasn't part of the plan, gentlemen."

He regarded his four companions as he said this, noticing the myriad emotions in their eyes. The old gunfighter and the former seaman showed no feelings beyond the cold composure of a soul that had danced with Death herself many times before, but the young researcher from the Malifaux City Museum and Archives was seemingly on the verge of mad panic and the Union man appeared ready to unleash a different sort of outburst entirely. It was this last man that was first to reply.

"Comforting  to know you didn't plan on gettin' us buried alive down here, limey bastard. Maybe if you had let me take time to check stability of ruin -"

The man of the King's Empire shook his head. "We covered this previously, Mister Zakharov. This far to the north we risked attack by cultists or even Neverborn if we dallied. In for the relic, out with the relic."

The Russian man snarled. "Yes, we see how well that has gone, don't we Hawthorn? Damned idiot Guild lickboot!"

Hawthorn sighed and twisted the end of his mustache.  "You knew the risks of this expedition s well as anyone else, Mister Zakharov."

Zakharov growled and his hand slipped low to his hip where the Ganten  M1895 was holstered, but before he could draw the weapon the young woman wailed and dove between the two men, her dark hair whipping about her head and shoulders as she regarded each in turn with desperate blue eyes.

"Please, please stop! We'll die down here if we don't find a way to get out! Please don't fight!"

Tears washed streaks down her dust-covered cheeks, and Hawthorn turned his attention fully to the researcher.

"Be at ease, Miss Davis. My employers are expecting word from us by tonight, and as they are nearby in Ridley and know of my location, we should expect rescue within the day. We have provisions enough to last, and fuel."

"So long as we don't run out of air." the gunslinger interrupted in a Texan drawl, watching the events from where he had leisurely reclined against the ancient structure's wall. Davis wailed and clung to Hawthorn forlornly at the Texan's words, and he regarded the old man coolly.

"There really is no account for such doomsaying, Mister Roark."

"No profit in lying to  girl, telling her all is well either, Hawthorn." Zakharov growled, and Roark shook his head, running fingers through his graying beard, drawing forth his own Collier and regarding the three.

"You see our friend from the Kingdoms over there? I think he has the right idea. All of you come and sit down, settle your nerves. We won't find a way out until the dust from the collapse settles, and we certainly won't find a way out if we startin' killin' each other like trapped rats."

Zakharov continued to stare balefully at Hawthorn for a long and dangerous moment, but at length the Russian finally relented and moved to sit by the gunslinger. Hawthorn escorted Miss Davis over a few moments later, and Roark nodded to the three.

"All right, then. So, Zakharov...  that gun of yours is most often found in the hands of the Tsar's armies. You a  veteran, then?"

The Russian grunted, but then gave a grave shake of his head.

"No, I am not formerly soldier of Tsar. This gun belonged to man who took me in, when parents died in days of war."

"Still, a long way from home, aren't you?"

Zakharov shook his head. "Home does not matter, not when debts remain unpaid. The man who owned this gun, I owe him much."

 Roark nodded.

"Must be a hell of a debt, to bring you this far. Is this man who raised you here in the city?"

The Russian spat on the ground, near to where Hawthorn sat.

"He is dead. He was sold to this lickboot's masters, and died in chains."

Hawthorn sighed, softly, looking to Zakharov wearily.

"The Guild does not make men commit crimes."

The Russian's gun was out with frightening speed, the Ganten aimed at Hawthorn's heart.

"His only crime was seeking freedom for people of Motherland! Freedom from corrupt lords and Guild exploitation!"

Zakharov's eyes narrowed with deadly intent as his finger tensed upon the trigger, but before he could fire the Chinese man was up from his seat and upon him, curved blade drawn and pressed to the Russian's throat with one hand, the other gripping Zakharov's shirt.

"The guild has many crimes to answer for, Russian. But it is not our business to punish them today. You waste much oxygen with this outburst."

Zakharov held still in the sailor's grasp, but he remained stone-faced with his gun still aimed for Hawthorn.

"This bastard's father was one in charge of train, train Ilya never left alive. This is matter of honor and vengeance, Chinaman. Was thinking you Kingdom men respected such things."

"Kingdom men see jobs through when we take them, Russian. The Guildsman has paid my employers well for my services in protecting him and seeing him free of this place with the treasure he has reclaimed from it"

The Chinese mercenary cast his dark eyes about the room before he continued.

"The dust will be clear soon, and we can find a way to freedom. If you wish to continue this once we are free again that is your business, but you will not pursue it until then, or I will be forced to execute my orders. Now put your firearm away, or I will open your throat."

Zakharov seemed to consider trying to fire on the mercenary, but after a long moment he lowered his weapon. Hawthorn nodded to the Chinese man as he rose again to his feet and looked to the two men.

"Quite. Thank you for your loyalty in this matter, Mister Wu. Would you and Mister Roark kindly relieve our Russian friend of his gun so this does not occur again?"

Roark nodded and rose to support Wu as the mercenary held out a hand toward Zakharov; the Russian spat in his direction, but facing the fact he was outnumbered he at last relented and held the Ganten out for his fellow hired guns. Roark took the weapon calmly, and Hawthorn regarded Zakharov solemnly as he did.

"My father did not leave that train alive either, Mister Zakharov. The train you speak of was robbed, and the largest number of its crew and passengers were  murdered by outlaws in the Badlands south of Malifaux City. The shame of that failure swiftly plucked our once-storied house from the Guild's grace, and is why I am here in this collapsed ruin with nothing to my name but that name itself.  Returning this relic to the Guild's coffers is my duty, to clear the house of Hawthorn's name from the stain of that dark day."

Hawthorn drew a deep, tired breath.

"Now, let us all rest until the dust settles, then we will see the damage at the entrance. Mister Wu, please keep watch over Mister Zakharov? I am tired and wish to rest."

Wu gave the man of the Empire a single nod, and Hawhorn returned it as he moved to  once more recline against the damp ruin's walls.

"All of you, we rest for..."

Hawthorn glanced to his clockwork timepiece as he pulled it from a pocket.

"Ten minutes, and then we move to the exit.  Be ready."

 

***

 

"No mistake, this was not a natural occurrence."

Wu stood before the collapsed entrance to the ruin as he ran a finger along the sundered frame of the ancient doorway.

"Gunpowder, and it is fresh. This was a trap. Look here!"

He reached into the rubble filling the corridor and pulled out a handful of seared metal.

"The remains of a clockwork trigger. We were betrayed from within. One of us intended us to be trapped here."

Suspicious murmurs moved through the gathering, suspicious eyes sharp as each of the five regarded their fellows. It was the old gunslinger who spoke first.

"I recall Mister Zakharov was the one checking the  stability of the doorway when you had him returned to us." 

As the others looked to him, Zakharov swore viciously in his native tongue and pointed at Wu.

"And he stayed behind after bullying me away from the door!  You see his arm, any of you? I got good view while bastard Chinaman was holding knife to throat. Show them brand on your arm, filthy pirate!"

Wu quietly turned his forearm to the others, the lanterns' light revealing the crude brand burned into the flesh.

