Month: May 2015

Redemption

Stefan walked up to the weathered priest under the shade of the cherry blossom tree. The priest was an old wolf of a man, with crags etched deep into his face and clean shaven from crown to chin. Even under his unassuming rough-worn black robe, one could see his physique was the same as a reaver from the north.

“Excuse me?” Stefan asked in a hushed voice, “are you the priest Luther?” The monk didn’t stir.

“Please. Just call me Luther.” He said, calm and focused. Stefan came close to the little stone bench where Luther was sitting. He waited to be offered a seat but Luther didn’t move or open his eyes.

“You can sit down anytime you like,” Luther said, with a smirk peeking out from the corner of his mouth. Stefan was glad for the simple manner and took the seat. A gentle breeze danced across the garden, shaking loose a couple of pink and white petals.

“What can I do for you?” Luther asked.

“I was told to seek out your wisdom.” Stefan answered. The priest let out a laugh that broke the serenity and stillness.

“Someone’s played an awful trick on you if you think I have any wisdom.”

“The inn-keep by the crossroads told me I should seek your wisdom before…”

“Before what?”

“I’m traveling south on my way to join the barefoot brothers,” Stefan said, “I asked the inn-keep for a room for the night. When I told him where I was headed, he told me that if I went and talked to you, he’d let me have a room free of charge.”

Luther opened his eyes and shifted in his seat. Stefan felt uneasy by the action. He felt like he had just blasphemed or insulted the man.

“And why do you want to join the brothers?” Luther asked, just a shade sterner. Stefan shifted again in his seat, uncomfortable in the monk’s presence.

“I need to repent.” Stefan finally confessed. He waited for the tone of voice to get sterner or accusatory. Instead, Luther simply asked, “Repent for what?”

“I…I acted foolishly.” Stefan felt the story stuck in his throat. The priest laughed again, this time even harder. It was such a genuine laugh that even with his nerves frayed, Stefan couldn’t fight back a smile. Luther struggled to control himself enough to ask, “How foolishly?”

“I struck my older brother with a hammer.” Stefan said. Luther kept on chuckling.

“My boy, I could tell you stories about my brothers that would have made a strike with a hammer seem like an act of virtue.”

The comment made Stefan feel a little better but it didn’t wash away the shame of his action.

“I hurt him.” Stefan said.

“Hammer strikes often do.” Luther replied. Stefan wanted to cry he felt so bad. Luther must have noticed his distress. “Well if you’re going to be so damn grim, you’d better tell me the whole story.”

Stefan took a deep breath and began his shameful tale.

“My brother and I were working the anvil. We’re both the sons of the village blacksmith. We were working the anvil and I…I smashed his hand.” Stefan stammered out slowly.

“I take it wasn’t an accident.” Luther said, not quite as jovial.

“No it wasn’t.” Stefan said, feeling tears burning behind his eyes.

“Why’d you do it?” Luther asked, no judgement in his voice. Stefan sighed again, feeling so pathetic.

“There was this girl walking past our smith. Her name was Vara. She had these beautiful purple eyes. I’d never seen eyes like those before. Purple eyes and red hair, red like the sunrise. I loved her. I love her voice and the way she’d sing little songs to herself when she’d come back from the millstone.”

Luther let out another half-laugh though this one was more for himself. “Young love will distra-“

“She didn’t distract me. She didn’t love me.” Stefan said, bowing his head low.

“And your brother made fun of you for it?” Luther asked.

“No. She loved Genneth. She was walking past the smith to see him.” Stefan corrected him, keeping his head hung low.

“So you broke Genneth’s hand.” Luther said, putting the puzzle together. Stefan nodded his head, feeling like a felon. Genneth was always the golden son. He was older, with a handsome face and a strong chin. He’d been Da’s chosen apprentice while Stefan was only allowed to work the bellows. Stefan was always the helper, never equal.

“And for that you want to join the barefoot brothers?” Luther asked with neither jest nor judgement in his question.

“What else can I do?” Stefan asked, the emotion burning through his thinly veiled composure, “I broke his hand, shattered the bones. You can’t smith with only one hand. I hurt my brother, I took away his future. What else can I do?”

“What do you think joining the brotherhood will do?” Luther asked.

“Everyone knows the stories. Rendrik the rapist who found redemption and forgiveness in the eyes of the gods. Or Borg, thief who stole from rich and poor. He joined them and he still leads pilgrimages even at 89 years of age.” Stefan said with a sniffle.

“So that’s the sort of company you feel you belong in?” Luther asked.

“If they can find redemption, I know I can.” Stefan said. Luther raised his eyebrows and gave a look that simply said, possibly.

“You can find redemption in other ways too.” Luther said after a moment. Stefan looked up at the monk. The look Luther was giving him was not a sweet look but it wasn’t hard withering stare that he was so afraid that the priest would unleash.

“Like how? I can’t mend my brother’s hand.” Stefan said.

“No you can’t.” Luther said as he rubbed his head. Stefan felt crushed at the statement. He knew it was true but it was so absolute and only reminded him of what he did. The two sat in silence for a moment. Stefan stared down at his rough leather boots and the monk’s thin sandals.

The monk stood up and walked over to the low wall that marked the edge of the garden. On the other side was a clear view of the emerald sea off in the distance.

“Do you know what’s beyond that horizon?” Luther asked suddenly. Stefan shook his head. He had barely any knowledge of where he was now, much less on the other side of the sea.

“On the other side of that pretty green water, ways up north are the Winter Tears. Islands covered in snow, ice and home to the red ones. Do you know who those are?” Stefan shook his head no again.

“They’re the northmen who worship the red goddess Krietha. She’s the goddess of war and battle, the high-queen of the gods of the north. The red ones pay honor to her by sailing out from their frozen homelands to burn, pillage and sack everything they can find. The strongest warriors from every tribe and family gather under the banner of skulls, the red ones’ sacred war banner. When they’ve gathered enough strength they set sail and conquer everything and everyone who stands before them.” The priest told the story without breaking his gaze on the horizon. Stefan felt a sudden chill run down his spine and the breeze, previously so soothing felt colder as the story continued.

