Get your share of Cord’s booty!

The rules are simple:

Find the most pop-culture/movie/TV/comic/book references in River of Thieves, and win a little bit of what Cord’s kept stashed away.

  • 1st: $40 Amazon gift card
  • 2nd: $30 Amazon gift card
  • 3rd: $15 Amazon gift card

To enter:

Share this post, then send your entry to nodauthor@gmail.com by August 20th, 2019. The winner will be chosen from all entries. As Cord would say: “If you don’t try, how will anyone know you failed?”

Now come on, and get a piece of Cord’s booty.

You can get River of Thieves at Amazon

The Memory of Bones

Death waited patiently, a stone at the bottom of the sea. The when did not matter to Os. Only the where. He stared out the window set above the kitchen basin, hands wrist-deep in water he’d drawn from the well and warmed in a kettle. The few dishes he owned soaked in the steaming water, forgotten for the moment. Beyond the window, a green field interweaved with white and yellow waved in a gentle breeze. Heads of baby’s breath and wildflower nodded as if in agreement to the whisper of the wind. Beyond that, rolling hills, the river running to the sea, and cities, cities of wood and stone and now, silence.

He looked down at the water, at his own reflection in broken circles rippling out with the movement of his hands. Craggy features, dark circles under the eyes, hair shorn close. He had never been a handsome man, not that it mattered. But he’d had a family, and that did. They were dead now, like everyone else. He looked down again, and pulled his hands from the water, shaking them off, then drying them on a nearby rag. He gave the plates beneath a scowl. He wasn’t sure why he still did this. No one would visit. No one would peek in through a window and remark to their neighbor on Os’ cleanliness.

Os stared through the open window for a minute more. He listened to his own breathing in the silence. Most days were like that now. A preternatural stillness that cloaked the world like a blanket. On good days, the wind stirred the leaves and the rushes and lent a lifelike ripple around him. On bad, it seemed the quiet crept inside Os, like a wedge in a stump, splitting his skull open from the inside. He’d tried to fill that absence, once. But he could only sing the same songs, talk to himself for so long before he felt it futile. Now, despite the silence, the idea of using his voice frightened him, as if the sound would do the inverse of his fear, and split the outside world.

He took one more deep breath, and with its exhale, made a decision. It was a thought that weighed on him daily, a question without an answer. Another voice in his head, a song he caught only when he turned this way or that. Music from another room. He turned from the open window and walked through the house, fingers lingering on objects as he passed. Luc’s pitcher of dried wildflowers, the petals withered and sere. He heard voices echo in the caverns of time. He smiled at the memory.

“Why?” he’d asked.

“The smells,” Luc had replied.

“What smells?”

Luc gestured in vague circles that took in their home. “The smells. The onion and the sausage and the-” he pointed at Os’ boots. “Those.”

Os held his hands up in a gesture of defeat. “Fine. Fine.”

The memory faded and Os looked down at the pitcher again. He remembered how they’d not kept the stink of rot from his doorstep, and shook his head. He walked past, into the front room. El’s toy, a carved lion, lay on its side on the floor. He knelt and picked it up. In his mind, the light shifted, bright through yellow curtains.

“She needs a toy,” Luc had said.

The child they’d taken in played on the floor, two rocks tied with bright string in her fists, making voices for each that approximated his and Luc’s. Os knelt beside her.

“El.”

She looked up, smiling, and reached for his cheeks. He chuckled and lifted her, cradling her and tickling her ribs. She burst out in laughter that hit the walls and came back to him like a wave of joy.

“Seems she has a toy already,” Os said.

Luc fixed him with his no-budge stare. “A toy, Os. Or I will find her a cat.”

“A cat?” Os made a face.

The sunlight faded, back to the hazy light he’d grown used to. He straightened, leaving the toy on its side. It only cost him a few pennies to commission, but El delighted in it. He stared around the room, at the overstuffed couch, the end tables, the books and the blankets. Os walked to an alcove beside the front door and rummaged around for a minute. His fingers closed on a scabbard, withdrawing the long knife. His chest tightened, and then he tied it to his belt. He knew he wouldn’t need it for but one purpose. He opened the door to the summer day and stepped out.

*

The wind was clean, a small miracle Os found himself grateful for. In the early days after the Chant, bodies rotted in the sun, in their homes, in the fields. The Chant. Os found himself cursing the magi who dreamed it up. An end to war. An end to strife. What they forgot in their working was that life needed to struggle, to fight against entropy, to survive. When they cast it, it broke that will. Men and women, bird and beast simply laid down, and stopped living.

Some, like Os, survived. Either their will overpowered the magic, or they were one of the rare immune. But inevitably, the loneliness caught up to them, and they went the way of friends and family. Blade or poison or rope or the opening of veins, the method mattered not, only the result. Some banded together, survivors clinging to survivors like clotted blood. In the end though, they all fell. Memory and emotion were powerful drugs, and under their influence, even the strongest could break into a shambles.

The path crunched beneath his boots, breaking the silence into mercifully small parcels. Glimpses of white flashed between the grasses, and Os turned his head, facing down the path. Had there still been birds, he imagined his passage would have disturbed their pickings. Instead, bone and cloth bundles lay undisturbed in the long grasses of the fields, tools rusting in fallow soil. The glint of sun on steel drew his gaze, and he flicked a glance over to an abandoned plow, harness and leads drooping. The sight drew out the memory of Onder’s pride in the tool.

“Twice as many acres in half the time,” Onder had said.

“Yeah?” Os replied. “Anneia will be happy to hear that, I expect.”

Onder bobbed his head. He wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead with a rag stained white at the edges with salt. “Aye, she’s been wanting more time.”

Os thought of Luc and El with a twinge of guilt. His pension was plenty for them live on. It kept them fed, kept the roof over their head. Time spent with family was valuable coin, coin he had to spare in those days. He thought it would last, like coffers spilling over with gold. He’d had all he needed. At least, he’d thought. The memory faded, and Os glanced behind him. The roof of his cottage peeked from behind the crest of a hill. Orange tiles reflected the sun like a knife meant for his heart but striking his eyes. He blinked away the glare and the moisture that threatened to spill the cup of his eyelids, then hitched his belt and moved on.

The cottage and the plow disappeared from view as Os made his way down the country road. The grasses grew taller, and by the time his path crossed that of the Imperium Way, they waved above his head like dying arms reaching for the memory of light. Summers past, they never would have been allowed to grow so unruly, the Imperium stoic in its pursuit of order, slow and implacable. The will of man over that of nature. Mow and tame. Mow and tame. He supposed in a way, the engineers would be pleased. Not even the buzz of gnat, cry of crow, or rustle of field mouse marred the summer day.

Os wove his way between carts and wagons littering the road. Great skeletons still wore their harnesses, feet folded neatly beneath them, heads in restful repose. Drivers laid in the grass nearby, whips and crops and reins forgotten on wooden benches. He didn’t stop to look inside, ignored the human tug of curiosity brought on by canvas covering and folded curtain. He knew he’d only see that which already haunted him across the years. The wreckage of stolen lives held as much interest for him as the taste of blood in his mouth. Coppery and slick, like a penny hidden under the tongue.

The frame of a schoolhouse rose to his right, and unbidden, the image of El, sweeping from its doors as the bell in the steeple rang. Luc snapping her up in his long slender arms, spinning, their laughter filling the air. Her smile, bright as a summer tulip, blazed in Os’ mind. His limbs trembled, his legs threatened to spill him to his knees. His vision doubled, and for a moment, he nearly let it happen. The thought of hard gravel digging into his skin, drawing blood, drawing perhaps shame or anger at his loss of control was welcome, if only briefly. He dashed the tears from his eyes with determined fingers, forced himself to move on. If he felt something other than the need to see an end to this, to meet his grief head on instead of at oblique angles, he might find himself in the grass and dirt instead.

Os made good time as he pushed his feelings down, parceling them up on a shelf in his mind. He would open them when ready, a gift he didn’t particularly want, but could not avoid. Ahead, the path diverged. Forward and down, the city in the valley. A necropolis now, but once it teemed with life. Great bazaars once flowed in the streets, living things of men and women, children shouting and running, streamers on sticks flying behind them as they wove between legs like foxes in a forest. Bright bunting and banners flew overhead, the stink of forge and tanner, smells of roast meat and vegetable and savory spice weaving between and infusing cloth like dye. Bread and sweetbreads baking, the aroma like the comfort of a warm blanket. Over it all, the press and swell and crush and scent of humanity, of bodies warm and joyous, sad and broken, bright flowers pushing their way between the cracked flagstones of the city.