"My youth is behind me now. I make no apologies for it."

"See? Pirate! He sabotaged door, trapped us here. Probably waits for his 'employers' to ambush your rescue party so they can steal the relic, murder us all!"

Wu's eyes narrowed and his hand moved toward his blade; Roark's gun was on him swiftly.

"I'd not, Mister Wu."

His focus and weapon trained on the pirate, the gunslinger did not notice Zakharov's move, nor move swiftly enough to stop the Russian as he seized his Ganten free from Roark's belt and turned it on the older man.  As Miss Davis cowered behind him, Hawthorn sighed wearily.

"Gentlemen, truly you do not need to resort to -"

A thunderous echo rattled through the ruined corridors of the ancient structure, and a dark stain blossomed upon Hawthorn's shirt. The man of the Empire fell back into the stunned grasp of the young woman behind him and took them both to the cold and dirty floor in a heap, and Roark shook his head softly as the gunsmoke rose from the barrel of his Collier.

"Nothing personal, Mister Hawthorn. Strictly business, and debts owed."

Wu shouted a  battle cry and lunged for the gunslinger, but a second shot echoed and he tumbled forward into a heap, carried by his now-undirected momentum. Zakharov regarded him calmly.

"I do not know, Roark. Perhaps little bit personal. For me at least."

The gunslinger nodded to the Russian, who stepped over to the bleeding form of Wu. Gun trained on the bloodied pirate, Zakharov took his blade and his pistols and then gave him a solid kick for good measure. Grunting, Wu was sent rolling to land near the prone forms of Davis and Hawthorn. The young woman looked to Roark , her voice trembling as she tried desperately to staunch the bleeding from the gut-shot Hawthorn had suffered

"Why? Why did you do this?!"

Roark shook his head once, then moved to seize the leather satchel that held the prize the group had been trapped in the process of seeking.

"Like I said, ma'am. Debts unpaid. This was taken from a nice gentleman at the Honeypot Casino, a nice gentleman to whom I am quite deep in debt due to a bad run of the cards. My previous associates had reclaimed this relic from the train mentioned by our friends here when other interested parties made a move to steal it from us, and in the chaos..."

"Stolen?!"

It was Wu who spoke, having dragged himself to a seat against a crumbling pillar. He regarded the gunslinger with cold, steady eyes as he spat blood.

"We did not steal that relic, Western savage! It was Stolen from the temple of my honored Uncle's temple by the Guild, stolen as so many of the Kingdom's treasures. We were simply reclaiming it, with the Oyabun's blessing."

"And killing everyone on train? Killing Ilya?"

Zakharov growled and moved to kick the wounded pirate, but he staggered mid-stride and looked down to his leg. A thick metal needle was imbedded in his thigh, and Wu held another in an uncertain hand.

"Filthy... pirate.."

The Russian collapsed, clammy and covered with sweat. Roark trained his gun on the pirate a moment, then lowered it and moved to the Chinese man's side.

"A bit slow there, Wu."

Wu grunted.

"I was shot in the back, you understand."

"True enough. You have a soulstone?"

The pirate nodded weakly and reached into the folds of his belt. His face registered quiet surprise.

"It is gone!"

"What do you mean? Did you drop it in the fall? I'm no doctor but that wound needs -"

There was a sudden flash of sickly green light behind him, and Roark felt his muscles contract and his skin dry and crack as necromantic energies of decay sapped the life from his limbs. He fell to the floor, looking up just in time to see the eerie light fading from Miss Davis' eyes, and notice the soulstone guttering in her grasp.

 

***

Hawthorn awoke to the sensation of warm wetness, a dull ache in his stomach, and a much sharper pain behind his eyes. He cast his gaze about in an attempt to find his bearings as the sensations he felt all slowly increased in intensity; his memory felt muddled and as foggy as the streets of London.

"What.. where?"

The sound of soft, feminine laughter answered him, and he turned his head blearily to its source.

"Welcome back to the living world, Jeremiah Hawthorn."

Miss Davis smiled, the mousy and frightened facade gone. Her hair had been let loose from its scholarly bun  to fall in inky black waves about her face and shoulders, and behind the wire-rimmed spectacles her green eyes gleamed with a quiet sort of madness.  Hawthorn took her change of appearance and mannerisms in slowly as he tried to rise to his feet; to his consternation he found his limbs were bound at wrist and ankle. Despite his pain and predicament, the Guildsman spoke calmly as he regarded the woman.

"I fear you are mistaken, madam. I am Godfrey Hawthorn.  Jeremiah Hawthorn was my late father."

Davis sighed and gestured idly in his direction, a sickly green light blossoming first around her hand and then around Hawthorn himself;  the spell tore away at the glamours surrounding him, and slowly the refined features of youth melted away into those of a haggard middle age.

"There's no point in your deceptions any longer, Mister Hawthorn. Do look a little closer to your surroundings?"

Hawthorn slowly obliged the woman, his face going grey when he saw the other three men reclined against the columns of the structure. Already old, the gunslinger Roark appeared positively mummified now, his expression uncommonly serene despite the desiccation. To the old gambler's right sat the pirate Wu, his blade buried deep in his own stomach and his head hanging forward and his face impossible to see. Zakharov was not so fortunate. The Russian's body was contorted and drawn, his face trapped in an eternal rictus grin of poisoned agony. Hawthorn took the dead men's measure one final time, then turned his eyes to Davis again.

"So, you were the one who trapped us here."

The woman shook her head, gesturing first to Zakharov and then to Wu.

"It was the Arcanist agent who planted the explosive, and the servant of the Ten Thunders who sabotaged it. I will admit that I suspected they might do such things, however."

"You suspected? Randomly-recruited mercenaries, and you speak as though you had Guild dossiers on them both."

Davis slipped over lowly, clicking her tongue and patting Hawthorn's grizzled cheek gently, her tone pitying  as she replied.

"You still think this was just random fate, don't you? Just bad fortune following more of itself, just an opportunistic theft, a betrayal of convenience fueled only by greed?"

The woman shook her head before she leaned in close, her sickly blue eyes locking with Hawthorn's steely gray ones.

"You don't remember, do you? You truly do not recall who I am. Well, I suppose that should not be surprising. Any dog of the Guild has no doubt ruined many, many lives in the quest for power and profit."

"Madam, I assure you, I have never..."

Davis' gloved hand slapped him with unnatural force and speed, striking Hawthorn across the face and knocking his head to the side.  Blood began to ooze from his now-split lip as the woman sneered at him angrily.

"Don't dare to lie about it, you worthless bastard. You don't recall me? You don't recall the mercenary or the pirate or the Arcanist? You don't recall the fact we all have crossed paths long before we entered this wretched tomb together?"

Davis smiled, coldly, as she sat down to face the bound Guildsman.

"Then I suppose it is only fair that I remind you. Think back to that day, Jeremiah Hawthorn. Remember that train bound southward. Do you remember it, Jeremiah Hawthorn?"

The woman waited for his reply with baleful gleam in her eyes, and at length Jeremiah Crawford sighed his answer.