“I was young warrior when I first sailed. A pup of a warrior, brash and arrogant as all the others, but I’ll never forget how alive I felt when I ripped open my first throat.” Luther was no longer in the garden. In his mind’s eye he was back on a long-forgotten battlefield, in armor and sword in hand.

“I raided this monastery. We had shattered an army a few miles up the road and were running down the survivors. My tribesmen and I chased a few levies into the monastery and we cut off their heads. Then we sacked everything of value then melted the shrines of the gods.” Luther confessed it all but without any trace of remorse or sadness. He looked back at Stefan who was dumbfounded and shocked.

“Crime enough, eh?” Luther asked with a smirk.

“How…why are…” Stefan didn’t even know what to ask.

“Why am I here? Simple. I found my redemption here.” Luther said in a very matter-of-fact way, “I returned years later. I helped rebuild the monastery, tilled the earth for this garden. I re-laid this old wall here too.” Luther said with happy tap on his craft.

“So…you found redemption in the eyes of the gods, just like the brothers do.” Stefan finally concluded, trying to make sense of the story he’d just been told. Luther soured his face.

“The hell I did! I found redemption in setting stone and mortar. I found it in tilling this damned soil.” Stefan scratched his head, now more confused than shocked.

“But how di-“ Luther didn’t even wait for Stefan to form a question. He turned to face Stefan and took a softer tone of voice that still rang with authority and experience.

“You can’t fix your brother’s hand. You can’t make your pretty purple-eyed girl love you. But you can keep the forge hot. You can swing a hammer. Now you tell me where you’ll find redemption: in the forge or without shoes?” Stefan suddenly felt a sliver of happiness as Luther gave him a smile and a little wink so fast you’d barely notice it. Luther patted Stefan on the shoulder and then gave him a gentle tap on the cheek. Luther’s hands were like leather.

Stefan thanked Luther for his words and turned to leave the abbey. He had passed the little stone bench and the cherry blossom tree when he turned to look back at Luther, who was back to staring out over the sea.

“Luther?” Stefan asked. The old man turned his head.

“Do you still worship the red goddess?”

The warrior slowly smiled.

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Therapy

This kid’s been sitting in my office for almost an hour and hasn’t said a word to me. He just sits there and flips open his lighter before closing it again. I told him he couldn’t smoke but he just keeps playing with that damn zippo. Again and again that damn clicking noise. I’m certain he’s doing it to test me but I’m not giving him the satisfaction. I’ve dealt with far more obnoxious patients than him.

He looks out the window or reads the titles of my books while I’m trying to get him to start talking. Occasionally he meets my gaze. He holds it for a while until I try another angle to open him up. When I do, he loses interest and retreats inside his head.

I try reading over the incident that landed him here in the first place. Broke some other student’s nose for no apparent reason. He didn’t give a reason and when he was finished he just sat down on and waited for punishment. I ask if he knew the kid he attacked. No answer. I ask if he’s angry. No answer. No twitch on his face no tick or look. Just the same stare I’ve been working to get around for the last fifty minutes. This kid was getting under my skin.

I ask about his family. The same silence. These sessions are the worst. Every minute was like being in the dentist’s chair. Except now I was the dentist, trying to pull teeth.

I ask if he wants to leave. No answer. I’m feeling my patience wither away as this punk flicks that goddamn lighter open and closed. Again and again while my questions break him like snowballs against a brick wall.

I finally ask him why he won’t talk to me. He’s not the first quiet kid I’ve dealt with. But he’s the first who hasn’t had so much as a flicker to any probe. A flicker is at least something to work with. It’s a tether I can hold onto.

He looks up dead into my eyes. His face hasn’t changed but there’s something in his eyes that I think I see. Behind those dark green eyes, behind that relaxed and indifferent look on his face there’s a world of activity and struggle. It’s a primal and savage look. It’s a look that I’d seen dozens of men try to fake in bars or even in therapy. But this is the real deal. There’s a storm of emotion inside that head.

Then it vanishes.

The session is over and like shutting a window, that churning storm is gone, cast back behind those eyes. He stands up, picks up his jacket from the table and walks out. He shuts the door, not with a slam but a polite and gentle push. I’m surprised as he leaves. I was bracing for the big annoying gesture of defiance.

As I try to decompress from therapist to me, I notice something on the table. I slip back into my flats and walk over to see what it is. I’m at a loss for even thoughts when I see the zippo lighter sitting upright on the table.

Agreement

Richard finally pried off the boards blocking the doorway to the abandoned house. The forlorn building creaked and moaned as his boots pressed against the ancient boards. Undeterred, Richard continued through the musty and cobweb consumed wreck. Inside a room in the basement stood a wardrobe, alone against a wall. Richard walked up to it, pulled open the door and tapped the back of it. A hollow echo sounded and Richard removed the back to reveal a stone staircase. He struck a match, lit a small candle and walked down the steps.

The air was cold and the smell of spilled ale and whiskey clung to the walls like rancid perfume. The little room was littered with empty wine bottles, the stubs of cigars and pipe ash. Sitting facing the stairway was a man. He was slumped to his side and his head hung forward. A tall man, even while sitting, with a curtain of black hair running down past his shoulders. Richard waved the light closer to the man’s face. Slowly, the eyelids lifted and two unnatural ice-blue eyes reflected in the flame.

“Morning,” Richard said. The man sitting lifted his head up and stretched, creaking as he did.

“What fool awakens me?” the man said, still moving sluggishly as he rubbed his eyes.

“Mr. Richard Hogan, here on behalf of his Royal Majesty, King George,” Richard said, giving a half bow as he did. The man chuckled. “I have long since forgotten who was king,”

“Well be that as it may, I’m here on his behalf…to ask for your help,”

“What sort of help would his majesty possibly want from me?” the man said with a coy smile on his bearded and dirty face. He had a strange accent that Richard couldn’t place. He also spoke in a slow, deliberate manner.

“Both he and Britannia need your help for an upcoming campaign in Spain,” Richard said. The man slumped back, resting his head on his hand.

“How predictable. And who is his majesty at war with now?” the man asked.

