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SheepDip
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Hello Wyrdos.

 

I done did a writing. Hopefully it is enjoyable. I wanted it to be more subtle than it is, but I think that's something that will come with practice. Its also written in UK English, so hopefully that explains any spelling mistakes - other than me just being an idiot. Criticism, helpful or otherwise, is welcome.

 

I suppose a trigger warning might be useful - this story involves two parties grieving over a loved one.

 

A Bad Day. 

 

The bomb was simple. Smooth. Beautiful. A pressurized gas cylinder, igniter and a modern piece of clockwork for the timer. The man stroked its cool metal. He loved it.

Only an hour of labour had been needed. The bomb had come together as if it had wanted to be built. Perhaps it had.

If only I could watch you grow, he thought. If only I could watch you die. If I sat here and waited, listening to your little breaths of life, until you made that final gasp... What would it be like to witness an explosion from the inside?

Moving slowly, so that he would make no noise, the bomb maker lifted open the piano’s lid and slipped his little bundle of high yield explosives deep inside the instrument. His finger lingered on the timer, stroking it as a parent might a new-born’s cheek.

Above the bar, higher up than the bottle packed shelves, the clock ticked. The bomb maker watched the second hand and listened to his heat-beat.

One, Two, Three.

Buh-bum, buh-bum, buh-bum.

He had to be delicate. If he messed this up then he would send too much power into his bomb and it would scream, showing him how powerful it really was.

Four, Five, Six.

Bahbum, bahbum, bahbum.

It would be beautiful. The rush of colliding gas, the chemical reaction, the fire, the power, the r-

Calm, he told himself. Be calm. Wait. You have a task to perform.

He relaxed his breathing and his heart slowed. The seconds ticked away and, as the clock struck four, the bomb maker reached inside himself and touched the thing that had been with him ever since he travelled through the Breach.

The divine. A spark of god, nestled in his breast.

It was right that he pass it to his child. It tingled its way down his arm and through his finger, electric magic bringing the mind of the bomb to life. It began to tick in time with the clock on the wall, a child copying its older sibling, two brothers laughing together at some shared secret.

The bomb maker closed the piano, muffling his son. If he listened for it, he could hear the second tick through the thick wood of the piano. The tick danced around the tavern room, behind the bottles and glasses on the shelf behind the bar, beneath the card tables, over the corner booths and through the upper mezzanine. It ticked in the quiet darkness, the sound of a child at play.

Tick… tick…

No one would disturb his child, not for sixteen hours. Everyone knew the piano didn’t work.

Morning was still a distant promise, the inconsistent night of Malifaux city yet to be warmed by the sun.

Enough life for sixteen hours. He had done his part. The rest was up to the others, all their messy plans and intrigues, so over stuffed and convoluted that it was a wonder that they had worked so far. Luck would run out.

Just like my child’s life.

My child will live and die, the bomb maker thought, so that a legend will burn.

 

***

 

Leopold von Schill had ink on the fingers of his gloves. The paper was smudged with the stuff, and his glass was dirty. Mercifully, his pen had broken.

He swallowed another mouthful of cheap vodka and focused on what he had written.

Cao Lin.

That was all. It seemed both a monumental achievement and a total failure.

Back at the safe house, Hannah and the other members of the squad were waiting. Or perhaps they were grieving in their own way. She had seen how the death affected him, offering to stay in position whilst he took the heartbroken to drown their sorrows.

Olivar, Anastasia, Arik and he had sat together at first, each one stripped of their gear. It was odd looking at his soldiers’ faces, as if the tight fitting glass goggles and leather masks they normally wore were their real features, and the shaved heads, awkward tan lines and puffy eyes were a disguise they hid beneath. It felt strange not to carry the weight of their armour, and the discomfort showed in all their faces. In battle, training and operations -tick- they were a tight and easy brotherhood, but without their equipment they all felt unworthy of each other, as if they did not measure up.

So they concentrated on drinking. The barman was content to ferry bottles and glasses to them at regular intervals, the fat purse Von Schill had tossed him earlier more than enough to support the drinkers for the rest of the evening. Patrons occasionally sent suspicious looks their way, but were content to contain themselves and not interfere. The tavern was as quiet as the street outside, and that seemed to suit everybody. This part of Malifaux was rarely host to noise and fuss. The placid nature of the district was the reason they had a safe house here.