It was where Os had taken his commission, to fight for the glory of the empire, though if he was truthful, it was to put food in his mouth and clothes on his back. A first step on a long road paved with blood and bone and sweat. He’d lived by the blade, but with all things, steel remained strong through the slow march of years while flesh faded. He hung up his blade, took his pension. For a while, he was content alone in that cottage in the hills. For a time, the call of cricket and sparrow and the song of wind through the wheat was enough to calm the ceaseless crash of body and metal in his head, to the slow the impetus of horror thrust into his youth like a knife in the ribs.

Then he’d heard Luc’s laughter in a tavern, bright and silver, brown eyes dancing with mirth. Not long after, he’d heard El’s, gold like her hair, heavy and rich, when Luc had coaxed her from an alley with a morsel of food and a coin danced across his knuckles. But even time tarnishes silver and gold, and only the memory of their bright shine remains.

Os found himself on the left-hand path. Already he had climbed halfway as memory played through his head. For a time, he listened to the wind brush against the slope of the rock like an insistent lover. He imagined he heard whispered promises in the susurrus, and shook his head to clear it. He’d heard the Chant described that way once, a whisper of a song, the tease of a memory of something better, brighter than this life of mud and misery. Briefly he wondered if he heard it now. Would he know? Did it matter?

He crested the rise and stepped to the edge of the promontory of rock. Below, a still world. A lover holding its breath. A wave poised at its crest. He saw to the reaches of the land. Tall grasses of the plains, a sparkling rill of silver cutting through green and gold like a steel ribbon. The skeletons of airships furrowed the grass like rocks thrown by a petulant child, their magics stilled, their crew silent. Beyond that, the forest, the wolves voiceless, and beyond the forest, something between both until the land ran to the sea, a sliver of blue that snapped at the horizon like a hungry dog.

Os used to bring them here, Luc standing fearlessly at the edge, El behind his legs, clutching at the fabric. The wind blew, tousling hair and clothing, and Os lifted El so she could spread her arms, pretend she was flying, eyes bright with fear and joy at the prospect of soaring into a great blue nothing like the ships that drifted above.

An illusion. In the end, no one had flown. The Chant had taken them some time ago, leaving only bones in their place. Bones that had forgotten the trick of speech, the sound of laughter, forgotten the spell of flesh and warmth. Bones hold memories, but only for the living, Os thought.

He unbuckled the knife, drew it from the scabbard. The steel shone in the afternoon light. He pressed the blade into a fissure in the rock, letting it stand upright like a standard. In the end, steel always outlived flesh. He stepped to the edge and stood on tiptoes, then spread his arms as El once had. With a sigh that spoke of an exhaustion borne of a burden he had been given but never bought, he closed his eyes. The wind sang to him, and for a moment, he heard the bright chime of silver and gold.

Gobs, Hobs, and Gods

The fire blazed bright, a thing Crob did not like, but had little choice in. There were a lot of things he didn’t like out on the plain–the open sky, the burning sun, the stars hanging above like fiery stalactites. Each night he laid in his small roll and covered his head, sure that he wouldn’t wake, because one of the blazing things above would break free from its moorings and shatter the earth like a hob’s hammer.

Fucking hobs. It was their fault he was out here at all, instead of beneath cool stone. Instead of the soft glow of phosphorescent fungi, the painful glare of a campfire. Instead of the crush and press of his brothers and sisters, this space, all this fucking space where if you weren’t careful, if you weren’t watching every step, you might just fly upward. Or at least he imagined.

Or, thanks to the hobs, and here he spat into the dirt–a thick green gobbet of snot–thanks to the fucking hobs, men could do for you. Towering men, with their bright steel and their terrifying mounts. Their allies, thin and willowy, spun death from the air. And the thrice-godsdamned dwarves. Hairy little rockfuckers.

Not that there was much of a size disparity between gobs and dwarves, but Crob just hated them so much. The way you hate a cavemate who’s decided that shitting in the corner is good enough, or when a spider gets in your mouth at night. It was enough to make a gob shit in his hat.

He stomped over to the fire and tossed the rusty cleaver on his roll, then shed the armor he’d patched together from bits and pieces gathered over the years. Here, the bottom of a pot. There, a piece broken from some explorer’s helmet, hammered flat and riveted in place. He flopped on the ground and let out a sigh that sounded like a small bear clearing its throat.

“Eh?”

Tob gave him a look from the other side of the fire, the white hair from his long ears drooping nearly to the ground. The old gob had been fighting alongside the hobs for nigh on thirty years, and looked it. His green skin was a patchwork of scars. A piece of steel hammered into bone replaced one kneecap. His left ear was missing the tip, and one eye stared out from a milky caul.

“What’s your problem?” he asked.

“This is all shit, and you know it.”

Crob knew grousing to Tob probably wasn’t going to get him very far. The old-timers were proud of their service to the tribe.

“Yes, it is,” Tob replied.

Crob looked up, and the old gob held up a clawed finger.

“But not how you think,” he said.

Crob turned away from the fire, letting his eyes lose the bright afterimage of the flames. He looked out into the dark, shoulders roasting from the near heat. He shrugged.

“Not interested in a lesson.”

“Oh no?” The old gob laughed. “You know everything, do you? Been through the warren a few times?”

“I know more than you think,” Crob replied.

It was a lie. He knew very little, but he wouldn’t let this relic know that. Besides, he’d kissed another gob once. He’d almost even dropped spore with her. Tob’s laughter pulled him out of the memory of slick green skin, warts standing to attention like zipshrooms when you tickled their stalks.

“You don’t know shit,” Tob said.

Crob knew he wasn’t going to get any peace from the old timer unless he walked away or chopped him to little bits. And honestly, both seemed like more work than they were worth. He turned back and raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Okay, enlighten me.”

Tob cackled with glee and scooted a little, until he was closer to Crob’s shoulder. He leaned in and rubbed his hands together, warming them against the fire, though it wasn’t that cold. Crob waited impatiently, fingered the handle of his cleaver. He was considering how best to split the old gob’s skull when Tob spoke.

“You know why we fight?” Tob asked.

Crob sighed. “The hobs tell us to go, and we go, or we get the whip. Or the bucket.”

He shuddered in memory of the bucket. Still, the code of the gob conscript rolled off his tongue like rote. Which it was. The single lesson the hobs taught. Short and brutal, like everything they did. Tob shook his head.

“We fight because this–” the old gob spread his arms, “is ours. Every bit of it. Every stinking tree and shithouse, every tall castle and low cave. It’s ours, Crob, and it’s a sad day when the lowest gobs don’t know that any longer.”

“How d’ya figure? I say let the men and the elves have the tops and we’ll take the dark. I like the dark.”

“And the dwarves?”

“Fuck those hairy little shitscrapers. We’ll have them over spits.”

Tob’s wizened hand, still strong, came around and smacked Crob in the back of the head. “Look, fuckwit,” he said, “this is ours. And I’m gonna tell you why. Your momma should’ve told you, but I think we both know you were probably shit into a mushroom pile and abandoned.”

“Fuck you.”

“You ain’t got the spores,” the old gob said. “Now listen. Way back when, before there were talls and smalls and castle and marsh and fen and cave and plain, there weren’t nothin’. But there was Grubthak.”

“Who’s that?”

“Who’s–?” Tob interrupted his story long enough to sputter a small litany of outrage.

When he finished, silence fell. The fire crackled, and Tob stared at Gob from one yellowed eye. “Your generation,” he scoffed, “shits out the best parts of themselves each morning. Grubthak’s our god. And you’d do well to remember that.”

“Nah,” Crob said.

“Nah?”

“Don’t believe in gods. And if there were some, they’d only want sommat from us, like the hobs and the dwarves.”

“Look, you–” Tob took a deep breath. He muttered darkly under his breath and shook his head. “Anyway, before Grubthak, there were a couple of things. A serpent with a thousand heads. A woman made of flowers. Sentient meat. But as is the way of our people, Grubthak was hungry, and he ate those things. That left him, the void, and a powerful need to shit.