“How long have you been in here?” Richard countered, genuinely curious. The man smiled again as he closed his eyes.

“There was a lion from the North on road to Moscow when I last saw the world,” He said after a moment.

“And you haven’t been out since?”

“When you’ve wandered the world for as long as I have, you’ll have trouble keeping interested in anything,” the man answered without opening his eyes.

“That sounds terribly boring,” Richard said, trying to interest the creature in his proposition.

“I’ve had plenty of excitement. I’m long overdue for a portion of boredom,” the man said.

“Well perhaps I might convince you to postpone your boredom?” Richard asked politely.

The man laughed, “There’s very little you have to offer that could convince me to do anything,”

“His majesty and his government are willing to pay you handsomely for services rendered,”

The man didn’t move or change his tone, “Wealth is of little consequence to a man of my years,”

“You’d have the chance to kill a great many Frenchmen,” Richard offered up.

“And why should I feel such scorn towards Frenchmen? They’ve done me no harm. They haven’t disturbed my rest,” the man said with a wicked little smile in the corner of his mouth.

Richard anticipated needing to use his last reason, but wanted to deliver it just right.

“It seems there’s no convincing you,” He said.

“I’m afraid not. Now I would suggest that you make your way back up those steps before I decide to take measures to exact revenge for a rude and pointless awakening,” the man said with the voice of spider speaking to a captured fly.

“Well I wouldn’t want that. I suppose I’ll leave then,” Richard said, waiting for another veiled goodbye.

“No you won’t,” The man said, again without opening his eyes.

“No?”

“You knew how to find me, which means you were informed about me. Whoever informed you would have known that neither coin nor blood would be sufficient payment. Whoever sent you wouldn’t waste your time or mine unless he had something compelling. Now your master’s idea of compelling will most likely not match my own but I’m curious enough to hear it. So why don’t you spare us more of this predicable performance and tell me what other promise his majesty and Britannia are willing to make me?”

Richard couldn’t help but smile. He had been instructed and properly briefed. For someone locked away from the world, this man’s senses were still sharp.

“Are you familiar the name countess Malvina Davenfield?”

“No. Should I be?” the man asked.

“Perhaps. According to a series of secret letters between Marshal Soult and one of his chief spies, the countess’s true name is Cyra,” The man’s eyes shot open. Before Richard could even react, the man raced towards him, grabbed him by the throat and held him a foot off the ground.

“You’re lying,” the man said, his voice far angrier. Richard struggled to breathe as the fingers tightened like rope around his windpipe. He wheezed and choked, trying to force his own fingers through the iron grip. The man released him and Richard fell to the ground, gasping for air.

“Maybe I am,” Richard finally managed to cough out, “but maybe I’m not. You could be certain if you agree to work for us,” The man stood, clearly contemplating his choice. Richard picked himself up off the ground and dusted off his coat.

“That was…unexpected,” the man said as he paced back to the stone chair against the wall.

“Indeed,” Richard said with a smug smile, “but would you say it is compelling?” The man kept his back to Richard for a moment. He was confident he had convinced the man but Richard slipped his hand to the back of his jacket and gripped the handle of a small silver dagger just in case he miscalculated.

The man turned back to face Richard, now recomposed.

“Do we have an agreement?” Richard asked. Even in the dim candle light, Richard could see the man draw a slow and malicious smile across his face. As he did, two thin fangs grew out of his mouth and down his chin.

“When do we leave?”

Convicts

Jack froze dead in the swamp and brought his rifle up to his cheek. He scanned the opaque brown water and waited in a cold sweat for any sign of movement. Butcher waded up slowly on his right flank, shotgun poised.

“What did you see?” Butcher asked.

“Not sure. Something in the water I think,” Jack replied in a hushed voice. The squad spread out slowly, everybody nervous and on edge. That was what being on Hera did to a man. No matter how hard they were when they landed, everybody was nervous on Hera.

“Scoop! Bring up the flamethrower,” Jack commanded in a hoarse whisper. Scoop stepped forward, gripping the weapon so tight his knuckles were white. Jack signaled with his hands where he wanted Scoop to aim. The mountain of flesh followed his order and lit the pilot light.

Jack fired a quick burst into the muck. The water kicked up and sent ripples across through the swamp. For half of a breath, the planet was quiet. Then a giant centipede-like creature reared its head out of the water. Its pincers clicked and it let out a disgusting and skin-crawling noise. Scoop reacted first when he let loose a long jet of flame.

The fire hit the alien in the face and ignited the water around it. Then Butcher thumped away, putting two slugs into its body. The alien charged forward, determined to take down the intruders. Jack and the squad stepped backwards slowly, firing all the time. A whole squad’s worth of fire pouring into this monster and it just kept coming, burning and bleeding all the while.

It was about to bite Jack clean in half when Butcher put a 10 gauge slug into the side of its head. It jerked and fell just to the side of Jack, splashing them all in the swamp water. Jack felt the hundreds of wiry legs brush past him. He shivered and twitched involuntarily.

Beak walked up to the dead monster. He walked up too fast. Jack screamed for him not to. In a last gasp, the centipede roared and impaled Beak on one of its pincers. Jack jammed his rifle into the alien’s eye and emptied the fifty round magazine. Blood and more swamp water blew into his face. It twitched a little bit but it was finally dead. Everybody stared at the felled creature. Jack was the first to move. He picked up Beak’s rifle and distributed the spare ammunition. “Let’s keep moving,”

They kept trekking through the sweaty and claustrophobic hell. Val was next to Jack at the front of the squad.

“How did you know it wasn’t dead?” Val asked.

“You’ve been on-planet for what: five weeks?” Jack said, without breaking focus.

“ 36 days,”

“String enough days together and you’ll learn when something’s dead or not,” Val had been a contraband smuggler back on Earth so he wasn’t completely clueless. But there was a big difference between slipping past customs or trading panic shots with other criminals and surviving out in the wild.

“How many days do you have?” Val asked again.

“247 on Hera. 973 on Webley,” Jack replied.

