Πέμπτη, 23 Φεβρουαρίου 2012

Short ramblings from future projects

Dead Things

I killed a man here, once. At the banks of this river. I think it was right...there. Yeah, that's the spot. You can still see the stain he left as he bled out on the ground. I remember looking at all this blood pooling round him, flowing between the rocks, thinking "this can't be happening, can it? A guy can't have this much blood in him". He whimpered all the time, though. It's the whimpering I can't stand. See, when a guy's about to die, he kind of...regresses. He turns back into a little sobbing ape, crying for help to the rest of his pack. Had to push him underwater to make him shut up. Little ape went down like a stone, met all the other dead apes in the bottom. It's full of it down there, you know. I bet if you stacked them on top of one another, you could build a house out of all the dead in just the bottom of this river. Hell, you could get some good furniture out of the deal too. Moldy beds, old couches that grampas died in, baby trolleys. I think I'm gonna make me house out of all those dead things, one of these days.

Fermi-Lambach Principle
  
You do not seem to realise what we have stumbled upon, exactly. By accident, or fate, we now posses the ability to link two points in space, without crossing time. For the first time in human history, we have eliminated the need for travel. We have found the way to cross the boundless distances across a limitless amount of space, for no amount of time. Ancient Greeks had their seven league stride, their understanding of the ultimate means of transportation. We posses the sevenfold parsec jump, instead.


Anax


Each of us comprises an aspect of a universal organism originating from a single shared ancestor. Nothing ever really dies.

Oh Death

The old man could see it hunched over him, all this time. Its sockets looked into its eyes intently, drawing closer as he left the life drain from his body. He sang then, an old song he'd heard his grmpa sing on his deathbed, his voice hoarse and pleading. And the thing chattered its teeth softly, immitating his words. It sang along with the old man, pleading with him, an endless chatter that went on as long as he sang.
When the old man was done, it reached out its bony hands and cupped his last breath, stuck it in its pouch, then flew out of the open window, it teeth chattering, singing the old man's song.

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Τετάρτη, 15 Φεβρουαρίου 2012