"Yes. Yes, I remember that day. I remember that train, that journey of the dead and damned..."

* * *

The train's low and mournful whistle sounded as it made its way down the tracks beneath the alien sky of Malifaux, and Jeremiah Hawthorn quietly regarded the small retinue of Guardsmen who sat in the Spartan car with him. Most were young, youths barely fit to be called men and women; all of them were green and untested, facing their first assignments outside the relative safety of Downtown, much less outside the City proper.

None of them were prepared for this sort of duty.

"Sir?"

The Guardsmen looked to his superior officer nervously as he spoke, waiting acknowledgment; with a tilt of his head Hawthorn gave it and the youth continued.

"Did we need to know anything about this mining town we're headed to, sir? Any.. Nev-Neverborn or the like? Aren't they supposed to be out here, out in the Badlands, sir?"

Hawthorn shook his head.

"There is no difference in killing one of the demonic fiends than in killin' a man, boy. You aim, you shoot, and it dies. But no, we're not expecting that sort of trouble. We're just here to deliver the damned souls behind us to Hell, and ensure none of them escape back across the River Styx."

The young Guardsmen nodded, then after a moment found another question for his commanding sergeant.

"It's just Soulstone out here, sir? No ruins or such bein' dug up?"

"Nothing of the sort, Riordan. Now sit and be at peace; you have command while I make a quick tour of the train."

The trust the sergeant showed him seemed to steady Riordan's nerves, for the young man saluted once and became deathly silent and serious; with his men in such vigilant care, Hawthorn rose and moved back through the car to the adjoining one.

The car was slightly more comfortable and inviting than the stark one he had left, and in its seats sat those who were on their way to the small mining town of Paradise by choice: merchants, mercenaries, free laborers and settlers. A youthful settler pulled his young bride a touch closer as Hawthorn passed, two old gun-hands quickly ceased their game of cards as he drew near, and three Chinese laborers quieted their already soft discussions even though Hawthorn had no ear for their language with which to eavesdrop.

Such things were the cost of his service to the Guild, Hawthorn supposed;  paying the fear and distrust of the common citizenry exactly as much attention as he had been trained to, the sergeant moved on with his patrols, meeting the checkpoint Guardsmen at the entrance to the next car and being quickly escorted through into it. It was sparser even than the first, and heavily-secured; such was, of course fitting for the valuable cargo of scrip, weapons, and low-grade Soulstones the car carried under heavy guard, much of it hidden discreetly amid the baggage of the passengers and the more-mundane supplies needed to keep a contract town such as Paradise afloat. Hawthorne gave the various crates and satchels a disinterested examination as he moved through the car, but he stopped at the exit, seeing no reason to go further.

The next three cars were the cold, highly-secured mobile prisons for those poor, unfortunate convicts condemned to the worst mines of Paradise. The thought of such a fate gave even a hardened campaigner such as Hawthorn a cold knot in his stomach; he uttered a brief prayer for their sorry souls to whatever benevolent  powers might be listening and turned to return to his car.

He had managed only five steps before the train's sudden deceleration sent him tipping forward into a pile of grain sacks, and a tinny voice came from the small internal aethervox mounted on the ceiling.

"Sergeant, we have an obstruction on the tracks ahead. Looks like bandits hit a wagon as it was crossin' them. Should we go clear it?"

Hawthorn stumbled over to the device and pressed the button to answer.

"No. Get the men ready, we'll have the convicts see to it. I'll be back to join you shortly."

"Very good sir, understood. Sending a message to the watch detail now, the convicts should be on their feet in short order."

"Good show, Riordan. Be prepared to depart as soon as the obstruction is clear.

"Yes sir!"

Hawthorn released the button and readied both his nerves and his Peacebringer before making for the passenger car again; behind him he could hear the shaking of chains and the muffled barking of orders as the convicts were marshaled to their task. Slipping out the door, the sergeant paused to watch as they were unloaded, a wretched lot to be sure.

But wait, why was that one not in chains? Why did the Guardsmen not seem to notice the prisoner's freedom?

What was he doing with -

Hawthorn tried to shout a warning, but it came seconds too late. The unshackled prisoner unleashed a vicious wave of fire against the Guardsmen that sent them screaming to the ground, and his fellows in bonds had soon thrown off their own chains and seized weapons from the seared men. A second Arcanist, face obscured by a prisoner's hood, joined the first in hurling spells onto the security detail that was swiftly being overwhelmed; Hawthorn shouted a desperate call that they hold as he shoved his way into  the passenger car.

He found no respite from madness within, for both the gamblers and the Chinese were shooting toward the Guardsmen who had come from the next car, evading  rifle fire from Riordan and his men as the five sought to push their way to the baggage car. The other civilians were cowering, wailing, and sobbing as they were caught in the crossfire; the young settler gripped Hawthorn's leg desperately as the sergeant pushed his way forward, firing his Peacebringer at the enemy gunmen.

"Save us, please!" the young man begged, and Hawthorn growled at him as he sought to pull free.

"Let me go you fool, you'll kill us both!"

The man held tight with the strength of desperation, and as one of the Chinese attackers aimed a rifle at the sergeant Hawthorn bleakly turned his gun on the youth and shot him in the chest. The dead man's grip slackened and Hawthorn pulled free, barely making his way into cover across the aisle as bullets stitched across the train's floor in his wake.

"You monster! You murderer!"

The man's wife, her face a mix of horror and fury, lunged across the train at Hawthorn, but her leap was stopped midway as she was caught by a shot from Riordan and sent sprawling  to the ground.  One of the older gunmen shoved past Hawthorn and out of the car, and his partners were not far behind when the car was rocked by a thunderous explosion from outside. A moment later  a fiery eruption tore through the car and sent Hawthorn crashing through the train's ornate window, the ground outside rushing up to greet him...

 

***

"When I awoke, it was over. The prisoners gone, the trained robbed, most of my men dead. We that remained buried our brethren, and dug a lonely pit for the convicts and the poor bastards who had the misfortune to be on that damned train that day. We blamed it on bandits, but I was stripped of my position and left with nothing but the name I had shamed."

Hawthorn took a weary breath, regarding the dead men seated across from him.

"I recognize them, now. They were there that day, the day of the robbery and all that death."

Davis nodded darkly, slowly unbuttoning her shirt to reveal a vicious scar above her breast; the angry wound, Hawthorn thought, bore a resemblance to a rose.

"So was I, sergeant. So was my husband. You murdered him in cold blood, and cast his corpse into an unhallowed grave. You had the convicts that survived executed, and murdered the passengers who remained to conceal your sins."

The woman's eyes grew distant, and haunted.

"You did not even take time to ensure we were dead, did you? To give me the peace of death, to join my husband in the hereafter. No, you simply threw us all in that fetid pit, alive and bleeding, and ordered your men to ignore our cries for salvation, just as you ignored my dear Allan's pleas for it."

"Yet you survived, I see."

Davis smiled, thinly.

"I did. You did not hear my cries, but someone else did. It offered me power, and it offered me my life. And more than anything else, it offered me the chance to settle our debts. It was not a hard decision. I swore there, in that pit, that my beloved Allan would be avenged, and that one day you would see justice for your crimes."

