One Disillusioned Hero

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions

Charles’ knees throbbed their familiar aches as he trudged doggedly towards the end of Sa’avs Pass. His boots greedily clung to mud and clay as an animated crosshatch of rain traced the contour of his cloak. He had been travelling for days, stopping only to fetch water and relieve himself, and fatigue was finally displacing his perseverance. The weight of the cargo snugly strapped to his sides proved to be every bit the nuisance that Charles had expected. A tall glass of ale will be your reward once the transaction is complete, he reassured himself, and the promise of a warm bed at an inn fueled him for the last leg of his journey.

Crossing paths with nameless travellers became a more and more common occurrence as the town of Chuthan drew nearer. His thoughts drifted aimlessly, as they often would during long journeys, until the approaching sound of clacking hooves focused his senses with a jolt. His hand gripped tightly around the hilt of his concealed rapier as the silhouette of a horse-drawn carriage appeared against the lingering fog. It slowly lumbered past until the sound of rainfall overtook its creaky wooden wheels in the distance behind him. With a breath, he relinquished his weapon and allowed himself to relax.

How did things ever come to this? Charles often wondered, but never in a resentful way. It wasn’t much too long ago that he was dubbed the Shining Savior. Charles the Invincible. The Chosen Champion. These were the titles which helped to forge the path of his childhood towards his final confrontation with the evil Emperor Raven Da’Routh as a scant seventeen-year-old. He was victorious in the end, as prophesized. Bloodied but victorious. He observed with introspective analysis that his journey had almost felt at times like he was going through the motions. With the world’s confidence backing him, how could he fail? The celebrations were long and joyous, the erected statues grand and visionary, the women loose and insatiable. Yet his mind drifted even as his desires were thoroughly quenched, comparing the befores and afters of a world where ‘good’ prevailed and seeing no discernable difference.

What were you truly fighting for, oh Great Defender? His father might ask if he were still alive, the same bureaucrat father who wholeheartedly rejected his son’s predestination. The opportunity for people to govern themselves? Surely now you see how unruly the common masses are on their own. He shook his head with a snort, conceding a half-hearted agreement with the flesh and blood which abandoned him. The world was quick to dismiss their hero, of course, when Charles cynically exiled himself from the public eye. Now, many years later, he was smuggling drugs across arbitrary borderlines, earning his keep by ensuring the availability of a synthetic drug for wealthy socialites to douse away their sorrows. An honest dishonest living, he reconciled with quiet justification.

The unmistakable rumbling of a gas-powered engine tensed the air once again. A merchant’s motorcar this time, parting its way through the incessant mist. It carried a sense of looming confrontation, even as it disappeared behind Charles’ peripheral vision. His eyes and ears steeled themselves for the inevitable.

“Halt!” A voice commanded, disregarding the fact that Charles already stood frozen in his tracks. “Surrender yourself now. Forfeit your goods without delay and forego your death!” Charles’ shoulders rose and fell with a heavy sigh, prompting two cloaked bandits to rapidly converge upon his position with their weapons drawn. He sidestepped them easily and made light work of them with his rapier, their bodies collapsing upon the rain-soaked earth with a soft thud. He swiftly turned to meet the motorcar and was faced with a large cannon, still mostly covered in tarp, aimed at his center mass.

“Last chance!” the voice called again from somewhere within the humid dark. A grunt escaped Charles’s lips before he unsheathed his sword and swiped upward with one fluid motion—the same motion which felled the Emperor endless years ago—and the motorcar split into two with a smoldering crack. The scamper of footsteps fleeing into the woods finalized his victory, and Charles reassigned his focus while retiring his sword. The beady yellow lights from the approaching town beckoned, and his weary legs eased their demands. He sifted through the empty square towards the local saloon, passing a defaced, moss-ridden equestrian statue of himself without a second glance.

As a male in Rahven Rahz, you have the choice to be perpetually aroused, or not at all. Charles was reminded of his father’s narrow-eyed observation as two bubbly, scantily-clad waitresses flanked him in greeting within the saloon. Even as their breasts happily bounced against his shoulders, he maintained his blank, unrelenting stare. They asked in unison if they could tend to his cloak, prompting a slow nod of approval. His modest attire saw light for the first time in days—a faded plaid shirt, jeans with patches of discoloration, and brown boots cracking down the seams. Charles’ dark hair and eyes seemed understated against the wash of color prevalent amongst the other patrons of the saloon. Even his 6’2’’ frame was meager compared to other humans—and he preferred it that way.

He surveyed the area and made quick mental notes of his surroundings. A piano player in the corner. Two large ogres cornering a woman with ominous intentions. A large gathering of patrons, hooting and hollering around what seemed to be a sex show. Eventually, he spotted his contact. Charles nonchalantly seated himself at the bar beside a green-skinned Jhenaf, waving off a greeting from the bartender.

A moment passed, then another.

“You have what I need?” Finally, a gruff voice from the Jhenaf before he methodically lifted his glass to his lips.

“Yeah. You have my money?”

Slowly, the Jhenaf guided his hand towards a pouch strapped to his waist. He unzipped it slowly, pulling out what looked to be a bag of coins. Of course I have it, his glance seemed to say as he placed it resolutely on the counter between them.

Taking his cue, Charles loosened the straps around his chest and let the bags of pure Molly drop into his hands. He subsequently placed them beside the coins, on the side closest to the Jhenaf. “I guess that’s that,” Charles muttered, reaching for the coins before a firm shove interrupted his acquisition.

“No payment for you today, boss.” A weapon jammed against Charles’ back made its intentions irrefutably clear. The voice was quickly assessed and determined to be either a cyclops or an intelligent sasquatch. “Now leave and don’t look back.” Charles’ posture sulked, as if to prepare his meek departure from his chair and the premises. He then slammed his fist against his chest, causing a small, rippling explosion to flare out from his back, startling his assailant backwards a few steps. He swiveled hurriedly in his stool, prepared to engage his attacker before a compelling female voice commanded the attention of the entire saloon. “Stop right there,” it ordered emphatically, persuading Charles to lower his sword as a woman emerged from the shadows of an adjacent room.

(Here’s where you take over. Develop your character’s backstory as you see fit… gangster, law enforcement, saloon owner, fair maiden, anything you like. You definitely don’t have to write as much intro as I did. I admit I had a little too much fun with mine. Thanks for taking the (long) time to read, and I look forward to your reply!)

Half of the room looked her way and froze.  The rest clued in when the music stopped.  She had the half-man, half-beast dead in the sight of her mini crossbow.  Emi was much more comfortable with the accuracy (and more importantly the range) of her longbow but for an indoor job like this the piece of craftsmanship pre-loaded with four bolts and strapped to her right forearm was ideal.

“Keep playing,” she told the piano player without taking her narrow eyes off of her target.  “I like that song,” she said.  The music resumed but the chatter did not.

There was a curtain maybe ten paces off to the wet and well traveled human stranger’s right.  Emi had stepped out from behind it.  She was at a good safe distance with a table hosting two card players in between.  Standing rigidly braced with feet shoulder width apart, she wore dirty but well kept knee high boots and faded jeans.  A cropped jacket was buckled tight around her figure, neither fat nor slender.  A brown headscarf wrapped about her concealed her hair and neck, and black grease smeared across her high cheek bones and thin pointy nose.  She was all business.  On the other side of the drug runner was his customer, Zaanad, the Jhenaf.  Standing behind the two at the bar was the brute in the crosshairs.  It had removed its blade from the stranger’s back once she had got its attention.

“Go outside and count to infinity,” she told the man-beast.  “Oh wait, never mind.  How many fingers and toes do you have again?”  She took in a breath.  “My point being, get lost.”

“Stay out of this you little twat!” growled the whatever-it-was.  “It’ll take more than that puny thing to put me down.”

“I’m a pretty good shot,” she told him with utmost sincerity.  The brute produced a knife by its tip and the two card players dove away to either side as Emi kicked their table up and over.  The blade thunked into the wooden top as she pointed her weapon at the bulk of its body and flicked the latch with her left hand.  The first bolt buried into its lower abdomen causing it to grunt and wince.  Resetting the bow mechanically fed the next bolt automatically into place.  With the beast slowed by the wound, she took an extra couple of seconds to aim proper and put the next shot through its larynx, collapsing it into a heap on the dingy floor.  The faint of heart began to scatter and leave the room but a few remained.  With the third of four bolts now loaded, she turned her sights to the bar, hoping that no more ammo would be needed.

“Go ahead,” she nodded.  “Finish your transaction.”

Without taking his eyes from Emi, Zaanad slowly slid the money sack further towards the stranger and then at the same rate of speed pulled the dope towards himself.  Either the money or the drugs would have come out the same but Molly didn’t come in different currencies nor denominations, and also had the added bonus of being significantly tougher to counterfeit.

