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.

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.”

“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.

 

 

Chapter 2

We’d moved up the river again to a hamlet called Cait Ap Sith. The locals referred to it by a more colorful name, Cat Shite City. Mostly because of all the cats. They swarmed the local fishery, lounged in alleys, and occasionally pounced from eaves and trees like tiny stupid panthers. I watched a fat tabby chase a small mouse across an alley, giving up halfway through and sitting on its haunches like a winded mule. Further into town, the growls and painful cries of cats in heat echoed through the small alleys. I turned to Cord.

“We’re not robbing this place, are we? I’m already going to be picking cat hair out of my food for weeks.”

Cord shook his head. “No one here to rob. No, we’re here for a friend.”

“Friend? You?”

Cord shrugged. “We had mutual interests once upon a time.”

“What’s their name?”

“Rek.”

“Uh huh. And what happened?”

“We had a falling out. I thought we should rob a Harrower, he didn’t.”

“So what makes you think he’s going to want to see you now?”

“We’re going to blackmail him.”

You’re going to blackmail him, you mean.”

“Yes. We.”

I gave up. “And he’ll be so grateful he’ll follow us like a puppy?”

“Hopefully. If not, I’ll tell him we paid a Harrower to curse him.”

“You think he’d fall for that?”

Cord shrugged and led us down a path into the greater part of town, a dirt rut that wound its way between fields of nodding sunflowers. Green clumps of catnip sprouted between the stalks, and the flowers swayed with the passage of perpetually stoned cats. To our left, the river ran south and east. Through the drowsy midlands, it pushed its way toward the sea and Midian, the city. Here, most everyone bore pale or slightly tan skin tones, some taking on the blue and green hue of the great algae farms to the north. There, between the tall mountains and the wide snowfields, they grew the snotty stuff in glacial lakebeds. They fed it to their cattle, their children, and themselves. I’d tasted it once, leaving me wishing I’d just licked a snot toad.

The fields gave way to more muddy ruts and ramshackle homes pressed tight like syphilitic lovers, leaning on one another for support. Farther in, the roads made a circle. Rough stalls served as Cait’s market. Fishmongers and farmers hawked their wares, stalls of fresh and dried fish, roasted sunflower seeds, and thick clumps of algae sending up a peculiar stink. We took a quick left, back toward the water, and entered a long series of alleys marked by small homes with tin roofs.

“Tell me about this guy,” I said.

Cord shrugged. “Rek? Whaddya wanna know?”

“What’s he like?”

“Mostly big.”

“Big?”

Cord held his hands apart, and then adjusted so he took in the width of one of the houses.

“You pissed him off? And you’re going to blackmail him? I thought you were supposed to be some sort of criminal genius.”

He shrugged again. “Harrower contract law is interesting. You’ll see. Besides, he’s a softy.”

He led us to a house only marginally larger than the others, which in Cait is like saying four sardines fit in this can rather than three. Cats infested the small garden out front, lazed on the steps, and peered from a rough window. They looked like a furry tribunal, and I ducked my head, tried to look innocent. Cord snorted, then raised his hand and knocked, sending a few scattering and at least one hissing. I tried not to think about tiny claws ripping me a new sphincter.

No answer came, and he knocked again.

“Go away.” The voice inside sounded like someone taught a boulder speech.

“Rek,” Cord said.

“Nuh-uh.”

“Rek, open the door.”

“No Rek here. Just cats.” A pause. And then, “Meow.”

Cord shifted as silence from the other side of the door met us. “Quick Rek! Mr. Meowington’s in danger!”

“MR. MEOWINGTON?!”

The shout made my ears ache. I stepped off the stoop in time to see a fleshy mountain the color of sandstone nearly tear the door off its hinges. He bounded into the yard, peering into every crevasse and corner, shouting the cat’s name. I fell back further while Cord stifled a laugh. Rek turned to him, brow beetling, and the smile died on Cord’s lips.

“Where is the kitty, Cord?”

Cord raised his hands. “Look, I had to get you out of the house, Mr. Meowington is fi-”

One of Rek’s turkey-sized hands grabbed Cord by the throat and squeezed. Cord’s eyes bulged and a croak escaped his throat. His neck gave a thick snap and he went limp, limbs flopping to his side. Rek dropped the body into the mud, Cord hitting the ground with an unceremonious thump. The big man turned to me.

“You like tea?” he asked.

I eyed Cord’s body. “Yeah. What about him?”

Rek waved a hand. “Leave him. The cats give him new cologne, he learns a lesson. When he gets up, he can have tea, too,” he shook a finger at the body. “If he behaves.”

I followed Rek into the house. It teemed with cats and overstuffed floral print furniture. Small wood tables dotted the place, heaped with boxes of tea and cookies and cat treats. He wedged himself into a chair and gestured for me to sit. He loomed over the room from his chair, bent slightly so to reach the tray on the table beside him.

“Tea?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

He fiddled with a small pot, filling first one delicate cup, then the other. He handed me one. “Sugar?”

“Yes, please.”

“FUCK,” Cord interrupted as he stomped through the door.

An angry purple bruise still lingered on his throat, and the sclera of one eye nearly glowed bright red with burst blood vessels. I looked up from my tea. Rek dropped two lumps of sugar in and gave a grunt. He didn’t glance over. Cord’s recovery time surprised me.

“I thought you were dead,” I said.

Cord shook his head, winced, and rubbed his neck. “Bastard just paralyzed me.”

“Take off your boots,” Rek said.

Cord sputtered. “The whole place is covered in cat hair. A little mud isn’t going to-”

“Take. Off. Your. Boots.” Rek glared at Cord and dropped the last bit of sugar into the tea.

I stirred my drink as quietly as possible while Cord tugged his boots off, tossing them by the door. He muttered under his breath.

“Why are you here?” Rek asked him.

I took a sip of tea.

“I need your help, Rek,” Cord said and sank heavily into an overstuffed chair decorated with bright pink floral print and cat hair.

“Why should I care what you need?” Rek asked. He turned to me with an apologetic smile and patted my hand. “No offense, dear.”

“None taken. He’s a bit of a shit.”

Cord shot me a withering glare. I returned a smile.

“Because I’m gonna make us rich.”

“Nuh-uh. Last time you told me that, you ended up cursed. The time before that, I ended up in debt.”

“I bought your debt.”

A frown creased Rek’s forehead. “Bought my debt?”

Cord nodded. “You owe me now.”

Rek grumbled low in his chest, the sound like a bass drum. “What if I just take it out of your hide?”

Cord spread his hands. “The debt defaults back to the man you owed before. Remember the Harrower? Who would you rather owe, Rek?”

Rek cursed and tossed his teacup at the wall. It shattered, peppering the room with tea and ceramic. Cats scattered at the explosion, scurrying under chairs and into the kitchen. Cord smirked, and I raised an eyebrow at him. He ignored me.

“Is that a yes?” he asked.

Rek heaved a sigh. “Yes. But when the debt is paid, I’ll kill you for real.”

Cord looked a little queasy for a moment, and then cleared his throat. “Deal.”

We filed out of the house, leaving the big man behind to gather his belongings. He’d meet us at the boat after. On the way there, I stopped Cord.

“You going to blackmail everyone we recruit?”

He shook his head. “Rek just needs motivation. He’s really a decent guy.”

“Aside from the murdering you in the street thing.”

Cord shrugged and continued down the path. “Technically, he didn’t kill me. And I deserved it. Probably more. I really screwed him with that Harrower job.”

“Yeah? Did you really buy his debt?”

“I did.”

“From the same man who cursed you?”

“Yeah.”

“That can’t have been comfortable.”

“He’s really proud of that curse.”

“I would be, too.” I considered. “It can’t be good being in debt to one of those things.”

“Nope.”

“So really, you did him a favor.”

“That’s how I see it.”

“Will Rek?”

“The world is full of unknowable questions, Nenn.”

“So?”

He shrugged. “Probably not.”

*

We made it quayside, finding Rek in the bow of the boat, the back poking out of the water. He wore a scowl and held an oar. We waded over and climbed in, settling the craft, and Rek pushed us off, moving the boat forward with powerful strokes. We rode in silence as Cait dwindled, and then disappeared past the first bend.

“Kitties better be okay,” Rek said.

Cord just swallowed and watched the trees pass.

Chapter 3

“The Outsiders,” Cord said, apropos of nothing.

I shook my head, watching the riverbank roll by. We’d made good time with Rek pushing the oars, and Cait was already far behind.

“Why not?”

“Sounds like we should be wearing leather, struggling with our identities,” I said.

“Fine.”

“Where we going, anyway?”

“To see Lux.”

Rek groaned from the front of the boat. “Not Lux.”

“What’s wrong with Lux?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Cord said.

“Creepy,” Rek said.

“Okay, yeah, she’s a little creepy,” Cord acknowledged. “We still need her.”

I looked around the small craft. “We’re also going to need a bigger boat.”

Cord smiled. “Trust me. I have a plan.”

Rek groaned again, and I joined him.

*

Looking back, Rek was the easiest of all the things we’d set to ourselves.

I asked myself then what Rek really wanted. He seemed content with his cats, with his tiny cottage. I wondered if any choice other than blackmail existed, and realized that even in his cozy home, a dual feeling of restlessness and inertia hung about the man. It clung to him like cheap perfume, and watching him in that cottage, among his knickknacks and doilies, he paced like a caged cat. Sitting in that boat, watching the man work the paddle as the riverbank flew by, the set of his shoulders spoke of a joy he hadn’t experienced in years.

“How’d you two meet?” I asked as Rek pushed the boat along, powerful arms moving like clockwork.

Cord groaned.

Rek rumbled a laugh. “The idiot tried to rob me. I was working this club in Midian, one of those places that pop up overnight and is gone the next day.”

“That’s a thing?” I asked.

“For a while. It’s a cheap way to make a killing. Buy cheap booze, hire some musicians, charge an arm and a leg for exclusive access–”

“Some people have more money than brains,” Cord muttered.

Rek continued. “Which leads to the next bit. Here comes Cord, walking in like he owns the place, ordering bottles of Gentian wine and a girl on each arm.”

“How did you know he didn’t?”

“The owner was the one who hired me. So, I pick this short little shit up, carry him out like luggage, and toss him on the street. Three hours later, while I’m chaining the doors, he comes back with four guys.”

“Oh no.”

Rek nodded. “Cord’s the only one who got back up. When he did, took him a minute to talk, but he offered me a job.”

“And you took it?”

Rek shrugged, the motion rocking the boat.

“The club was closing down at the end of the week, and I’ve always been good at making people not be people anymore. Besides, he might be an idiot—”

“Hey,” Cord protested.

“—but it paid the bills.”

“And we’ve been friends ever since,” Cord said.

“And we’ve been acquaintances ever since,” Rek corrected.

The conversation got me thinking about my own reasons for following Cord on this errand, and I slipped into memory during a lull in the conversation.

*

They’d named the bar The Dripping Bucket. It smelled of cheap cigars, cheaper whiskey, and boiled feet. On the upside, drinks stronger than an ettin knocked the more offensive of those scents right out of your head. Halfway through my second glass of a whiskey the color of bloody piss, a stranger sat down and bumped my neighbor’s elbow. My neighbor, on drink four and looking like the breeding result of a particularly stupid bulldog and a snake, stabbed him in the throat.

Hed, the bartender, glared at the stabber, then at the stabbee. The latter slipped to the floor, arterial spray making a mess of the woodwork. I stood and took my drink three stools down to keep my drink untainted.

“What the fuck, Zef?” Hed asked, eyes flicking back to the killer.

Zef shrugged. “He touched my purse.”

Hed grunted, and the rest of the bar managed to make a six-foot hole to give the new guy room to bleed out. Call it country hospitality.

Hed spoke up, addressing me. “Nenn, you gotta get this guy out of here.”