"I suppose it wasn't. You took your time planning all this, Miss Davis. Setting up a new life. It seems to me it would have been far simpler to simply turn your newfound talent with the darkest of arts toward murdering us in far more direct and immediate ways. Especially as you're now trapped down here too. Was this some poetic irony, to make us share the grave I condemned you to?"

The Resurrectionist shook her head, and slowly pulled a cigar from Hawthorne's coat, followed by a box of matches. As she struck the match and lit the cigar, Hawthorn's ears could make out the sounds of digging in the tunnel behind him.

He simply had to keep this mad necromancer distracted for long enough, and he could escape this pit with the relic. He could reclaim his family's honor and with it their fallen fortunes. He struggled to sit as straight as he could.

"Miss Davis, I know this must mean very little to you, if not nothing at all. But for my part in this sad affair - for the murder of your husband and the hardships you have suffered, the horrors you experienced?"

Hawthorn took a deep breath  

"I am deeply sorry Madam Davis, sorrier than words can say.  And you are right - the victims of that day deserve justice.  I deserve to answer for my crimes. I told you, I have men on the way. When they arrive, turn me over to them. I will confess the true extent of my sins and stand before the Guild's judgment for the wrongs I have committed. They will be here soon, and you will be outnumbered if I do not call them to peace. Even your fell magicks will not be enough to carry you past them."

In the darkness behind them, Hawthorn heard the sounds of rocks falling away and booted feet entering the ruin.

"There they are, right now. Please, let me settle the debts to you I have left unpaid."

Hawthorn looked to where the Resurrectionist stood, and watched as she considered his words. Slowly, she nodded.

"I accept your apologies, Sergeant Jeremiah Hawthorn. I forgive you your crimes against me."

The footfalls in the ruined corridor grew close now, and Hawthorne turned in his seated position, preparing to call out the order for his men to gun the woman down while she was distracted.

But they were not his men. Gathered  behind the woman in decrepit, decaying number were a horde of dead men and dead women, many still dressed in the bloodied prisoner's rags they had died in, now stained in dirt and gore; a handful of the others were dressed in the attire of settlers, merchants, and hired guns. One, better preserved than the others, stood out for wearing new clothes -fine tailored pants, new shoes, and a clean shirt; the shirt hung open to reveal a gruesome scar not unlike that Davis herself bore.

"Of course, you understand, that while your debts to me are now settled... they remain unpaid with the rest of your victims. You requested to face judgment, did you not?"

"No. No, no, no! You evil, crazy harlot!"

Hawthorn struggled with the bond as the shuffling hordes drew closer, and Davis took her unliving husband's arm as he offered it to her, kissing his pallid lips with love.

"A harlot? Honestly sergeant, I am a dutifully married woman, can't you see?"

The Resurrectionist smiled cruelly as the first of the dead men reached down to lift Jeremiah Hawthorn from the ground. The small horde of the dead fell upon him with fury, and his screams echoed through the ruins as the undead horrors took their bloody, hungry vengeance upon his flesh and blood. When the last of them had sated its fury against the scattered bone and viscera that had once been Sergeant Jeremiah Hawthorn,  Amelia Davis smiled and watched as her children departed back for the ruin's exit, her beloved Allan lifting up the satchel that contained the trivial trinket that had baited her trap.

Jeremiah Hawthorn had cost her chance for a normal family and a normal life. But he had given her a new one of sorts, and as she smiled and first caressed the scar upon her own breast and then the wound on her beloved Allan's chest she considered that few marriages were so strong as to be carried not simply to the grave, but beyond it.

The debts these men had owed her, she thought, could no longer be considered unpaid.

 

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Getting it in with twenty minutes to spare!  Takes me back to college!  Thanks for the fun project!
- Steven

 

Rose Tattoo

The bugle’s blast is drowned out by the pounding of blood in his ears.  The beast beneath him surges to life, the earth shakes with the pounding of iron shod hooves.  He looks to the right and to the left.  Skull faced comrades, fiery eyes in sunken sockets stare grimly ahead.  It has been lean weeks of tracking and hunting and the hounds can smell blood.

Tents and teepees rush towards him in slow motion.  He draws his pistol.  He can feel the roar tear from his throat but the pounding in his ears is too loud to hear it.  A form stands up by a fire.  He digs in his heels, he must be the first.  He levels his pistol.  CRACK.  A foot of flame shoots from the mouth of the Peacebringer in his hand.  The back of the figure’s head explodes in a shower of red, silhouetted by the campfire.  A grin splits his face.  He laughs, he screams out the Rebel Yell his daddy taught him.  And he levels the gun again.  Bodies fall.  Torches ignite teepees with innocents trapped inside.  His pistol is empty.  He has another loaded and ready but he draws his sabre instead.  The camp is aflame, and he does the Devil’s work. 

A child stands alone, crying.  He turns and digs in his bloody spurs.  Her cries are cut off violently beneath his horse’s hooves.  Her mother runs towards her, screaming inhumanly, her face a twisted mask or horror and grief.  Her scream pushes past the pounding in his ears.  He recoils in horror.  The scream grows louder.  He slashes down across her throat.  Red sprays across his blue and gold uniform, across his dapple-grey horse.  The sweet copper smell fills his nostrils. 

Her throat is a gaping wound, but the screams will not end.  The blood flows from her wound and the screams grow louder.  The corpses covering the camp join in with her, their screams drowning out the pounding in his ears, drowning out the shaking of the earth, drowning out every thought.  He grasps his head, screeching in pain.  He falls from his horse into a lake of blood.  It fills his nose, his mouth, his eyes, as dead and severed limbs reach out and grab hold of him.  He lays paralyzed as they pluck out his eyes, pull out his teeth, tear off his ears, his fingers, his cock; as they break his bones and drag him under to drown. 

The mother swims down to him, cradling her dead child.  Her screams fill the world as she tears out her own beating heart and shoves it into his gaping mouth down his throat.

Jacob O’Sullivan’s bloodshot eyes snapped open, sweat dripping down his forehead, heart pounding, the dying screech of the train whistle echoing in his ears.  He glanced around, frantically trying to get his bearings.  All eyes in the car were pinned on him.  He closed his own and wedged himself deeper into the corner.  “It was just a dream,” he thought desperately.  “Dreams can’t hurt you.  What’s done is done.” 

Jacob opened the window next to him and leaned out, taking in a deep breath.  The air wasn’t as fresh as he expected.  He looked around the landscape.  Before he fell asleep he had watched a heard of antelope grazing along the tracks in central Texas, surrounded by all the familiar flora and fauna, rolling hills and wide open, vibrant blue sky.  The land he found himself in now was the same, but completely different.  It was like looking down at fish in the water - bigger than reality, off placed, and discolored.  Or like looking at one of those new photographs he had seen in New York City.  Very like the plains of his home country, but distorted.  He turned his head and looked down the length of the train just in time to see the final two cars appear as if pulled out of thin air from a shimmering portal.   