“Holy shit. What did you do?” Val asked in awe but also took a step away. It was a common question in the penal gangs. Everybody wanted to size each other up, see who was top dog. It was a question of hierarchy before the first patrol. But if you could survive that patrol, then what you did was merely a question to make conversation.

“Something unforgivable,” Jack answered after a moment.

“Clearly,” Val said sarcastically.

“Just keep sharp. We’ve got another four miles to go before it gets dark,” Jack ended the conversation and brought everybody’s focus back to the swamp.

Unlike everybody else in the gang, Jack wasn’t counting down days. The convicts all got sentences based on their crimes. Thieves and smugglers got 365 days. Rapists like Beak got 1,200 days and murders got 1,500 days. Survive long enough and you were released. Everybody knew their number and was counting down to get out. But Jack was counting up. He was the only volunteer for penal work in the entire history of the system. He technically could leave anytime he wanted.

“502 days and a wake up,” Butcher said as the floodlights of the camp appeared through the building-sized trees. They picked their way through carefully, warm and putrid water up to their balls. Even in the fading light, the humidity was thick enough to chew.

Step by step, their campsite grew closer. They’d be fools to think it was safe but it was at least safer than being in the water. The evening brought on an auditory onslaught as tens of thousands of aliens, bugs and other predators began making noises. It made every man’s neck hair stand on edge.

Jack thought back to almost dying earlier when the centipede attacked. He felt a strange pang of regret that Butcher had shot the alien just in time. On the other hand, he knew he was nowhere near through his own sentence. Earth may not have sentenced him but Jack had sentenced himself and he owed a great many more days.

Final Words of Lord Robert Helbrecht

I stand here, on the cusp of my execution at the hands of you madmen, you murderers. I stand accused of treason. For forty years I have served this kingdom. I have given sons to it. I have shed blood for it. I have sworn oaths to a king, the same king you slaughtered. I will not swear oaths to this false republic, to you ambitious killers. So tell these glorious revolutionaries to aim with both eyes and to mind their powder. Enjoy the prize of another unarmed man murdered. Gods save the king.

Old Hunters

Volkar upended the little glass sitting on his table and tasted the burnt-wood flavored bourbon as it sliced down his throat. The local spirits were as harsh and unrefined as the people who distilled them but Volkar didn’t care. He’d tasted far worse before on his travels. He gestured for another and the bartender came around with the forlorn bottle full of course brown liquor.

The tavern wasn’t crowded but the people who were there were hard: whalers and quarrymen. Even the wood and brick of the building looked hard and sea-beaten. It was full of cragged lines and weathered corners. The color itself seemed washed and faded by centuries of foaming tides and foreboding clouds.

“Volkar?” A familiar voice called out to him. He looked up from his drink and saw Kedrik standing in front of him

“Volkar? Gods it’s good to see you!” Kendrik said through his salt and pepper beard. Volkar stood up and embraced his old friend before showing him a seat. Kendrik had developed a bit of a paunch but his grip was still like iron and his hands like beaten rope.

“It’s good to see you to,” Volkar said, happy to see a familiar face.

“Gods, how long’s it been? Eight years?”

“Eight years,” Volkar replied.

“Eight years. You’re still an ugly bastard,” Kendrik said with a laugh.

“And now you’re a fat bastard,” Volkar retorted with a smirk. Kendrik patted his stomach and let out another hearty laugh as he waved the bartender over.

“Ahh sad but true. Out of the life I have more time to eat. You’d be amazed how many ways there are to prepare a duck,”

“Discovered fine dining, have you?” Volkar said with a chuckle. Kendrik smiled again.

“So what the hell are you doing here?” Kendrik asked after placing an order for a mug of Surgan ale. Volkar hesitated for half a moment before he pointed to his rucksack with a nod of his head. Kendrik’s face churned from surprise to confusion with just a hint of envy.

“You’re still hunting?” he asked.

“Werewolf’s been giving the hamlet trouble. The town watch hasn’t been able to kill it so they offered me a bounty,” Volkar said. Kendrik was trying to process it all.

“You’re still in the life?” He finally asked after he had processed enough.

“Not much else I know how to do,” Volkar replied frankly. “What are you doing here?”

Kendrik shifted in his seat and tried to straighten his shirt a little. “I’m supposed to collect money from a whaling captain. Figured I’d stop in here for a little,” His voice betrayed a sense of shame at his task. Volkar suddenly felt embarrassed for being so brazen.

“Well if anybody can scare a whaler, it’s you,” Volkar said with an apologetic smile. Kendrik chuckled, not quite as loud as he had before.

“Oh I’m not so scary now. But I suppose my reputation precedes me round these parts,”

“Rightly so,” Volkar added.

“Heh. Back when a younger man had keener aim,” Kendrik said.

“Your aim wasn’t that keen to begin with,” Volkar replied with a smirk again.

“Keen enough to save your ass from a gargoyle!” Kendrik shouted with a happy roar. It was a story they both remembered well. Years ago, both of them out on a job when the giant stone beast tried to take off Volkar’s head. A lucky shot from experienced but nervous hands felled it in the nick of time. The two then drank themselves stupid to celebrate.

“Well it was about time you did the saving for once,” The two men laughed and shared a drink together followed by another. They sat and shared stories of the past, of old hunts together or of work they did alone. If they mentioned anything about their lives now, it was only fleeting. Especially from Kendrik. The hours ran away until the evening fog from the sea began to creep up to the windows.

“Gods, that was good,” Kendrik said, finishing his last story. The two laughed again and Kendrik drained his mug. The ale made Kendrik sweat as he opened his shirt and rubbed his shoulder. Volkar noticed three naked ladies tattooed across his chest.

“Who are those lovely ladies?” he asked. Kendrik took a moment to understand the question before he looked down at himself.

“Oh. My former wives,” he said.

“Former?” Volkar asked.

“Aye. This one left me when she caught me with this one. She left me when I was thrown out of a whorehouse. And I left that one,” he told his tale of matrimonial discord.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Volkar said.

“Ehh don’t be. I’m not the marrying sort. Should have known that after the first one,” Kendrik waved for another drink, “What about you?”