“All right, now that that’s done.  You.  Green guy,” she called to Zaanad.  She knew his name and he knew hers but Emi refused to show the two-bit criminal the dignity.  “I’ve come to collect.  Toss it this way.”  He complied with an easy underhand lob.  The sack, perhaps twice the size of her fist landed at her feet.  The impact popped open the threading at the top and a small amount of the fine beige-grey crystal spilled out.  Kneeling down, she dabbed her pinky in it and held it to her nose.  It smelled right, like burnt honey.  It was good shit.  Emi undid the top two buckles on her jacket and stuffed the sack inside giving her the appearance of having one large right breast.  “The other one,” she urged him, weapon still aimed at him.  Extending his skinny arm again, Zaanad tossed the next one and she stepped forward and caught it before it hit the ground.  It went into the left side of her chest evening out her now full and potent bosom.  A wolf whistle came from the other side of the room, causing her to smirk.

“As if.”

“Run if you want,” warned the Jhenaf in his gargly voice.  “But you know you’ll never get away.”

“You can keep the money,” she told the stranger, snubbing Zaanad completely.  “Buy yourself a new pair of boots.”

Emi’s eyes darted around for a moment.  No one was moving.  Even the sex show had paused.  Then she reached into her back pocket and pulled out a capsule.  “Bye,” she whispered and cracked the little smoke bomb on the floor at her feet.  Behind the white shroud she disappeared behind the curtain from whence she came.

It was a small store room, dimly lit.  She had left the cellar latch open for her hasty escape.  Skipping the ladder altogether, she sat on the edge of the hole and dropped herself down.  It was a maze of kegs and shelves of bottles and Emi zigzagged her way between to the four foot metal door in the back corner.  Pushing it open, she stepped into the pitch black of the sewer tunnel and closed it behind her.  Then feeling for where she had left the old rusty piece of re-bar, she stuck it in the crack at the base of the door to jam it shut.  If any pursuers were determined enough it would not hold, but it would easily afford her enough time to vanish.  With one hand she felt her way long the wall while she re-fastened one of the buckles to hold the goods in her chest while she moved along the narrow ledge above the slimy water.  After a few yards she could hear the drip-droop-drip trickling and then soon around the corner saw the faint grey light from the drain above.  Past the dripping water and the footstamps of the oblivious pedestrians on the metal grating above, the tunnel became a small squarely shaped cement pipe, forcing her to crawl.  It would be another forty yards in the pitch dark but she knew where she was going as Emi had the route pre traced several times.  The ground was wet and grimy under her hands and knees.  Soon the dim red glow from the open trap door was visible.  Once under it she could stand up through the hole and lift herself up, shutting and bolting the trap into relative safety.

The concrete room was tiny, about six feet by eight feet by six feet high, plenty tall enough for her five-foot-two stature, with no windows.  There was a bunk and a couple of stocked shelves mounted on the wall above it.  In the corner was the small lantern tuned to red.  Wiping the muck from her hands onto her jeans, she turned the dial to tune it light blue.  That was the signal.  Emi put the drugs down on the mattress next to her pre made pack, bow and quiver, and unstrapped the crossbow from her forearm.  Unwrapping the headscarf revealed a dusty blonde fringe that hung just above her amber eyes.  The rest of her locks fell down her back in a braid.  There was no telling how much time she had.  Zaanad may never have found her, or he could just as easily be crawling right below her with extra thug power in a matter of minutes.  She had to move quickly.  Removing all her clothes including her sweaty socks and underthings, right down to her bare nothingness, she pushed through the only other exit, the side door into the commode.  Emi washed the the remaining sewer grime from her hands in the basin and then scrubbed the grease paint from her face.  A brief shower would have been nice but it was just not safe to stay any longer than she had to.

Returning to the bunk cubicle, Emi gasped in wide-eyed surprise, crossing her arms over her small bare breasts and turning her hip to hide her bush.

Charles happily welcomed the exercise in restraint as the brazen newcomer introduced herself and assumed control of the fracas. He always appreciated diversions, especially those with inherent benefits, and his sword was respectfully re-sheathed even before the brute beside him was neutralized. A wry smile greeted the increasingly-attractive stranger’s suggestion to invest in new boots with the money she allowed him to keep. Had Zaanad’s forceful glare not prompted him to action, he would have allowed the smoky remnants of her escape to envelope his quiet commendation. She clearly was no slouch at covering her tracks, and Charles viscerally applauded the challenge as he sprinted forward to begin his pursuit.

The raucous saloon with its smell of stale smoke was quickly swallowed away as Charles descended the ladder into the cellar within the store room. After a cautious analysis of the small metal door in the rear corner, he dislodged the rebar after several attempts with a fierce ram of his shoulder. Charles took in the dank smell of the sewer with a slow breath, thoughts hazily drifting towards the dark tunnel before him.

Always the ears and nose, young one. In lieu of your eyes, these are your greatest tools… The teachings of his mentoring Uncle always seemed to apply themselves to the variety of challenges he often faced. Memories of hedge mazes remained constant within his mind, those courtyard labyrinths from his youth which were navigated with bound hands and blindfolded eyes, boots desperately skirting obstacle after obstacle, having no choice but to hone the pair of senses which were so ruthlessly advocated… Charles paused in the tunnel several times with an upheld nose, nostrils flaring to acquire the scent of Molly as his ears focused upon the after-echoes of the stranger’s footsteps. Before long, he discovered the trap door which harbored his quarry and focused the newly-acquired rebar on the appropriate pressure point, bursting it open with an upward thrust. Lifting himself into the small concrete bunker, he briefly surveyed the quarters before readying himself for the looming confrontation.

Charles patiently waited with both arms folded behind his back, his rapier slung harmlessly across his shoulders. A mild blush swiftly rose and fell upon his cheeks when met with the emergence of the unclothed stranger. His eyes focused towards the ceiling as a courtesy. “Hello again,” Charles said with the faintest suggestion of a smile. “Before I begin, I’d like to thank you for the help back there, even though I suspect it was an incidental aspect of your objective.” His face soured a bit, looking almost apologetic. “Unfortunately, I’ll need to ask for that merchandise back. I’m not the biggest fan of Zandoff myself, but he is one of my major suppliers of income.” A rumbling exhale hinted at his own reluctance in his demands. “You can have a moment to, uh… put something on before you hand over the stuff if you’d like.” Charles’ body tensed for a moment after his offer. Even in her compromised state, he sensed that the woman before him was still a threat to be reckoned with.

How the hell did he get in without her hearing?  He stood there before her backlit with an aura of aqua blue lantern light.  Speaking so casually, his air was blatantly smug as he asked for the dope as if it was his to take.  The two sacks were sitting there on the bunk next to her equipment.  He could have just lifted them and have been gone before she even exited the commode, unless he had missed seeing them, but she doubted that if he was observant enough to follow her that he wouldn’t be so blind.  Instead he stayed to tease her in this most vulnerable of states.  He probably wanted more than just the drugs.

“It’s not yours,” she told him flatly.  “You sold it to Mr Lizard and he paid you.  You’re out.”  Emi needed to stall while she thought of a course of action, still standing askew, shielding her privates.  “He owed me and I collected the debt.  So now that everyone’s square, you can all go home.”  She wanted to add ‘… and jerk off,’ but decided not to antagonize him while he had the upper hand.  She did everything she could to steady her breathing and at least appear calm even though on the inside she was ready to leap around the room like a cat on the slightest of notions.

Naked or not, Emi wasn’t handing over anything, her body nor the drugs nor any other shit he might feel like adding to the list.  She didn’t give a damn about the Molly itself.  The saloon wasn’t even some simple heist.  Zaanad had fucked her over and she just evened the score.  At this point the dope was leverage for something else.  Emi could not afford to lose it now, certainly not to some two-bit drug mule of that scumbag Zaanad.  The bow would be useless in here, but her sister had always kept a knife under the mattress.  Emi hoped that it was still there almost as much as she hoped that she wouldn’t need it.

“So do you want to use the back door,” she nodded to the trap in the floor, “or the front,” she asked as she stepped aside to give him a free path to the commode and the ladder upstairs within it.

Charles studied the stranger’s eyes carefully. He desperately wanted to avoid a confrontation, and her glare suggested that she was interpreting his attempt at cordiality for arrogance. He took one final glance at the Molly situated nearby on the bunk before finding the stranger’s eyes once more. “Very well,” Charles submitted with a slow nod. “It’s yours. I’m not going to risk getting either of us killed over a mere associate of mine. I’ll just report that you were too much to handle and sent me packing.” The corners of his lips twitched as if to fight off a smile before he shifted his focus towards the trap door, carefully avoiding the stranger’s bare body. “I’ll leave the way I came, thanks. Take care.” Charles withdrew slowly, kneeling down before disappearing into the sewer below.