He jumped at another whistle from the engine ahead.  He sat back in his seat, heart pounding again. 

“First time through the Breach?”

Jacob turned slowly, trying to appear calm.  A young woman sat across from him.  Jacob eyed her up and down, she hadn’t been there when he woke up.  She was tall, her long legs crossed in front of her, revealing what would have been a scandalous amount of ankle back home.  That distraction paled in comparison to the low cut of the front her dress, each bounce of the rails teasing a pleasant surprise.  She wore a bit too much make up for Jacob’s taste, but she was pretty enough that it didn’t detract.  She tucked a lock of golden blonde hair behind her ear and stared at him with bright blue eyes

Simple as the question was, Jacob found himself at a loss for words.  That didn’t stop her.  She took his silence as a “yes” and continued.

“There’s no shame, you know.  It affects everyone differently, their first time through.  And all the times after for that matter.  You think you’re embarrassed; I should introduce you to a friend of mine.  Her first time through and the Breach made her soil herself!  As for me, my first time…”  She leaned closer to him, well aware of the angle of her chest.  “I had a thrill of excitement so powerful it made me… Well I blush to even think it.”  Jacob doubted that very much.  She struck him as a woman impossible to make blush.

“I can’t say I’ve ever had a nightmare, however,” she continued.  “But I suppose I’ve never been asleep on the trip.”

“That must be it,” was all Jacob could think to say, but he knew better.  There was no horror in the Breach for Jacob.  The dark circles under his eyes were proof of the unrelenting nightmares any time he laid down his head.

The whistle sounded again, this time accompanied by the squeal of old brakes.  The train began to slow.  The woman stood with a smile.  She reached into her handbag and took out a paper flyer.  She handed it to Jacob with a wink.

“You look like you need a night off, Mr…”

“O’Sullivan.  Jacob O’Sullivan.”

“Mr. Sullivan.  You get yourself settled and come give me a visit.  Buy me a drink.”

Jacob takes the flyer, an advertisement for The Star Theater.  He folds it up and puts it in his pocket.  “I’ll think on that, thank you.”

The train slowed to a stop.  Jacob looks out the window.  They reached Malifaux Station.  The other passengers stood and gathered their belongings.

“Keep your eyes open, Mr. O’Sullivan.”  Jacob turned back to the woman.  The smile left her face, the twinkle from her eyes.  “Bad things happen in Malifaux.”  She turned and walked out of the train.  Jacob watched her through the window.  She stopped and looked back.  She locked eyes with him, gave him a wink, then disappeared into the crowd. 

The train car was empty.  Jacob reached into his pocket and took out an old tintype photograph.  A younger Jacob stared back in a crisp US Cavalry uniform.  Sitting in front of him was a younger woman, pretty and full of life.  She smiled, and held onto his hand on her shoulder.

Jacob’s lip quivered.  “I will find you,” he whispered.  He tucked the photo away, placed his Stetson on his head, threw a dusty leather saddlebag over his shoulder, and left the train.

 

***

             

              “Is this your first visit to Malifaux, Mr. O’Sullivan?”

              “Yes, first time.”

              “And what brings you to Malifaux?  Business or pleasure?”

The customs office was dark and dusty.  The heat from overworked boilers and the press of travelers bodies was overpowering.  The Guild officer, a fat little man with long mustaches, wiped the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and stared at Jacob over the rims of his spectacles.

              “Neither.”

              “And how long do you expect your visit to last?”

              “Couldn’t say.”

              The little man glared at him.  The answers were unsatisfactory but Jacob knew his papers were in order.  His business was his own and he had no intention of sharing any more than was necessary. 

              The Guild officer looks back down at Jacob’s papers.

              “Says here you left the United States Army in 1898 and were given an Honorable Discharge.”

              “There’s no such thing.”

              The officer sighs.  “And what did you do after?”

              “I spent four years with the Pinkertons.”

              The officer takes another look at the paperwork.  “Aha.  And are you now or have you ever been a member of the Miners and Steamfitters Union, or any other Union, Earthside or otherwise?”

              “No.”

              “And do you have any chemicals, medicines, depleted Soulstones, or weapons you would like to declare?”

              “No.”

              The officer looks down at the Peacebringer on Jacob’s right hip, the Arkansas toothpick on the other.  He scowls, then stamps Jacob’s papers and hands them back.

              “Welcome to Malifaux, Mr. O’Sullivan.”

              Jacob gathered his papers and walked outside.  The air wasn’t much better on the street than it was in the Guild Office.  Jacob had seen several big cities in his day, and Malifaux was an amalgam of the worst of all of them.  The streets were paved with worn cobblestones interspersed with gaping holes that were almost too frequent to call accidental.  Carriages careened up and down the streets with stone faced passengers, and pedestrians rushed along cracked sidewalks, dodging excrement thrown out of windows above.  A thin layer of fog covered the entire city, making men, women and horses appear as ghostly specters.  Above the city were thick clouds of black smoke from coal fires, the soot from which fell down and blanketed Malifaux in grey and black dust.  A powerful stench of mold, decay, and filth stung his nostrils, making his eyes water powerfully.  The city was an assault on the senses. 

              The Guild’s reputation for order seemed well deserved, however.  Here he stood at the entrance to the city and the usual mix of pickpockets, buskers, and whores were nowhere to be seen.  Malifaux was a filthy, ugly place, but here at least it seemed peaceful.  An uneasy peace, perhaps, but peaceful none the less.

              Jacob turned at the sound of heavy boots marching slowly in time.  A group of five men walked past, all tall and broad in dark dusters and wide brimmed hats.  On their hips were large caliber Peacebringers with blades attached to the undersides of the barrels, and they each carried a wooden coffin on their backs.  But nothing that Jacob had seen on either side of the Breach could have prepared him for their faces: skulls wreathed in bright blue flames.  The Death Marshalls.  The Guild’s most dedicated Resurrectionist hunters. 

              Jacob O’Sullivan was a hard man.  The blood on his hands would never wash off, and he knew exactly where his soul was destined when his number was called.  He had never backed down from a fight in his life and was not the type of man to blink when challenged.  But even he felt an uncontrollable chill pass over him as the leader of the Marshalls stared long and hard at him, blue flames licking empty eye sockets.  Jacob held his ground, he didn’t look away, but he felt diminished, smaller.  His fingers slid slowly towards his pistol.

              The Death Marshalls turned down a side street and disappeared.  Jacob inhaled deeply, only then aware that he had been holding his breath.  He took a long and thin cigar from his jacket pocket and lit it, hands shaking.

              “What have you gotten yourself into now, Katie?”

 

***

              It was either his screams or his body hitting the hard floor that woke him, but Jacob wasn’t sure which.  All that was sure was he was awake, struggling to breath, covered in sweat.  He pulled himself up onto the bed and sat shakily, head in hands. 

              “Just a dream…  Just a dream…  Dreams can’t hurt you…  What’s done is done.”  He repeated his mantra over and over, hoping it would sink in.  It didn’t.  The only thing that came into focus was a throbbing in his head. 