It took a minute for the statement to sink past the booze-soaked layer of my brain. Despite the whiskey already in my guts, I realized I remained the most sober. Empty glasses stood on the bar like husks of soldiers drained by a wight.  I hated touching corpses. I’d done it for a summer, picking up unfortunates for the morgue. The forgotten and the destitute left there by drug and blade. They squelched and jiggled, and sometimes, if they’d been in the sun long enough, bloated and stank. The especially dead ones liked to slip their skin when you tried to pick them up. I enjoyed touching dead guys like most people enjoy eating scabs. I made a face I hoped telegraphed my distaste.

“I’ll pay your tab.”

Some arguments however, are airtight.

“Okay, then,” I replied, and grabbed the dead guy by the ankles.

He left a red smear behind as I toted him out the rear exit. A few of the city’s scavengers–those worse off than even the patrons of the Dripping Bucket–scattered from the alley. They left behind a smell like burning cow shit. Not their fault. Clean water didn’t come cheap and thanks to Mane’s policies, even use of a well carried a tax. I waited for them to scurry away and dropped the corpse on the cobblestones. I lit a cigar while I tried to decide if this constituted the lowest point of my life, or just a bump on the way down.

Sitting in an alley with a dead guy while you smoke your last cigar of the night, and his blood slowly seeps into the soles of your boots, makes you think. Not that I’m a big thinker on a normal day–I mean, I’m not stupid. I just tend to take things as they come. But if anything, that sort of situation makes you re-evaluate some life choices. When the dead guy sits up and takes a big fat breath, right after you’ve finished screaming, you make big decisions.

He coughed once, and something small and pink spattered from his lips against the cobbles. He smashed it with his heel, and then took a second, deeper breath.

“Got another one of those?” he asked, gesturing at my cigar.

I shrugged and handed him mine. He took a deep drag, then coughed, smoke puffing out of him like a blacksmith’s forge at the bellows. He rubbed his throat, as if trying to massage away the soreness from the passage of the creature. He offered the cigar back, but I shook my head.  The distinct taste of regret already lingered on my tongue.

“You okay?” he asked.

I nodded and swallowed, waiting for my heart to stop hammering.

“This happen a lot?” I asked.

“Not a lot, no. Enough. But not a lot.” he eyed me up and down, and shrugged, as if coming to a decision. He offered me his hand. “I’m Cord.”

I took it and gave it a little shake. “Nenn.”

“You free this weekend?” he asked.

“That’s a weird question.”

“Why?”

“Well, you were just dead.”

“I’m not now.”

“I’m not really into necrophilia.”

“Still not dead.”

“Anymore. How do I know you won’t die again?”

“You don’t. So?”

“So what?”

“Are you free?”

I frowned at him. “I’m washing my hair.”

“This isn’t that kind of question. I had something better in mind.”

“Mummer show? I’ll be your beautiful assistant?”

He snorted. “How do you feel about a partnership?”

“Doing what?”

“Making money.”

“Doing what?”

He explained, and I started to come around despite my misgivings. It already sounded better than another fourteen hours in the mill. Call me overcautious. I needed more before he convinced me this wasn’t just another con. Granted, with the dying trick, an exceptional con, but at their core all cons reach for the same goal. You have something they want, they try to take it.

“That is really godsdamn specific. Also, why me?”

He gestured at the trail of blood. “Your first instinct was to hide the body, not call the guards.”

“That was for free whiskey.”

He shrugged. “Buy all the whiskey you want with our earnings.”

“Nah.”

“Nah?”

“Drinking got me into pulling a dead guy into an alley.”

“But I was only temporarily dead.”

“That’s an incredibly weird technicality,” I pointed out.

Silence fell between us.

“How’d you do that, anyway?” The question floated at the top of my mind like the vomit I barely kept down a few minutes ago.

He waved a hand. “Pissed off a Harrower.”

I whistled low. “You poor bastard.”

He nodded, and I felt bad for him despite myself. The word Harrower brought with it a nightmare wind that did its best to creep into your head. Wizards that powered their magic with the worst humanity is able to imagine, they worked for the highest bidder and flaunted their cruelty. You can imagine the unpleasantness.

“I thought you were gonna say it was a birth defect,” I said.

“Pfft. Where’s the mystery in that? The romance? The esoteric? Everyone’s so rational. It’s goddamn boring.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine.”

“Okay.”

A beat passed between us again.

“So?” Persistent, this one.

“So what?”

“The offer?”

“Oh, that.” I thought about my decisions so far. A hard life and a short temper landed me on the nearest bar stool more often than not. I’d drug a dead guy into an alley. Working at the mill pissed me off more nights than not. I nodded.

“Sure.”

“Great!” He stuck out one bloody hand. “Now, what do we call ourselves?”

“I’m Nenn.”

“I know that. We need a name. Like the Dastardly Duo or the Bloody Two.”

“How about no.”

*

Sometimes I still asked myself why I’d agreed to this new idea. I could have demanded my cut, walked away rich enough to afford a small home in a small village and shack up with a nice someone. Preferably someone who didn’t fetishize knives and money. Opposites attract, after all. Maybe I’d woo a grandmother.

If I had to guess, I liked the company. I’d spent a good portion of my youth in an orphanage, and even then, I’d only had acquaintances, people I was familiar, but never friendly with. After, when they threw me out on the street, I floated. I found work as a gopher, running and fetching, and later, as a fixer of sorts. I’d become handy with a blade in the intervening years, thanks to a life in the alleys and low streets of the towns I drifted between.

That was the way of it though, wasn’t it? Most men didn’t need blades, even if they carried them. Their only real threat was other men. But women—you had to watch yourself. Men, boys, teens—they all wanted what you had, whether you willing to part with it or not, and that made for a dangerous world. So I picked up a knife, then another. And another. I practiced until my blisters became calluses and even those gave way to tough skin and scar tissue.

I’d never had formal training, but it doesn’t take much to kill. And in the alleys and backstreets, you want a knife. You can swing a knife, or thrust with it, or any number of other wicked things you couldn’t do with a sword or a pike, or even a mace. Knives will bleed a man out fast, and the right type of knife will punch through chain, find places not covered with armor.

Eventually, I landed at the mill. Cutting is lucrative, but the career outlook dimmer than most. Still, I’d missed my blades. They’re quick and they’re wicked, and they’ve saved my life—-and Cord’s more than I could count. I couldn’t account for his refusal to carry a weapon. Maybe it was because he had me. Maybe it was his past as a soldier—of which he never spoke, or his past as a prisoner, but it seemed directly killing was beyond his comfort zone.

Unfortunately, for the people he’d marked as enemies, he was already deft at engineering circumstances that meant he never had to lift a blade. That would scare some people. For me, it was part of why I liked him. He had principals. No matter what scam we pulled—he stuck to his ideals.

That’s why our friendship worked. We played off one another’s strengths, no matter what anyone else might have thought of them. When I was younger, I thought friends were just those people who you trusted to not stick a knife in your back, and now I knew better. Friends—true friends—were family, and they’d stab you right to your face.

Memory drifted away in tatters as Cord announced a detour in the usual way. By not telling anyone until we arrived at one of the early delta forks in the Lethe. Rek back-paddled so hard he nearly tipped the boat, flipping everyone’s stomach as effectively as if someone showed us a pile of severed limbs. For a moment, we hung precariously on the edge of a cresting wave, Cord swearing, Rek wearing a grimace not out of place on a golem, and me hanging onto the gunwales. I tried not think about how quickly I’d drown between the weight of several crowns tucked in various places about my person and the knives. I thought briefly of stripping down, getting light so the water couldn’t claim me. But that would have required letting go of the boat, and I couldn’t convince my hands to obey me.

Finally, the boat righted, swinging about and barely missing a sharp outcrop of rock. We drifted peacefully up the northern tributary of the Lethe, frayed nerves settling in fits and twitches. Once a little way past the swirling current of the fork, we let the boat float a bit further before beaching it on a sandy shore, crawling out and stretching sore muscle and bone. Rek and Cord wandered off in one direction, I in another, to piss in the woods.

Cord speared a bass and fried it with soft potatoes and scallions. We watched the river roll by, unassuming in the mid-day sun, light fracturing and spraying across the tree line behind us. When we finished lunch, I leaned against a rock and lit a cigar—one of my last until we reached Tremaire—and watched fish jump and snatch at bugs skimming the surface of the water.

“What’s the deal with Lux?” I asked.

“Not right,” Rek said.

Cord grimaced. “Last we knew, she’d traveled back to Tremaire to take the exams at the Arcanum. Figured she’d learned enough in the world.”

“Did she pass?”

“No idea.”

“You can be sure she weirded out her professors. She’s likely to be even weirder now. Messing with that kind of power, it changes people. And the tests don’t help. No one really knows what goes on, but it tends to leave a mark,” Rek said.

“She’s not a Harrower, is she?” I asked, a knot of unease in my gut.

“Gods, no,” Cord replied. “Just regular weird. Not freaky death cult nightmare weird.”

“At least they’ve got the Leashmen,” Rek said.

He made a good point. Nobody really liked the soldiers that hunted rogue wizards, but it kept the number of villages turned into pudding to a minimum.

We sat for a little longer, and then I stood, looking around. Cord nudged me as he passed, heading for the boat. When we’d landed, Rek still scowled to rival the black clouds of a plains storm. While I woolgathered, he and Rek talked for a good while. Now, the big man looked relaxed, almost happy. He climbed into the boat, and I pulled Cord to the side.

“What did you say to him?”

“Didn’t say nothin’,” Cord said.

He opened his jacket and pulled a small brown package from an inside pocket. I raised an eyebrow.

“Slipweed?” I asked.

“Put a little in with his fish.”

“Why?”

“He’s wound tighter than a leper’s dick bandage.”

I hissed a breath from between clenched teeth and looked over at Rek. He sat in the front of the boat, twirling the oar and making whooshing sounds.

“Have you considered the problem of drugging the person rowing the boat? Have you considered how we might end up crushed on the rocks, or maybe impaled on a stray log?”

Rek laughed, high and fast, and I glared at Cord. He shrugged and raised his hands in a gesture of innocence. I punched him in the chest.

“Unf,” Cord said.

“Articulate as always,” I snapped and made my way to the boat. “Just remember, if we die, it’s for good, you dolt.”

Cord sputtered out an apology and spent the next five minutes trying to wrestle the oar from Rek’s over-muscled hands. When he finally grabbed it, he sighed in relief and pushed us off the bank, dipping the oar into the water. Rek flapped his hands in the air before him like birds. Cord started rowing, grumbling in complaint at the effort. I reached out, pushing him in the back with my boot. He rocked forward a little.

“Row, serf,” I said.

He glared back, but did as asked, muttering darkly under his breath. I chuckled and watched the riverbank slip past.

*

As we moved north, the landscape changed, long grasses and gentle hills giving way to rocky soil quickly replaced by muddy fens and marshy landscape, cattails and reeds standing tall in brackish water. Moss clung to the riverbank, climbing up the black bark of pine and cypress, vying for space on their boles with insidious green vines that drooped and trailed in the water. The trees thickened, throwing our boat into the shadows of the setting sun.

Rek’s euphoria lasted for a good portion of the trip, but as the sun slipped behind the trees and we hung a lantern from the bow, he grew quiet, head in his hands. He stared down at the bowsprit, watching his reflection just past. in the water.

“How’s it going up there, buddy?” Cord asked.

I lifted a leg to tap him in the kidneys and instead let out a low groan as pain throbbed in my guts. Cord craned his neck at me.

“You okay?”

I grimaced and wrapped my arms around my stomach. It wasn’t bad yet, but it promised to be. I dug a sliver of slipweed from my own private stash, and chewed furiously. Cord’s face fell.

“Oh. Oh no.”

“‘Fraid so,” I said through gritted teeth.

“If you could just not be a woman for a few more miles…?” Cord prompted.

I laid back on the boards of the boat and stared up at the stars. “Or you could go fuck yourself in the neck.”