A few moments passed. Then, with a look of alarm on his face, Charles reemerged through the trap door. “Someone followed me,” he confessed while hastily climbing back into the room with a grunt. “They’re almost here, and I’m sure they’re not friendly.” He quickly brandished his rapier and readied it ahead of his chest, assuming a wide stance between the opening in the floor and the nude stranger behind him.

A series of disconcerting noises clustered beneath the trap door before ceasing abruptly. Charles awaited the threat with a silent, fixated stare as it undoubtedly prepared to reveal itself. Without warning, an amorphous, purplish blob began to rise from the entryway, with several loose tendrils flailing themselves haphazardly along its flanks. “Charles the Champion!” A deep, gargling voice emerged from the creature’s center mass, ricocheting off the walls with a grotesque echo. “It’s certainly a surprise seeing you alive. I’m here to rectify that.”

The creature’s tendrils formed a pair of hands on the ends, clasping themselves together as a makeshift mace to knock Charles off his feet, careening him backwards towards the bunk with a crash. The sword was dislodged from his hand and flung toward his left shoulder, impaling it against the collapsed bunk beneath him. A cry of pain shot from his lips as his eyes clenched shut with a sharp wince. The hostile creature furthered its transformation, shaping a dragonesque head with a large set of teeth which grinned its barbaric intentions. Charles busied himself with a small pouch on his belt as the creature shifted towards him, sliding upon the concrete floor with a snake-like crawl. “Your time has finally come, hero,” it growled as it cast an ominous shadow upon Charles’ awkwardly splayed body, winding its arms towards another debilitating blow. With defiant eyes, Charles hurled a small grenade-like projectile towards the sardonic smile bearing down upon him. It unleashed an expansive net on contact which engulfed the creature, causing it to retreat with a surprised snarl.

Charles watched as the creature preoccupied itself with the net while collecting his mind. A brief moment of hesitation ensued as he clenched his right hand around the hilt of his sword, grinding his teeth before he removed the protrusion from his shoulder. “Jesus…Christ,” he yelped, tossing the blade aside for a moment before claiming it within his hand once again. “I hope you weren’t lying about that way out in the bathroom,” Charles spouted towards the stranger while stumbling to his feet. “Because we need to leave. Now.”

That was too easy.  The stranger went from cocking his head aside to fit himself under the low ceiling, to kneeling down and crawling back into the sewer.  His agreeable exit did not do anything at all to gain her trust.  Tracking her all the way through the dank underground, risking his personal safety only to turn back empty handed without a fight did not add up.  As soon as the lid closed Emi tossed her pack onto it, cursing that it wasn’t heavy enough to ensure his non-return.  Shoving the drugs into the top of the pack, she began to dress herself in a frenzy.  There was no time for underpants nor socks.  She slipped into black rain slick pants and pulled her arms quickly through the sleeves of the same buckle jacket.  Then grabbing a haphazard pile of clean garments already laid out, she stuffed a fistful on top of the drugs and clipped the pack shut.  Emi sat down to slip her boots back on but left them unzipped in her haste.  The quiver went over one shoulder and the bow over the other.  A tremendous urge to just grab the pack and start moving smothered her, but the crossbow still needed to be strapped on.  She could just carry it and strap it later.  No she couldn’t.  She needed both hands to climb the fucking ladder!  Then there was the poncho.  She should just leave something behind. “Fuck!” she cursed with a huff.

Everything had been ahead of schedule until this asshole had popped up through her trap door.  She cursed herself again for letting her nerves get into such a frazzle at the worst possible time.  She strapped the crossbow onto her forearm and reached for the pack.  Just as she lifted it, the trap opened again.

“Someone followed me.”

His re-emergence was the last thing that she needed.  He hunched over the hole in wait, but Emi wasn’t interested.  This was no time for someone else’s bullshit.  She had her own trouble to deal with.  Hauling the pack over her quiver shoulder and folding the poncho over her non-crossbow arm, she backed though the doorway into the commode.

The blob burst upward into the tiny room, knocking over the lantern.  Someone had not followed him.  Something had followed him.  The blue glow flickered out but was replaced by the creature’s own creepy fluorescent violet radiance.  From a larynx and orifice unseen, it uttered it’s sarcastic and ominous threats before quickly shapeshifting limbs into appropriate implements for knocking the man crashing back onto the bunk.  Emi heard his cries of pain on her way up the ladder and assumed that he was as good as dead.  Heaving herself up onto the floor above, she stood up straight and pulled her jacket closed to cover her bare chest but before she could start running she heard his voice again amongst the violent echoing racket below.

“I hope you weren’t lying about that way out in the bathroom.  Because we need to leave.  Now.”

She was already leaving and neither was she standing in his way to leave.  At that point it did occur to her that he wasn’t dead yet and she paused in assessment.  Stop getting sidetracked, Emi scorned herself.  Other people’s problems were other people’s problems and should stay that way.  Besides, this guy had been nothing but trouble from the moment that she’d set eyes on him.  Why should she give the slightest fuck?  That purple thing was doing her a favor.

“The ladder works!” she called down.  “But you’re on your own!”

Then she stepped through the doorway into the small abandoned storefront of her sister’s former enterprise.  The only light was the dull grey that seeped between the edges of the window boards.  Three quick strides between the half-empty merchandise shelves brought her to the front door.  Emi tossed the bolt aside and stepped out into the drizzle of the street.  She would not be coming back.  The cold wet draft on her chest gave her shivers and she clutched the jacket shut with a clenched fist.

“Hey baby, wanna party?”

“Fuck off!” she scowled and kicked the gnome swiftly in the groin.  Leaving him to double over in agony, she ran head down into the alley across the street to zip her boots and buckle up her jacket.

A trail of crimson began to trickle down Charles’s shirt and pool along the lip of his belt. He clenched his left shoulder gingerly with his right hand, watching as the strange creature before him cursed the net which seemed to tighten and expand defiantly against its struggles. Nuisance net, Charles confirmed with a reminiscing smile. You’ve bought me time many times before, and I better make the most of it now. He scuttled towards the commode, dodging a flailing purple appendage along the way, and hoped that the stranger’s words from above rang true.

The ladder didn’t ascend too high, but Charles’ injured shoulder refused to lift his left arm up past his ribcage. He jumped as high as he could and grabbed a rung with his good arm, pulling himself up with a heavy grunt before securing his feet and repeating the process. He eventually reached the top, bracing his torso on the floor of the room above as his legs dangled against the adjacent ladder. Before he could muster one final push, a searing arm latched onto his right calf and yanked downwards. He growled in agony as his hands clawed against the floorboards, slowing the creature’s pull, but not for long. “Where… do you think… you’re going?” A hellish voice inquired from below.

Acting quickly, Charles reached for a small vial on his belt, almost losing his grip in the process. He unscrewed the cap and tossed it haphazardly behind him…. and waited. An irritated shriek was enough to verify his success. The net which was still draped around the creature was dissolving into a glue-like irritant, an obvious chemical reaction to whatever was in the vial. The grip around his leg weakened, and Charles hauled himself completely over the edge with one final, desperate lift. His pant leg tore from the knee, and his boot slid off his foot, joining the purple beast beneath him. He laid upon his belly, grinding his teeth at the burning sensation around his calf.

It won’t be long until that creepy asshole comes at me again, Charles thought grimly. He willed himself to his feet and scanned the abandoned shop. Glints of light reflected off of bottles which must have been potions, prompting him to stuff several into his pockets in quiet hopes towards their antiseptic properties. He limped through the front door and took in the buildings around him for a brief, serene moment… this must have been the neighboring town of Luda.

A nearby gnome caught his attention soon after, one who was cradling his crotch and angrily limping towards a shadowed figure in the alleyway across the road. What happened next almost sent Charles into a state of shock. A feathery blur swooped onto the empty street just a few meters ahead, and the gnome was gone. Instinctively, Charles looked up in the sky just in time to witness two large, nebulous shapes, one rejoining the other as they streaked against the matte black sky. His eyes slowly widened with dread.

“Oh no,” Charles muttered to himself. “No, no, no.”

A sharply curtailed scream from above confirmed his fears. “Hellbirds,” he unconsciously whispered aloud. This must be Zanaad’s doing. Charles narrowed his eyes. Or one of his superiors. He shook off thoughts from his past involving the deadly creatures and turn his head towards the alleyway. “Take cover!” he yelled at the might-be stranger before stepping back into the shop behind him. A flash of feathers burst past his peripheral vision; he realized with sickly horror that had he waited a moment longer, he would have been seized by impossibly large talons and torn to shreds.

The birds were undoubtedly circling around in preparation to double back. Without a moment’s hesitation, Charles bent over to unlace his left boot as quickly as he could.  He unfastened his belt and pressed a button near the buckle, rigidizing it with a sudden snap. The ends of the lace were tied on opposing ends of the belt, creating a makeshift bow. He then focused on his rapier, hastily unscrewing the blade from its hilt.

