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Aaron

Storied Soundtracks

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I'm on it!

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

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

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In a Rose Tattoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-No.

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

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

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

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

Leeroy Carter.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another sun, another scrip.

 

*

 

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

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

He loved Malifaux. Life had such meaning here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

Who had done this to him?

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

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

A gunshot rang out.

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

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

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

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

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

Glaring with very human anger.

Seamus paused. That wasn’t righ-

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

Through the Breach, through the fog and gloom.

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait. An idea occurred. Yes, yes!

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

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

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

 

*rolls up sleeves*

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

 

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

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Storied Soundtracks: Signed and Sealed

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

Eight Months Previous

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain!” he shouted. She turned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Edited by Kaladin_Stormblessed
Story Added!

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

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A Rose for every Name

 

 

5:30 am, Tuesday

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

7:15 am, Wednesday

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

5:20 pm, Wednesday

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

3.25 am, Thursday

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Never Forget

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Ready,” he said.

 

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

 

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

 

“You heard me.”

 

“Of course.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Loyally yours, Liam Burke.”

 

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

 

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

*****

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

They saluted, “Sergeant.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

*****

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“The man you killed was his son.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Fifty.”

 

“One hundred.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“You won’t get a cut.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“So what’s the plan?” He asked.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Not faster than a bullet,” I said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

*****

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I nodded.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Rhetorical,” I apologized.

 

“How many will there be after tomorrow?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What’s wrong with you?”

 

“Me?” I sat up straighter.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

*****

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What?” Four hours early, the bastard.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Without firing a shot?” She said.

 

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

 

“Not since I’ve known you,”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“A lover?” I said.

 

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

 

“Get on with it!” The Barber called.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“We’re fine,” I said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“But you won’t,” Lawrence said.

 

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

 

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

*****

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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The Brothers Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoffman’s face turned from angst to anguish.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are all my constructs!” Hoffman shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Silent Lady

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Harl turned around and got lost in crowd.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 -What the hell? -he thought.

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

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

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

So he slowly put his gloved hand at the bar.

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

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

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

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

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

- He got rose tattoo on his left palm-

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

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

 

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

 

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

 - This is what Malifaux do to people-.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Bartender winked at him and moved closer.

- So, you are looking for someone?-

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

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

Ganmar squinted at bartender.

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

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

 

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

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

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

- What do you want?-

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