“I’m wounded,” Cord said.

“You will be. Row faster, fathead.”

Cord muttered to himself and the stars slipped by with renewed speed. Eventually, they blurred, and I found my eyelids heavier than forge hammers. I closed them and drifted with the night sky.

*

I woke some time later to a small package by my head. I felt the flow starting. Maybe it already had. Slipweed tended to unravel time for its users, hours, minutes, sometimes days passing by in a blink. I unwrapped the package and found a few kama—small absorbent bundles—and an envelope of slipweed. I eased my trousers down and slipped the kama in, then took another sliver of the slipweed. It took a few moments, but the cramps faded to a dull background ache, and my headache eased. Cord kept his back turned the entire time.

Now that I felt a little better, I looked around. The trees thinned as we approached Murkwater, the small lake that Tremaire and the Arcanum stood on. Rek resumed rowing duties, though silently, and the reason for Cord’s quiet became apparent as he snored gently. A gentle mist sprung up in the forest, winding between trunk and undergrowth. Things moved in the fog, black and glistening, red and yellow eyes gleaming in the moonlight. I’d heard stories of failed experiments, summonings gone wrong, attempts at creating new life, released from the Arcanum. I hoped we needn’t discover the truth.

Rek picked up the pace and I thanked small gods for the thin layer of protection the hull provided from the water. Any number of beasts likely lived there. Like most hungry creatures however, they needed to smell flesh or taste blood to want you. We considered that motivation enough to avoid stopping to sleep, or taking an overland route via horse.

As we rowed deeper into the forest, the mist pressed in from all sides. The atmosphere cloyed, and I felt the need to break it up. I remembered a story Cord mentioned once in passing about Rek and a horse.

“What’s the deal with you and horses?” I asked Rek.

He shuddered, and Cord snorted awake.

“Horses?” Cord asked. “Oooh.”

A sly grin crossed his face.

“Yeah, that’s a great story.”

“Please don’t,” Rek pleaded.

Cord waved it away. “Your dignity’s fine. The horse isn’t here.”

“The story?” I prompted.

“Right. So, a few years back, this high muckity muck hires us for an expedition to the Hollow Hills. Some sort of artifact in the ruins down there. So, we gear up, and it’s a bit of a trek down to there from the river, so we figure we’ll do it proper. Besides, if we find a lot of loot, we’ll need something to haul it all back with.

“We find a horse trader in this little town—Agresta? Anyway, he’s got just what we need, nice mares for Lux and me. Beautiful horses, friendly, eat an apple right out of your hand. Rek however, needs a bigger horse.”

“I can’t help my size,” Rek said.

“We know, buddy,” Cord said, and patted him on the shoulder.

“Anyway, Rek isn’t totally comfortable with things bigger than him, and this one was a great beast of a stallion. Hooves the size of dinner plates. So Rek’s twice as nervous already.”

“That thing was a monster.”

“His name was Eugeen. He was as frightening as a cat.”

“No cat could fit my entire arm in its mouth.”

“So, Rek gets an idea. He disappears for a few hours, and when he comes back, he’s smelly as shit, but confident. He grabs the saddle, puts a foot in a stirrup, and the wind shifts. This horse gets a whiff of him and rears. So here’s Rek, suddenly dangling by a stirrup, tangled in the reins, and the horse is trying to bite him. Not little nips, either, but great big chomping bites.

“He starts screaming, the horse is kicking and biting, and finally Lux gets it to sleep with a little magic. We get Rek free, and when he’s finally calmed down, ask him what happened. Turns out he’d doused himself in horse piss.”

“For the love of fuck, why?” I asked.

“Thought he’d like me more if I smelled like a horse,” Rek said.

“Yeah, but what kind of horse piss was it, Rek?” Cord asked.

“Stallion.”

“And what kind of piss did you mean to use?”

He hung his head. “Mare.”

“But that means…” I said.

Cord nodded. “Horse would’ve fucked him to death.”

“Never again,” Rek said.

“Just remember, coulda been worse,” Cord said.

“How?”

“You could be pregnant with horse babies.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” I said.

Cord shrugged. “I’m not a chiurgeon.”

Apparently, they considered Lux some sort of predator, bolting when she drew near. It’s the animal kingdom’s way of saying fuck this, fuck that, and fuck you. More importantly, even on the Veldt, horseflesh came at a premium. If you saw someone not in silk or velvet riding one, either they served as cavalry, or the horse belonged to someone else.

The trees thinned further, wide spaces cleared by brave workers, allowing the Arcanum’s tower to view the landscape with some safety. The river widened out, and the tower came into view, a thick spire of brick thrusting toward the sky like a fat man’s cock. I thought it perfectly indicative of the Arcanum’s attitude. I don’t know why anyone expected people capable of wielding godlike power to possess a shred of humility. They certainly didn’t hold themselves to that standard.

We drifted into the Murkwater, and I shook Cord awake. He snorted and rubbed a hand over his face. The surface of the lake clouded over, like a storm roiling under the surface, and as we passed, lightning played in the depths. A small town surrounded the base of the tower ahead. Craftsmen, laborers, support staff, and magi who’d made the decision not to serve elsewhere made their homes there. Nearer the tower stood a hospital for those desperate for cures the chiurgeons, herbalists, and mundane alchemists couldn’t provide.

A low wall surrounded it all, providing protection from the forest beasts with a combination of simple brick and sophisticated wards. Docks extended from the town into the water, footings plunging into the murky depths. Lights from Tremiare reflected in the lake, and as we approached, something black and huge roiled beneath the surface and swam deeper.

Rek pulled us up to a slip among several boats of varying size, tossing a dockhand a rope. We clambered out, stretching our legs, thankful to be on solid ground again. Cord placed his hands in the small of his back and bent, groaning, while I chewed another sliver of slipweed. At least on land and moving around, I’d have some relief from the cramps. When we’d recovered, Cord led us toward the dock gate, a swagger in his step. Damn him. How did he have a swagger after being still and uncomfortable for so long?

A bored-looking youth stood guard at the gate. He wore no armor aside from a steel ring on a leather cord and a spear. He glanced blearily at us.

“Welcome to Tremaire. Mind yourself and we won’t have to mind you,” he intoned.

“Hex,” Cord said.

The youth blinked.

“Hex, it’s me.”

“Cord?” Hex said.

“The one and only.”

Hex smiled, and my stomach twisted in warning. His spear snapped out, impaling Cord’s arm. He pulled it out with a grunt and tapped the end onto the flagstones, ignorant of the blood spilling down the tip. Cord shrieked, and then clapped a hand over the bleeding hole.

“Please proceed,” Hex said, all business again.

Cord shot him a wounded look and walked through the gate, leaving a trail of red droplets. I caught up to him. He flexed a shoulder, trying to work the soreness out, and I saw the wound already bore a scab.

“You’re the best at making friends,” I said.

“He’s just sore I didn’t cut him in for more last time I was here.”

“Uh huh. The best. Are there more friends of yours here? Because I feel like we should buy you some chainmail.”

“He must be a friend. Cord’s still alive,” Rek said.

Cord muttered something under his breath and changed the subject. “If I remember right, Lux used to hang out at this little pub by the tower. Cosca’s. You two up for a drink?”

I’d needed a drink since the start of my cycle. Since I’d just spent twelve hours sitting in a boat. Besides, I needed a privy so I could change my kama. I looked over at Rek to check his response, and noted his pale color. A drink might benefit him as well. He spent a good portion of our stroll among close buildings and lit alleys by shying away from the light. I suspected the slipweed hangover of kicking in some time ago, his skull playing host to a variety of brain goblins. Amazing stuff, but the comedown could cripple a small bull, depending on how much you’d taken. From the size of him, I guessed Cord’s dose close to enough to drop a battalion.

We fell into an easy pace, passing shops closed for the night, every manner of trinket and weapon in their windows. Somewhere on the other side of the merchant district, a forge rang out. Deeper in, throaty laughter from a gathering. Cord chattered happily, and from the look on Rek’s face, it seemed he might break that promise to wait to kill him again.

“Have you ever had the beer here? Oh, it’s amazing, just the best. I think the wizards do something to it, but damn if it’s ever had an ill side effect. And the potatoes! Just you wait—butter and onion and sausage and a touch of goat’s cheese…”

Music and conversation overtopped him as Cosca’s came into view. A large building and long, it took up one end of the street. Simple painted wood facade and a high thatched roof set it apart from the stone and glass buildings on the street. We stepped inside and the sensations nearly overwhelmed me. The smells of food, spiced and roasted, smelled amazing. All the bodies crammed into the small room did not. Other sensations crowded in alongside, fighting for attention. Music, conversation, and bright bunting in the rafters. My mouth watered and I cursed Cord as he took his time finding us a table. When we finally sat, I snarled my order at the barmaid, and then made my way to the privy.

When I returned, a slight blonde with pale skin and cloudy eyes occupied a stage at one end of the room. I sat and watched while she put on a show, first pulling a bird from thin air, then transforming it into a lizard. She lifted the lizard from the stage, and with a sudden flourish, jammed it into her mouth, chewing furiously. The crowd let out cries of disgust. Someone retched when the woman swallowed. Silence filled the room, and she produced a dagger, holding it out for the crowd to see.

She plunged it into her stomach, opening her guts. Blood sprayed the front row of patrons, causing them to flinch in fear. One man scrambled to his feet from the front row, staggering away with his hands over his mouth. He couldn’t seem to run fast enough and he vomited across the floorboards in a fat fan of lamb chunks and potato. She rummaged around in her insides with one hand, then, with a triumphant smile on her lips withdrew the bird, whole and undamaged. The crowd erupted into cheers, and she took a bow. When she straightened, her stomach was clean and unblemished, and she stepped from the stage. She headed our way and sat beside Cord.

“Nenn, meet Lux.”

I nodded at her.

“I don’t think I’m hungry anymore,” Rek mumbled.

The waitress arrived, placing platters of meat and potato and tumblers of beer in front of us.

Rek took a deep breath, inhaling the scents. “Never mind, I’m still hungry,” he corrected.

I agreed and reached over him, loading my plate. Cord hadn’t exaggerated the quality of food at Cosca’s. Amazing beer and potatoes made the world disappear while I tucked in. Lux’s performance did nothing to put me off my appetite. For several minutes, I was unaware of anything else as I shoveled food into my mouth. When I finished, I pushed my chair back, and looked closer at Cord’s guest.

Lux stared off into the distance, a slight glaze over her eyes. She turned her head my way, skin nearly parchment-thin, blue veins tracing their way across her cheeks and brow. She gave no indication she saw me or anything else in the room.

Cord looked up, noticed my empty plate. He gestured in my direction.

“Lux, meet Nenn. Nenn, meet Lux.”

I nodded, and she favored me with a smile.

“Pleased to meet you. Where did you get that wonderful glow about your flesh? Your hair is wonderful. How do you keep the lice from it?” she asked.

I looked to Cord. He gave a slight shake of his head. It wasn’t the weirdest introduction I’d experienced, but it counted among them. Cord changed the subject.

“So… Lux here was just telling me that she would love to join us—”

“Yes,” Lux interrupted. “Yes, I would love to join your little ad-ven-ture, but you see, I have a condition, and I’m afraid the Arcanum won’t let me go without a bit of a fight, or some extreme convincing.”

“Condition?” I asked.

Cord groaned and banged his head into the table. I leaned in.

“What?” I asked.

“You can’t just ask people why they’re undead, Nenn.”

Lux opened her mouth and sucked in a breath. I sat up and turned my attention back to her.

“I’m dead. Well, I mean I was, but now I’m not. It’s more like a bad cold at this point, but no one’s sure it’s not catching, and they’re worried if I bite someone they might accidentally die—oh, speaking of die, have you seen the Archmagus’ robes? Heavenly. What was I saying? Oh yeah, I’m sorta dead, and we might need to kill some people to make them forget that.”