The rapier blade was pulled tautly against the lace and stabilized against the solidified belt. Charles listened carefully to the noises in the sky above and made a few mental calculations. After a long, slow breath, he emerged from the shop and fired the blade which arced gracefully through the air before dissolving against the dark. A moment passed. Then a loud, animalistic screech. One dark shape in the sky dominoed against the other, careening both into the hillside just beyond the town’s skyline. He dropped his improvised bow to the ground and exhaled deeply.

“This isn’t the end of it,” Charles called towards the darkness of the alleyway where the stranger might still linger. “There’s more coming. A lot more. They’re definitely after me. I suspect they’re after you as well. If you follow me, I can take you somewhere safe.” And with that, he collapsed onto his right knee, panting heavily. You’re not in any shape to take anyone anywhere, he admitted to himself.

Even on such a miserable grey day the massive bird still cast a shadow on the street.  It caught her attention before the thrash of the wings gusted a breeze down the lane and the pervy little squat was snatched up in the talons and carried away.

One moment’s peace – that’s all she wanted – forty seconds or so to get herself prepped for the road.  She couldn’t even have that.  First this weirdo tracking her down for no apparent reason and now the birds.  She didn’t think that Zaanad had the clout to call them, although his boss did.  If they were to come after her she would have expected them miles down the road or maybe the next day.  Less than ten minutes of response time wasn’t right, unless they were after someone else.  In any case she needed them about as much as a cattle prod in her panties.  Speaking of which, she still wasn’t wearing any under her clothes.  Fucking hell!

They alley of refuge was too narrow for the hellbirds to reach her, unless they landed in the street (which was likely barely wide enough for that itself) and pecked their way in with beaks.  Emi had hoped to take a moment to throw on a sweater, but instead just rebuckled the jacket, slung her arsenal over appropriate shoulders, packed up and tossed the grey poncho overtop of everything. 

“There’s more coming.  A lot more.  They’re definitely after me.  I suspect they’re after you as well.  If you follow me, I can take you somewhere safe.

Somewhere safe?  Nowhere was safe with him.  This should have been so simple.  Get on a bike and take the dope down the road to Hainburn.  She’d be there within an hour and have herself a warm room at the inn.  Now with birds in the sky, the road was not an option.  Even if they weren’t sent after her, they were quite difficult to control once unleashed as their bird brains often tended to have minds of their own.  No one was safe.  She would have to trek it through the woods on foot and would hopefully be there before dawn.

Without a word Emi set off down the lane to ditch the guy for good.  The hellbirds could have him.  She had more important matters to take care of.  The narrow strip of clouds between the rooftops above were clear of birds even if the air was filled with their not so distant cries.  After a quick check that all was clear she dashed across the next street and into the next lane.  She knew it was there somewhere in the shadows, an open grate back into the sewers.  Two dirty scruffy humans crouched low scurried before her and disappeared into the dark.  The street people seeking shelter from the hellbirds above revealed the hole to her.  The metal rungs embedded in the concrete wall descended several feet underground.

She knew the way and had traversed it many times.  This was a common tunnel that stretched for a few miles with side ledges nearly three feet wide.  It was heavily inhabited and as such was periodically lit by small lanterns.  Voices chattered here and there.  People, human or not, made beds along the edges of the walls or in alcoves.  Now and then materials such as wood or metal plates were laid across from ledge to ledge forming dwellings bridged over the current in the trough beneath.  Emi moved quickly, resisting the urge to run as she needed to pace herself for the journey ahead.  People usually kept to themselves but sometimes there would be the odd pickpocket or once in a while someone would block the ledge and want to collect a toll to pass by, so she had to keet her eyes sharp for trouble.  Stepping over sleeping bodies and briskly passing panhandlers with a cold glare she kept moving on the slight downhill grade.

The dim glow of daylight and the source of the cool breeze drawing in, considerably fresher than the air inside the tunnel, was near.  A few more yards and she stepped her way through the loitering crowd at the opening to the outside world.  There were no hellbirds, just clouds darkening into night.  There was no following stranger, just several hours of wilderness between her and her destination.  Garrn was waiting for her at Hainburn.  ‘Just go’ she thought to herself.  ‘Just go’.  She needed no more interruptions nor delays.  There was too much at stake.  Despite the setbacks she was still going to make it.  Emi strode along the path stamped into the garbage of the waste yard and off into the sheltering trees at the other side.

His shoulders slumped as he watched her go, mirroring the defeat which was painted in broad strokes across his face. His bluff was an obvious dud, and now half his limbs were useless as the chances for escape rapidly spiraled towards hopelessness. “This is shaping up to be some kind of night,” he muttered to no one in particular, standing himself up with a near-colossal effort. Fate, it would seem, was bearing down fast, and he turned to meet the purple shadow bearing down upon him with a shrug of his shoulders as if to say,ya got me. The purple beast-thing swiped angrily with its arm and sent Charles flying towards the wall of a building across the street, slamming him awkwardly before he fell to the ground with a sickly crunching sound. Two Jhenafs waiting in the shadows of nearby alleys quickly approached his defenseless body, brandishing their guns at his head with satisfied smiles. “Not even a chance for some epic last words,” he regretfully thought as his vision faded towards an enveloping shroud of matte black. “Maybe next lifetime.”

Charles would wake up with a massive headache and sharp pain in his ribcage, strapped to a chair with his arms firmly secured behind it. His eyes adjusted themselves to a lone bulb hanging from the ceiling of a room with sharp yellow light that bled in through his eyelids. There were thick sheets of shadows surrounding the bulbous beacon of vision, and he sensed beings within them, squinting his eyes to try and distinguish their silhouettes. There was no way to determine how long he had been out; Charles’ mind was too groggy to theorize the whats, wheres and whys of his situation. He did, however, find that his ribcage was wrapped with bandages, as was his calf and shoulder. A door opened and closed behind his field of vison, giving Charles a strange wave of relief as he was happy to forfeit his attempts at playing detective. Footsteps approached, slow and methodical, until what appeared to be a well-dressed, humanlike figure with albino snake-like skin and beady red eyes revealed itself against the light.

“Charles the Champion! Finally, you’ve returned to us from your little nap.” Its voice was jolly and personable as a slithery smile spread across its face. Charles lifted his eyes to meet the creature’s arrival, then weakly shook his head in defiance. “Stuh… stop. Calling me that.” His voice was a gargle, somewhat choked in dried blood. The classy snake-thing smiled ever wider at his response and continued. “Ah, but you see, that is why you are still alive, my friend. We need someone with a sterling reputation, someone with many a battle under his belt who can help us achieve our ends. Someone who has experience with a wide variety of weapons and martial arts, someone who is perhaps looking for purpose after freeing the people from their oppressive tyrant…”

Charles shrugged. He didn’t know who the snake-thing was talking about.

“YOU!” The snake-thing bellowed in wide-eyed exasperation. “We need YOU. Believe it or not, even your most zealous enemies have an immense respect for you. Now, I wouldn’t call myself your enemy, but I couldn’t resist the chance to employ your services.”

The obvious question climbed out of Charles’ mouth rather easily. “What makes you think I’d be willing to do your dirty work for you? Even for a price?”

There was a nod from the snake-thing towards a corner of the room behind Charles, and a Jhenaf took his cue to emerge from the shadows. “I apologize in advance,” the snake-thing said with a half-hearted frown. Charles had no time to react before the Jhenaf placed something slimy, something… living on the base of his neck. “We can only conduct this procedure if you’re conscious, and I’m afraid it’s rather unpleasant at first. But you’ll get used to it, I promise.” Charles saw the wide, jolly smile of the snake-thing one last time before he felt… something… melt into his spine. Soon it felt like his consciousness was being cascaded by streams of foreign thoughts, and he realized in horror that these thoughts were in fact… instructions. There was no time to fight or struggle; his mind was quickly swallowed up with a will that wasn’t his own.

“Now, then. We have a great many tasks for you to complete… but. That woman you were fraternizing with earlier. I’ll peg her as your first objective, since she is fresh on our minds.” The snake-thing folded its arms, and the first true emotion of displeasure appeared on its face. “NO ONE steals from me, not the slightest bit of merchandise. An example must be made post-haste. You are to find her and neutralize her on sight. Retrieving the stolen goods is preferred but not necessary. Understood?” Charles nodded his head with a motion that indubitably expressed his full compliance.

The snake-thing reached into his overcoat and pulled out a small vial with bright-green contents, offering them to Charles which he readily accepted into his mouth. “That’s a healing potion. You already probably feel your pain fading away, but give it an hour or so to fully work its wonders.” With that, the Jhenaf released him from his binds, and Charles stood up from his chair with steely-eyed determination. “We also have something to accompany you. A bloodhound of sorts.” The snake-thing grinned as a small, orange, bat-like creature flew down from the rafters above and hovered nearby. “This little guy has an impeccable sense of smell. He should be of some use in your hunt for the woman.” Charles saluted his acknowledgement before inviting the bat-thing to perch on his shoulder. “Yes, Master Raleth. I live only to serve you.”