This wasn’t a proper send off. There would be one when they left the city and returned to Frieholt, but this was an ugly little thing, the grief of friends rather than the dignified gathering of professionals. A grave would be dug, despite the fact that… well, a grave would be dug and Cao Lin’s rose would be taken from its place in the Living Garden and planted in place of a head stone as was the tradition. It would grow proudly alongside the others, and the graveyard would be thick with those willing to tend it.

Arik had taken himself off first, after the clock above the bar had chimed a quarter past seven. He had stood, making polite excuses and left their table, climbing the stairs past the broken piano, and sitting alone on the mezzanine, content to drink a bottle of very fine cognac alone. Arik had taken it the hardest. He had been right next to Cao Lin after all, both in life and in death.

Von Schill had remained with Anastasia -tick- and Olivar until he had made his way to a corner booth under the pretext of writing the condolence letter. They had watched him go, and he felt their pity, but also their understanding. Then, Olivar’s bulldog smile had returned to Anastasia and she, charmed at being considered pretty, allowed him to flirt with her. It was their routine, and Von Schill would not deny them their coping mechanism.

He refilled his glass.

The letter never got easier. He had written many over the years and they all followed the same hatefully brief format; a short and concise list of honours, a summary of the final moments, all blandly worded, and then his regrets and septic feeling condolences. It was always to the point. He was afraid that if he said more he would never stop.

Words never seemed to be enough. Words like Brave and Loyal always felt inadequate. How could simple words convey the feeling of a hand on your shoulder, the sound of laughter, the hot and angry sting of field triage accompanied by grim humour? There were so many things you wanted to put in the letters, but you never could. He came to us as a boy without purpose, and let us see that we were, in fact, a family.

“I join you, jeffe?”

A tobacco brown shadow dropped a fresh bottle on the table and slumped into the seat opposite. Through the tavern’s dim light and the effects of the vodka, Von Schill had the impression of a man, wiry with muscle, his skin like sun baked terracotta. He looked used to travel and hardship, his shape one of beaten down edges.

“I know you, eh?” The man said, shuffling along the booths seat until he sat directly opposite Von Schill.

At their table Anastasia and Olivar were moving, hands dipping inside their coats. Von Schill laced his fingers together, the movement quick and calm, watching them from the corner of his eye. They settled back down, the signal received.

The man grinned, but his eyes were tired. He smoothed out his coal black moustache, running a hand through his long hair. He wore a heavy dust stained coat of layered cotton and leather, the edges tattered by hardship. Had the man wanted to, he could have concealed almost anything beneath it.

“A bad day, si? You bet on the wrong horse?”

“You ask a lot of questions,” Von Schill -tick- said. The man smelled of dust, but beyond the dust there was something else; gun oil.

“And you don’t answer them.”

The man uncorked his bottle, pouring a measure of dark rum into his glass.

“It is hot in here, friend. Why not remove that coat?” Von Schill did not take his hands from the table top. If he needed to go for the gun at his hip he would need to be quick and his opponent must not suspect him.

“I can see several who still wear theirs, amigo, talk to them first perhaps.”

The man finished his drink, pouring another. Von Schill did likewise.

“A lot happening today, si?”

At the bar, the wood slick with spilled whiskey, a big man began to cry. A younger man laid a hand on his arm.

“A family gathering it would seem,” Von Schill said. “Senior Ortega.”

The man showed his teeth in something that wasn’t quite a smile.

“Senior Ortega is my papi. Just call me Francisco, Herr Schill.”

They drank and Francisco refilled both of their glasses.

“I cannot say that I have ever taken to rum,” Von Schill said, watching the liquid slosh into his glass. He raised it to eye level and turned it to catch the light. “It is made using molasses, which is a bi-product of sugar production. Malifaux has yet to safely acquire access to high yield sugar plantations, so barrels of it come through the Breach every day, filling the store rooms of would-be brewers and moonshiners.”

“I like it. It comes through raw, then it gets here and is turned into something special.” Francisco drank down his glass.

“Yes,” Von Schill said, “I can see why you would.” He -tick- tossed the rum back, rolling the oily liquid over his tongue before swallowing. “Too sweet. A betrüger, a tryhards drink. Vodka,” he said refilling his own glass and Francisco’s, “is better.”

The other man downed the vodka and made a face.

“Bland. Strong, but bland. You have to add something to it to make it worthwhile.”

“We are very different people it would seem.”

“But you and I understand each other, si?”

“That depends on what you want me to understand.”

Francisco scowled.

“I came to the city for one thing,” he growled. “And it don’t involve you. Can you say the same?”