“So he did what all gobs do. He dug himself a hole, and he pushed. And he pushed. He strained for six days, grunting, sweating, and cursing. His curses became men and elves and dwarves. His sweat, the seas. And on the seventh day, with a mighty heave and a furious anger, he shit the world.”

“Into a hole?” Crob asked.

The old gob nodded. “This place is a ball of shit in a pit, and until we prove we’re worthy, we don’t get another one.”

“Seems like a fucked-up thing to want in the first place.”

Again Tob nodded. “The cursed ones wanted this ball of shit for themselves. They were born of anger and need, and those things still drive them. They drove us, the true things that passed from him, underground. Those that wouldn’t run, they killed. Those they couldn’t kill, they chained.”

“This is our world, gob,” and here Tob pounded his chest. “And we aim to take it back.”

“You’re clearly insane,” Crob replied.

Tob looked at him for a long moment, silence passing between them. Finally, the old gob let a disgusted sound, waved a dismissive hand, and slid back to the other side of the fire. Crob laid in his bedroll. For a while, he heard only the sounds of the camp bedding down for the night.

He stared at the stars until he couldn’t, then rolled to his side. Curiosity burned in him, and with one long yellowed claw, he scooped up a small portion of earth and tasted it.

Oh well, he thought. At least I’m not a rockfucker.

 

The Brown Note: A Cord & Nenn Short

Cord hung from the cargo netting we’d rigged into hammocks, upside down. His hair swept towards the floor in a hirsute halo. The boat was headed to Pike, a little town some miles north of the river proper, and it’d been a long couple of days. I shot the stocky thief a look that could have cut glass.

“I’m bored,” he said. He wiggled his eyebrows.

“You’ve got two options, then,” I said, settling back into the netting and cracking the book. Killer Queen. It was just getting good.

“Take over the boat and find the nearest brothel?”

“I mean you could fuck yourself. Or you could listen to me.”

“That’s hurtful,” he said.

“Not as hurtful as me stabbing you til you’re quiet for the rest of the ride.”

I’m not normally murderous towards the ones I love, but he’d been singing some infernal thing from the last port nonstop, and I was just about ready to sever his vocal cords for a short respite. Hey, I’m not a lunatic. He’d heal. He always healed. I wondered briefly if Cord would ever die, or if it would be just him, the cockroaches, and whatever syphilitic lunatic he’d picked for a partner at the end.

“Hey, just because I can’t die doesn’t mean I should. It hurts.”

“Baby.”

“Piss-britches.”

I blew out an exasperated breath. The time he hadn’t spent singing had been spent bitching, and barring ending him, I was almost ready to march above deck and declare my presence. Hopefully, the captain would take mercy and only have me flogged half to death.

“Entertain yourself.”

“I am,” he said. “Your face is redder than a baboon’s ass, and that is entertaining. Wow. Look at that vein. I’m gonna name it Axl.”

I chucked a knife at him, and he cringed as it hit the bulkhead, quivering in place. He climbed back into his hammock and fidgeted. A long sigh. I tried to ignore him and turned back to the book. The Queen was just getting ready to unlace her breeches. He sighed again, and I pictured him flying from the mainmast like a meat flag.

“What?” I asked.

“I need paper.”

I dug into my pack, coming up with paper and a pencil. I passed it up to him.

“I’m convinced your parents were from the same branch of the family tree,” I said.

“Thank you, Nenn,” he said sweetly.

I sat down and dug into my book again. I’d read maybe another ten pages before his head reappeared. He wore a grin, and one eyebrow cocked.

“Funt,” he said.

“What?”

“I decided to make my own curses. Listen: Slimp. Smuctating. Pimhole. Fardwark. Scrum. Clotpole. Wim. Frangilate. I’m quite proud of that one.”

“Okay, use even one of those in a sentence.”

His grin widened, and I knew I’d asked the wrong question.

“A fortnight ago I funted a slimpy little scribe. When we were done, he thanked me for the frangilation, and licked my wim.”

“Have you considered seeing a professional?” I asked.

“Have you considered wearing some shadow on your eyes? Just a little here–,” his fingers came up and swiped under his eye.

I chucked a second blade at him, and it sunk into his shoulder.

“You fardwarking clotpole!” he yelled, then promptly fell into the deck.

He pulled the short blade free with a pained grunt and handed it back to me. Somewhere above deck, a bell sounded, and the motion of the boat calmed.

“Hooray, Pike! Get some sleep,” he said. “We’ve got work tonight.”

“Okay, but trade me nets.”

“Why?”

“Until you stop bleeding, I don’t want it all over me.”

“You’re oddly fastidious for someone who stabs everyone.”

“This is my best shirt.”

“That is your only shirt.”

I climbed into the upper hammock and closed my eyes. After a moment, I heard Cord climb into his with a groan. In a few minutes, his snores filled the hold.

*

We entered Pike just after nightfall, slipping off the boat with relative ease. Most of the sailors were already out carousing or sleeping off the journey, and no one had posted a guard. Pike wasn’t a big town, but it was somewhat respectable. It stood on a slight hill, the docks giving way to shops, shops giving way to modest homes, all of which led up to the mayor’s house some way up the hill. It was a sprawling mansion compared to everything else. For the most part, despite the fair size of the shops and homes, paint flaked, roofing tiles curled, walls warped in the riverside air. Anemic chickens scratched at the dirt paths, and an emaciated goat bleated from a small corral.

“Okay, why are we here?” I asked.

Cord gestured to the big house. “Rumor is, he’s been skimming from the town ledgers, the businesspeople. Taxes are out of control. Got a chest the size of a small elephant.”

“And we’re gonna steal it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Too hard to move. We’re gonna steal part of it, and redistribute the rest. But first, my plan.”

He gestured toward a lamp pole as we passed it. A poster on the iron read:

BARD/BAND WANTED

SPECIAL TALENTS CONSIDERED

APPLY AT CBGB

“CBGB?” I asked.

“Centaur Balls, Goblin Balls,” Cord said.

“Classy. How the hell did you get those up so fast?” I asked.

“I slipped the bosun a little gold. Captain doesn’t pay him enough. How do you think we got on and off the boat so easily?”

“Nice.”

“I know.”

He steered us down a side street filled with shops stacked shoulder to shoulder, glass fronts displaying threadbare wares. Someone coughed in an alley, and we moved a little quicker, my hands on my knives. Here too, posters decorated walls and poles, and sometimes windows. As we drew near to CBGB, the sounds of music and laughter came to us, and the smells of roast food. My mouth watered at the prospect of not eating dried fish and biscuits, and we picked up the pace.

Inside, the pub was a riot of noise and color. Mercenaries from Gentia rubbed shoulders with Mane’s guard, while pockets of citizenry downed tumblers of beer and shoveled potato and onion mixtures into their mouths. We sat and ordered food, then turned to the stage at the end of the hall. A small band played there at the moment, lackluster and half-hearted, not that the patrons noticed.

My meal was potato skinned thin and fried, and some green that had been boiled and buttered. As we’d seen when we disembarked, meat was at a premium. Fortunately for the town (or maybe not, depending on how often you ate them), potatoes were abundant. While I ate, I watched the door. Patrons came and went as the night lengthened, and I thought perhaps Cord’s advertisement hadn’t attracted any takers. By the time I finished though, the bards began to enter.

The first was a group of three, black hair, black kohl around their eyes, black clothes. They carried two mandolins and a drum. The next–my heart nearly stopped. I recognized them. Vyxen, a girl group I’d seen several times in my youth. Tall, blonde, thin. They carried all sorts of instruments and could play them. The last was a lanky-haired youth with a slouch and a tube with a pipe at one end. I didn’t hold out much hope for him, but Cord perked up when he entered.

The house band trailed off, and the first newcomers took the stage. They tuned their instruments, then the lead, a stocky man in a sleeveless tunic, arms bulging with muscle, announced in a gravelly voice, “We are Goblin Shite!”

The mandolins began, shrill and loud, and the drummer hammered on his instrument in a frenzy, not unlike that of a rabbit’s ability to fuck. The big man launched into a verse, voice straining against the laws of physics and good taste.

“YOUR LOVE MAKES ME WANT TO DIE
I DON’T WANT YOUR POISONED PIE

I DON’T WANT YOUR HAIR-COVERED COMB

I JUST WANT THE QUIET OF THE TOMB

KILL ME

KILL ME
KILL ME

COCKROACH”

The mandolins faded out, and the patrons of the bar fell into dead silence. I looked at Cord. He shrugged.