He looked at the clock on the wall, the room’s one amenity.  Midnight.  Jacob felt eyes on him.  He turned slowly to the window.  A large rat sat on its haunches staring at Jacob, silhouetted by the full moon.  They locked eyes.  There was no way Jacob was falling back to sleep now, not even if he wanted to.  He lit another cigarillo and drew deeply.  His eyes wandered to the flyer the woman on the train had given him.  He picked it up and gave it another look.  “Starlight Theater”, “Magic”, “Dancers”, “Nightly”.

“Could be a start,” he mumbled to himself.  He slid his boots on and stood, buckling his gun belt.  He looked behind him at the window.  The rat was nowhere to be seen.

Walking the streets of Malifaux at night was a different experience all together.  Jacob had grown up with the stories of the nightmare beasts called Neverborn lurking in the shadows, of the dark necromantic cults of Resurrectionists roaming the streets looking for bodies, but he had never credited them.  Now it was different.  Now it was hard not to believe.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention.  He could feel eyes on him from all sides.  With a hunter’s practiced step he quieted his walking to the faintest of taps from his boots.  His eyes darted this way and that, and he slowly reached down and rested his hands easily on the handles of his pistol and knife.  The air was thick with fog and silent all around him.

Jacob stopped in the middle of an intersection.  He lit another cigarillo, took a long puff, then turned slowly in a circle, hands on weapons, the light of the moon diffused through the fog and the glow of the cigarillo the only illumination.  He waited.  He could feel the eyes on him still, burning through him.  He made a full, slow circle, then continued down the street. 

Up ahead, the silence was broken by the faint sound of pianos and singing.  Jacob followed the sound, unease growing quieter with each step towards the music.  Lights emanated from around the next bend.  He rounded it and there in front of him was The Star Theater, the one bright and colorful place he had seen in Malifaux.  He looked behind him again, then walked into the Theater, breathing a sigh of relief.

The Star was full to bursting with patrons, the air thick with tobacco smoke.  Up on stage, a dueling piano act was accompanying a lively chorus line of twelve beautiful dancers.  The quiet hiss of the bright gas lighting permeates the building.  Jacob finds an empty corner table and sits down with his back to the wall.  He looked out at the crowd, mostly miners and off duty guardsmen.  To a man they stared at the stage, some leering perversely, others gazing longingly at a beauty they could never hope to attract.

Jacob turned his attention to the dancers.  He examined their faces closely, one by one, down the line, a job made more difficult by their flying skirts and high kicking legs.  He reaches the end of the row.  She’s not there.  He slumped back into his chair and rubbed his eyes. 

“Well, well, well.  Mr. O’Sullivan.”  He turned his head.  There sitting next to him was the woman from the train, now wearing an equally low cut red dress, tied at the left hip revealing a generous amount of thigh above her knee high black boots.  Her long blonde hair was tied up in a messy bun.  “And hear I didn’t think you were going to take me up on my invitation.”  She smiled sweetly at him and lights a cigarette.  “How about that drink?”

Jacob signaled to a waitress and placed an order.  He turned to her while they waited.

              “You work here, Miss?”

              “Miss anything is far too fancy for a girl like me, Mr. O’Sullivan.  Cassandra.  Call me Cassandra.  Or Cassy.  I let me who buy me drinks call me Cassy.”

              “Well in that case, Cassy, it’s Jacob.  Folks called my old man Mr. O’Sullivan, so I must say the title leaves a rather poor taste in my mouth.”

              “A familiar story, Jacob.”

              The waitress arrived with two glasses of whiskey.  Jacob handed a glass to Cassandra.  She raised hers up with a grin.

              “To given names, freeing us from the burden of surnames.”

              Jacob clinked her glass and the two drank. 

              “I have to ask, Cassandra.  Why did you talk to me on the train?  Everyone else was more than happy to keep their distance.  I’m not the most inviting man in the world.”

              She smiled winningly at him, shrugging her shoulders.

              “I like sad and handsome men.”

              That made Jacob laugh.  She joined him.  He thought it was just about the prettiest sound he had ever heard.

              “I’m going to cut to the chase, Cassandra.  I’m looking for someone.  A woman, about eighteen years old.”

              He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the photograph.  He slides it across the table.

              “She’s my sister, Katie O’Sullivan.  This is an old photo but it’s the only one I have.  She’s been missing for a few years.  I tracked her to a dive in Kansas City, Earthside.  She had been a dancer there for a while.  The others said she left when…”  He ground his teeth and clenched his fists.  “When the proprietor tried to pimp her out.”  Cassandra gave him a knowing and sympathetic nod.  She took up the photograph.  “The other dancers said she was headed to Malifaux, get a fresh start.  They also said she had a tattoo.  A rose, above her left breast, right above her heart.  Said she was calling herself Primrose.  When you gave me the flyer for the Star I though this might have been a place she’d have come to.”

              Cassandra stares at the photograph.  Her smile disappears momentarily.  She puts another on quickly and hands the photo back.

              “Look at you in that uniform!  I love a man in uniform.  Sad handsome men in uniform, ha!”  She fanned herself in a mock feint.  Jacob’s eyes narrow.

              “You’ve seen her, haven’t you?  Katie was here.”

              Cassandra leans closer and takes his hand.

              “She was, Jacob.  Colette hired her as soon as she walked in the door.”

              “But?”

              “But she killed a man.  A ‘M and SU’ man.  A union man.  He got too handsy one night and she shot him.  I don’t know where she got the gun, Colette hates the damn things, but I didn’t ask any questions.  Ramos wanted blood.”

              Jacob felt his anger rise.

              “Who is Ramos?”

              “Victor Ramos.  He’s the head of the Union.  He and Colette… well they’re allies of a sort.  He wanted Prim handed over to the Union, but Colette wouldn’t let that happen.  She stalled long enough for me and the girls to sneak Prim to the slums.  She was supposed to lay low in the Little Kingdom until the dust settled, then we were going to bring her back but… she disappeared.  We couldn’t find her again.”

              Jacob tossed back his drink, trying to hold himself together.

              “I’m sorry, Jacob.  I liked your sister.  She was a good girl.  She was strong.  But bad things happen in Malifaux.”

              “No.  Not this isn’t over.  Where is the Little Kingdom?  Can you take me there?  I have to find her, Cassy.  I’m all she has.  I abandoned her a long time ago.  I can’t do that again.  I have to find her.”

              Cassandra took a deep breath, stealing herself.  She stood and nodded to him.

              “I want to help you.  I want to help Prim, if I can.  I can take you there.  My shift is done for the night.  Follow me through the back.  I don’t want to attract anyone’s attention.”

              Jacob stood and followed, dropping a few Guild Script on the table as he left.  Unbeknownst to either, a table of Union miners, let by a large Indian man with a metal arm, stood, and followed.

              Cassandra led Jacob out the rear stage door and into a dark alley. 

              “The slums are too dangerous to cross through at night.  That’s asking for Neverborn to snatch you.  We’ll stay at my place for a few hours and head out at dawn.”

              She hadn’t had a chance to change and the night air was brisk.  She shivered and rubbed her bare arms.  Jacob saw and took off his jacket, placing it over her shoulders.