“No,” Volkar said flatly. There was a silence between the two of them.

“We’re not the marrying sort, are we?” Kendrik said, more serious than a jest.

“No we’re not. Not after what we’ve done,” Volkar said. Kendrik nodded with a weak half-smile.

“Glad to hear it’s not just me,” The men nodded again and then sat in silence.

“Let me ask you: do you ever want to give it up? The life I mean?” Kendrik asked. The weight of the question washed over Volkar and tugged at him. He had always thought about it, usually after a close call or when he was sitting out in the freezing rain following a cold trail. He would swear that he’d take up another trade, use his skills and weapons for something else. He imagined maybe finding a woman who’d be willing to lay with him at night just because she wanted to. He imagined all the trappings and simplicities of a life without hunting. But barely a day after, he was searching for fresh work. No matter how dirty or uncomfortable the job got, it was what he wanted to do.

“No,” Volkar answered finally, “What about you?”

“I did. I remember right after that one wolf almost gave me the disease. Bastard almost bit my balls clean off. I wanted out right then and there. Thought my time had run out and best thing to do was leave while I still had my life. And for a while it was good. Found work, had a wife. Heh three. Then I felt it crawling back up. I took up work collecting debts, bounty-hunting but it just wasn’t the same. I missed the hunt, and there was no going back,” Kendrik’s face looked pained as he spoke.

“Anyway, its getting late and I should find this whaler before the moonlight comes,” Kendrik after a long pause.

“And I have a wolf to hunt,” Volkar said. The two men stood up and embraced again. They didn’t say goodbye, there was no need. Neither had the words for it. Kendrik slowly lumbered out of the door and into the night. Volkar stared at where his friend was sitting. He lingered for a little longer before he stood, threw his pack over his shoulder. Lastly, he picked up the old matchlock rifle sitting next to him. As he made his way outside of the tavern, Volkar slipped a hand into his coat and touched the small silver bullet in his pocket.

The Prize Pupil

“As you can see, the students of Kalgenfield Academy are among the most disciplined and martial as any found in the Royal military academies,” The headmaster concluded his speech to the lords and other prospective parents of attendants. To punctuate his statement, the escort students snapped to attention and clicked their heels in unison. Even the most temperamental of the guests were impressed with the display. There was no denying how striking the lads looked in their uniforms: the striking bright red uniforms against black trousers. They looked the parts of young cadets or perhaps ensigns in one of the Queen’s Own regiments. “If you’ll follow me, we shall pass the fencing yard before seeing you out,”

A quick walk through the large wooden doors brought the group back outside into a stone corridor with a view of two of the academy’s grounds on either side. The headmaster led the procession down the corridor as they admired the young men dueling, brawling and fencing.

“Here is where the boys may resolve all the pesky entanglements of adolescence in a manner which promotes their growth and development. You’ll find no petty hallway fights in our school. Instead, our boys are taught to resolve disagreements and challenges in an honorable and fair manner,”

“Good heavens. They seem ready to fight to the death!” a woman gasped before her husband gently took her arm to quiet her.

“We encourage a virile and aggressive temperament when the boys take to the martial fields. But you, madam and all mothers may rest assured that our physicians stand ready to prevent any serious injury. No harm shall befall them here that they cannot recover from,” the headmaster replied, his voice alight with pride at the ferocious nature of his pupils.

“Surely there are lessons beyond those of the sword?” A lord asked, trying to keep his pipe lit as a light spring breeze whistled through the corridor.

“But of course! In addition to a full range of advanced and rigorous academic courses, we will provide our students with lessons in the manners and conduct of a gentleman. We strive to provide these young men with as complete an education as possible, from a martial spirit, an intellect’s mind and a gentleman’s temperament,” said the headmaster, again immensely satisfied with himself and the school.

“As a matter of fact, just across that stream is our sister institution: the Princess Victoria School for Ladies. Let me tell you, the only people in this county’s realm of academia who are fiercer than our students are the professors and chaperons of our sister institute,” the headmaster said with a chuckle. The followers chimed in and laughed as well. The student escorts remained silent but even they couldn’t help but give smirks and glances to each other.

“Yes, they would be the first to notice and discipline any misconduct on behalf of our pupils. Our boys learn how to behave properly around ladies, you can be certain in that,”

Meanwhile, down on the fencing grounds, the boys noticed the ever-watchful eye of their headmaster. They knew how proud he was of the academy and knew how boys who improved its reputation were rewarded. More importantly, they knew the punishments for disgracing it. They stood up straighter, fenced with re-doubled vigor or boxed more aggressively. All across the yard, the boys drove themselves to be perfect specimens.

Everyone except Ferdinand.

Ferdinand was in his usual spot, by the stone wall underneath the cherry blossom tree. He claimed it was because it was where he could practice his fencing drills alone but the truth was there was a hole in the wall. Ferdinand had over the course of several weeks, built a small seat for himself there and would watch out the hole. The view from the hole wasn’t spectacular but it was just enough to see the girls of Princess Victoria lounging in the grass. It was their field to walk, lounge, lunch, read or paint as a few of the artistically inclined girls were want to do.

Ferdinand would watch them and yearn to hop across the wall, ford the stream and just lay down in the grass next to them. After so many years of training, studying, marches and the monotony of life inside the academy, Ferdinand found immeasurable happiness in just watching the fair ladies read or walk. Ever since the ball for the fifth form cadets, Ferdinand daydreamed of the charming ladies across the stream. He thought about the dance he had with the beautiful girl named Celine with dark grey eyes. He thought about her wavy black hair and her intoxicating smile. He thought of all the girls at that ball. Each one a rose: sweet and flawless. How could he focus on marching in lock-step or keeping his uniform pressed when there was such beauty so close to him?

“Hey! Catching a glimpse of anything good?” A boy with a heavy eastern voice called out. Into the small haven emerged Gerald, Gerald was short, with a slender frame and pale brown hair cut close to his head.

“Nothing that concerns you,” Ferdinand said, annoyed to be pulled back into the drab and orderly reality.