“Next,” he called.

Goblin Shite trudged off the stage, and Vyxen took their place. Crisy, the lead singer, announced the band name, then they struck up a tune.

“This one’s called Love Swamp.

One day you left me

You can’t just let it be

Now I’m drowning

In the mud

I feel it in my blood

Love Swamp

Let me go

Love Swamp

Everything’s moist

Love Swamp

I never had a choice”

Again, the music faded out. The crowd looked at one another. Silence filled the room. Vyxen left the stage, and as Crisy passed the lead singer of Goblin Shite, she gave him the finger.

“Ah,” I said.

“Heartbreak makes bad poets of us all,” Cord agreed.

The last rose to the stage and pressed the pipe on his tube to his mouth. His cheeks puffed out. The note he played was low, and as it went, it rapidly slid to inaudible. Cord stood and raised his hands.

“That’s good,” he said.

The kid stopped playing, and Cord approached the stage. They stood for a moment, speaking in low tones, then a bit of cash passed between them, and the young musician took the stairs to the rooms above.

“I don’t know what just happened,” I said.

Cord winked. “You’ll see. Let’s get some sleep.”

We headed upstairs to our room.

*

The next morning, the city was almost as bright as the bar the night before. A festival had been called, and the town square teemed with people in white clothing, bare feet, and ribbons. They looked less than happy to be there, milling about listlessly, casting fearful glances at the guards. Seeing them by day, I noticed signs of malnutrition, of hunger. In others, diseases easily stopped by cheap apothecary medicine. Cord was at my elbow like a ghost.

“See?” he said. “He forces them into these things in his honor. Festivals dedicated to his largesse. Like he’s a benevolent king. Let me tell you, those who deserve these sorts of displays usually end up cold in the ground, in my experience. The ones who don’t, well–not everyone has a sword arm, a knight on horseback, or a kindly wizard. The ones who do rarely deserve that privilege. You think a kindly leader needs all that muscle?” he nodded toward one side of the square.

They’d erected a platform and made it up with a tall chair in red and gold. Beside it, guards posted up in bright mail and short blades, pikes at their side, ready for the Mayor to arrive. Bunting surrounded everything, from the stage to the fountain. Cord led us through the crowd.

“What’s the plan here, anyway?” I asked for the third time that day.

“You’ll see. Look, I don’t want to give it away. It’s brilliant.”

“Uh…” I said.

“What?”

Brilliant usually means ‘ending in bloodshed’.”

He made a dismissive sound. “That’s only happened like three times. But I can guarantee that while everyone’s here, we’re going to just walk in and take that gold.”

“Uh, okay. And I’ll shit unicorns.”

“If you could shit unicorns, we could’ve retired a long time ago. Here,” he handed me a pair of wax plugs.

“Your sense of humor gets weirder every day,” I said.

“They’re for your ears.”

“Of course. I knew that.”

A fanfare of trumpets blared, and the crowd parted as the Mayor strutted from a nearby tent. Thin and florid, he climbed the steps to the platform with a look on his face like he’d just been inaugurated as the city’s official shit-smeller. He plopped into his chair.

“Let the festivities begin!” he declared.

Small confetti cannons blared from somewhere, blasting the crowd with colored paper.  A cheer went up. Opposite the Mayor’s platform, the boy from the bar climbed onto the stage, instrument in hand. A scowl crossed the Mayor’s face and he pointed at the boy.

“That is not my band. Guards. Guards!”

Cord nudged me. “Earplugs.”

I shoved the plugs into my ears as the boy blew into his pipe. At first, I heard a distant vibration, then nothing. I looked at Cord.

“Why did I need these?” I shouted.

The guards charged the stage, and I wondered if getting the boy cut to ribbons was part of Cord’s plan. My hands went to my knives as I calculated how many I could take out. Cord put a hand on mine and pointed, shaking his head.

As the wave of guards approached the stage, they staggered, dropping their weapons. They clutched their stomachs and then collapsed. Wet stains spread across their trousers. The effect rippled outward from there, and the town square became an impromptu latrine. Foot by foot, the crowd was hit by that brown note. White trousers turned brown in violent cascades of liquid shit, stains blooming like particularly aggressive flowers. Bare feet splashed in mud that was not wholly mud. Some tried to flee, the Mayor among them, but the sudden intestinal apocalypse had caused panic and chaos, and as I watched, people were trampled and shoved, broken and suffocated in the dank mud. The mayor went down, and Cord nodded at me.

We made our way up the country lane, the screams of the enshittening behind us. The Mayor’s gate opened easily. His front door was unlocked, his personal guard laying unconscious in pools of their own waste. As we passed, one forced himself to his feet, not completely incapacitated. He leaned on his pike, coughed. A thick ripping sound followed, and his face went red as he found the strength to charge, trouser leg leaving a trail as he attacked. I shoved Cord out of the way and slipped past the man’s already sluggish guard. My blades found the insides of his thigh, his wrist, and he collapsed as arteries that once held blood he needed no longer did. It ran from him like headwaters, mixing with the foul brown stuff. I thought of the mud-red alluvial soil of the deltas and turned away.

“Feel better?” Cord asked.

I wiped a blade on my trouser leg as we walked.

“Yeah, actually, I do. You have no idea how close I was to skewering your kidneys for fun. Wait, can you grow those back?”

Cord shrugged. “Never tried.” He glanced over, then down at my knife. “Don’t want to.”

I grinned and sheathed the blade as we came into the treasury.

Cord was right. There was enough treasure for a city. I took a small golden flute as a souvenir and a handful of coins. Then, the other bands appeared, and several sailors behind them, each wearing earplugs, each toting a wheelbarrow. One by one, they loaded the money and carted it into town. As Crisy passed, she gave me a wink, and I blushed to my toes. I watched her go, and Cord was at my elbow, grinning.

“Behind the bushes? Down the basement? Lock the cellar door?”

“Shut up,” I said.

“Gonna talk dirty to her?”

“Gret’s balls,” I said.

When it was empty, we left the way we’d come. I stepped over a guard writhing in a puddle of shit.

“Well, what do you think?” Cord asked.

“It’s a funting mess,” I said.

“We did a good thing.”

I thought of the crowd of townspeople who’d be nursing sore bottoms and egos. I grunted.

“We did an okay thing,” he amended.

I watched the last of the wheelbarrows of gold disappear into town. It would be used to build business, feed families, and care for children. I clapped him on the shoulder.

“We did a terrible thing with a good outcome. How about that?”

He shrugged. “Potato, diarrhea.”

We stepped from the mansion into bright sunlight. At the bottom of the hill, disaster. Here though, it looked like nothing but blue skies. We walked on.

Death, Ink, and the End of the World

Two things happened the day I turned 29. My grandfather died, and the world ended. I’ll get to the apocalypse. Not that it’s not important, but the death of a loved one can feel the same. The sudden cessation of life that’s marked a significant portion of your time on earth is similar to snuffing a candle. A little breath, a wisp of smoke, and the light goes out.

We’d gathered from across the country, flying in from snow, swamp, and sand, from stands of brackish water and white beaches, from homes bracketed by tall pines. We huddled in a small room smelling of antiseptic and blood and that vague sick smell that the old and infirm carry around with them like satchels of incense. The shine from white tile and fluorescents irritated the iris. The type of glare that digs into your brain, makes it impossible to get comfortable. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for the person in the bed.

That person, my grandfather, lay beneath a thin white cotton blanket. Blue stripes ran horizontal in groups of three at the head and foot. Tubes and wires snaked from him, as if they’d built a human still, the medicines distilling his essence, his reality down to this tiny moment in time. A life of sixty-some years and here he lay, condensed into a single final drop of story.

Tattoos swirled up from his elbows, down to his wrists. They appeared as black whorls and lines in smudged relief through the thin hospital gown, half-seen representations of a life lived. They crawled down from his covered hips to his exposed ankles, black ink turned green with age and time; the lines raised scars beside varicose veins.

I looked to my grandmother, thin and frail, skin competing with the light for pale brittleness. My mother, hair just turning white in small threads of the black tapestry of her hair. My sister, young and strong, though sad around the eyes. Each held an object. Grandmother, a rag marked black by the years of wiping fresh tattoos, and a small pair of scissors. The blades glinted under the fluorescents. My mother, a pot of ink and a razor. The bottle of pigment sat dark and quiescent in her palm. My sister, Rea, a small needle gun like a kingfisher in her fist. They looked to me and smiled, each sad, each intense.