An hour later, Charles was revitalized, resupplied, and repurposed, slipping back into the night with grim intentions.

She trudged on through the night, over knolls and across gullies and ravines.  There was moonlight when it found its way through the foliage or when the route traversed sections of dead barren branches scorched by the chemicals and fires of various conflicts and enterprises over the years, but it did help that Emi knew the way.  For the first couple of hours she periodically checked over her shoulder for signs of a tail, even stopping briefly to listen for the rustling of footsteps that weren’t there.  Each time she noted no evidence and grew more and more confident that she had given him the slip.  The absence of hellbird cries was also a relief.  Pushing onward she had no time to lose.  There was no sense in rueing her detour.  All would work out in the end so long as she persevered.  Just one night of this would be worth it.  She would deliver the goods and it would be over.  It had better be over.  Emi wasn’t sure if she could take another twist in this unwelcome plot that she had been thrown into, so she forced herself to believe that the epilogue was finally drawing near.

Sometime around midnight she sat for a rest and to eat.  The clouds had cleared away and the rain had stopped and so setting down her packs, she discarded the poncho, escaping its sweaty confines.  Resting her bum on a fallen tree she tore off a bite from a protein bar and chewed quickly.  The rest of the bar didn’t last long and she washed it down with a long drink of water.  Her crotch had been chafing in the rain slick pants and she had spent the past hour or more constantly readjusting the chest of her jacket.  It was uncomfortable trekking through the woods with no underthings.

Unbuckling the jacket, she laid it on the log.  Then she leaned down to unzip and pull off her boots before standing up to slip off the pants.  With firm and sturdy thighs stark naked in the moonlight, she bent over to retrieve bra and panties from her pack and quickly stepped into the panties, pulling them up her thighs and over her hips and wiggling her bum into them.   Then she slipped the bra, a comfortable stretchy top, over her head and straightening it into place around her ribs.  Her breasts were not large enough to really warrant the support, but the covering would keep them from rubbing around in her clothes while on the trail.  In the distance was the chirping of a bat.  It came closer and circled around.  She looked up but could see nothing.  The chirping circled once more and then faded away generally in the direction that it had come.  Emi undid her braid and picked her dark gold locks loose with her fingers.  Then she took another drink of water, pulled on the pants and returned her bum to the fallen tree.  The fresh night air was soothing.  Her legs were tired and were content to be still.  Relaxation began to set in.  Shutting her eyes brought serenity.  Just a couple of more minutes wouldn’t hurt anything.  Perhaps she could even lie down.

Emi suddenly awakened with a chill.  It was cold out half dressed in the wilderness and she had nearly dozed off.  Sleep was the enemy.  She had to keep moving, keep the adrenaline pumping on until Hainburn.  She could do it.  She could suck it up.  She could rest when it was done.  Standing up straight, she tied her hair quickly in a knot bun.  Then she slipped her boots back on and buckled up her jacket.  Reshouldering her packs, she left the poncho behind and started moving.

A couple of hours later, scurrying down the slope of a dry ravine, she heard the chirping of another bat.  It circled above a couple of times and faded away just like the one before.  The moonlight softly crowned the round stones in the dead creek bed showing Emi the best footing.  She stepped her way across and clambered up the far bank to pick up the trail on the other side.

Hunger was beginning to rear its head once more but Emi didn’t want to stop.  She was making good time and was not interested in losing any momentum.  The trail was gently rolling downhill by then, which meant that she was within a couple of miles.  The orange glow of pre-dawn was in the sky to the left.  Her thighs burned and her feet ached but she didn’t care.  Eventually topping one of the knolls revealed a treeless dry plain with a silhouetted spire in the middle of the horizon against faint morning pink.  The sun was rising and she had made it.  Hainburn was dead ahead.

Picking up her pace, she could hear wheels and engines on the road coming and going from the town.  The sun, a stark orange ball of fire, rose to the east and Emi reached into her pack for dark shades.  As the town grew closer she could identify the buildings, and even hear the bustle.  Hainburn never slept.  There were no gates and there were no rules.  Emi maintained her determined pace straight into the square.  Humans, monsters, aliens, all kinds crossed from one establishment to another, in cars, on bikes and on foot, from tavern to whorehouse to casino and back again.  Off to her left two frogmen were wrestling an orc to the ground.  On the right a gnome and a human were engaged in hysterical laughter as they urinated on each other from about five paces.  Up ahead a jhenaf sat on the tailgate of a truck and facilitated a drug transaction as a human girl fellated him from the end of a collar and chain.

Directly ahead was the spire, a tall pointed monolith erected at the face of the cathedral beneath it.  Hainburn, once a center of virtue, was now a mecca of sin.  The stone beneath her feet was marked with huge arcs, once revered but now merely mostly legible.  There were thirteen of them, once for each lunar cycle of the year and as the sun passed over each day the point of the epic spire would cast its shadow along the arcs and tell the date and time.  The town square was a great clock and calendar.  It had become popular culture to deface the arcs, tagging them with personal events, birthdays, death days, rapes and other triumphs.  Historical events were easy to spot and always drew large gatherings upon their anniversaries.

Emi was there for none of that.  She had one piece of business to take care of.  It was all that mattered.  The cathedral and its thirteen steps stood just a few yards before her.  It was the destination.  Garrn was there.  He ran Hainburn and he had what she needed.

The frayed landscapes of war which bled out from Luda’s limits pushed outwards against the thickened shroud of night, presenting deep pockets of forest on a whim. Charles shifted and contorted his body with uncanny foresight to avoid the fallen branches which flanked his swift pursuit like outstretched arms. His black fatigues offered nothing to the moon in terms of reflection, save for two fastened rows of daggers trailing down his obliques, complementing the rapier strapped to the side of his hip. Four pairs of pockets also concealed trios of poisoned darts along the seams of his pants. His jet-black hair was neatly slicked back, and the sides of his face were freshly shaven, with a patch of beard on his chin as a soldier’s distinction. All in all, Charles was certainly dressed to kill.

His keen ears kept their focus upon the bat-creature whose chirp managed to carry from a considerable distance ahead. He kept an appropriate separation, knowing it would be key towards maintaining his strategic advantage. The girl he sought had business; of what sort, Charles didn’t know. But the closer she was to completing it, the more vulnerable she would be. 

After approaching a small clearing, Charles’ tenacious pace abruptly ceased. Raising his nose to the sky, he focused himself upon a particular fallen tree and paced its perimeter like a wolf encircling its prey. Eventually, Charles sat himself down with a look of satisfaction as he huffed and snorted the air around him. The conquering force which pulsed between his ears seemed to implement a strange set of enhancements to Charles’ inherent biology. Yes, yes. She was most certainly here. She exposed her flesh to the air. Such a sweet scent, she has. The consciousness of Charles’ true self, thoroughly oppressed to this point, suddenly swelled against his occupied mind, riding a wave of ravenous lust. No. We mustn’t find her. We mustn’t kill her. Turn back. We must turn back. With some effort, the foreign presence reasserted its control, quelling the last rebellion that Charles’ primal instincts could muster. Her death is necessary. Her death is imminent. It is all that matters. To us. To me.

The orange bat-creature finally returned over the treelines with erratic flaps of its veiny wings, spiraling its descent onto Charles’ left shoulder. It chirped and squeaked against its master’s ear, relaying the details of its investigation. Charles processed the information with a meditative thought before nodding his approval. “Excellent. We know now of her final destination. Our pursuit must be carefully coordinated to avoid detection.” The sun was beginning to rise against Charles’ back, causing bluish shadows to sift into existence amidst the muted colors of daybreak. He casually lifted himself from his seat, completing a few calisthenic exercises before setting back on the chase.

Charles emerged with tired legs from a thick morning mist towards a worn, faded sign which declared the outer limits of Hainburn. A drunken harlot lay sprawled upon its large wooden frame, limbs dangling towards the clayish mud on the ground. She would eye Charles’ approach and hiccup before rolling upon her side to lazily improvise a seductive pose. “Care t’ave a go, govnah?” she suggestively slurred, lifting her lacy dress past her belly button to reveal a slick fork of lines which contoured her loins. Charles continued past without a second glance and took position atop a nearby cliff which overlooked his objective in the distance. A downhill climb of a mile or so was all that remained before he would find himself within the center of town. The scent of debauchery was strong even from where Charles stood with blank, determined eyes as he surveyed the structures and landmarks. But the girl’s scent was stronger. She was close. Very close.