“Whoa,” Rek pushed his plate away and raised his hands, palms out. “I dunno about killing. Maybe we just rough them up?”

“See, the problem with that, is that wizards have long memories and bad tempers, and if you don’t kill them and hide the bodies, they tend to hold a grudge,” Cord said.

Lux nodded. The table fell silent, and I looked at Cord. He winked at me, so I looked at Lux. She shot me a smile, and I turned to Rek. He’d found something in his nails of great interest. I let out a long, drawn-out sigh. A grin spread across Cord’s face.

“Relax, you’ll love this plan,” he said.

“Fuck. Who we gotta kill?” I said.

 

 

Chapter 4

I did not love this plan. Turned out the harbormaster needed killing. Because we also needed to steal a boat. Not a boat like we’d rowed in on, but a proper boat, with sails and a rudder and cabins. It also turned out that in addition to being a ranking member of the Council, the harbormaster moved about with two guards at all times. Leashmen who wouldn’t hesitate to put a blade through any random neck they found themselves pointed at.

I excused myself to the privy to change my kama and seethe. I didn’t know what Cord was dragging us into, but I felt the level of danger approaching lethal for everyone not named Cord. And maybe Lux. I didn’t know if the undead could re-die, to be honest.

When I came out, he pulled me into a corner, a solemn look on his face.

“Wha-?” I said.

“We need to talk,” he said.

“You couldn’t wait until I came back to the table?”

He shook his head. “Not for this.”

“So, you just ambush a person outside the privy? You are lucky I didn’t have a knife. Or a full bladder.”

“Isn’t that why you went in there?”

“Yeah, but–I think we’re getting sidetracked. What do you want?”

He nodded and took a deep breath through his nose. “Look, this could go bad for everyone. If we don’t all make it out, I want you to run. Get as far away as you can.”

“Shouldn’t you be telling everyone this?”

He shook his head. “I need you to keep everyone together. Tell them I told you the whole plan, that you can pull it off without me, but you have to make a stop. Ditch them at the first dirtwater you come across and keep going.”

“That seems… shitty.”

He shook his head. “They can take care of themselves. Besides, splitting up will keep people off your back.”

“Then what?”

“Find a man in Orlecht, name of Clane. He’ll make sure you get your cut, no matter what.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You have friends? In Orlecht?”

He shrugged. “You don’t think I share everything with you, do you?”

I thought about it, shook my head. “No, you’re not as dumb as you act.”

“Good, Nenn. Good. Also, fuck you.”

“Fuck you,” I said, and he chucked me on the shoulder.

“Let’s get back, shall we? Larceny and murder wait for no one.”

I chuckled and followed him back to the table.

*

“Fuck fuck fuckity fuck,” Cord said.

We sat in the second story of a netmaker’s shop, looking out over the docks. It was little effort to convince the owner to let us rent the space. While nets are useful on a lake, they had to be made of special stuff in Tremaire, and it was expensive work. A little gold can grease a lot of palms, they say.

Boats bobbed in their berths, masts waving gently as they tossed a bit with the tide. Ours was a shallow draft tall ship just under forty feet named the Bough Mount, though none of us knew what that actually meant. Paint peeled from the hull, and the masts looked like they’d give you a splinter if you looked at them wrong. Still, it sat high in the water, and the sails looked to be in good condition.

Cord’s string of profanity was due to a squat figure in robes surrounded by several men—far more than three—currently searching our boat. We watched them mill and huddle, some of the Leashmen taking up posts that effectively blocked off the dock and the berth, others poking around amidships. The harbormaster called something down into the cabin of the boat. Another figure in black robes with a flesh-enrobed skull tucked under his arm came up the stairs. Scarified skin in thick ridges of raised flesh marked out pale tracks on bare arms.

“Harrower,” Cord said, voice low.

“How in the snowy hells did you manage to pick the one boat to steal that happens to be currently undergoing a rectal inspection?” I asked.

Rek leaned forward in his chair. “Cord could fuck up an erection if he was getting it stroked, that’s how.”

Lux giggled and Cord flipped them both the bird.

“Aw, Cordy, you know it’s true. You remember that Ithian? What was his name? Yan? Had his hand in your trousers and you’d had too many? Dipped down to finish the job and you just puked right on his beautiful bald head. Never seen a man with skin that dark turn that red,” Lux said.

Cord muttered something and turned to the window, watching the party on the dock. He fell quiet for several minutes, a stark counterpoint to Rek and Lux chatting behind us. Finally, he turned back, a slow grin spreading across his face.

“I have a plan,” he said.

*

The thing you have to understand about Cord’s plans is this: they were usually very good. That was the upside. The downside meant that someone usually found themselves in mortal danger. There were better than even odds that thanks to the encounter with Hex, everyone already knew Cord had arrived. It flattened Cord’s chances of strolling around without at least one Leashman trailing his shadow. We weren’t usually so lucky though. There were probably three. A side effect of burning people on your deals meant they were inclined to no longer trust you, and ensure that no one else trusted you.

We suspected that was the reason for the boat search, though it wasn’t a certainty. For one, we had no idea how they sussed out which boat Cord targeted. Wizards are wily, and sneaky, and generally not to be trusted. They might have pulled that information from the aether. They might have used a crystal ball. Maybe they threw a dart at a peasant until he squealed and pointed at the nearest thing that meant no one would throw darts at him. Between that and the disgruntled guard, it meant our plan to jump the harbormaster and steal the boat, or any boat at this point, was out of the question. In truth, I was a little relieved. I’d secretly agreed with Rek, but they’d forced me into a decision. Offing the Harbormaster seemed like a good way of sending up a ‘please kill us’ flare. I’d hoped they’d realize the insanity of it. I’d apparently hoped wrong.

Cord stared at the docks. “Can’t you do your woman thing, Nenn?”

“What the hell is the woman thing?”

“You know, boobs, butt, smile.”

“That is really insulting.”

“But it works, right?”

“Well, yeah. Men are stupid. But it’s probably a bad idea in this case. Those men have swords, and in my experience, men who don’t get what they want tend to try to take it.”

“Yeah, they’re shits like that,” Rek agreed. “Think harder,” he told Cord.

So, here we were. Ten Leashmen. One wizard. One Harrower. Even the wizard—a smile, an interest in his power and station—done. But the Harrower, that was a problem. They didn’t think like men or women, didn’t think of anything other than the dark and the things that lived there, and they could unleash it on you at any time. They were smart, and mean, and I suspected took joy in the combination. Gods forbid they ever gained significant power, and if it looked close that they might, gods willing, someone put them down.

*

Cord and Lux took a trip into the shopping district as soon as the sun lightened the horizon, leaving Rek and I to watch the dock. The coterie hadn’t moved from their positions.

“They’ve been standing there for hours,” Rek said. “We should probably come up with a new plan.”

I was inclined to agree with him. I opened my mouth to say so when a new group of Leashmen arrived and relieved the others of duty. The Harbormaster left with them, though I noticed the Harrower still sat on crates nearby. Now and then, he raised the severed head he carried and spoke softly to it. I shuddered.

“Well, that’s one down,” I said, referring to the leaving wizard.

Rek nodded and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back in his chair. “Whaddya think of Lux?”

“Creepy, but she’s got a certain charm,” I said.

Rek nodded. “She went through the trials here about three years back. It cracked her. She died and somehow came back. I don’t know why they let her walk out of there. The Leashmen are paranoid about magic they don’t understand.”

“They don’t understand necromancy?”

Rek shook his head. “From what they say, it wasn’t necro. Whoever–or whatever–brought her back wasn’t anywhere near.”

“So why did they? Let her go, that is.”

Rek shrugged. “Maybe she knew someone in the Circle. Maybe they took pity on her. Got to be hard, passing though the deadlands to the other side and then getting yanked back. Either way, she got real lucky.”

“That’s surprising, considering the Harrowers.”

Rek shook his head. “Harrowers are scary, but they don’t fuck with the Veil.”

“Why is that?”

“Not sure. There’s a rumor though that even touching the other side, just for a moment, can let all kinds of things into your head, let alone the world. Scares the hell out of the whitebeards, though.”

“You think she brought something back?”

Rek waved a hand. “Could’ve. Might not have. Maybe she just woke something up.”

“Like?”

“They say there are things sleeping beyond the Veil.”

“What kind of things?”

“Dunno. Things. I’m just an interested observer, not a scholar.”

“You’re just full of interesting information.”

Rek shrugged again. “I’m a freakin’ font.”

The door burst open and Cord and Lux swept in, bags in their hands.

“Darling!” Cord exclaimed. “You are going to love your new look!”

“Shit,” I breathed.

They proceeded to pull robes, tunics, trousers, and all manner of accessories from the bags, tossing them into a pile on the floor. I spotted a number of earrings and chains, a femur; a gnarled stick carved with small faces I assumed was supposed to be a wand, and a stuffed squirrel. I picked it up out of morbid curiosity. The taxidermist had posed it with both paws raised, claws outspread, teeth bared. Buttons stood from its skull in place of eyes, and its tail was a dagger blade. I dropped it and wiped my hands on my trousers.

“What the fuck?” I asked.

Cord turned to me while emptying bags, a grin on his face. A shit-eating grin, in retrospect.

“You remember that idea I had?”

“Yeah?” I drew the word out, not liking where this was going.

“Well… you need a disguise.”

My stomach sank. I looked at the accumulated accouterments. Wands, robes, miscellaneous items for piercings… the squirrel. I looked at Cord in horror.

“You want me to pretend to be a Harrower!”

“Well, yeah.”

“Why me?”

He sighed, as if long-suffering and I suppressed the urge to punch his nose into his sinus cavity.

“Lux is a student here. Rek looks like someone dug up a boulder and taught it to talk, and I am well-known. Too much so. And that leaves you, my dear.”

“Fuck,” I muttered, and started to dig through the piles. I held up a hoop twisted to look like a barbed wire. “You know I don’t have any piercings, right?”

Cord shrugged. “We’ll improvise.”

I sincerely hoped that didn’t mean he’d find a way to pierce me. I sorted through the piles, trying to discern what a Harrower might wear. I needed to get in the right mindset. I took a deep breath, and tried to think scary thoughts. Spiders. Spiders made of dicks. Cord’s dick. Yeah, that did it. I shuddered and picked out a sleeveless robe covered with scrawled writing, a necklace of teeth, and the squirrel. I slipped to the privy, changed my kama and my clothes, and chewed another sliver of slipweed. I’d been lucky, as it kept the worst of the cramps at bay so far.

I exited the privy to moderate applause, and grimaced.

“I feel like a troubled teen.”

Cord laughed, then gestured that we should gather round.

*

The simplicity of the plan both impressed and disappointed me. I love the beauty of a complex web of deception, but when it comes down to execution, simple is always better for the players. Unfortunately, it required two of us to put ourselves in the shit. Lux had the job of luring the Leashmen away. I needed to convince the Harrower to leave. If I couldn’t talk him into it, I’d resort to plan B: stabbing him in the neck ’til he didn’t live no more. I squirmed in the heavy robes while I waited for Lux to get into position. The wool scratched my skin into itchy redness, and I fought the urge to rip it off and throw it out the window, followed by a plunge directly into the lake.

The others waited closer to the boat. While Lux and I occupied the guards, they’d sneak aboard as soon as the coast was clear. I shifted again and blew an irritated breath. I didn’t know how wizards did it. Cord claimed they were all naked underneath, but considering the small amount of now-inflamed skin mine touched, I sincerely fucking doubted it. Then again, maybe that explained all the latent evil.

Finally, a screech echoed down the street, breaking the waiting tension. A workman sprinted by, stopping only long enough to look behind him. Moments later, several more followed. Lux appeared soon after, running pell-mell at them, howling and growling the entire way. A siren sounded somewhere deeper in town, and an air of panic filled Tremaire like a haze as other groups popped into view and charged about in chaotic herds.