The big man at the bar began to sing something loud and bawdy in Spanish. His voice was booming and saw toothed. Every head in the room turned to watch as he sang with tears in his eyes. He slammed huge hands down on the bar, his song becoming a rough thing that reminded Von Schill of gutters filled with blood. He swaggered along the bar, his behaviour daring a confrontation from the other patrons.

“Santiago is a conspicuous man at the best of times,” Von Schill said. Overhead the floor of the mezzanine creaked as Arik Schöttemer’s heavy tread made tiny puffs of dust tumble through the boards.

Francisco’s eyes narrowed.

“He’s not the only one, amigo.”

“Your brother is causing a scene.”

“Go tell him that.”

The barman moved a bottle away from the big Mexican’s flailing hand, and Santiago rounded on him, slurring through wet lips that the man was trying to poison him. He took the drink of a well-dressed business man and downed it in one, belching loudly and slumping down on his seat. He mumbled a few more bars of his song before he turned his back on the room -tick- again.

Von Schill could not help but notice how Olivar’s hand slowly moved away from the hidden gun inside his coat. He realised that his own had begun to inch towards his holster.

“Important to protect yourself from drunks, isn’t it?” Francisco’s voice had the same raw edge to it as Santiago’s. His shoulders moved as he breathed and one hand had dropped below the table. Von Schill waited for the click of a pistol hammer.

“Important to protect yourself from everything,” he said, spreading both palms on the table. He held the Ortega’s gaze steadily. “But tonight,” he said the words very carefully, “there is no need.”

Francisco watched him warily for a moment before he picked up Von Schill’s vodka in one hand and his rum in the other, clinking the two bottles together.

“A quiet night,” he said, refilling his glass with vodka, Von Schill’s with rum, “after a bad day. Tonight, I do not carry a badge, and you are not a mercenary. I am sorry for my anger. My brother is looking for… how you say? A distraction.”

Von Schill nodded and drank.

“Was it you?” Francisco asked. “Up past the plaza by the barracks?”

“You said you were off duty.”

The man -tick- smiled.

“I carry the ram, but I am not the ram, si? You a fighter, I think I saw your work, that’s all. One fighter to another, si?”

“Yes. That was us.”

“Modesty. Lot of dead bodies and a hole in the Quarantine Zone half a mile across. You don’t mess about.”

Von Schill looked away. The fingers of his left hand, still dark with ink, played with the glove that covered the expensive cogwork of his right. Francisco caught the movement and he glanced at the paper on the table.

“You lost someone?”

“Yes.”

“You writing the letter?”

“Yes.”

Francisco nodded.

“The words are not enough, are they? All grey, ceniza, when compared to the real thing. I know a journalist, and she can make words dance, but even she can’t get it right for things like this. A mamma and papa need more than He Was A Brave Soldier, And A Good Boy.

“He was brave.”

“I know he was, amigo. He’s a man that the Friekorps weep over. He was more than brave, I think.” Francisco squinted at the page in front of Von Schill. “Cao Lin? Not a name I would associate with your outfit.”

Von Schill coughed and -tick- drank.

“The Korps does not care what you are, simply who you are.”

“You hide it well.”

“We wear masks for a reason.”

“Not you though. You let people know it is you they fight, si? So that they know they face the Von Schill, el jeffe himself? You try to frighten them?”

“Am I that ugly?”

Francisco barked out laughter.

“Like an iron trap,” he chortled. “No give in you, not at all.” He drank more and refilled his glass. “So why was a man from the Three Kingdoms working for you?”

“The same reason anyone works for me.”

“The good pay, or do they enjoy wet work?”

The look Von Schill gave Francisco made the Ortega flinch.

“Something like that.”

The two men did not look away from each other. They did not move or speak. At their table, Olivar and Anastasia began to stand, ready to get to their commander’s side.

Francisco refilled his drink, then Von Schill’s.

“We are being friendly, amigo,” he said. “I am not looking for a fight, not today and, if I drink enough of this disgusting vodka of yours, then hopefully not tomorrow either.”

“Understood.”

They sat in silence together, Anastasia and Olivar sinking -tick- back to their table.

“I think I may owe you an apology,” Von Schill said. “I have no desire to be rude. The day has been trying.”

“There will be an even bigger bounty on your head in the morning. Dashel Barker is going to burn the city looking for you.” Francisco grinned. “But you’ll have cut and run by then, yes? Off to your secret base in the Badlands, I am thinking.”