It wasn’t long until the raucous saloon of Hainburn beckoned. The sun hung just above the outstretched rise of buildings, casting a deep pool of shadow below Charles as he approached the hinged bat-wing entrance. He emerged inside to witness an ogre pinning a woman halfway up an adjacent wall with his crotch, finishing his business with a climactic groan that rippled down his back like a slithering watersnake. In fact, almost every square inch of the place was engaged in some lecherous or illegal activity, making Chuthan seem like a child’s playpen. After a quick inspection, Charles carved himself between two elves doing lines of pinkish powder on the bar counter, yelling towards the tapster who was himself zipping up the front of his pants.

“I need your help,” Charles stated impatiently, placing a tall stack of gold coins next to a forgotten glass of half-finished mead. Money certainly seemed to speak volumes here, as the tapster dropped everything and turned his full attention towards the stranger before him.

“I’m looking for someone, a woman. Jeans, boots, coat, gold hair. Seen anyone of the sort?”

The tapster’s eyes darted from the coins to Charles’ eyes as he offered a slow nod. “Yessir. My boys always keep tabs on who comes and goes. She was seen, all right, but can’t say where she ended up. It’s a big town, plenty of nooks and crannies, y’see.” The way his voice trailed suggested he had more information that could be bought, but Charles dismissed the bait. Instead, the bat-creature would depart from his shoulder yet again towards the world outside.

“My winged friend will find exactly where she is. In the meantime, those coins are for your ‘boys’ to pass the word along. I am not to be bothered during my business here… be it blood, sex, or death. Understood?” Charles left the tapster with a burning gaze before calmly retiring himself towards a darkened corner to wait for the bat-creature’s report. The game, it seemed, was quickly racing towards its end.

Ascending the steps to the cathedral, the chirp of another bat circled overhead.  Emi paused a moment to look skyward with a smirk but saw only the glare of the morning sun.  What were bats doing in town, and in daylight hours?  Continuing on, the large right side copper door was propped open for business. Emi entered into the front hall beneath the spire.  Gaudy artwork hung on the walls.  A prostitute was passed out on a dingy sofa to the left.  On the right was a counter top and several heavies stood guard at the door to the inner auditorium.

“I’m here to see Garrn,” Emi approached the scarred slab of a man behind the counter.

“You and half of Raven Rahz,” he growled back.  His dark hair was greying and was pulled back and seemed to be the same length as his well kept beard that hung to his belly.

“He’s expecting me.”

“He’s not here.”

“No bullshit,” she said tersely.  “I need to see him.”

“No bullshit.  He’s not fuckin’ here,” the man croaked without the slightest flinch.  “He’s at The Dom,” he said as he nodded towards the door.

“At this hour?” she prodded.

“His new ogre is fighting tonight,” he answered.  “He’s making preparations.”

“When is he coming back?”

“Garrn comes and goes when he wants,” he shrugged.  “Could be there all day.”

“Thanks,” Emi said with a healthy dose of sarcasm as she turned to walk out.  Back on the thirteen steps, Emi had to maneuver around a dead body that had not been there when she had entered a moment before.  In Hainburn this was not entirely unexpected.

“What ya got in the bag, pretty thing?” a froggy voice to the right stopped her.  An orc stood at the foot of the steps, scaly squatty and wide and outfitted in torso armor and a long coat.  Another, similarly clad, closed in from the left.  This one was female as Emi discerned by the shape of the chest plate.

“The Emperor’s ashes.”  Emi could not have been less in the mood for confrontation.  The orcs snickered at her little joke.

“Bullshit,” the first one said.  “Why don’t you tell us what’s really in there.”

“Your ass!”

With that she engaged in a pre-emptive strike and drew her dagger with her left hand, staring down the male as she raised her crossbow arm across her body and fired at the female without looking.  The orc’s wince from her left confirmed the hit.  Then Emi leapt up onto the stone railing and jumped at the male lining up the heel of her boot with his snout.  The monster jumped back out of the way and rolled.  As he took time to recover his stance, Emi turned to the female and charged.  Due to her lack of careful aim, the bolt had only lodged in the creature’s upper arm.  The female turtled behind her shield but Emi kicked her tumbling over and pounced.  The orc’s thick skin made slitting the throat difficult but Emi was determined and finished her off before swiftly spinning around and pointing the crossbow at the male who stood at about ten paces with shotgun drawn.  He stopped in his tracks, lowered his weapon and backed away.  After a few steps he turned and ran to the smattering of applause from the onlookers.

“We should see her in The Dom!”

“A hundred creds on the chick!”

Emi straightened herself up and the small gathering parted to let her past.

In more enlightened times The Dom had been known as The Vardossian.  It was a forum in the round and was a center of the arts.  Drama and dance were commonly performed there.  These days it was a combat arena and the matches within drew heavy wagering.  The capacity was about 4000 and the building was easily recognizable by it’s limestone domed roof which had a hole caved in just to the left over the front entrance allowing a certain fraction of the elements to periodically influence the events within.  Previous proprietors had renamed and remarketed the venue simply as The Dome and as such had affixed garish purple neon letters above the front gate.  Some years later the E ceased to light and was never serviced and hence the venture was affectionately dubbed The Dom by the general public.  The crowds in attendance often fought amongst themselves and it was certain that a handful of spectators would not survive a main event.  Even the combatants were occasionally known to kill fans, inadvertently or not.

Emi approached the building.  She had to find Garrn and get this over with.

Charles brooded with silent intensity as he sat quietly at his corner table, in contrast to the gluttonous excess which swirled around him. His arms were rigid and exposed, palms flat to the wood, as if to pacify some unseen interrogator. He turned away several two-bit solicitors eager to sell him drugs or sex with eyes that burned like hot coals. Finally, his patience would be rewarded, as his heightened senses clawed through the noise to fixate upon the bat-thing calling him outside for a rendezvous. Charles overturned his table with a swift brush of his arm before rushing himself out of the tavern, hand steadied upon the hilt of his rapier. The chase was on again, as was the certainty upon his face.

As he followed the winged, orange beacon flapping an erratic trail several feet above, Charles would come across a cathedral a half-mile across town. The holiness of the ground it stood upon was obviously tainted through years of blatant desecration and abuse. There was chatter amongst a nearby group, praising the exploits of a human female who effortlessly slew one Orc and sent another fleeing with his tail between his legs. Charles postponed his pursuit to accommodate an impromptu investigation, and quickly deduced that the responsible party must be the girl he’s looking for. Unbeknownst to him, trouble was brewing near the opposite side of the crowd, as three giant figures hastily approached Charles with malicious shadows. The group of onlookers redirected their attention to watch and whisper as he slowly lifted his eyes to meet the new threats which glared down from above.

“There you are,” a Cyclops gleefully bellowed while snatching the bat-creature out of the air with its hand, crushing it to death with one firm, bone-crunching squeeze. It was soon joined by a species of Jhenaf, one that Charles had never seen before, standing three times taller than its cousin; as well as some kind of hulking, horned demon with weird mechanical augmentations protruding from its arms and chest. “You were so kind to provide us with a bribe before, but I’m afraid it wasn’t enough. We now need everything you have.” The trio of Giants joined together in a chorus of mocking laughter. “In exchange for your life,” the demon-thing added in addendum, as if their intentions weren’t already clear enough.

This was certainly an unexpected development, and there was no time to waste. “Enough of this horseshit,” Charles growled as he claimed two daggers into his hands. He lunged at the giant Jhenaf, still recovering from its guffaw, and quickly clambered up its armor towards an exposed area of its neck to carve a deep, crescent-shaped wound between two vertebrae. A piercing yelp pried itself free from its mouth as the giant stumbled forward before toppling to the ground with a loud thud.

Charles leapt away from the Jhenaf to reestablish his footing before narrowly sidestepping a large hammer which slammed down with murderous determination from the Cyclops. His battle-honed instincts took control, realizing that the hammer’s weight would buy at least a moment’s worth of time to bury two fistfuls of poison darts into its exposed forearm. The Cyclops reeled backwards with a beast-like roar of pain as it desperately yanked the needles from its flesh. A few moments passed before it collapsed to its knees, then to its side, desperately gasping through the foam which collected across its lips.

Two giants were already neutralized; the demon-thing was all that remained. It wouldn’t move an inch amidst the escalating carnage, slowly charging itself with a loud hum. A bright-yellow pulse of electricity would finally shoot towards Charles from its palms, hurtling him backwards into the crowd that conveniently braced against a crippling impact. Onlookers would observe that he drew his rapier just in time, seemingly to absorb and redirect most of the shock, though his body still smoldered with hazy plumes of smoke. A moment to recover was all that he needed; as the monster powered itself again, Charles readied himself by analyzing the creature’s weakest points. Three airborne daggers would quickly embed themselves into its various mechanics with devastating precision. The demon-thing mustered an incredulous look before a loud screech blared outward from deep within its chest. Its robotic features burst apart in chunks of shrapnel, followed by a strange churning sound as it seemed to deactivate, leaving it to stand while its eyes stared lifelessly towards the ground.