My grandfather, small in the bed. I remembered him a big man. Lean, with hard slabs of muscle beneath his thin work shirts. He kept a package of spearmint in the breast pocket, and he’d lean in when we came to him, pull it out, hand us a piece. We’d sit at his knee, the sun reaching jealous fingers through slits in the blinds, trying to anesthetize us with its warmth on a lazy Sunday.

We’d unwrap the gum, powder between the foil and the stick dusting fingertips, and pop it between our lips. That first bite, sweet and cool, waking us, filling our mouths with saliva. Then he’d speak. Stories of his tattoos, where they’d come from, what they meant. Different every time.

This one, a port in Malaysia. A beautiful woman from Kuala Lumpur had hammered it into him with a needle and a stick. Or was it in Maui, a man named Keno with a pin? That one, South Africa. He’d gotten drunk with a footballer. Two weeks later, a woman in Nebraska had talked him into it. Grandmother coughed politely at that story, and he switched tacks. This one, Boston. A Navy man by the name of Franklin gave it to him in the engine room of the U.S.S Anzio. No, wait. It was a child by the name of Dario in Italy.

Each a lie. Each superbly told.

I pulled a chair across the floor, the legs scraping the tile. I flopped into it, feet tired from the flight, from the long stand of vigil. My grandfather snorted in his sleep, opened bleary eyes. He looked around from bloodshot sclera, gaze flitting to each of us like a bee searching for pollen. They landed on me, and his lips, pale quivering things, lifted in recognition. He reached out a hand, so like a bird’s, the bones thin and frail, the skin parchment. He squeezed, and I returned it gently.

“How was the trip?” he asked.

“Fine,” I lied.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

I looked again to my family. They arrayed themselves around me, knelt on the floor, sister first, then mother. Grandmother to the left of Rea. They rolled the leg of my jeans up, and I heard the buzz of the needle begin, the coolness of a blade passed along the hair, the sharp ice of evaporating alcohol.

“It will hurt,” he said.

Would it hurt worse than this? Pulling a thread you’d thought woven so deeply into your life to undo one meant undoing all the tapestry.

I pushed the thoughts back and nodded.

Rea set needle to flesh, and I felt the burn begin.

*

Images poured into my head, a flash flood of names and horror sliding through my mind like a scalpel through tendon.

Mi-go, the Formless. First upon the void. Theirs was the name first spoken in the thick jungles that covered the earth. Once, they slithered and burbled across the face of the water, then through thick undergrowth that seethed with life. Where they touched, they devoured, and what they devoured, they left barren.

Blood and sweat trickled down my thigh as the ink rose close to my groin. My grandmother cut the fabric away as the needle climbed to speed the process, mother following with the razor. I watched the keen edge scrape hair away as easily a scythe harvests grain. Grandmother’s rag wiped my leg, fresh black making the fabric glisten, fresh oil making my skin shine.

The monitoring equipment jittered out a series of beeps, and for a moment, my grandfather’s grip slackened. Anxiety rose in my chest, flittered across the inside of my fingers. Outside, the clouds darkened, and far away, a crack sounded like a thousand trees snapping under their own weight. Then Rea lifted the needle, and it steadied, the alarms quieting. I glanced over at the old man, who had resumed his grip on my hand. His left leg lay clear, the skin unblemished. He breathed hard, pigeon chest rising like a small bellows. A small groan escaped his lips. My heart sent up a bright ache, like the lights above, a silver note of pain. I thought of him surrounded by sawdust and gnarled wood, the thing in his hands once rough, like the skin of his knuckles. He’d turn it over, and work another piece, and bit by bit it took shape. The patience of a stone, a gentle smile on his lips. Small moments of serenity, limned in sunlight.

Rea dipped the needle into the ink, a slight tremble between her hand and my mother’s. Then the gun buzzed again.

*

Yoth, the Cold. When the glaciers slid across the face of the world, she stalked as a wolf. Taller than even the redwoods that mark the west coast, where she walked, she left lakes. The men in those days, small and mean with the depredations of survival, gave up to her the lives of their weak. They took in her ways, and tasted the flesh of fellow men.

The gun buzzed across a kneecap, and I jumped. Beyond the horizon, a howl that sent needles of fear into my guts rippled across the sky. Cold sleet hammered into the panes, leaving an afterbirth of slush in the steel frame. My grandfather pursed his lips and squeezed my hand with a strength borne of pure will, eyes wide. He shook his head ever so slightly. The veins in his temples stood in stark contrast. I wondered if that’s how all life ended, in pain and fear. Feeling small as a child, spending a life building yourself into someone you knew the way water knows the earth, and watching the foundation wash away.

His lips turned up. A flicker of a smile, a reassurance, and I wondered at the strength in that gesture. I remembered hands weathered by decades of work, tough callouses from tilling field and splitting wood, and my wonder passed. The quiet patience as his family split, as time brought troubles. Scars on his hand, plain in the light. Here, a jagged line where a tractor had nearly taken his finger. There, a small nick on his palm where he’d caught himself with a kitchen knife. Scars on the heart, hidden in the dark. Those he never spoke of. Never once a complaint. I forced myself to relax as Rea’s work continued. If he could do this, under the black cloud of agony, wracked by time, so could I. Over the knee, into the tender places of the thigh. Bleed and wipe and sweat. And then that too ended. I saw the other ankle on the old man free of ink.

They cut the shirt from me, my pale skinny chest exposed. We had no fear of nurses or doctors entering. In the small hours between dark and dawn, even the hospital must sleep. The old man smiled again, reached out and patted my cheek. He took my hand.

“Almost,” he said.

Another dip of the gun into the ink. The buzzing, and my chest burned. Another flood of images.

*

Azatoth, the Liar. He’d been in the first men, lurking behind thoughts of food and lust and murder. Behind the walls of the mind, entrenched like a seedling taking root. He guided the hands of Cain and Pilate. The men who poisoned Alexander. The death of Caesar. He’d engineered the Fall, and in the dark, promised young mothers and brutal men the things they most desired. Lies are the black lattice of life–small and insidious. I’m fine. This will be fine. Nothing to worry about. Of course you’re beautiful. I love you. If only they did one thing, they could climb that lattice toward the light. A small untruth, a little unkindness.

More sweat. I felt light-headed, and wondered how much water a man could lose. I squeezed my grandfather’s hand, but he’d fallen asleep. No, not asleep. An alarm sounded from somewhere. I forced myself to concentrate, to look. My family with their heads down, lips moving. I wondered at what litany must pass their lips in the cold hours of the morning, what things they prayed for, who they made promises to. The buzz buzz buzz of the gun. Or had a fly entered the room? An alarm, shrill and insistent.

“Almost, almost,” Rea said.

“Almost, almost,” my family repeated.

“Almost, almost,” a voice in my head echoed.

A deep ache in my chest as the needle passed over, and the muscle twitched, traitor to my will. Rea’s hand slipped. The alarm continued to wail, soon joined by something outside. Sirens?

“Almost,” Rea said.

The buzzing rose to a wail, and I thought my mind would split with it. Across my chest, over shoulder and trapezius, down bicep and forearm. I felt the bones in my wrists grind as I tensed, the ache in my jaw. My teeth felt loose, jangling coins someone had pressed into the bone with no intention of affixing them there. Then it finished.

Done, and the silence nearly deafened me.

“How do you feel?”

Beside me, my grandfather cooled in his bed. A bundle of sticks and bones, the skin of his skull too close to his cheeks, his eyes like clouded marbles. His flesh paled at the end, lips that had spun stories and smelled of spearmint tinted blue. I looked to his throat, where the butterfly pulse of his heart fluttered no more. Where once I’d pressed my face as a child and felt warm stubble scratch my cheek.  His arms lay bare, marked with blue veins, but clear of ink. His fingers splayed open, clutching at nothing, that thin skein of life the fates allow us slipped from his grasp. Beneath the sheet, a smudge of ink. A single line beside a puckered nipple. His memory a nervous bird, perched on the branches of my mind, trembling with anticipation of fright. I held it as tightly as I could, cajoled it to stay.

“How do you feel?” they asked again.