“Help! It’s escaped! It’s escaped!” A man in an apron yelled as he rounded a corner.

He carried a basket of baked goods, pelting Lux as she drew near. A pastry filled with custard exploded against her. She paused in her pursuit long enough to dip a finger in the dessert and bring it to her lips. She licked her lips and winked at the baker, sending him screaming as she loosed another roar.

He sprinted away in a panic, disappearing down a side street. I watched while the Leashmen’s mild interest became alarm. The captain turned and said something to the Harrower, then readied squad arms and set off in a quick march down the street, filing away from the dock. I waited until the last disappeared around the corner, then straightened and sauntered onto the dock.

The harrower looked up as I approached. A pinched face held milky eyes, fat lips, and a shocking lack of eyebrows. It was a face built for cruelty. I halted a few feet from him. He spoke in a high, thin voice that set my teeth on edge.

“And what do you need? I supposed all our brothers and sisters were in the Hive.”

Oh good. They called it the Hive. That wasn’t creepy at all. “The Harbormaster—”

“That fat shit? He couldn’t find his cock in the dark with both hands and a glowlight.”

“That’s the one. He asked me to relieve you.”

The Harrower frowned and turned his head to one side. “That seems unlikely. He knows what I’ve seen here. Death lurks,” he lifted the severed skull and kissed its lips. “Yes, Raze knows it lurks. He has told me with his own dry lips.”

I cleared my throat and gripped the squirrel dagger tighter. “Well, Biffy here says you’re to leave.”

“Really.” The Harrower’s not-eyebrows came together. “Interesting.”  He paused. “You know what I think? I think you’re not a Harrower at all.”

“I am too. I even have Biffy here.” I waved the squirrel at him.

“Oh yeah? Then Harrow something.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Bring forth a nightmare.”

“You first.”

He sighed, and stood. He was easily a foot taller than me; making me aware I stood alone on a dock with a half-mad wizard. He lifted the skull, and emitted a high-pitched squeal. I winced as it reached a peak, and the skull’s eyes took on an unnatural glow. The air before him rippled and distorted, and I knew two things were about to happen. One, something very unpleasant was going to come out of that space, and two, he’d know I couldn’t Harrow. I panicked.

I rushed him while he still held his eyes shut. I raised the squirrel, wicked tail blade glinting in the weird light from the skull’s sockets. Just as the humming stopped in an abrupt squeal, I jammed the dagger end of the dead rodent into his throat and sawed sideways, spraying myself with blood. I left it as he toppled, all sound cutting off aside from a wet gurgle. I moved to push the body into the water, and a sound behind me made me spin.

Something fleshy came scuttling toward me, plump and pink.

“Oh gods.” The words escaped me involuntarily.

It was a fucking dick spider. I cursed myself for imagining such a thing before facing a Harrower. It was worse than I’d pictured. My heart hammered in panic. I bravely screamed a battle cry that definitely wasn’t a cry of disgust and stomped it to death with one steel-shod boot. The heel made the fleshy tubes burst and squish, spraying black ichor over the boards of the dock. As it died, it shuddered and chirped frantically. It stopped moving with one last horrifying squeal.

Heaving for breath, I pushed first it, and then the Harrower’s body–still sporting a taxidermied squirrel protruding from the neck–into the lake. I imagined the wizard still squirming as he fell, and choked back a retch. He sank with a splash into the murky water, and even as his robes billowed under the surface, Cord and the rest came sprinting from their hiding places. Lux stopped long enough to give me a sideways look. They leaped over the side of the boat, and cast the ropes off.

“Fer fuck’s sake, Nenn!” Cord hissed. “You gonna stand there in the fuckin’ slop you made, or get on the godsdamned boat?”

The Goblin King

Here’s a story I played with a bit, and sent on submission to feel out the waters. I did a couple of things I never do here, which was play with purple prose and perspective. It didn’t find a home, but I enjoyed writing it since I had Jareth in my head after just having watched Labyrinth.

 

The Goblin King

 

The goblin king sat atop an outcrop of stone perched on a hill, his narrow blade planted point-first in the earth between his booted feet, the edge dripping crimson. Carrion birds wheeled and called above him, a cacophony of misery echoing from ribbed throats, an eyeball pierced on the end of a gore-encrusted beak, its optic nerve fluttering in the breeze with the flap of ebon wings. Arrayed around him, the remains of a once-grand army as though a whirlwind had swept through their ranks, bodies broken, severed, exsanguinated.

He held his head as one who has suffered a loss, as one who has come to the end of a long road of exhaustion, and there, found only more road. He did not weep though the ground doubled and trebled before him and the carmine drops on his blade blurred to the point of blossoming into petals.

And yet, and yet, the sound of footfalls, of a light step avoiding rigid steel and limp flesh. Of breath held to keep out the scents of offal and shit and the coppery tang of blood spilled by the liter, by the gallon, by the barrel. The rasp of breath sucked in, the stifled cry as vision met the cloudy eyes of the dead and saw only the uncertainty of an eternity not promised. Then, the end of the approach. A stillness in the air, the screaming quiet of anticipation as the visitor screwed up his courage to speak.

“Speak,” the king commanded, for command was his province, the land he had always known.

The voice atop the blackened boots, boots that had seen summers and winters in the ash of many a hearth, perhaps with quill and parchment, perhaps while tending a pot, spoke, low and hesitant, a thing from the underbrush that fears the sun.

“H… How?”

The goblin king gestured to a stone similar to the one he sat on, and the stranger settled, not comfortably, but as comfortably as one can afford when perched on granite and faced with an embodied force of nature. When he had settled, the king looked up and regarded the man. Plain face, a dusting of whiskers across a straight jaw. Thick nose, bright eyes that shone with, if not intelligence, curiosity.

“I would ask you the same,” the king replied. “How is it you’ve survived…” he gestured to the surrounding carnage. An indication. An indictment.

The man shrugged. “I wasn’t here. I saw it though. The light. Heard it. The sound.”

The goblin king nodded and shifted on his stone. “Then, let me ask – are you mad?”

“How do you mean?”

“You saw what happened here and decided to investigate?”

“I’m a curious sort. Besides, it seemed to be over.” He looked around, though not at the dead. Instead his gaze sought the abstract. The silence in the aftermath. “Was I wrong?”

The king shook his head and looked up, past the avian storm that gathered. The sun still stood high, a vast unblinking eye. He addressed the man.

“I have time.”

“For?”

“Questions. You have curiosity, no? Let me sate it.”

“And then?”

The king shrugged. “We shall see.”

The man nodded and pulled a case from his side, unrolling a sheaf of parchment, tipping free an inkpot and a quill. He looked around, and with a demeanor that practically vibrated with unease, pulled a board shield from under a dead man, the body squelching with movement. He grimaced, and then moved quicker, needing to distance himself. He stretched the parchment out and laid it across the board, then dipped the quill and glanced up at the king.

“Tell me a story.”

“What kind of story?”

“Yours.”

“Why?”

“People will want to read it. To know you. To know this.”

The king sighed and tilted his head back, trying to remember. Memory floated at the edge, vagaries, a chiaroscuro of thought. He tilted his head back, gaze rolling down his nose at the scribe like water off a hill. Quizzical, concerned. The emotions roiled and mingled, dripping from his lips.

“Do you remember your mother?”

The scribe blinked, confusion writ on his face plain as the ink on his fingertips. “Yes, a stout woman. Severe at times. Then, who wouldn’t be, with muddy boots on rushes, six children, and a gruff husband. She was a wonderful cook. Sweetbreads, stew…” he trailed off.

“Interesting. I remember nothing. Well, not nothing. Perhaps… I don’t know that she was ever there in the traditional sense. Nor that she was stern. But I have mementos of her. The scent of bog peat in the summer. The whine of gnats in heat. The green throat of bull rushes pulling toward one another, reeds rubbing, chirping a symphony to the creak and croak of toad and frog.”

The scribe frowned even as his quill nib scratched against the parchment. Scritch scritch scritch. The utterance of print, the lexicon of language, each moment measured in quarts and distance. He thought about that thought, and decided if he had tried to write something worse, he couldn’t. This was it. Purple prose shitting itself against the wall, letting the words drip down like fly-ridden effluvia. He grunted once and scribbled, letting the ink blot out the words, obliterate the ephemeral bullshit. He could do better. He began again.

His mother was a swamp.

Fuck no. Another blot. This one nearly tearing the paper. He looked up apologetically, then motioned for the king to continue.

“My father? Very well. My father. Dry. Distant. Harsh. Hot. Rough. A hundred, a thousand adjectives, all too small or too large to fit him. Too wrong, and yet almost right.”

Better, the scribe thought. Filter out the frippery. He thought back to the beginning, thinking he would need to revise. He kept writing, the quill a small blur. He raised his free hand and spun his fingers, insisting the king go on, insisting on the continuance of story, the uninterrupted flow of idea.

“My childhood?” The king harrumphed, a sound of discontent. “What of yours?”

The scribe looked up, blinked. “I spent the majority of my early days weeding plots and cutting thatch. Sometimes, when the harvest finished, grain stacked and milled, and it was too soon to hang meat to dry, I played with the farm dogs, sometimes ran to the market and spent what few coins I had on paper and charcoal. My father nearly took my head off when he found them. He’d taught us letters, but not that they were much use beyond knowing how to read the proclamations and keep our heads down. He was determined to have more thatchers, more herds, more row workers. I was not.”

The king nodded, the great white mane of his hair bobbing. “I played. In caves and trees, in stone labyrinth and mossed battlefield. It wasn’t for lack of work, but lack of guidance. It was there I learned my first scraps of sorcery – how to bleed a man from his pores, how to twist his bones so he looked like a dog when viewed in the right light. How to chase the small dragonflies when they came near, and the way their thoraxes crunched under your molars.”

He leaned closer, the hilt of his blade tipping to one side, coming to rest against his thigh. “Do you wonder, dear man, how you and I diverged so?”

The scribe shrugged. “The fae are what they are.”

The king waved it away. “A useless tautology. I assumed a man of words would know better. We diverged because we wished it so. Would you have the strength to survive in my world? A wildling even among wild things? I would have withered in your world. Survived, yes, but never lived. You make your own reality, scribe.”

“You’re suggesting I wanted to be… normal?”

The king shrugged. “I’m suggesting you survived. Whether you lived or not is of your own mind to make up.”

“Interesting.” The scribe took a breath and frowned at the words he’d written. Clearer, cleaner. The king’s words stuck with him. Had he lived? Would he have touched magic and brought it into his breast in lieu of meat or love? He shrugged, muscle playing with its own landscape, and put quill to parchment.

“How did you become king?”

“How does anyone become king? Deceit, divine right, and inbreeding.”

The scribe raised an eyebrow, giving the king a look that said perhaps you’ve shared too much. For his part, he had moved on, head tilted toward the sun, perhaps gauging the time, perhaps trying to remember something once important, but now relegated to insignificance in the face of time.

“We have little time left. You may ask me one more,” he said.

The look in his eyes was predatory, the glint of light in the pupils like that of a hawk ready to strike, anticipation a hooked talon. The scribe screwed up his face, chewed on the tip of the quill. It had to be good. Lachlan’s press would pay by the word for the account of the stranger who had laid waste to Renfen’s entire army.

The scribe looked around, at the bodies that had begun to bloat in the sun, fat toadstools of flesh putrefying, ready to spill their red and glistening spoor. His gorge rose, a thick tide of boiled oats and greasy sausage, and he choked it back, looking away. How does someone do this? He glanced again, just from the corner of his eye, the look of a man who has seen a dangerous thought, and wonders if he looks at it full, would it cut his mind? Would it hollow his thoughts and lay him out in the sun with all these others, gibbering, until the grave-diggers came and found him playing with himself in the blood-dewed grass?

His eyes flicked back to the king, to the perfectly coiffed hair, the perfect vest and leggings, the codpiece that exaggerated more than just words. The king quirked a smile at the scribe as he caught him looking, and the scribe blushed. How?