One final inspection of the three fallen giants emphasized their apparent defeats. The Cyclops gurgled helplessly while languishing upon its side, prompting Charles to finish him off with the last of his darts directly through its heart. There was one final spasm of life before the Cyclops’s haggard breathing sputtered to a pathetic halt. Charles basked across the massacre that lay before him, retiring his rapier as he sneered with spiteful eyes. “Behold my works, ye mighty…” He interrupted himself with an abrupt shake of his head. This was no time to gloat or get carried away. The girl’s trail was fresh, but alas, his bloodhound was dead.

Charles turned to the onlookers and queried with a loud voice, “The girl who was here before. Where did she go?” A sea of still, uncertain faces met his request before one response broke the silence. “Most likely the Dom,” a voice called from the throng’s rear by a disgruntled Orc. “Only logical place for someone like her, in my eyes.” The crowd parted to clear the space between them. Charles studied the Orc’s vengeful eyes with his own narrowed gaze before nodding his acknowledgement. This one wasn’t lying. And it was time to go.
It wasn’t long until he arrived at the Dom. There was a sea of spectators pushing and shoving their way through long ticket lines amongst the place-betters and sharks seeking to doom their unwitting customers. Charles would regretfully reflect upon the death of his winged companion as he navigated through the obnoxiously loud crowds. He couldn’t believe his luck, however, when he inadvertently spotted the girl from afar with wide, incredulous eyes. His first instinct was to reach for a poison dart, but a curse escaped his lips when he realized there were none left to use. This would have to be an intimate encounter. No easy task, especially given the environment they both were in and the skilled warrior she seemed to be.

Quickly, Charles assessed the situation. She was here on some kind of business—and if he was smart, he could use that to his advantage. But, there was one self-imposed stipulation that would take precedence in his strategy. The girl’s life must be claimed by him, him alone, and no one else. He must be the one to carry her lifeless body to the welcoming arms of his Master to do with as he pleased. No doubt she had ties to unsavory characters who were quick to violence and prone to ambush. He followed at a safe distance, watching carefully to ensure she never left his sight.

There was a rough hubbub in the place even at this early hour.  The lighting was dim and so Emi removed and pocketed her shades before shifting through the crowds.  Lines of bettors of all shapes sizes and textures jawed over who the best combatants were and argued over place in line.  In the booths, the agents of bookies sat behind protective cages and logged the names and amounts.  Wagering was not Emi’s business.

Through the vomitory the ring stood empty – a perfect circle enclosed and topped by cage to keep the combatants within.  Emi approached the iron barred gate and addressed the guard.

“I need to see Garrn.”

“Line up with the rest of whores at the cathedral,” he said.  The man (most of Garrn’s employ were in fact human) stood looming large in a long coat with a shotgun, a few days of dark greasy stubble and a hairline receding well back.  Behind him dust hung in the bold streams of sunlight cast diagonally across the seating bowl through the jagged hole in the roof.  “But I’ll say that his tastes are much higher than you, so your chances are low.”

“I don’t want his dick,” she spat tersely.  “This is business.  He’s expecting me.”

“He didn’t mention any appointments.”

“He gave me a deadline and I’m here,” she persisted trying not to appear too antsy.  The gate guard paused in contemplation.

“Who should I say is calling?” he finally relented.

“Tell him it’s the bitch from Luda.”

The guard nodded to a skinny hairless fellow with an extremely round skull and pointy chin behind the gate, who returned the nod and took leave.

She had thought him long gone, but there he was.  On the other side of the far betting lines he was standing there.  The black clothes were new and he had cleaned himself up and shaved, but it was definitely him.  She tensed up at the sight of him.  Why would he come all this way for two lousy bags of molly?  The bastard had to be working for Zaanad.

“He says to come back here in an hour,” said the runner with the round bald head who had returned.  Emi looked at the skinny guy behind the gate and then back at her stalking stranger, then back to the messenger again.

“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth as her chin jutted out.  “One hour.  Right here.”

The guard nodded assuredly.

Emi exited the vomitory and returned to the concourse.  He was watching her.  He had to be even if he was acting as if he weren’t.  She felt confined.  There would be more space in the square.  There was always safety in the wide open.  Without breaking stride she made her way around to one of the side entrances, glancing once over her shoulder along the way.  Outside, she redonned the sunglasses and replenished the spent bolt in the crossbow.  Then she took to a quick jaunt out towards the summer solstice mark, turned and readied her longbow at ease.  She’d had more than enough of this guy.

Charles patiently gauged his quarry’s reaction after his position was compromised, and her response was indisputable in its intent. She was no doubt trying to lure him into an arena where she could secure some sort of advantage. In a way, Charles’ occupied mind regretted the inevitable showdown as he began to carve his pursuit through the mindless throngs surrounding him. So be it, then. Lead the way to your demise. I have no qualms with you dying on your own terms. It’d be a fitting end to such a worthy opponent.

As he approached the square near the cathedral, Charles noticed three horse-drawn wagons, one for each of the three giants he abolished earlier. Pairs of officers were systematically hauling their corpses upon the beds. Charles hastily took cover behind one of the wagons after taking note of his adversary’s relative position. A chorus of gasps and groans rose from the loitering crowds would command his attention as he contemplated his next move.

“The woman! There’s the woman who killed the orcs!”

Charles held his breath, anticipating the next inopportune announcement.

“Look! The giant-slayer! There he hides, behind the wagon!”

Well, there goes any hope of a surprise attack, Charles thought with a roll of his eyes while reassessing the situation. His quarry currently claimed an advantage with her long-range weaponry, and her proficiency would quickly unveil itself. The fluttery thwip of an arrow vertically penetrating the dirt several feet before him widened Charles’ eyes with incredulity. No fucking way. There’s simply no way that she could have arched that over the wagon with such accuracy. But there the evidence was, lethal in its implications. He had to move fast and think faster, or he was done for.

As Charles maneuvered towards another wagon with an approximate trajectory towards his foe, the fleeting sensation of pierced air was felt near his calf before he managed to climb into its canopied seat. Ignoring the commands of the officers, Charles snapped the reins, prompting the horses to gallop themselves forward. He had to dislodge her position and get her scrambling; somehow, someway. She was much too dangerous an opponent with a steady stance and halfway-decent line of sight.

Charles’ frame would be adequately concealed by a wooden lip as he leaned upon his side for cover. One final peek above his mobile foxhole would finalize his preparations as his rapier was drawn into his hand. He would leap out and rush her once she was forced to find cover and end this, once and for all. 

She saw him exit The Dom and the confrontation was obvious.  Even the onlookers knew.  Instantly he went for cover between the wagons so to keep him on the run she arched the first shot up and over, only missing him by a couple of feet.  Her second shot flung out as she caught a glimpse of his leg mounting one of the vehicles.  It was on the mark but she had failed to get the shot off quick enough for his dexterity.  Emi cursed her failure through gritted teeth.

He was aboard and soon he had the carriage stampeding her way, hastily lessening the distance between them and inconveniently providing him cover as well.  She couldn’t get a good shot at him, but she could hit the horse as easily as she could spit and hit the ground.  Emi drew and slung an arrow right into the muscle of its front right flank.  The beast reared up and neighed a hellish painful whine, spooking the other two horses as well.  The one of them jaunted a few strides away and rested but the other gave chase to the wounded steed, kicking up more dust.  The wounded horse bucked around wildly on three legs jerking its wagon and occupant about and Emi sprinted to her right to evade the chaos.  Then out of the dust of its hooves and wheels came the second charging horse galloping a straight line in a random course across the square cutting off Emi’s escape.  Lost in the dust cloud that overcame her she could see nothing but grey-beige haze that stung her eyes and forced forearm over her mouth and nose.

Sound was all that she had to go by so when she heard the hooves and wheels of the bolting second horse roll past and into the distance she headed into the direction of its wake until she could breath easier again.  Seeing her boots clearly under her dark lenses but nothing clearly through the lenses themselves, she realized that, much like the rest of her, her shades had been coated with a thick layer of the dust.  She took them off and squinted in the bright sunlight, then wiped them reasonably clear with her fingers and put them back on.  She turned to face the dust cloud churning behind her and heard her pursuers beast bucking in pain somewhere within it.  With a braced stance she drew her bow, but had no idea where her target was.

Charles was an unresponsive blank slate, staring ahead blankly as a cloud of dust danced around him. A trail of yellow-green ooze trickled down his left ear as he climbed with a concentrated effort to his feet. For the longest moment, he didn’t know when, where, orwho he was.

Slots of memories began to fill themselves in, one by one. In the bat of an eye, every memory since birth was sequentially realigned in its proper place, punctuated by his most profound experiences… such as the gaze of venomous hatred he witnessed while sliding his rapier through the Emperor’s heart, to a series of intensely passionate nights spent with a Healer named Andrea, to the time he was flung from a rampaging wagon onto the ground with an awkward thud.