              “Thank you, Jacob.  Awful sweet of you.”

              “Jacob O’Sullivan!”

              The pair froze.  Jacob turned slowly.  Behind them stood the Union men.  They slowly began to circle the pair like wolves.  Their leader stepped forward, the Indian with the metal arm.

              Cassandra whirls on them.

              “What the hell are you doing here, Joss?”

              “Ramos wants to see Mr. O’Sullivan, Cassandra.  This doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

              “Back off, Joss!”

              “Do you know who this man is, Cassandra?  Jacob O’Sullivan, Indian fighter.  Jacob O’Sullivan, union buster.  Jacob O’Sullivan, Pinkerton thug.”

              Cassandra looked at Jacob.

              “Is that true?”

              Jacob stood up straight, hands on weapons.

              “Stand away from me, Cassy.  If these men aim to keep me from finding Katie then there’s gonna be blood.”

              The Union men took another step closer.

              “This is your only warning.  Y’all take another step towards me and I’ll kill every one of you.

              Cassandra pleads with him.

              “Jacob please stand down.  This doesn’t have to end like this.”

              “That hasn’t been my experience.”

              A calm settled over Jacob.  His vision narrowed, a slight hum filled his ears.  A Union man stepped towards him and Jacob drew his pistol like lightning and fired.  The bullet tore through the man’s eye, a cloud of blood and brains erupted from the back of his skull.  He turned from the hip, holding the trigger down and fanned the hammer back again.  Before the first could even hit the ground a gaping hole appeared in the second man’s chest. 

              Before he could turn to Joss a knife appeared at his throat.  He froze, the cold steal snapping him back.  He turned his head.  Cassandra stood next to him, eyes wide, holding the knife.

              “I can’t let you kill him, Jacob.”

              Jacob slowly holstered his pistol.  Joss walked slowly up to him.

              “No red scalps for you today, O’Sullivan.”

              Jacob spat.  Joss’s metal fist connected with the side of his head.  Everything went black.

 

***

 

              Jacob awoke with a scream.  He was hanging by his wrists from chains attached to the ceiling.  As his sight came slowly back he looked around, breathing heavy.  He was in a warehouse of some kind.  His head throbbed, but he fought back hard against the chains. 

              “That will get you absolutely nowhere, Mr. O’Sullivan.”  Jacob twisted around.  A tall, lean man with balding grey hair came walking in, flanked by Joss and a giant half-man, half spider like automaton. 

              “Holy shit,” Jacob said.

              “Ah yes, you know my friend Joss, but allow me to introduce Mr. Howard Langston.”  The giant stared down at Jacob.  “Mr. Langston, this is the infamous Mr. Jacob O’Sullivan.  And I of course, am Victor Ramos.  How do you do?”

              “I’ve been better, Mr. Ramos.  But I’ve been a hell of a lot worse.”

              Ramos laughs.  “Perhaps.  We shall see.  I had just wanted to question you.  You’ve left a long trail of bodies behind you, Mr. O’Sullivan.  I wanted to make sure you, Jacob O’Sullivan the Indian fighter, Jacob O’Sullivan the Union buster, weren’t now Jacob O’Sullivan, Guild operative.  But you had to kill my men.  That’s something I can’t allow.”

              “I gave the fair warning.  They knew what was coming.”

              “Mr. Langston.”

              Howard’s fist shot out, breaking Jacob’s nose.  He could feel the blood rushing down his face, but there was nothing he could do.

              “Who do you work for, Mr. O’Sullivan?”

              “We’ll start at his feet, Mr. Langston.  One toe at a time, if you please.”

              Jacob kicked out as one of Howard’s robotic arms reached out to grab his feet.  As the giant creature began to remove his boot, a loud BANG and a thick cloud of smoke appeared in their midst, completely covering everyone from view.  Jacob felt his feet fall to the ground.  The chains around his wrists came loose, his arm was thrown around a shoulder and he was half walked, half drug from the room, coughing uncontrollably.  A door was thrown open, even the air of Malifaux seeming sweet after the cloud of smoke inside.

              Jacob looked to the side at his rescuer.  Cassandra stood with him, his arm around her shoulder.  She had changed into a much more utilitarian outfit, her mouth and nose covered by a bandana.  A large sword was slung over her shoulder.  She led him around the corner.  Jacob stopped in his tracks, eyes wide. 

A mechanical horse awaited them, all steel and chrome.  Steam shot out of its nostrils as it pounded the ground, impatient to run.  Cassandra leapt aboard the horse, motioning for him to follow.

              “Quickly!  We don’t have much time, Jacob!”

Jacob shook his amazement and leapt up behind her.  The horse reared up on its hind legs and took off.  Jacob held onto Cassandra for dear life, the mechanical horse galloping far faster than any cavalry stallion he had ridden.

 

***

 

Jacob and Cassandra sat around a small table, drinking black coffee and eating stale biscuits.  Cassandra had taken them to a safehouse owned by Colette on the outskirts of the Slums. 

              “None of the rest of the Arcanists know about this place.  We’ll be safe here for a few hours,” she had said.

              He looked a wreck.  His nose was flattened and both eyes were rimmed black.  She had set his nose but that was all either of them had been able to do with no medical supplies available.

              “I haven’t said thank you yet,” he said.

              “Don’t thank me.  I got you into that mess.”

              “You got me out.  That’s all I care about.”

              “I’m sorry Jacob.  I couldn’t let you kill Joss.  Colette will take care of this mess, but if you had killed us she wouldn’t have been able to smooth things over with Ramos.”

              “Please, Cassy.  Don’t apologize to me.  I deserved every bit of it.”

              They sat in silence, sipping their coffee.

              “It was true,” Jacob said.  “Everything Joss said about me.  I fought in the Indian Wars.  I killed hundreds.  I killed more than my share of braves, and hunted down the women and children and braves too old to fight.  After I was honorably discharged I wandered aimlessly.  Ended up in New York City and was recruited by the Pinkertons.  I had done so much I had no qualms taking whatever work they threw to me.  I am an evil man, Cassy.  I will come to a bloody end and I will burn in hell.  But in the meantime, my sister.  If I can save her, if I can get her out of this hellhole…”

              He stopped.  His hands shake.  A solitary tear runs down his cheek.

              “What will you do when you find her?” Cassandra asked.

              “I’ll take her home.  Pa’s dead.  For some reason he left the farm in my name.  I’ll take her back there and maybe we can both find some peace.”  He looks down at the Peacebringer at his side.  “I’ll hang this up for good.”

              Cassandra walked over to the window and looked out.  The sun was rising over the rooftops.

              “Sun’s coming up.  Let’s go find your sister.”

 

***

 

              Jacob was in a rage.  The brothel was wreck.  Cassandra ushered the whores from the building and away from Jacob’s wrath.  Two men lay dead across the bar, smoke rising from bullet holes in their heads and chests.  A third clutched at the hole in his stomach.  Jacob knelt over a fourth, carving him to ribbons with his knife.

Jacob stood, covered in blood, and walked up to the gut shot man.  He reloaded his pistol and pulled back the hammer.