No, the voice in his head answered, that part that when looking over the words later, corrected the incorrect, no. Why?

“Why?” The scribe echoed the word, letting it tumble from his lips in place of the vomit, and the king smiled this time.

“Finally, the heart of the matter. The marrow of the bone. Why.” He sat back, and the blade slipped to the ground, unnoticed. “Because. Because I can.”

“Surely there’s more?”

“Does there have to be?”

“For a sane man, for a man who wants to make sense of the words written here, of the world he describe, yes.”

“Then write this: there was a girl. Or maybe a boy. A promise. A lie. There was a death, and vengeance. There was a love unrequited. There was a dragon, and a sorcerer, and a crone. There was a fairy and a goblin, one pure, one corrupt. There was a labyrinth and a child. There was a battle. A kingdom lost, and an empire found. I was a king. I am a king. And I will do what I gods. Damn. Well. Please.”

While he spoke, dread wormed its way into the scribe’s heart, moving deeper and deeper until it sat entrenched like a barbed arrow. His eyes darted to the goblin king’s blade, and as every dismissal dripped from his lips, he forgot to write, forgot to put down the truth he saw. These were the words of a tyrant. He leaned forward, the king seemingly forgetting him in his rant. His fingers trembled, his arm ached, and then, the sword was in his hand, the grip both cool and gritty with dried blood and sand.

He raised the blade, intending to stab it into the king’s heart, to end the coming horror. Words tumbled from his lips, a short squall in the blazing heat of the king’s conviction.

“You’re mad. Madder than any who came before. A coming terror.”

And then the king stood above him, hand outstretched, and he saw the truth. Reality is what you make it, and the king had made his own. No simple warrior stood before the scribe, but a being that encompassed all things and rejected his. Neither and both. Terrible and frightening, powerful and irresistible. The scribe trembled, and the tip of the blade faltered, dipped, dipped… and ended in the dirt. The king took the blade from him, not ungently. He knelt next to the scribe, whose eyes had filled with tears. He spoke soft, his voice honeyed mead in the scribe’s ears.

“You can call me mad, a terror. I suppose those are true things in a way. Mercy for those who need it may seem like madness from the outside to those who do not desire succor. But I have sat to the side for so, so many years while men ground others to dirt, while they subjugated others at a whim, for money, for the color of their skin, for the way they speak, or the things they worship. You have letters and fine food and the strength of conviction. You have absolute conviction that what you do in the now is right, and yet cannot see past the horizon.

And yes, I provide mercy. I feel the question trembling on your lips. I relieve you of your burdens, of your convictions. I bring you the clarity of freedom.

You can write this, then, if it eases your heart: I do this for love. Love drives us all, and even love led these men to this field. Love led you here, did it not?”

The scribe, turning the words over in his head, nodded in agreement. He loved few things as he loved words. It had led him down paths both bright and dim, from under his family’s sheltering arms, from the beds of others who would have him as his own. He wandered still, searching for a specific love, and in wandering, found it – a country where rivers of ink flowed across a vellum landscape.

He picked up the scribe’s quill and pressed it into his hand. “Love will make or break a man. Love may shatter hearts and mend souls. Love can raise a people up or cast them into the gutter. Nothing worth doing is worth doing without it. I do this because I love.”

He leaned in and kissed the scribe just behind the ear, his lips soft and warm, and his breath smelling of clover. Then he straightened and sauntered away, leaving the scribe alone. He listened to the buzz of flies on the dead, a symphony of one-string violins, and then crumpled the paper, tossing it to the side, where it came to rest in a pool of clotting blood, the parchment pulling in the red until it blossomed like carnations across the rumpled surface. He watched it bloom, and then pulled a new sheet from his case, dipped his quill, and wrote:

The goblin king sat atop an outcrop of stone perched on a hill, his heart full of love.

Gray Mother

Her paws were cold, and her feet crunched in the snow as she walked, the crust under her claws unreliable, sometimes holding her weight, sometimes punching through and sending her into an uneven gait that caused her to sink into powder as high as her chest. When it happened, she would blow it away from her face with a snort, the ends of her whiskers tingling as ice crystals brushed against them, and dig in, her back legs kicking until she was on top again. It would tire her, and she’d stop when she reached a solid point, panting gently, stopping to lap at the powder until enough melted in her mouth, and she could ease the aching itch in her throat.

Wind stirred the powder, sending it swirling and spiraling in whorls and eddies, and shaking the boughs above her. Fat clods of snow fell from the branches and hit the ground with thick plopping sounds. Above her, a black bird shifted on its branch and fluttered its wings, trying to settle. It sighed.

“Will you not rest, Old Mother?”

It was the birds’ name for her, though she had been known by many. Waabishki-ma’iingan by the tall hunters in the summers, Long Fang by her packmates, and Ingashi by her litter, though they were long grown and in packs of their own these days. To the moon she had always simply been Grey, sister and daughter; mother, maiden, and crone. She craned her neck, catching the scents of deer and rabbit on the wind, and stared at the bird. She knew him only as Ebon.

“Over this next rise. We need to make better time. Maybe if you fly ahead. You can see if the pack is there.”

Ebon sighed again and fluttered his wings, then launched himself from the branch, sending more snow pattering to the ground. For a moment, the flap of his wings was loud in the clearing, and then they were gone. Grey settled on her haunches, watching the moon filter through the boughs overhead, sending skeletal fingers reaching into the white, a chiaroscuro sketch of murky futures. She lifted her head and sniffed, thinking maybe she would smell the dry dusting of Ebon’s feathers, or the carrion scent that clung to the hook of his beak, the points of his talons.

Too soon, she thought. Age and hunting had taught her patience in most things, but never in her need to be near family. Her mind drifted a little – it did that more these days, time unmooring and sending her down faded paths.

Blue-Eye had appeared in the spring grain, full of chest and tall, his withers wide and his teeth sharp. She had set her paws in the mud, green shoots tickling the pads, and lowered her head, her mouth set, her legs wide. She let a low rumble escape her chest, the sound like rocks tumbling in a stream. He paused and turned his head, one blue eye shining over his thick muzzle, the other a circle of fur bounded by a thick seam of scar. He turned his head and opened his mouth, tongue lolling out, as though he thought her challenge amusing.

Grey bounded forward, intending to teach him that she had little to do with joking, and more to do with keeping intruders from her pack. She leapt, and he stepped out of the way, banging his head into her ribs, and bringing his paws onto her side. She coughed out a surprised bark as she landed on her back in the mud, and he nipped her throat – not enough to draw blood, but a message nonetheless. She lay still, waiting, and he licked her face once, then tore off through the high grass. A fierce sort of something rose in her, and she found her feet and gave chase, wheat whipping by to either side, his musk in her nose, his hard breath ahead of her.

And then – and then there he was, waiting, and she rolled him this time, catching his throat in her jaws, a playful growl escaping her. After a moment, she let up, and he bounced to his feet. They stared at one another, that striking blue eye honest, and came together.

The memory faded, and Grey looked to the sky. Stars, unseen before, peeked through cracks in the clouds. There was a story her people told themselves sometimes, after a hunt, when the elders would lie in warm circles, and the pups wrestled among the pines. It was the story of Amarok. They said when the world was all forest, before the tall hunters, it was full of prey. Others abided there, the bear and the hawk, and darker – the wendigo and the alakwis. They said that when Amarok was just a pup, the wendigo took his father and gave him a hunger that could only be sated with his own people’s flesh. Wild and alone, Amarok’s father – Rust – fled to the wood, fearful that he should swallow his family and devour his pups.

In time, he was all but forgotten as the pack moved on, though it was said they could hear him moving behind them always, his paws scrabbling on the rough bark shed by ancient trees, claws clicking on stony hillsides. They whispered they could hear his rough growl behind the gorse and heather, and glimpse his shadow, hunched by hunger behind the thick maples. So, they moved, always moving, not letting He Who Lurks catch their throats.

Then, they began to fall. First, the old and infirm. Packmates rendered slow by the river of time, hobbled by nature, or sick with any number of things that could creep up and take the honorable in a dishonorable way. No one said more than was necessary. No one slowed their pace. It was the Way. The Way said you moved on. And on. And those who fell were left behind. Not forgotten, not discarded. Their time had come, and it was up to the Mother to reclaim them. There was no dishonor in death, for it came for all.

But Amarok knew better. He saw better. He saw how when the weak fell, a shadow fell over them. He saw jaws, dark and red, reach from the dark places between boles and snatch a leg, tear a tendon. And still he ran with the pack.

It was a clear night when his father came among them, sleeping in their groups. He stalked among the kits and whelplings, and his head would dip, coming back up with jaws working. He had grown lean in the intervening years. His ribs stood out in stark relief, his spine bristling. Rust’s eyes held a yellowish sheen, his teeth stained brown, and his saliva ran in rivulets from half-open jaws. Madness had settled in him like a thorn in flesh, and as his head swiveled side to side, he saw only prey – an entire world for the eating.

Amarok stood, and approached, head down, teeth bared. His father, if he recognized his son, slavered and snapped, and opened his jaws wide, a maw that reeked of black death and rot. Seeing his chance, Amarok dove in, for his father was huge – the largest wolf that had lived until that point – and Amarok fit between his teeth easily. He traveled down his father’s slick throat, into the furnace of his stomach. Once there, he ripped and tore, he rent and bled his father among the corpses of his litter-mates, and with a final howl, tore free of the beast’s stomach, rebirthed in savagery.

When the other wolves saw what he had done, they voiced their joy to the moon, the Mother, and she took notice. For each thing that Rust had devoured, she placed their souls in the sky and set them to burn so that all would know the good Amarok had done.

“Amarok. It is a good story.”

The wolf that stood apart from her was black, his eyes the green of the forest in summer. He settled to his haunches in the shadow between two great oaks. Grey watched him warily. She was not startled, though she hadn’t heard him approach, and was not surprised, though he seemed to know her thoughts. Grey had lived long enough to know that things worked that way in the world. There were certainly more things beneath the stars and between the shadows of the trees than could be accounted for, even in her long life.

“I am waiting for my friend,” she replied, as if that explained everything.

The black wolf looked out toward the rolling hills in the distance, trees clinging to them like bristling hairs. Snow had begun to drift down again in lazy see-saws.

“It may be a while.”

Grey sniffed the air again, and smelled only ice on the wind and the hours-old passage of prey. “My pack…” she began.

“Will be fine without you for a while.” It was the black wolf’s turn to raise his head and sniff slightly at the air.

“Tell me, Old Mother, aren’t you tired?”

The question rankled her. It was not their way to complain. Of the heat, or of the snow. Of the scarcity of the hunt, or the ache from old wounds. It was not their way to give voice to doubt or pain, or to whisper even to the wind of the way their joints ached with age, the way their paws no longer gripped tight to rocky land, or the way their vision sometimes blurred when something moved too fast before them. Despite that, all those things were true, and she kept her silence.

Instead, she turned her thoughts to Blue-Eye. She thought of his humor and his strength, his ferocity. She thought of the time they cornered a bear who had been harassing the fringes of the pack, snapping and snarling, pushing it back despite its size. And Blue-Eye, stupid, brave, funny Blue-Eye, had grown bold. He moved too close, lunging at the beast’s midsection, and it swatted him. It hammered him back like a tail would swat a fly, and – red fell, carmine and bloody in its fierceness. When they found her, she was bleeding, her ribs ached, and her leg would not support her weight. And beside her, the bear, its throat a ruin. Despite the pain, she stood over Blue-Eye, stood until she could no more, and when darkness fell, laid her head on the still-soft mat of his fur, resting until his soul burned among the stars.

Her thoughts turned to her cubs, loyal to pack and family, strong and good. They led packs of their own now – Sharp-Tooth and Little Bear and Red Sister. She thought of the days they frolicked in the long grass, and through crisp castoff leaves in autumn. She thought of the times she had brought down countless deer and rabbit, moving aside to share the kill, of the times she could only find squirrel or vole, and went hungry herself that they might be full and warm a night.