Their voices choked on tears half-swallowed. This was important. More important than antiseptic and empty husks, more important than cold white sheets and the insistent alarm. More important than the legion of men and women who would soon enter the room in white coats and blue scrubs with cold latex on their hands. More important than machines still trying to feed him medicine, pumping cold saline and warm narcotics into a body that had no more use for them than another’s touch. The cold logic of science ignorant of the passing of spirit.

Mourning could come later. This was important. Important as the wail of siren. Important as fire that lit the horizon. Important as the bend of trees in a hot wind. This was the end of the world, or not.

“Fine,” I lied.

River of Thieves Preview

As corpses go, Cord proved a constant thorn in my side. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the old thief, but dying merely inconvenienced him. Dealing with the mess after, however, dug into my ass like a persistent nettle. Given the choice of a nettle in your ass for years, or a small beetle that bores into your guts and then chews its way up your torso like a man slathered in horse shit runs to a bath, most people are going to choose the quicker, less annoying option. Fortunately, I am not most people. I might even be a saint. Or an idiot. I guess I’ll find out when the gods hand out prizes at the end.

I sank down against the wall, avoiding the still-glistening blood. I lit a cigar and watched curls of blue-white smoke drift off into the summer night. My brain drifted with them, wondering what a normal life might look like. House, field, two kids, husband. Dog? Probably a dog. I snorted. None of that fit me. Even if my family made the choice to keep me, the path of life veered like a bird caught in a high wind.

I shook myself and looked down at Cord. After a minute, I poked a finger into his empty eye socket. It came away with a wet squelch and I wiped it on my trousers. Gross, sure. But caring about gross passed me by roughly eighteen months ago, and little in the way of squeamishness remained. I still don’t know how he talked me into it the first time. I thought back to that first conversation.

“Look, it’s easy, one quick jab in the eye, and we’re in the money,” he said.

“Why not the lung? Or the heart?”

“Because it hurts.” He rubbed his chest. “It really hurts,” he muttered.

“A knife in the eye doesn’t?”

He shrugged. “I mean, only for a minute, then it’s into the brain, and plop, splat, I’m dead.”

“What if I only jiggle up your noodle?”

“Then you’ll be changing my trousers for a month.”

“Right, so the long knife.”

He raised an eyebrow, and I mimed jabbing a blade into his face.

“So it goes deeper. Might need to scrape the back of the skull to be sure,” I said.

“That’s the spirit. The disturbing, way too eager spirit,” he said, and went about packing our gear.

Wind rustling paper under the bridge snapped my attention back to the present. I looked up at the poster of King Mane plastered to the brick and shot it a sneer. The royal propagandist’s work impressed me as an example of sweetening horseshit to make fudge. The royal twit appeared on the poster sporting a bulging chest and suspiciously well-endowed codpiece. The art depicted the king handing out gold coins to waifs in rags. They held shining faces uplifted and beaming in thankfulness.

I suspected the reason Cord chose this spot to die sprouted from a tree of simple spite. He hated Mane with a passion that bordered on obsession. His favorite epithet for the king remained The Royal Shit, despite his ever-rotating vocabulary of disdain. I didn’t blame him. Even a short tour of the kingdom gave you an idea of just how much bullshit those posters peddled. Still, some of the king’s policies proved useful. Opposite the lie of his largesse stood the truth of his paranoia. As a result, Mane employed a great many mercenaries to patrol even small cities and roads. Rumors abounded that he saw enemies around every corner.

Which brought me to my next task – calling the guards. Our take sat on a boat about 300 yards away, along with my bloody clothes. I didn’t have a scratch on me. Cord did the dirty work – well, maybe the painful work. If you think stabbing a guy in the eye doesn’t make for some interesting dreams, I’d like to speak to you about the definition of disturbing. But I didn’t envy Cord’s part–committing the robbery and ensuring someone spotted him so I could point out his corpse. After, constables being what they are in the backwaters of the Veldt, they’d mark it as a bad deal and close the case. We’d even leave a bit of gold around Cord’s body to let them think he’d been the victim of a double-cross in the end.  Lay low for a bit and repeat every couple hundred miles.

I tossed the cigar into the canal. I mussed my hair, then knuckled my fingers into my eyes until the whites went red. I ran for the local guard shack just up the road, sniffling. Once I let them calm me down―weeping women make even big guys with pointy swords uncomfortable―they followed me to the body. Over time, I’ve perfected my role as distraught citizen to the point I expected them to melt down Gunter Horvath’s awards and recast the shiny gold in honor of my performance.

Once they left the guard station, I slipped away and hid in the shadows until they passed from sight, carting Cord’s body off like flotsam washed up in their clean little hamlet. No littering. Mind the dung. Thanks for visiting. I hopped in the boat and rowed out of the berth, the water sending a chill froth over the bow in the night air.  A clear dark night with a bright moon hung before me, lighting the river.

*

The mortuary stood at the edge of town. I beached the boat just up the river, and crept out, tugging it into the reeds. They’d eventually find it, but by then, then we’d be long gone. Once done, I straightened, wiped my face clean, and checked my clothing. Rough, but passable. I strode into the building. A teen sat behind the counter, idly twirling a pencil. I gave him a bright smile, and he glowered back and rolled his eyes.

“What?” he asked.

He clearly possessed dickish tendencies. Not the most charming trait. Or maybe just stupidity. In which case, I pitied him a little. We’d all been there. I thought of Cord’s advice: never attribute evil to dumb. So I smiled through teeth I wanted to use to bite him in the face.

“I’m here to pick up a body.”

“Look, I can’t do anything without my boss’s say-so,” the kid said.

“Sure, sure.”

“I’m not even supposed to be here today. You think I want to spend the night with a dead guy?”

I shook my head and let the smile drop. “Look at it this way – I sign the paperwork, take the dead guy off your hands, and we’re both on our merry way. Your boss can’t bitch about that, right? I mean, he’ll have my signature, and you’ll be short one corpse.”

The kid’s eyes shifted to the steel door behind him, uncertainty twisting his lips. He shuffled his feet and let out a huff of air.

“Fine. Your signature and a fiver.”

The smile slid back to my face. “Sure, sure.”

I signed his parchment with a name that meant something like Bearded Taint in Gentian and plopped a crown worth at least five lesser gold on the table. The privilege of screwing with people in charge paid for itself. When you’re handling dead guys and dealing with bureaucracy, you have fun when you can. He pulled the sheet back without looking at it. I felt a pang of disappointment at his inattention as he turned and unlocked the door, but squashed it. Some battles you won after you left the battlefield. One of Cord’s sayings. Like most of his little nuggets of wisdom, it carried the double edge of horseshit and truth.

A chill rippled across the room. Low mist clung to the floor, carrying the mingled scents of dried blood and slow rot. We toted Cord’s body out of the building and onto a small cart waiting in the yard. We dropped the dead man with a shared grunt. He probably wouldn’t wake up with a headache. When we finished, the kid leaned against the wall and reached into a pocket, pulling out a tobacco twist and setting light to it with a small striker.

“Your guy’s all fucked up. Chiurgeon said it looked like someone was playing with his eye after they stabbed him.”

“Gross.”

“Yeah. Sick. What’s wrong with people?”

I shrugged. “Lotta weirdos out there.”

“Yeah.”

I wheeled Cord around the building, and chucked the bag of gold down beside him. Then I headed down the street, keeping to the shadows, the soft squeak of the cart’s wheels keeping me company.

*

The first time you cart a body down the road in the middle of the night, and the dead guy farts, you scream a little. And pee. About the eighteenth time, you sigh and keep downwind. The walk back to the rented cottage wound through town, and I spent a lot of it humming under my breath. Something nonsensical–Dead Hon and the Elephant Boys, or Sketchy Gan.

I crested the slope of a hill, the roof of the rented cottage showing. I managed to drag Cord’s body through the front door, and after a bit of flopping about and grunting, propped him up on the divan, then sat down to wait. He used to come back quick. After this many deaths in a row though, his resurrections crept forward in increasing increments.

The first time Cord woke up in a mortuary, the damn chiurgeon tried to drive a stake through his heart. Nothing like rearranging a guy’s organs a second time to delay his flight back to the real world. On the upside, it allowed me time to retrieve the body and avoid nastiness like that. On the down, I wondered if the slow return marked a decline in his overall health.