“Peeking on ladies as they undress?” Gerald said, forcing his way through to the wall. Ferdinand couldn’t even bring himself to be angry at the boy. Gerald couldn’t possibly understand the beauty that the view had. It wasn’t about such cheap titillation or petty thrills.

Gerald pushed his face to the hole and peeked. He peered and pressed his face harder and harder against the stone. Moments passed before he pulled his head away from the masonry. He looked equally disappointed and angry.

“You’re a damned fool,” he said. Ferdinand could care less. Why waste time getting upset over such a closed mind? With the irritation gone and at least a few more minutes of peace before he had to move on, Ferdinand set up in his seat, eager just to see the face of one more angel.

However, what Ferdinand hadn’t seen was the large hornet that had crawled up the tree and was enjoying the shade. The hornet didn’t take kindly to the large intruder about to crush it and retorted with its stinger.

Ferdinand felt a burning sharp spike of pain in his arse. There was surge of heat that ran up his spine all the way to his neck. He jumped off his seat and stumbled out from beneath the tree.

Gerald was strolling away when Ferdinand ran right over him.

“You clumsy bastard!” Gerald yelled. Ferdinand swung around trying to see if he had hurt Gerald when his saber smacked Gerald square in the head, knocking him out cold. Ferdinand felt the pain finally subsiding enough to keep still.

Gerald was unconscious, the signs of a future bruise forming across his right eye. Ferdinand was a little embarrassed at the whole thing as he rubbed his sting.

“Attention!” The headmaster’s voice called out. Ferdinand froze. He knew that voice and knew that this was would be an embarrassing explanation. Embarrassing was not the sort of thing the headmaster tolerated.

“Well, well. Mr. Baumer. It seems you and Mr. Watkins got into it. Care to clarify, son?” The headmaster and a group of visitors emerged from around a hedge just tall enough to obscure their vision.

“A disagreement over a personal preference, sir” Ferdinand replied.

“Ah, a disagreement. Well we can’t all share the same opinions now. Is that a valid cause for combat?” The headmaster said, with an equal mix of suspicion and amusement.

“It was a question of honor, sir. Mine and the honor of a woman,” he replied.

“Have you some private affair, Baumer?”

“No, sir. The honor of a woman unknownst to me. However a slight is a slight,” Ferdinand replied.

The headmaster smiled as the small crowd behind him shared nods of approval.

“Very good, Mr. Baumer. Very good indeed. Well ladies and gentlemen, here is an example of our gentlemen’s training Ready to defend the honor of a lady that has never even met him, and more than capable of the task,” Ferdinand gulped and snapped to attention.

“Dismissed, Mr. Baumer,” the headmaster said, with an approving smile on his face as he led the group away.

With the attentive and blind eyes of his masters passing away, Ferdinand retired from the field before he got into any more trouble that fortune couldn’t get him out of.

The chessboard

“Here it is: my replica of the conqueror’s chess set,” Mark declared to the small audience he had. It was beautiful set, each piece made of porcelain and accented with gold. Ray rolled his eyes at the back of the party.

“The original was made in 1679. Rumor has it that Louis the XIV would challenge his mistresses to a game. If they could defeat him he swore to give them the crown of France, but he took the queen, they’d have to go to bed with him,” Mark continued to boast, a shit-eating smile from ear to ear as he talked. “Napoleon had  the queen piece laced with gold and silver to reflect his love, Josephine. It’s the most valuable piece on the board,”

Nice to have money, Ray grumbled to himself. Every extravagant piece of art, every foreign treasure called for a speech about the rarity and myth behind it. Mark came from a family with cubic money to begin with, and then he got lucky with a few lucky investments. He was the type who was born on third base and thought he scored a triple. Ray didn’t even want to go but his best friend Luke was close with Mark and which meant Ray was being dragged into yet another awkward engagement.

“Over here is a Monet painting I picked up during my semester abroad,” Mark launched into another speech. Ray slipped out from the pack, unable to stomach any more self-aggrandizement and made his way back to the living room.

The living room alone was bigger than his apartment. A high-end TV, full wine bar and appliances that made his George Foreman grill and electric stove top look like cave-tools. At least the host was kind enough to allow an open bar for the night. Ray poured himself another vodka and soda.

“Oh thank god, it’s an open bar,” a female voice said behind Ray. He turned to see Nicole; the un-reciprocating object of Mark’s affections. In Mark’s mind, she was basically his wife. But then again, money doesn’t solve every problem.

“What are you drinking?” Ray asked, keeping a friendly and relaxed smile on his face.

“Rum and coke,” Nicole answered. Ray moved to the priciest-looking bottle and quickly whipped up a drink. She took it off his hands and gave him a gracious smile.

“Glad to see I’m not the only one who needs a drink to get through this party,” Ray said, taking a sip of his drink.

“Oh god, if he tries to ‘talk to me alone on the balcony’ again, I’m going to pull my hair out,” Nicole said.

“And ruin that hair of yours? It’d be a sin,” Ray said, with an eyebrow cocked.

“That was good. Well played,” she said with a sarcastic smile, but a sparkle in the corner of her eye.

“I’m just warming up,” Ray said, surprised with himself for being so direct.

“Well I guess we’ll see if you’re as impressive when you’re warmed up,” Nicole replied before walking away. Ray couldn’t help but catch an eyeful of her as she glided through the throngs of people. Then, predicable as a watch, Mark swept in to make sure that his most cherished piece of art didn’t have any fingerprints.

##

Ray checked his watch and was amazed to find it was already 11:30. He swore to himself that he’d be in and out in an hour. That was three hours ago.

Maybe it was the vodka going to his head but he was certain that Nicole had been making eyes at him. He didn’t see the harm in seeing how far he could push the envelope. He was going to walk over when Mark slithered up from the crowd and took her arm, gently as always. Whatever kind of asshole Mark was, he was polite one. It made him that much more annoying. With his chief interest spirited away to the next room, Ray took another sip of his drink and squinted at the dark green bottles in the wine bar.

Conversation around him ranged from art snobbery to refreshing admissions that the chief allure for these kinds of parties was the promise of free high-quality booze.

“There you are! You having a good time?” Luke’s voice cut through the subdued chatter.