              “The woman with the rose tattoo!  Tell me where she is and I will put a bullet in your brain!  Don’t, and I will leave you here to die slow!”

              The man screamed at him in a language he couldn’t understand.  Jacob pulled the trigger.  The hole in the man’s stomach widened.

              “Where is she?”

              “Jacob.”

              He fired again and again.

              “Where is my sister you son of a bitch?!”

              “Jacob!”

              Jacob turns.  Cassandra stands in the doorway, tears running down her face.

              “Jacob… One of the girls… she told me… Prim’s dead.  She died of fever two weeks ago.”

              Jacob’s world spun.  The throbbing of blood echoed in his ears.  There would be no peace for him now.  He pulled the trigger again.

 

***

              Jacob and Cassandra walked into an unkempt cemetery.  The graves were all marked with wooden headstones, most rotting away.  They searched for the plot the whore had told Cassandra about, and after an eternity of searching the found it.  There was the wooden cross, the name Primrose crudely painted on its face.  But the grave was dug wide open.

              Jacob looked down horrified at the gaping hole.  He collapsed to his knees and screamed in agony.  Cassandra knelt beside him and put her arms around him, tears streaking her own face.  She rocked him gently and Jacob wept.  He wept for all the years of blood.  He wept for all the sleepless nights.  He wept for all the evil piled on his conscience, for all the lives he had ended or ruined.  And he wept for the sister he had left.  He wept for the life she never had, for the horrors she endured, and for the peace he could never give her. 

              A groan came echoed across the cemetery.  Jacob looked up and through his tears he saw a figure shuffling towards them.  It was a woman, a dirt covered dress slipping from her pale shoulders.  She woman groaned loud and long, shuffling ever closer.

              Cassandra saw her too and stood quickly to her feet.

              “Oh no.  Oh please god no.”

              Jacob stood slowly and stared long and hard at the approaching woman.  She stepped into a shaft of moonlight and Jacob stumbled back, crying out incoherently. 

              The woman was dead and decomposing, pale flesh barely holding onto her bones.  She wore a whore’s dress, revealing more than it hid, and there, above her left breast, diretly over her heart, was a tattoo of a rose.  Jacob tried to scream, but no sound came.  The woman lifted her head.  Living eyes stared at him.  They widened in shock, stared deep into him. 

Katie screamed and shuffled faster and faster towards Jacob.  Her eyes recognized him, but her mouth opened wide to feed.  Jacob raised his pistol, but couldn’t fire.  His hand shook so hard he dropped his gun.  Katie was on top of him, screaming for flesh, her face inches from his own, their eyes locked.  The point of a sword stuck out through her mouth.  She died again, staring into Jacob’s eyes.

More groans were coming, but Jacob ignored them.  Cassandra pulled the body off Jacob and pulled him to his feet.  Their horse was waiting on the edge of the cemetery and she rushed them towards it.  She mounted up and pulled Jacob up behind her.  He stared at the corpse of his sister as they rode of.

 

***

 

Thirteen months later…

              The house was ablaze.  It would be a miracle if the entire neighborhood didn’t catch fire.  Lady Justice stood outside, reveling in the heat on her face.  The house had been full of Resurrectionists, perhaps the entire neighborhood.  Let it burn then.  Her Death Marshalls were busy going door to door, rounding up the populace for questioning.  It had been a good year for the hunt.

              A blue flame appeared in the midst of the inferno, and from the house’s front door stepped a lone Death Marshall.  His coat was aflame but he ignored it.  He walked up to Lady Justice and threw down his coffin.  The blade of his Peacebringer dripped with gore.

              “Seamus wasn’t there, my lady.”

              Lady Justice nodded.

              “We will find him soon, never you worry.  The rats only have so many places to hide.”

              “And when we do, he is mine.”

              Lady Justice reached out and caressed the Death Marshall’s skull.

              “Of course.  It shall be your reward, for all the work you have done.  With you by my side, we will end the Resurrectionist cult once and for all.”

              The Death Marshall slid his pistol into the holster on his side.

              “None of them are safe, my lady.  I will kill every last one of them.”

              Lady Justice reached down and ran a finger over the handle of the Marshall’s pistol.  On the handle sits a carving of a rose.

              “I know you will, Jacob.  I know you will.”

 

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don't know why my font is all jacked up on my story  I guess its because I copied and pasted...sorry I strained everyone's eyes ><

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7 minutes ago, sado2020 said:

don't know why my font is all jacked up on my story  I guess its because I copied and pasted...sorry I strained everyone's eyes ><

LOL, I had the same problem. You can go in and edit it.

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Wow!  22 entries?!  That's amazing!  Well done everyone!  Now that the writing's finished, I'm excited to start reading all of them.

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11 minutes ago, sado2020 said:

don't know why my font is all jacked up on my story  I guess its because I copied and pasted...sorry I strained everyone's eyes ><

Give it a glance to make sure nothings missing, but it should be all fixed now. 

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On ‎3‎/‎16‎/‎2017 at 8:33 AM, Lindsey said:

Give it a glance to make sure nothings missing, but it should be all fixed now. 

thanks so much!

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Any word on when we'll find out who won, or do we just wait and find out with a big reveal in Chronicles?  There are so many good stories, I don't envy the decision-makers!

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On 4/3/2017 at 6:35 AM, Haunter said:

Any word on when we'll find out who won, or do we just wait and find out with a big reveal in Chronicles?  There are so many good stories, I don't envy the decision-makers!

 

Oh, if you won the contest they'd have contacted you by now. I'm guessing it wasn't me, unfortunately. I'm going to guess it's the first story, since it follows the 2nd-person format and uses known characters.

 

Of course, I'd love to be told I'm wrong.

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15 minutes ago, clintslayter said:

 

Oh, if you won the contest they'd have contacted you by now. I'm guessing it wasn't me, unfortunately. I'm going to guess it's the first story, since it follows the 2nd-person format and uses known characters.

 

Of course, I'd love to be told I'm wrong.

 

No one's contacted me about anything, and it wasn't mentioned in the newest Chronicler. I'd say the decision is still in the air. 

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Oh, I have little hope/expectation of winning, but I am still super curious to know who the champion is!  It was a cool contest, but it feels unfinished without crowning a winner.

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First, I want to thank everyone who took the time to submit stories! They were all enjoyable in their own ways, and everyone had interesting and engaging takes on the theme, which made deciding the prizewinner all that more difficult. 

We took some time to read through them all and discuss all of their unique qualities. It was certainly a challenge to decide!

After careful deliberation, we are proud to announce that the winner of the Storied Soundtracks Contest is @hungryp for his In the Flesh story. Congratulations!

We will be handing out the prizes in the forthcoming weeks.

In the meantime, if you haven't already, take some time to read the submissions! We've got some great writers in our community!

 

 

 

 

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I'm honoured! This was a fun story to write, and to read the entries for. Great work everyone!

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Congrats Hungryp!  An impressive win!

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Yes, Congratulations Hungryp!!!  And thanks

Wyrd for the opportunity!

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