“Your love, your children. Where would they be without you?” He stood and began to pace a slow circle around her, passing into light and shadow, light and shadow. “Would things have gone differently? Have you only spared them what fate might have allowed given time?”

She growled then and bared her fangs. They were still sharp, despite age, her jaws still strong.

“Rest, Old Mother, rest and let time do its work. You need not worry. Time and age and the wind bring change to all things. Surely, you are tired?”

Even as he spoke, she felt the ache of years in her hips, the weight of a paunch gained from children, the soreness of teats that had never seemed to heal all the way after whelping. She felt them, and ignored them, and pushed herself to her feet, bracing against the shooting pain from the scars above her ribs.

“Yet you stand.” The sound that followed was a sigh. “Come then, Old Mother. Come and test your teeth against my throat.”

She moved, fast, but he was faster, and her jaws only scraped him while he snapped in and opened a wound in her leg. Crimson spattered white snow, steaming slightly in the chill night. She limped to the side and let him come at her, his head low, wide like a viper’s. She let him bull in, teeth opening a new wound on her scars, and she twisted, lowering her jaws, closing them tight around his throat. He yelped, and tried to pull away, but she held on tight despite his claws raking at her, front and back, making a red ruin of her fur. Grey shook her head, a mixture of snarl and whimper escaping her lips. Still, the black wolf fought her, opening wound upon wound as he struggled from her jaws.

For his part, it was useless. These were jaws that had felled countless prey, that had torn the throat from the beast who took her lover. They were jaws that had protected and killed for her cubs. She shook her head one last time, the action sending a ripple of pain up her spine, and with a final crack, the other wolf went limp. He ceased to struggle, and she dropped the limp bundle of fur.

Grey paced a few steps, and sagged to the snow, not caring that beneath her it grew warm and sticky, thick with her blood. She looked up, to the stars, and one among them winked blue. She chuffed out a soft greeting. Somewhere distant, drawing closer, like a chinook through the trees, came the sound of wings. After a moment, Ebon landed near.

“My pack?”

He cocked his head, taking in the scene. He seemed to process it, and then take it in stride. “Further, just beyond the hills.”

“Thank you.” She pushed herself to her feet, her body aching. She thought of the pack, alone in the night, and began to walk, the raven close behind.

Her War Heart

She had seven hearts, each in a velvet lined box of hardwood stained the color of clotted blood. She walked among them, fingers tracing the carved lids, and wondered which she would need today. She thought of the witch in the woods, the gnarled crone she had met when she was a little girl, and her sharp knife and promises.

“You will be different. You will be strong. The men will not dare lay their hands on your flesh, or speak promises only to be broken as soon as they are soft.”

The knife glittered in the dark, then slipped between her ribs, opening her like a puzzle box, bone sliding aside, breastbone opening as a lock under a key. Curiously, it did not hurt, and she only watched in dispassion as the old woman took her first heart – her true heart – and lifted it, glistening in the firelight. She placed it in a sack and told Agnes to bury it in the thick peat between the roots of a cypress tree, and when she was finished, to guard its secret well. After, she was to return once a year, for the old woman to give her a new heart, each a distillation of those things that made life worth living.

Seven years, seven hearts, and this year she returned. She never asked the old witch what she wanted in return. Agnes knew already. When she would visit, she would tidy the cabin, brush the old woman’s long hair, still shining a deep gold, and rub the calluses on her feet. She would prepare dinner, and they would sup together, and when they were finished, the old witch – Greta – would disappear into her bedroom while crepuscular light crept in through the windows. She would rummage around for a bit, and when she returned, a new box would be in her hands, the wood stained and polished to a shine.

Now, it was nearly another year, and she had laid out her dress, a light thing printed with flowers, and tall boots, for Greta lived in the forest past the fields, and the mud could creep up your ankles and into your shoes, and if it had been a wet spring, sometimes it climbed to your knees, sucking at your legs like a drunk sucks at a bone, trying to pull the meat and marrow from you.

Agnes wondered which heart to wear – joy, for the laughter she shared with the witch, or stoicism to accept that time was passing, and soon enough even Greta’s time would come to an end. It was something Agnes hadn’t considered when she was younger. The witch of the woods had always seemed immortal, especially when Agnes had been young, Great had still been very old. But the fact was that time crept on, and even the very old and powerful weren’t immune to its ravages.

Maybe sorrow, then? She shook her head. Too much. Too painful. Outside, someone was ringing the warning bell in the square, drawing her from her thoughts. A rabble of voices drifted on the wind, and Agnes peeked her head from a shutter to see what the stir was about. The sky had turned the orange red of a summer storm, and the wind had the tang of ozone. In the square below, someone had gathered a large crowd, and Agnes squinted to see who it was.

Gunter, the town constable, was standing on the platform usually used for mayoral announcements, his bald pate shining in the still sunny day, wisps from the salt and pepper fringe blowing around his scalp. His face was red – redder than the normal flush from drink – and he clutched a burlap sack in one gloved hand. Most of the town was gathered around, summer dress fluttering in the warm zephyr, men with shirts unlaced and hats in hand, some still holding pitchforks and hoes. Agnes frowned. This must have been called in a hurry.

Gunter raised his voice to a stentorian bellow. “There is an abomination in our midst!”

The crowd muttered and shuffled their feet. They’d heard this before, two summers ago when Gunter had been appointed constable, and he was eager to hunt out evil in a town of less than a hundred people. He’d insisted there was a witch in the woods, and that she lured in unsuspecting children, then devoured them whole. Agnes had laughed at the pronouncement, as had most of the village, though her reasons were different. The thought of Greta, a woman who subsisted on bread and roots, eating a lamb shank, let alone a child, was ridiculous.

Gunter had turned a deep red at the scoffing, throwing an accusatory finger in their faces. “You’ll see! When your crops wither and your children grow wan, you’ll see!”

He’d stomped off in a blind fury, and Agnes had crept away that night to tell Greta of his speech. The old woman worked a spell that summer, with sea salt and bread, with bone and earth, that strengthened the crops and made the children hale. When the village saw the opposite of what Gunter claimed, they mocked him in the street, calling him ‘Old Man Wind’, a reference to the storms he would blow but never break.

Now he stood in the town square, and the burlap sack in his hand writhed, and a pit of dread sat in Agnes’s stomach, because she could see the mud on his boots and the scratches on his arms. He glared around at the muttering and reached into the bag, and her stomach clenched even tighter. With a triumphant sound, he pulled his prize free, the crimson muscle still beating in the sunlight. Agnes gasped, echoing the townspeople.

“A witch, I told you! A heartless witch, and if she is bold enough to walk among us with no heart, what must she be planning for your children? Hannah? Your Ruth, is she well? Martin, your Jon, has he not been ill? Look among you!”

They began to glance at one another.

“Who among you is missing? Who among you would not deign to show her face for the good of the village?”

All eyes turned to Agnes’ home, and she blanched, pulling her head back into the room and slamming the shutter closed. Too late though – she knew they had seen her, and now she wondered what was to be next. Outside, the muttering had risen to a clamor, and she bolted downstairs with a jolt of fear, managing to slam the bar across her door as the first stone hit it.

They came in a flurry, a rainstorm of stones slamming into her door, breaking slats from the shutters and rattling against the roof and cupboard. There were shouts for her to come out, for her to make their children well, for her to end her life. She ran upstairs and threw her tiny closet open, looking at each heart in turn. Which could she use? Innocence? They’d never believe it. Joy? She’d appear a lunatic. Sorrow? They’d think her being contrite a false face, and after all, what did she have to be contrite about? Living? She’d never brought them harm.

Smoke trickled between the floorboards, and panic seized her limbs. Leaving the hearts behind, Agnes barreled down the stairs, seeing that the front door had been lit, the walls now smoking too as the townspeople piled brush and lumber against them. She banged on the door and shouted.

“You know me! Harold – I taught your children! Jane – who nursed your little ones when you had the pox?”

No response came, and she tried to kick the door down, to flee, but they had nailed it tight. The fire was under the house now, and the floorboards smoked and spat as the flames took them. She fled up the stairs, thinking to jump from a window, but when she threw the shutter, saw that the townsfolk had surrounded her house, some with their bows, and watched as it burned.

Weeping, she sat on the floor and curled up into a ball. Surely they would relent. Surely they would spare her. This was just a lesson. She had harmed no one. She had done nothi-

The floor collapsed, spilling her into the fire.

*

She had been in the forest. She couldn’t remember why. Her mother had died? Her father? They were both gone now, gone and away, and she was alone, and there was no one to tell her not to play there, so she did. When she found the path, neat and winding between the boles of ancient oaks and maples, she took it, feet crunching on leaves shed the season before. Past another turn, the third in the path, she saw a tidy cottage, small and cozy, smoke rising from the chimney. Being neither warned nor afraid of such things, she knocked. The woman who answered the door was dressed in black, her hair gold, her hands wizened. She smiled, and let the girl in.

“Do I know you?” The woman asked.

Agnes shook her head.

“Would I like to?” The woman asked.

Agnes nodded.

“What is your name, little one?”

“Agnes, but my mother always called me Aggie.”

“Well, then Aggie, come in and sit with an old woman. I am Greta.”

“What will we do?”

“Sup, and talk, and in the end, if you’re very good, I’ll show you a bit of magic.”

Agnes thought she would like that very much, and stepped into the cottage, the door closing behind her.

*

Somehow, she survived. Though, she was burned badly, her skin scorched down to muscle – that didn’t hurt as much – cold numbed those parts of her. In others, great blisters had risen, and her hair had been burned down to stubble. She wept a little when she woke. Part from the pain, part from the loss. She had lost her home, her friends, her hearts. When she was done, she crawled through the rubble until she could see the field behind her house, and beyond that, the forest. She listened, though it was a rest day, and no one toiled in the fields, or walked the streets, and she breathed a sigh of relief. When night fell, she crawled further, into the mud of the field, into the long grasses and stinging insects which stung a little less in comparison to the great ache in her body, and over hard stone, each movement causing her to gasp and writhe. Finally, she made it to the forest, and collapsed under the shade of a massive oak, its branches spread wide.

She lay there, cool leaves and earth pressing into her back, and stared at the stars between the boughs. She wondered if their fire was as hot as the one that had burned her, and found she was glad they were distant. A shadow moved into her line of sight, blocking them, and after a moment, cawed gently at her. She stared at it until it cawed again, fluttered its wings, and hopped to a nearby tree, another soft caw escaping it. I hopped from one foot to another and looked at her expectantly.

With a sigh and a painful heave, Agnes rolled over and crawled along the ground, not trusting her legs yet. She made way in slow movements that drug her skin across broken twigs and raspy leaves until she was under the tree. The bird moved on, waiting. She followed. They did this for some time, night passing into dawn as Agnes moved inch by agonizing inch along the forest floor. Finally, the sun broke the horizon, and she found herself clutching the bottom of Greta’s door. With what strength she had left, she scratched at the wood, hoping the old woman would hear. Then, she went to sleep, satisfied she had come as far as she could, and the night would bear out the rest.

*

When she woke, she was ensconced in Greta’s soft goose down bed, the mattress like a cloud. She looked around the room and saw that it was much like her own. A bed, dresser, nightstand, and a small closet. She wondered at the contents, considered asking now that she was in the woman’s room, but then Greta came in bearing a steaming bowl, and she let it drop. The other woman propped her head up and spooned broth between her lips. It was good, filling, and left a trickle of warmth that grew into a comfortable blanket when she was finished. Her eyelids grew heavy.

“I should have seen this coming,” Greta was saying.

Agnes shook her head weakly. “Not their fault.”

Greta waved that away. “Bah. People are dumb and panicky, and cruel when they believe lies. Sleep now, for a little longer. I have a gift for you.”