“Yeah, man. Having a great time. I just needed a second to regroup. I’ve been doing work on that bar’s stoli,” Ray responded in an upbeat and casual tone. Luke patted him on the back, “My man,”

Mark and Nicole reemerged, one of them looking ever so slightly uncomfortable.

“Some kind of get together where there’s no dancing,” Ray felt the words slip out before he could catch them. All that vodka had loosened up the gates on his inner thoughts.

“You’re absolutely right,” Mark replied. “Come on, let’s get a little music playing. Care to take the first tune, Ray?” he asked.

“I’ve been out of the leading hits loop,” Ray countered.

“No radio in your office?” Mark dug-in a little deeper. There was an awkward charge to the air. Luke probably didn’t think anything of it when he told Mark that Ray worked in sanitation. But now it was an unspoken point to lord over.

“No,” Ray said, keeping calm. Luke sensed the stand-off and offered to be the DJ. Luke may be clueless at times, but he always seemed to be right on point when it mattered most. The apartment was soon full of half-dancing fools who’d had little more wine and beer than they planned. Ray was minding his business when opportunity presented itself again.

“Is this your kind of dancing?” Nicole asked him.

“When it comes to dancing, I say go big or go home,”

“So you like to dance big?” Nicole asked with a laugh.

“With the help of some alcohol…or the right girl, sure,” Ray replied.

“Are you always this cheesy?”

“Depends. Is it working?” Nicole looked at him for a moment, weighing up whether to take a gamble or stay in the tranquilized apartment.

“Let’s say it is. What’s your next play?” She said, carefully.

“I’d say how’d you like to do some real dancing?” Ray said with a genuine smile.

After another moment of considering what she might be getting into, she gave him a smile, “I’d say that sounds like fun,”

“I’ll leave first. Wait a dance then come meet me by the elevator,” he said, already running through the list of bars and bartenders he knew. She gave him a smile that a child gives when they’re included in mischief and turned away. Ray turned towards the exit but made one quick detour.

Away from the guests, it sat in the study. Ray couldn’t restrain his puckish side. With a careful hand, he re-arranged the pieces to leave the final word. He probably wouldn’t notice it the first time he came in but eventually he’d grasp the cruel metaphor Ray had prepared. Ray turned and exited the room. Eventually, Mark would notice his prized chess set had been moved. He’d then see the golden-laced queen sitting on the opposite side of the board, and in her place: a lowly smiling pawn.

Ghost

“Hands out to the side, sir” the TSA agent said as Sean walked through the metal detector. He swallowed his annoyance and complied. The heavyset agent waved the wand across Sean’s arms and patted down his legs. An uncomfortable six minutes and two more walkthroughs followed before Sean was allowed through the checkpoint. He slipped his belt back through his pants and put his watch back on, picked up his briefcase and made a beeline for the bar.

Logan was deserted at this hour. The janitors were making their rounds through bathrooms and sitting areas. The only other life was a collection of haggard stragglers either waiting for a delayed flight or trying to save a buck on the cheapest red-eye they could find. Even the PA system sounded tired as it filled the terminal with a monologue about unattended baggage.

Sean walked up to the bar and quietly took a seat. The only other soul present was the bartender, who needed a moment to summon what energy she had left into her friendly greeting.

“What can I get you?” she asked.

“Gin martini,” Sean replied as he took off his suit jacket and hung it on the seat next to him. As the ice cubes clattered and clinked inside the shaker, Sean replayed the evening in his head. He’d been working since he landed this morning. It wasn’t until he was halfway to the airport he remembered it was Samantha’s engagement party. By the time he got to the restaurant, most of the people had drifted off. Everybody except the people he knew. His old gang, friends from college, from high school, all gathered around the bride to be, singing and laughing and telling the same stories they’d been telling for years.

“Here you are,” the bartender interrupted his thinking as she handed him the chilled cocktail glass. He flashed a half-smile and said thank you before knocking back half of the glass.

Why didn’t he stop into the party? Sean didn’t have an answer. Even at the time, he couldn’t mentally articulate why. He had the time and it would have been a great surprise. Everybody was tipsy enough that he would have been the man of the hour for at least ten minutes. Dino was there. The two of them could have done their infamous rendition of Mack the Knife after a drink or two together. From the window, Sean could tell Kevin was hitting on Michelle again. A quick joke about Kev’s newfound beer belly and everything’d be back to normal. Hell, he might have been able to pick up Michelle if he tried. They always wanted to hook up.

“Would you like another one?” The bartender asked.

“Please,” another half-smile and the empty glass disappeared.

So why didn’t you go in? He thought to himself.

“Here ya go,” the bartender placed a fresh napkin and drink in front of him.

“Thanks,”

“Rough evening?” the bartender asked.

“Long day,” Sean said. “And more work tomorrow morning,”

“Jeez. That’s a rough schedule. I hope you’re getting paid well for working weekends,” she said, cleaning the first glass.

“Gotta earn a living somehow,” Sean replied. The bartender gave him a smile. Sean returned the gesture and slid an olive off the toothpick.

Cause it hurts less to watch, he thought. Showing up meant a million questions like where he was, what he’d been up to. There’d be a scramble to get email addresses and business cards. Phones would come out to check for numbers. Then for three months, there’d be invitations to parties, reunions, weddings, first child being born. And when he’d miss them, they’d promise to get together real soon. But he knew soon was long time away.

Or maybe he was afraid they wouldn’t recognize him. It had happened before. The day he ran into Marisa in Atlanta. They had looked at each other face to face. He remembered her right away. She looked right through him. Maybe he was too scared to admit how much that hurt.

“One more or are you good?”

“I’ll take one more. I’m not driving,” he answered, giving a wink to the bartender. She giggled and picked up the glass.

Sean rubbed the side of his nose into his eye, unconsciously trying to scramble his thoughts. No luck. Try as he did, he couldn’t stop the memories from creeping up. From the first time he drank underage with Dino to helping Sam move into her new apartment. He was right back there, part of the gang, a regular. It had been a long time since he had been a regular anywhere.