Oh fuck, his mind would proclaim with an echo that tensed each muscle and tendon in his body. That just happened.

The protective cloud of dust which concealed his position was dispersing itself as quickly as it had formed. The sound of stampeding horses had by now became distant and inconsequential. Several yards away, he could see the muddled silhouette of the woman he was supposed to eliminate.

Now, why the fuck was I trying to kill her? Charles’ mind was scrambling to make sense of the black void that happened since…

Oh, hell. Oh, holy fucking shit. The snake-thing.

The sensation of something slimy slipping through the back of his neck clawed its way to the forefront of his introspective investigation. He had a hold of me, Charles almost said aloud in a flash of dawning comprehension. The snake-thing had a god-damned hold on me.

The dust cloud had now all but disappeared, and the archer woman would be pinpointing his position in a handful of seconds or less. Charles resigned himself to a series of arrows in his crotch and chest with a heavy, ironic sigh. The woman who was an integral part of his life since yesterday just didn’t seem the type to acknowledge the pleas of a desperate man who wasn’t under his own influence.

Then, he saw it. Someone, or something from the crowd had drawn a sword and was approaching the woman with a steady march. However, with the dust cloud’s dispersal, he didn’t exactly have the advantage of stealth. Charles was ready to witness the confrontation with a laugh, as the woman’s reflexes would undoubtedly kick in before he himself was laid down in a flurry of flesh-piercing arrows.

Something possessed him, however, some primal thing that could possibly be called pride, and Charles threw down his dagger defiantly into the ground behind him.

“Hey, asshole!” Charles called as loudly as he could through gritted teeth. “She knows you’re coming, and she’s too much for you anyway. Why not try me instead?”

The threat turned its attention towards the challenging voice with a frown. Charles could now see that it was a lanky Jhenaf with a pair of eyes that were controlled by something other than its own consciousness.

So, Charles concluded in his newly-freed mind. The snake-thing believed in insurance policies.

The pair of soon-to-be brawlers mutually closed the distance between each other, culminating in a piercing air attack which Charles side-stepped easily. He engaged an onslaught of blade attacks with a boxer’s stance, weaving and bouncing as the Jhenaf tried desperately to land a blow.

After a few exchanges, Charles saw an opening and landed a blow with his left fist on the Jhenaf’s temple. It immediately collapsed to the ground with a grunt of defeat.

Charles shook the pain from his knuckles while hovering over his fallen opponent. On its forearm was a tattoo that resembled the snake-thing which had claimed his mind the night before, confirming his suspicions.

“So, your asshole boss couldn’t trust me to do the job, huh?” Charles snorted his disdain as a drop of yellow-green slime fell from his ear upon the Jhenaf’s torso.

“The job gets done every time,” the Jhenaf muttered in his daze, sputtering bluish-gray blood through his teeth. “Every… single… time.”

With a sickly feeling in the pit of his stomach, Charles knew what was coming next. He saw that the Jhenaf was packing heat, confirmed by the cylindrical impressions underneath its cloak. He had a few seconds at best to do something before he and the archer woman were blown to smithereens.

The explosion happened in a series of pulses which sounded like lightning, leveling the nearby cathedral and clearing the area of onlookers in the process. There was a loud crack as the cathedral’s tower crumbled and snapped in two after hitting the ground. It took a minute for the dust and debris to settle and reveal the outcome of the hellbent Jhenaf’s suicide mission.

Charles and the archer woman were protected by a transparent bubble which could only be distinguished against the dust which circulated around it. With a sneer, Charles discarded a small metallic pouch from his hand displaying the words, ‘front toward enemy’ in stenciled lettering.

“He shouldn’t have supplied me with a damn disposable force field,” Charles muttered to himself with a shake of his head. “Villains, these days.”

“You’re both doomed!” A voice in the distance which couldn’t be immediately triangulated made itself known, as if the Creator Himself couldn’t stand one moment of looming peace in the restless town of Hainburn. “The Great One will hunt you both down, to the ends of the earth! Torture, pain and despair are all that you…”

The sound of an arrow launching and hitting its target cut the warning short. Finally, with a stiff exhale, Charles was able to face the woman who still held his life in his hands.

“Listen, I, uhm…” Charles’ voice was meek and heavy, knowing that this whole ordeal could still end with an arrow through his heart.  He offered a shrug as the trail of ooze along the side of his face glistened in the afternoon sun. “I, uhm, don’t want to kill you anymore.”

As the dust began to clear she spotted him and lined him up in her sight, but then to her flank was a new distraction.  Yet another jhenaf was making for her.  Emi turned to the threat but as she drew her bow taut the black stranger challenged him on his own.

”Hey, asshole!  She knows you’re coming, and she’s too much for you anyway.  Why not try me instead?”

He charged at the upright reptile and after a brief scuffle knocked him down into the dust.  They jawed at one another and then …


A series of massive blasts went off, the first straining her ear drums inward and just before the whirlwind of dust overcame them she saw the top of the spire tower tip and drop into obscurity, its own bulk shaking the ground again as it struck the earth.  Emi ducked down on instinct.  Then realized that she should not have been left standing.  Any shock that could knock down a stone tower that had stood for centuries should have wiped her puny flesh body right off the face of the planet.  Something must have protected her.

Emi uncoiled her prone self and looked up to a perfect opaque dome of smoke billowing around her and her unshakable pursuer, then heard the pattering of pebbles and debris as small bits of fallout dirt and shards of stone randomly and silently dotted its invisible surface and bounded away to strike the ground beyond unseen.  The persistent stranger himself stood at the edge of the newly formed crater.  He was short range, nearly point blank, so she raised her mini crossbow to him when she spotted his oozy ear and neck.  Then just when things could not be flung any further off the rails a deep voice thundered down from the omniscient shrouded sky.

”You’re both doomed!  The Great One will hunt you both down, to the ends of the earth!  Torture, pain and despair are all that you…”

The voice abruptly ended mid-proclamation.

After a moments’ silence the stranger began his weak explanation.  A purple shapeshifter, hellbirds, a night long trek through the wilderness, an orc ambush, a wagon stampede, a town-leveling explosion, and if that wasn’t enough, a foreboding threat from the beyond, and through it all being tracked down by this apparently reluctant bounty hunter.  At least the goo from his ear made sense.  She knew what it was, had heard of a handful of cases before.  At that moment she did not care.  Bewildered, Emi lowered her weapon as she rose to her feet.

“What … the … FUCK?” she screamed in complete frustration, a determined stride on each syllable, the last one punctuated with both fists hammering down in unison upon his chest, sending him tumbling back into the crater.  Then she peered down, ruing that the hole wasn’t nearly deep enough.

A thermal current of dust sucked towards the ground zero of the suicide blast.  It rushed past them as the protection of the force field began to fade.  Emi covered her mouth and nose with her arm once more and ran off into the cloud, trying to find the Dom – if it was still there, if Garrn was still there, still willing to see her – all that she had come for.  Panic set in.  The only bearing she had was general reckoning of her last sighted position in relation to the direction of the strong wind.  Emi staggered through the dust choking on the thick dirt being whipped through the air.  It was eerily quiet.  All she could hear was the sound of small stones dropping around her.  Emi cowered under her other arm praying that nothing big would land on her.  Her breath became ragged and she began to choke.  She was in hell and that voice must have been the devil, but she didn’t have time for that.  Her mission drove her on, kept her focused.  A few more steps brought on another coughing fit.  Her eyes felt sticky and dry from the dust.  A clump of dirt hit her in the back and a pebble struck her forearm forming a welt.  Emi forced her legs to press on.  The wind whipped at her hair and dust was so thick in the air that her surroundings were darkening.  She didn’t even see the stone wall that she had walked into.

She had found a building.  It was probably the Dom but there was no way for her to be certain.  Emi traced it with a palm along its surface and followed it.  There had to be an entrance somewhere.  Stumbling as she scurried and wheezed for breath she prayed to find an opening.  Another coughing fit forced her to her knees and she hacked up brown dust-thickened phlegm, wheezed and hacked some more.  Another small stone dropped onto her calf and she yelped out as it stung like an Ayndanarian horesefly.

In the silence there were muffled voices.  Emi scrambled to her feet and followed the wall a few more yards until she hit an abutment.  Around the pillar was an entrance.  Inside the air was more breathable but was still hazy and was terribly dark.  The voices were clearer but she still couldn’t make out any words.  They were shouts sounding like men taking bearings and barking orders.  Some voices were panicking while others seemed to berate the hysteria.  Emi stood still to straighten herself out.  Unbuckling her jacket she reached inside to clean the dust from her hand onto her shirt, then removed the sunglasses and with a fingertip carefully rubbed her eyelids clean so that she could try to see. 

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