At the bar Santiago began to sing again. This time it was a slow lament, sung for the dead and the lost, for friends and loved ones passed. He sung it well, as if he was making the effort for someone else. A young man, barely more than a teenager, sat with his head in his hands behind Santiago, looking for all the world like a boy grown up too fast. Francisco squeezed his eyes shut and clasped his hands together for a long moment. The song went on, ending on a low note, and Santiago dropped back down to his stool. He seemed smaller than he had before, made lesser by the weight of grief.

“It is not easy to lose someone,” Von Schill said. If the -tick- vodka and grief had not clouded his mind he would have noticed earlier. Santiago might not have been able to conceal his feelings, sober or not, but Francisco was another matter.

The Ortega nodded, but said nothing.

“Who?”

“Naro. My cousin’s little niño. He wanted to come with us, he wanted to see the city, si? Hid in the wagon when we rode out from Latigo. Abuela, she cuss the niño’s out for trying to get out of the ranch, but Naro, he kept trying. He was Ortega down to his bones. It was only a matter of time.”

Francisco -tick- rubbed his eyes.

“Santiago knew. He thought it was funny. It was a trip to the city to get supplies. Perdita wanted more ammunition for the ranchers and more grain for the animals. Half way down the Black Road, Santiago turns to me and he says, ‘I Smell Trouble’, and we all draw our guns and circle the wagon. He has us shitting our britches for twenty minutes before he starts laughing and pulls Naro from his hiding place.”

Von Schill reached into the pocket of his shirt, taking out his cigar case. Wordlessly he lit two and passed -tick- one to Francisco.

“We get to Malifaux and Naro wants to see everything. He runs and looks and laughs and plays and then, choque, gets hit by a horse. Dead. Just like that. You know, his mamma spent all her money to come through the Breach. She came for a better life. We give her this.”

Santiago stood up. Like a ship rolling over bad waves, he lurched towards Francisco, knocking over patrons as he came. A card table went over and the big man shoved his way across the room. He tripped on a chair, sprawling into the table Anastasia and Olivar occupied. He got to his feet, snarled something and threw a punch straight at Olivar, knocking the Friekorps to his knees. Anastasia drew her knife, the blade leaping out to slash –

“Halt!”

Von Schill surged up from his booth and twisted the -tick- knife from Anastasia’s hand.

“Stand down,” he hissed. Behind him, Olivar stood, rubbing his jaw. Santiago balled his fists, a drunk grin spreading across face.

Tres contra uno? Si, come on then cabrones.”

Von Schill was aware of the room around him. Francisco was on his feet, ready to help his brother. On the mezzanine above, Arik was watching. Patrons were drawing away from them, the barman reaching below the cash register.

“It was an accident. No harm done,” he said, offering the big man his hand to shake. Santiago looked at it, the gleeful anger turning to confusion, until -tick- Francisco barked something at him in rapid Spanish, and he guiltily shook Von Schill’s hand. But his face still wore a puzzled look. Drink made his lips slack and his gaze unfocused, but he studied Von Schill with all the intensity a drunk could muster.

Se quien eres…

Francisco -tick- cursed, and Santiago shook his head, the fury rising in his eyes, his fists bunching.

Se quien eres! Es tu culpa, bastardo!” He bellowed, grabbing for the monstrous pistol at his hip. The gun came up, pointed at Von Schill’s face, only to be knocked out of his hand by -tick- Francisco.

“Forgive my brother,” the Ortega shouted, doing his best to restrain Santiago, “he doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

Es tu culpa! Lo sé, lo hiciste, lo mataste. Scum, mercenary scum! Who paid you to kill a little niño? Answer me, bastardo, coward!” Breaking free of his brother’s grip, Santiago surged -tick- forward, slamming a fist into Von Schill’s face, and bringing a knee up into his stomach. He was then smashed off his feet as Arik Schöttemer, leaping from the mezzanine, hit him with a punch that the entire room felt.

Patrons were already beginning to run. The barman pulled a -tick- shotgun from below the cash register. Derringers and Collier pistols were drawn, knives came out and suddenly the angry clack of cogwork pistols firing tore through the tavern.

As he dived for cover, Von Schill saw Francisco Ortega, his hand pressed to his belly, a bloody red stain spreading across -tick- his coat. Their eyes met and wordless apologies flowed between them in that moment, each ashamed of what had happened, each bearing the guilt of what was about to happen.

Von Schill surged upright, hauling Arik off Santiago, dragging his people back towards the rear door.

Then the world exploded.

 

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