Agnes let the lassitude wash over her.

*

When she woke, it was alone. She felt stronger, enough to sit up and look around. In the bed was a box, the top carved with a flame. A note sat beside it.

“This is your war heart,” it read. “It is time you took your own back.”

Agnes opened the box, and inside was a heart the color of fire. It glowed gently, not a peaceful white like joy, or blue like sorrow, but a deep angry red, and when she held it in her hands, it was hot to the touch. It frightened her a little. Still, she opened her chest and placed it within, and when it began to beat, she felt strength flood her limbs, her pain dissipating. She threw off her covers, and opened Greta’s closet. Inside was a cloak and a blade, and she took both. The cloak was black and felt light as shadow, the blade white and bright as the moon. She stalked out of the hut and into the night.

*

She stood at the edge of the village and cried out for Gunter. He came on the third try, his face red, his hair disheveled. In one hand, he held his cutlass. In the other, the burlap sack. He stared at her, recognition not lighting his face. A crowd had begun to gather behind him, and when she swept the hood of the cloak back, they gasped. He stepped back and raised his sword, leaving the heart in the dirt.

“My heart, please.” Moonlight glimmered on her blade.

“Witch!” He spat.

Gunter lunged, his face alight with fanaticism, a fever that refused to break. She stepped out of the way and the war heart surged. Her limbs moved like clockwork, and she swept his head from his shoulders. His corpse tumbled to the ground.

“My heart, please.” She repeated it. A bold farmer, thick with ropy muscle, tried what the older man couldn’t, taking up his blade. Agnes ended him as well, and someone cried out.

“My heart. Please!” It was no longer a request, but a command, and yet no one moved to obey the woman cloaked in shadow.

“My heart!” Rage surged through her. The war heart whispered to her. She was born to kill. She was born to end. She would burn the world. She raised the blade and took a single step forward. The crowd shrank back, and she silently cursed them for cowards.

A voice, small and curious cracked the surface of her rage. “This heart?”

A child, no older than she had been when she’d met Greta held out her heart. Agnes nodded and knelt. From somewhere in the crowd, the girl’s mother wept, but Agnes had no time for her. She took her heart and stood, then leaned in, speaking in the girl’s ear.

“If you need, find me in the woods.”

With that, she stood and left the village in somber silence. Behind her, a choked sob escaped, or a muttered curse, but none reached her ears. She traveled light, and when she entered the tree line, disappeared altogether.

*

In the cabin, she placed her war heart in a chest, and sat beside the old woman who had given it to her, her body still cooling in her chair. She brushed her hair and rubbed her feet, then wrapped her in linens and buried her between the roots of the cypress trees. When she returned to the cabin, she put her old heart in her chest, and her new in the tiny closet, and waited. In time, she would have enough joy and sorrow, love and hate, and all the other things that make life worth living, and she would give them to a young woman to learn their lessons.

Via Dolorosa

Pain can blot out the world, make the details go missing like a cataract occluding vision. Right then, Maria was missing the smell of trash stacked almost waist-high in the alley, the taint of sewage clinging to a brick wall where the grates had belched up steam, and the ripple-rustle sound of rats scurrying through black plastic, their claws opening holes in the bags and spilling milk rings and coffee grounds, apple rinds and eggshells. Instead, she winced and braced herself against a wall that was clear of trash but tagged with paint that had dripped and run, layer on layer marking and demarking ownership, like a map redrawn by a mad cartographer.

There was something wrong with her, something in her guts writhing and drawing her life, feeding on joy and normalcy the way children suckle on mother’s milk. It wasn’t the C-word. Cancer. That’s how she thought of it every time it came up, every time it intruded on memory, a guest waving a cleaver at a tea party. The C-word had taken her mother. It had touched her father near the end, when he had finally decided to give up the cigarillos and the rotgut. Every now and then, she would smell those things – smoke and whiskey – drifting by on a breeze, and she’d think no. No. He was gone, and the specter of the thing that had taken him wouldn’t haunt her for longer than it took to walk away from the scent and think of happier things.

And still the specter lurked. So she had gone to the doctor, with the C-word on her lips, and suffered with patience the seemingly-infinite pinpricks and bone punctures and machines that irradiated you in hopes of finding what it was that was killing you. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t the C-word, and the doctors said it wasn’t killing her, but of course it was. Of course it was. Inch by inch, in tightening bands in her stomach and back that crawled under her skin like a python in her guts. Of course it was.

They’d told her she had other options. They sent her to a pain specialist, and there were pills and electro therapy and physical therapy. But it didn’t matter. The pain ignored it, laughed at it the way you laugh at the blows of an angry child. She had tried homeopathy and naturopathy and acupuncture. Chiropractic therapy and massage. She had seen brujas and witches, Romani women with high cheekbones and dark eyes, Wiccans and Christian Scientists. In the end, the pain remained, and her money didn’t.

She moved from her house to an apartment, and then from the apartment to a rental motel, her belongings piled to the sides of the single room and in the back of her beat-up car like the trash in the alley. She had sold the things she could, and bartered what she couldn’t, and soon even those would be gone as the money went from scarce to extinct, the last wheeze of a desperate life. Work was hard to come by – no one wanted a broken woman who could only make it five, six hours before the pain settled in and took control, forcing her to a halt as she huddled in her threadbare chair and made fists that left her palms sore. She scavenged, finding things in cast-offs from far wealthier homes, and in back alleys like this one, and chuckled when the words Reduce, Reuse, Recycle flitted through her head.

And then she’d found it. Scribbled on the wall of a restroom in a Denny’s. Two words. Brother Pain. She’d sat the toilet, her eyes trying to unfocus with the ache in her guts, and stared. Brother Pain. It seemed like a taunt. Like a promise. She found a pen in her purse, and scribbled beside it Who, then went home and sat in front of the small TV the motel provided, and watched Seinfeld reruns until her eyes grew heavy and her breathing steady.

*

  She found five dollars in her purse the next morning. Enough for a coffee, and she drove to Denny’s, her stomach in turns aching and shivering. She ordered the coffee and sat until the waitress stared, then left the cup and went to the stalls. She opened the door and held her breath, anticipation like a wire under her flesh. She looked. There, beneath Who, were the words the alleys. Disappointment flashed through her, then curiosity. What alleys? Where? She left the stall, and sat in her car for a time. Florence + The Machine played a dirge on the radio. She started the car and drove.

*

That first week was like a scavenger hunt. She would find traces of him on brownstone walls hidden from the sun, on dumpsters scummed over with grease and worse, slicker things. Always but a word or two, always just a glimpse.

NOT HERE

CLOSER

GO BACK

This last scribbled on a rest stop mirror in lipstick once red, now the color of clotted blood. In a stall beneath flickering lights someone shuffled, and she heard the sound of steel on steel. She’d fled into the night and looked elsewhere.

Maria had stumbled through alleys choked with refuse, both garbage and human. Some shouted at her, some groped, gnarled hands digging into flesh, bruising her private self, leaving her skin crawling hours afterward. She dodged a man wielding a broken bottle, an emaciated pitbull at his side. The dog looked at her with sad eyes, as if to say This is where pain ends, this is where pain leads, and she looked away, moving from the man’s small hovel of scrap pressed against the side of a building that looked as if the cost of the fixtures alone could have fed a small army.

And now here, it was the last. It was the last she would – could – check, the pain having moved, grown, staking its claim like a rogue nation annexing its neighbors. It was in her knees, in her shoulders. It stabbed her with unseen claws just below the breastbone. She was ravaged, emaciated. She was cold and aching, and her thoughts flitted from one thing to the next, as though landing on any one topic would give the pain purchase. She gasped, taking her breath back for a moment, and pulled her hand away from the wall. Over all the layers of paint and grime, one word had been scrawled, the hand hard, frantic.

HERE

Her heart skipped a beat, and she held still, fearful that this was the last step. She would find her Brother Pain, and drop at his feet. She swayed, then steadied, and with a gentle sigh, stepped further into the dark.

*

The alley became a chapel. Not in the literal sense. Maria felt the atmosphere clear, a bucolic summer day in winter. The trash that had sculpted the walls of the space into a defile of decay thinned, and then disappeared. Here, men and women still slept or leaned against cool walls, but they seemed content. They nodded as she passed, raised a hand in greeting. And there, at the end, a simple shack built between the buildings, corrugated tin propped against one another into standing walls and a roof, the opening between them draped with a bedsheet that had been printed in crimson and gold paisley. A man stood before it, hands clasped before him.

“A supplicant approaches!” he echoed across the brick, and Maria cringed. The people in the alley echoed. “Be she worthy!”

The man before the door swept the curtain to the side, indicating she was to enter. Maria paused while the pain intensified, as though it knew this place was the last stop, the last terminal on the Underground. A whimper escaped her lips. No one moved to help. This was a test, she knew. Could she meet Brother Pain on her own two feet? Would she be worthy? The pain passed, and she crept toward the door, the man beside it smiling. Gray whiskers lined his cheeks, wiry in the light. He smiled, brown teeth a testament to his vice. She wondered if it had been the C-word for him. What the Brother had done for his grizzled guts. He nodded, and she stepped into the chapel.

Darkness engulfed her for a moment as her eyes adjusted. It crept back in stages – here, a small wooden table, a Coleman lamp sputtering out light. There, a chair draped with a comforter. Here, a bedroll made neat, a ratty pillow at its head. There, a man, sitting, his skin the color of wet earth. He was wrapped in an old army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt. He gestured at the chair covered by the comforter, and she sat. He smiled, his eyes rheumy, and reached a hand out, placing it on hers. His skin was nearly feverish, though his touch was dry.

“And at last, you have come. What do you offer?”

Her mind skirled in panic. She stammered. “I- I have nothing.”

He shook his head. “All things in balance, and all things true. You have more than you know.”

She forced her mind to settle, forced herself to take steady, even breaths until the pain dulled to a low roar. She had given her money. She had given her time. She had given her home and her things. She seized upon something.

“I have a car.”

He shook his head.

“I have-“ she rummaged in her purse, came up with ten dollars and a pin her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. It was a gold hummingbird, tiny rubies for the eyes. They glinted in the light, and she remembered how small it looked in his hands as he held it out for a gift. The last thing he had given her before his blood turned thick, before his eyes yellowed and his breath came in ragged gasps. Tears blurred her vision for a moment. “I have this.”

He shook his head again, and frustration rose in Maria. Of all the things she had given, that was her most precious. Even when she had been forced to wait beside restaurant dumpsters for cast-off food, she hadn’t entertained the idea of parting with it. She opened her mouth to ask him what he wanted, anger making her tongue bitter. He stopped her by touching her stomach, once.

“What can you trade?”

Realization lit her thoughts. “My pain.”

He nodded, and pressed his hand against her stomach. It swirled and growled, and the pain rose, rose, rose to a crescendo, the crashing of a tsunami against her soul. Maria cried out, and her vision doubled, trebled. Brother Pain was saying something, but she just wanted it to end. She wanted it out. She took the pin in her hand and opened it, intending for a single thrust. She raised her hand, and-

It was done.

She lowered the pin, and took a breath. No pain lanced her. No ache tormented her. She looked across at the man in the chair, his eyes closed. A smile trickled across his lips. After a moment, he raised a hand.

“This is a good trade.”

She stood, and made her way from the shack on legs unsteady from newfound relief. She stood in the half-light outside, the men and women in the alley smiling at her. The man beside the door raised a hand.

“Via dolorosa!” he shouted.

“Via dolorosa!” they replied.

Maria found herself repeating it. She stood for another minute, until they brought her a bedroll and a hunk of bread and water. She bedded down as close to the chapel as she could get. The light faded from the day, and she sat alone in the dark for a while. She had given all she could, but would give a little more. She had earned her reprieve, but felt the balance uneven. When she finally drifted to sleep, sweet untroubled sleep, it was with his words on her lips.

“This is a good trade.”