I’d made it halfway through an article in the local one-sheet about the proliferation of morons in government. (Granted, the editor probably wouldn’t have let them print those exact words, mostly because they would have ended their career at the end of a rope.) They’d somehow managed to transfer the monthly farm subsidies to a fund meant for young debutantes. Now the crop yield flagged, but the would-be princesses wore diamonds the size of their skulls. Leave it to the rich to fuck the country over with an impressive tidal wave of shit and still come out smelling like roses.

Cord sat bolt upright, screamed once, and vomited up a lump of purple flesh, interrupting my train of thought. The thing squirmed against the rug, smearing crimson on the cream-colored wool, and stubby limbs sprouted from its sides. I smashed it with the hammer beside me. Cord coughed, blood spattering the floor, and vomited again. This time only vomit, no creepy living organ.

His chest heaved, and he made a sound like a sick dog. I waited for a minute. This passed for normalcy these days – the resurrections grew worse, each one taking something out of him. The first death I’d witnessed had only been his third death. He’d come back so easily then. Now we’d reached fifteen or so. A life of running and robbing sucked the sense out of the days. Nailing the exact number down felt like more than I wanted to trouble myself with. Especially when what I really wanted was a warm bed and a night of sleep. Cord sucked in one more breath and sat back, his face pale. He reached shaking fingers for the mug of water on the table beside him and took a long swallow, then finished with a small cough and a wan smile.

“How long?”

“Three days.”

“Gods.”

“Yeah.” I set the paper down. “Look, we gotta take a break. If you die for real, the gravy train’s over.”

He nodded and waved a hand, tipping the mug up again, draining the dregs. He set it down and leaned forward.

“I’ve got a plan.”

“I hope so. That looks like your spleen on the carpet. But your spleen had legs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a spleen with legs.”

He looked down and grimaced, then back at me. “One more job. Then we can break.”

I nodded. My gut knew better. One more job is never just one more job for people like Cord. Or worse, it really is the last job, ever. Retirement looked like death or prison. I didn’t know which held the greater likelihood. If death continued to avoid Cord, he’d find himself vying with stone walls in a contest to see which rotted first. On the other hand, if the slowing rate of his resurrection indicated anything, true death loomed nearer than either of us expected. Neither of those things mattered much. The question that hung over both of us, like a sword suspended by a hair, was how many more deaths did he have left?

*

“The Gentleman Bastards,” Cord said.

“What?” We’d been quietly preparing for the next job, and Cord’s statement took me by surprise.

“Our name,” he said.

“I’m a woman. Also, I think that’s taken.”

Cord looked up from lacing his boot. “Oh.”

“What’s the plan here?”

“I go in, take the gold from the safe, and we live out the next few months someplace sunny. You know, nice beaches, pretty women.”

I shook my head. “Not what I meant.”

The question reared its head before, but Cord dodged it the way you dodge a bit of snot someone’s spat on the walk.

“Why do we need all this gold?” I asked. 100 pieces provided a modest, but comfortable retirement. 1000 might buy a small castle and servants. 10,000, a duchy. We probably had enough for a few duchies by now.

He frowned and straightened, boots laced tight to his ankles. “I don’t understand.”

“This is more money than you can spend in one lifetime.”

He cocked his head to the side. “Ah.”

“Ah, what?”

“Well, who here has a bit more than one lifetime?”

“That it? Planning well into your low thousands?”

“Well…”

“What?”

“Rich people piss me off.”

“Why?”

“All that money. What do they do with it?”

I thought about. “Well, there’s upkeep for their properties, pay for the staff, food, ponies, weapons, armor, maybe a wizard―“

“Think about that. They have a wizard on retainer. How many of the guys in the Dripping Bucket could say that?”

“To be fair, if those guys had a wizard, they’d just use it to make an endless beer fountain.”

“Would they? Fet would have paid the guy to keep his crops growing. Al, his children healthy. Yellyn – she would have made sure everyone in her parish had books. But these guys – ‘ooh, my sword’s on fire’ – does that sound all that bloody useful?”

“What about the staff? They’ve got to have jobs.”

“Jobs they wouldn’t need if their high and mighty lord of the taint hadn’t annexed their land and used it for his personal sewer.”

“Are you proposing a redistribution of wealth?”

“In a way,” he hedged.

“There really should be a word for that.”

“There is. It’s called justice.”

“No… look – what do you get out of this?” He’d led the conversation in a circle, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that this felt urgent, though I didn’t know why.

He looked up at me, then at the moon, hanging in the sky like a weight, and promptly changed the subject.

“Time to go.”

*

The robbery went the way they always do. That is to say, a combination of chaos and blood and short moments of terror. Cord grabbed the money, let them see his face, let them give chase, and slipped his pursuers before the second turn. We left behind an obvious trail. We happened upon one of the rare hamlets without a constable station, and needed to make our path clear enough to follow. Without Cord’s body and evidence of a robbery, the possibility of endless pursuit became more likely.

We stepped into a glade not far from the main track, sweat dripping from the strain of carrying the gold. We broke branches and stomped prints into the dirt as we went, leaving a path easy enough for a blind bear to track. Cord set the bag down and leaned against a tree, wiping a palm across his forehead.

“Okay, that shoul-”

An arrow sprouted from his eye mid-sentence and he collapsed. Men in dark leather appeared as if from nowhere and filled the clearing. They bristled with weapons, potential violence, and some sort of perfume. A man with a pinched face and a hungry look in his eye stepped toward me. He held a naked blade in his hand, the heavy edge glinting in the moonlight. His eyes gleamed with menace. His codpiece hung limp.

“We are the Knights of Axe!” he proclaimed.

I waved a hand, trying to dispel the stink.

“That is a powerful scent, sir knight,” I said.

“Yea, the alchemist what sold me it assured me it would attract only the finest of maidens.”

I coughed. “It’s certainly attracting something.”

A fly landed on his trousers and buzzed frantically before falling to the ground. We watched as it spun a circle on its back, wings fluttering like an erratic heartbeat. Finally, it died. He looked up, eyes meeting mine.

“Tell no one of this,” he said.

“I wouldn’t know where to start,” I replied.

I heard the clank of coins and saw the bag disappear into the trees, one of his men toting it. I looked from it to him, and he narrowed his eyes.

“Not a word,” he said.

“My lips are sealed,” I replied.

He looked me over once, then turned and disappeared into the woods, leaving me alone with Cord and the sound of running feet. I put on my best crying face and sobbed as the constable burst into the clearing.

“Ma’am. Ma’am!”

I looked up. “Yes?”

“What happened here?”

I widened my eyes and tried to look shocked. “Thieves!”

“Where?”

“There!” I pointed to the tree line.

He glanced around, noting Cord’s body, the fletching of the arrow still pointing to the sky. He looked back to me and narrowed his eyes.

“And how did you survive?”

I batted my eyelashes and gave him a smile. “They thought me too fine to despoil, sire. But they have my broach. If only someone could retrieve it. It belonged to my gran, and I’d be sore glad to have it back.”

He looked from my chest to my eyes and back again. I coughed, and he lifted his eyes once more, face bright red. He cleared his throat.

“Ah, yes,” he raised his voice, “Men, search the trees! We must have these scoundrels! Not to worry, ma’am. We’ll have your jewels back to your bosom in no time.”

My eyes strained to not roll into the back of my head and cause permanent blindness. “My hero.”

He grinned and left to supervise the search, shouting orders as he went, chest puffed like a rooster. They quickly forgot me in the bustle. I slunk away.

*

While the guards were busy beating the bush, I circled back. I’d stolen the uniform of a worker of Gren. Thick overalls, black mask, and heavy boots and gloves. I hauled Cord’s body into the cart and wheeled him out, nodding to the same captain who’d stopped me earlier. He averted his gaze. Workers of Gren were considered bad luck in the smaller backwaters–stupid country superstition. It was like being afraid of the trash men. No one wanted a flood of maggots in the streets. These guys should be getting parades. The guard turned back to his business, and I hauled my partner’s dead ass back to the cottage.

Cord woke sans one arrow in his skull, as is the preferred way to wake for most of the known world. He coughed, choked, and spat up another little critter, this one near in size to the last. Again, I hammered it with a mallet, and let Cord recover. He sipped his water and looked out the window over the long field of summer wheat and wildflowers.

“Penny for your thoughts,” I said.

“That’s a weird saying. Are you implying my thoughts are worth only a single cent?”

“Just an expression.”

“Yeah, well, next time offer a crown,” he grumbled.