“Here you go, handsome,” on cue to pause his reflections, the bartender handed Sean another drink.

“I’ve been called plenty of things today, but handsome’s a first” he said, with an interested look on his face.

“Oh well that’s a shame,” she said in a sarcastically dramatic voice. He smiled as he raised an eyebrow. As she walked over to check in with a TSA agent waiting at the entrance to the bar, Sean caught her eying him up as she passed. He caught a teasing glimpse of her in the corner of his eye. When she was out of sight, he turned his focus back to his martini.

He liked his life; always moving, the action. He had his condo in New York for when he caught a break. He was good at it what he what’s more. It was a life he made for himself too. That didn’t mean he was heartless. Maybe he could give Sam a call. Just to say hi or congratulations. He would be back in Boston soon, maybe the two of them could meet up. Or he could get in touch with Dino. The electoral cycle had just wrapped up so he’d be free. Just a drink or two together, they’d hit up the North End, stop into the barber’s.

“Here’s your check,” the bartender said.

Sean reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his wallet. He slid out a hundred dollar bill and put it on top of the check.

“You keep the change, doll” He said as the bartender took it.

“Wow, I…Are you sure?” she asked, amazed and happy.

“Sure. From one late shift to another,” he said with another wink. She turned and walked to the register. Sean pulled his jacket off the chair as he heard the PA squawk.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning boarding for Flight 117 non-stop to Washington, DC.

“What did you say your name was?” the bartender asked, moving the empty martini off the bar.

“I didn’t” Sean said with another smile has he picked up his briefcase.

“Well aren’t you the mysterious type?” she retorted with a sarcastic tone. He tipped an imaginary cap to her.

“Don’t forget your receipt,” she said, giving him a wink of her own. Sean picked up the slip of paper and saw the handwritten note at the bottom.

Shelby xx
256-513-3391

Sean walked out of the bar and turned towards the boarding gate, receipt still in his hand.

She was cute enough, he thought to himself as he walked to the short boarding line. Maybe he’d give her a call sometime…

…And maybe he’d call Sam too.

As he passed a trashcan, Sean crumpled up the receipt and tossed it in.

Suburbia

Anthony climbed out the jeep and did a final inspection of the houses on the row. The whitecoats and the MP’s had already taken the politicians on a tour of it but there’d be hell to pay if something or someone was left behind. He shuddered at the thought as he opened the door to the first house.

Inside, the blinding Nevada sunlight poured in through the windows. Anthony hollered for anybody inside and when there was no reply, he walked into the kitchen. All of the packaged and loose food had been set up according to plan. There was even a brand new refrigerator, plugged in and humming away. That’s tax money well spent, Anthony thought to himself with a frown.

He did another sweep of the living room. Everything was in place and accounted for. Right down to the dining room table with cheap cutlery and plates set up. Even creepier than the ugly, unpainted walls was the “family” sitting around the table, all of their faces locked in a perpetual smile. It gave Anthony the willies just to look at them. He quickly checked off his clipboard and hurried outside.

The next house was the same with the exception of a TV in the living room and a sofa. Two children sat staring at the black screen, oblivious to the empty void or the clear marks of hasty construction all over the walls. Anthony could maybe understand putting in appliances but whose bright idea was it to put curtains in? Every window was the same: ugly, stained and hideous snot-green curtains. Some crackpot department storeowner must have wept tears of joy when the contractors bought out his entire stock of shitty curtains.

The last house in the row must have been the envy of the neighbors. It was two story house complete with a red brick chimney. The bricks almost matched the color of the desert-burnt wood. There was even a DeSoto parked in a little paved driveway next to the house. Anthony stepped through the doorway.

Another house, another collection of appliances and cheap furniture. Another family striking the catalog American pose.  Dad in a light blue suit and hat, Mom in a pink floral dress hanging just below her knees. Junior in the kitchen with a baseball bat and Sally upstairs staring at herself in a mirror.

“Don’t hold out for the majors, kid” Anthony said as he left the kitchen.

On the second floor there was more simple furniture. Beds for the kids and a queen size for the couple. A wardrobe and mirrors. Even curtains on a shower. It could almost be someone’s home. Almost.

Anthony paused for a moment and looked into Sally’s bedroom. It was furnished but also vacant. No toys, no books, nothing. It was frozen in place, like the unnatural smile on Sally’s face. As Anthony looked at the smile in the mirror, he was uncomfortable aware of how quiet it was. It wasn’t a calm or peaceful quiet. It was a deathly quiet. He felt too loud just with his nervous breathing. Even the boards under his boots had stopped creaking. It was a world without noise.

Watching the little girl’s lifeless eyes in the mirror was becoming harder and harder to do. It was like she was looking at him now. Always with that unchanging painted smile. Anthony shivered.

“Sir?”

Anthony almost shit himself he jumped so hard at the sudden blast of noise. His heart punched the back of his ribcage and cold sweat broke out over his arms and neck.

“Yeah?” he finally managed to reply.

“Are you ready to go?” the voice asked.

“Yeah,” Anthony said, stealing one last look at the mannequin in the mirror before hurrying down the steps.

“You alright sir?” the private asked him he came down the stairs.

“Yeah, you just startled me is all,” Anthony said, trying to appear casual.

“Yeah I know what you mean. This place gives me the creeps,” the private said as the two stepped back into the sunlight. Even with the heat all around him, he couldn’t stop the cold sweat and shivers he felt.

“Bring the jeep up and let’s get outta here,” Anthony ordered. The private jogged off to the jeep at the beginning of the row. Back out in the daylight, Anthony couldn’t shake the feeling he had when he was in Sally’s room. He wanted to leave sooner rather than later.

Sparing no time for sentimental goodbyes, he hopped into the jeep and the private sped off down the road. In the rearview mirror, Anthony could see a large iron tower in the distance. It seemed to cast a shadow over the whole town, like Vesuvius on Pompeii. Anthony knew what was up there. It had been hoisted up yesterday.

The jeep sped on down the dirt road, passing the large wooden sign. It was on the opposite side of the road but Anthony knew exactly what it said.

DANGER!
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A NUCLEAR TESTING FACILITY!