“What were you thinking?” I asked, trying to keep the exasperation from my voice.

“I was thinking it’s time we go for bigger fish. This last job—well, I’ve had more successful shits. Fuck those guys.”

“Sadly, I don’t think anyone ever will,” I replied.

“What?”

“Nothing. You were saying?”

He gave me a look with one eye squinted, then shook his head and went on. “I think it’s time for a change of pace, maybe time to set us up for retirement. There’s an old Gentian saying: ‘Why borrow from men when you can steal from gods?’.”

“What is wrong with the Gentians?”

“A lot. You’re ignoring my point, though.”

“Are you suggesting we rob the gods?”

“Are you suggesting we shouldn’t? What’ve they given us? Aside from an insatiable blood lust, a horrible curse, and threadbare socks?” he held up one foot, toes poking from the stocking.

“Hey, it’s not insatiable. I’m just saying, if you want to spend the rest of your life with a dick for a face, go ahead.”

Cord waved it away. “One bridge at a time. The point is, all this small shit is exactly that. Rabbit turds.”

“And?”

He fell quiet for a moment, gray eyes searching for something out beyond the flowers. I followed his line of sight, to the ribbon of the river cutting across the Veldt and beyond, to Midian, the capitol.

“Okay,” I sighed, “crown for your thoughts.”

“Better,” he muttered.

“Well?”

“You ever wonder if there’s more?”

“Like less horseshit and blood? A little less of the flux and a little more flesh?”

“Yeah, something like that. I just… look, there’s no reason for this to go on as long as it has. I’m getting older, and these deaths, they’re taking something out of me. And you. You’ve got a long life ahead, if we pull this off, you can live it in a place that isn’t covered in shit.”

“Like a king?”

Cord grimaced for a split second. “Yeah, something like that.”

“Okay, so what’s the plan?”

“First, we’re gonna need a crew.”

Inwardly, I groaned. He gave me one of his lunatic grins, and my stomach dropped. I knew that look. Outwardly, I groaned.

In the Machines, Our Bodies

The salesman slapped the top of the car. “200 miles a soul. Seats four, leather seats, cruise, XM Radio.”

“Yeah, but what about the tires?” Joe kicked one, and I rolled my eyes.

They fell to nattering, feature this, warranty that. I let my eyes roam the dealership. It was filled with gleaming chassis the colors of autumn–reds and golds and browns–the cars sleek, the salesmen sleeker. It wasn’t that I didn’t know anything about cars, it was just that I didn’t care enough to deal with the spiel. I knew what we needed. I wished it was anything but one of these. The Nox Spirit.

Climate change had been a thing, once. Then someone had found proof. Proof of the dead, that they lingered on in what seemed to us desperate ways, replaying events and days and emotion over and over and over. The church told us it was a sign of God. The atheists told us it was a sign that if God ever existed, he didn’t care, otherwise, why leave so many of the dead roaming? The politicians told us both, progressives lobbying for personhood for the dead, for citizenship; fundamentalists hammering Bibles and screaming for regulatory protections and immigration law. How could we know the ghost of a terrorist wouldn’t possess a fine American boy and make him blow up the White House? How did we know revolutionaries didn’t lurk among the restless dead? And that said everything, didn’t it? A dog-whistle even the living could hear.

Then a man, Evan Nox, did some math. It’s never the ones with the slide rules and the algorithms you expect, is it? He figured out the weight of a soul, the energy to mass ratio. He figured out a way to convert spirit to energy. And then the corporations got involved, and the politicians got quiet. Even the churches, shepherds to the dead, silenced their protest and assertions as legislation was passed–we only burn the bad ones. That was all right, wasn’t it? Just the bad ones? It always weighed on me, though. Who decided that?

Joe put his hand on my shoulder, caught my attention. “This is the one. Are you okay with this one?”

I stared at the car. Was I? No. Did I have a choice? Someone was going to buy it, right? No more gas cars, no more oil and carbon and greenhouse effect burning the world down. Someone needed to buy it, to take the kids to school, to take the groceries home, to take themselves to the bar to drink the things that weighed on them away. I nodded, noncommittal, and he disappeared into the office with the glass windows and the bland pictures of dogs hunting.

I stood on the sales floor, waiting, hand resting on the car. How many souls, I wondered? Whose mother, grandmother, brother, would burn for convenience? I thought of my own grandmother, of the verses she’d sing when I was small and nestled in her lap, and imagined her soul crisping and blowing away like leaves. Tears blurred my vision, and I turned my head, catching Joe coming from the sales office. I wiped my face, pretending I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes, then put on a smile. The things we do for the men in our lives. The things they do to the rest of us.

*

The car was quiet. I remembered the big station wagon my parents had, the way it was cold in the back on fall mornings, the way the steel creaked as it rolled down the road. The smells of gasoline and exhaust, the gentle cough-rumble of the V8 as it idled. This was better, right?

Joe turned to me, hand on my thigh. “You okay?”

I nodded, watched the country slip by. Power lines chased us down the road, and I wondered at the great furnaces that broke the souls down, burned them until they turned the turbines, spun the wheels of the world.

He pressed a button on the steering wheel and the console flickered to life. For a moment, before the XM logo appeared, I saw a face, pressed against the screen, then it was gone. Nothing more than a flicker as the opening strains to Everlong began to play.

“Better?” John asked. He never could read a room. But which men can?

*

I woke with an itch in my throat, and crawled out of bed, padding to the kitchen. The water was cool, calming. I tried not to think of whose mother had to burn to pump it to the surface. The thought scratched at the back of my brain, a rat in the walls, and I set the glass down, walked to the garage.

My breath steamed in the air, and it smelled of old sawdust. The car sat in its berth, quiet. I opened the door, the overhead light flickering on, then sat, the leather creaking beneath my thighs. I ran a finger over the stitching on the wheel, the buttons on the console. Hesitated for a moment over the stereo, then pressed it in with a wince of trepidation. It moaned, a low sound, like a body in pain, and I jabbed it off, leaping from the seat, and slamming the door. I didn’t stop moving until I was in the bedroom, Joe’s weight against my hip.

*

What do you say to the dead when they come to you? Sorry, it’s for the planet. Sorry, you were people once, and your autonomy doesn’t matter anymore. For some of them, did it ever?

They came, dressed in finery and rags, cloaked in flame, naked and wearing rage. They came pleading, hands outstretched, bodies blowing away into ash. They came cradling children, they came for succor, and we burned them.

I woke from the nightmare, sheets pooled around my legs, clutching at sweat-slick thighs, and wondered–who else dreamt these things? Did Nox see them, the man that invented the torch that burned them? Did the pastors and preachers, the demagogues? Did the men on the hill in Washington? Maybe they did, but I suspected they had grown cold enough to ignore them, or could afford the pharmaceutical aides to forget them, to dream of only a black field under a black sky.

I wandered the house and touched the things we owned, each time pressing a power button, flicking a switch. Lights flared, radios hummed, cell phones buzzed. I watched a crowd of the dead cluster and press against the flat screen of our 42-inch LCD, heard them whisper through across the FM bands. I sat amid the quiet cacophony and wondered if this was the price we’d paid for waiting so long to change our lives. Was it worth it? Burning our past to ensure our future? I still wondered what would have happened had we adopted renewable energy, if the men obsessed with burning the world hadn’t simply turned to another thing to burn. But that’s the thing, with regret, with hindsight. You learn your lessons only after the scars are healed.

I heard something cry out in the garage, heard the weeping. When I entered, the radio was on in the Spirit, a lullaby echoing from the radio.

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret,

Never to be told.

Eight for a wish,

Nine for a kiss,

Ten for a bird,

You must not miss.

The song faded, my grandmother’s voice slipping into static. I sat heavily in the seat and pressed the power button on the radio. I wept for a while. I wished the world was different.

*

Joe left in the morning, a fishing trip, a boys’ weekend. I thanked whatever inattentive God that would listen for good timing. I stood outside the house, a steel can in my hand. It had cost a good chunk of my savings, a good chunk that Joe was going to freak out about. But men don’t really understand. They don’t understand the weight of privilege. The responsibility of it.

I set the can down and lit the match. It flared, the autumn breeze bringing the scent of gasoline to me. I thought about the things we can do, the things we should do, and the things we owe each other, in this life and the next, and I watched the train of souls rise into the sky as I burned it down.