Could be Worse


“Hey! Hey, come here for a sec!”
“What’s up?”
“Some shit going down near the Bermuda Triangle. That storm finally broke.”
“Thank god. Damn thing wreaked havoc on my bandwidth.”
“What did that storm have to do with your bandwidth anyway?”
“Caused some disturbances in orbit or something. People on the news kept talking about space dust and fallout.”
“That’s a damn shame. Anyway, damn thing’s cleared up now.”
“Thank god, now I can get back to raiding.”
“You still playing that damn game?”
“Yup.”
“Thought you quit, man.”
“No, you quit. You just kept pestering me about quitting with you, ‘cause you couldn’t bear going cold turkey on your own.”
“Thought we were in this together, man.”
“Hey, I took care of you and I was there for you when you had the shakes and kept screaming the whole damn time. I’m not the bad guy here.”
“Damn. Still playing that same old character?”
“Nah, man. Sold him for three thousand.”
“Three thousand? Who the hell buys a character for that much?”
“When he’s been outsourced to Chinese game laborers and honed to perfection, he’s not just a character, man. He’s a luxury item.”
“Damn. Think I could sell my guy too?”
“You deleted your guy, man. Cried and everything when you clicked yes.”
“I was that bad, huh?”
“Worse. Ooh, storm’s clearing up.”
“Says here there’s some magnetic disturbance.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. I’m gonna go shut down my computer.”
“What? Why?”
“Read that these things work like EMPs, you know? Fry electronics?”
“I don’t think a blast from the Bermuda Triangle’s gonna catch us all the way here, man.”
“Hey, he who laughs last, man…”
“Can you get me a soda, too?”
“You know, you ought to get your own damn sodas. You’ve been sitting on this couch for a week now. Swear to God, if I hadn’t seen you get up to go to the bathroom, I’d have thought you were paralyzed from the waist down.”
“I’m fine, dude.”
“No you’re not. You’ve been like this since you broke up with Nancy.”
“Pff. Come on man, Nancy is old news. Don’t even give a damn.”
“Then why are you stuck in the damn chair, not even bothering to get up?”
“I’m not in the mood, that’s all.”
“Like hell you aren’t. Here’s your soda.”
Psst.
“Thanks, man. Needed that.”
“Come on, man you can tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine, geez!”
“No you’re not. Bitch broke your heart didn’t she? Oh what, now you’re gonna get mad at me?”
“She’s not a bitch.”
“Fair enough. How’s bimbo? Hussy? Useless waste of your damn time?”
“Don’t talk about her like that.”
“I’ll talk about her any damn way I like, man! She was dragging you from the nose for a year and a half, made you waste half your savings on stupid crap then left you. She was a gold digger at best and I won’t have you defending her!”
“You wouldn’t say that to her face when she was with me…”
“Of course I wouldn’t. You’re my friend and she was your girl and I liked her despite her flaws while you were together. Now she’s no longer with you? Man oh man, it’s ex hunting season!”
“She liked you, you know.”
“I know she did. Made a pass at me too.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me? Did you guys do anything?”
“No man, I threw her off. Bros before hos.”
“You telling me the truth?”
“Jesus wept, man! How could you even think about that? What the hell’s that?”
“Some shit about seismic disturbances. You sure nothing went on between you two?”
“Dude, I swear, you’re like a little brother to me but if you even think about me double-crossing you for that slut Nancy, I swear I’ll kick your teeth in.”
“Okay, sorry, sorry. I’m just…I’m trying to latch onto something to blame her, you know. Something to make her be the bad guy. I need that, so I can get over her.”
“I just gave you five reasons. What’s wrong with them?”
“No, those are your reasons. I just need mine. I need something to make her look bad to me. So I can get over her.”
“Is that why you’re stuck in that damn chair? You wanna come up with a reason to hate her?”
“Yeah.”
“Man, if you weren’t my friend, I’d have punched you in the ‘nads, you know that?”
“I know. It’s just…”
“Whoa. What the hell is that?”
“Just, for a second, you mind paying attention?”
“I’m sorry.”
“It’s just…I want her to be a bitch and all that and I know I’ll hate her in a month or so, but I can’t stand this. I feel like I’m gonna fall to pieces any minute now, man. I need to be the way I’ll be in a month from now, when I’ll hate her damn guts.”
“Did I ever tell you about my dumper/dumpee theory?”
“No.”
“Okay. So, here’s the idea: in every relationship, there’s a core group of two people right?”
“Right.”
“Now, the relationship has, on average, a finite lifespan. When that lifespan is over, the relationship is terminated by one of the two parties. With me so far?”
“Uh-huh.”
“Now, as far as the termination of a relationship goes-that I will from now on call a dumping-the parties are divided into that of the dumper and that of the dumpee.”
“Haha. Okay…”
“Now, the dumper is the one that has either terminated or engineered the termination of the relationship. He is emotionally better prepared, spiritually and psychologically shielded for the rigors of separation. Therefore, the dumper is the one that jumps right back on their feet when the relationship is over and doesn’t end up feeling like crap all the time.”
“Yeah. But in this case, I’m the dumper.”
“No. Because you see, the dumper could have engineered the break up. By being, say, insufferable. Or a total bitch. Anyway, by making you wanna get rid of her.”
“So that’s why she…”
What she did is not important, man. Now-what the hell is that?”
“Looks weird.”
“Is that thing live? Is it even happening? Turn up the volume, man.”
The…figure, appears to be standing up, Tom…it’s…it’s gigantic in size, to say the least. The smoke is still clearing, so we can’t get any nearer on the chopper, it might take a while, before we-
“You’re sure this isn’t the science fiction channel?”
“Nope. News.”
“Jesus wept, man. The hell is this thing?”
“Probably a hoax. Like the one in the 20’s that Welles pulled off. Keep going.”
“Uh…yeah. So, um, where was I?”
“You were just done with your definition of a dumper’s properties.”
“Oh, yes. The dumpee, on the other hand, is the one that has either ended or has had the relationship ended for him and was completely unprepared for any and all repercussions. He-or she-is the one that gets hit hardest, since they can’t get used to the fact that the relationship’s over. This causes them undue emotional and psychological stress, due to this-to them-unexpected change in their lives. In some cases, it pins them on their chairs. Like so.”
“So…the dumpee is the loser, huh?”
“No. The dumpee is the one that gets hit hardest. He’s the one that takes the brunt of it. Most dumpers are actual losers, since they’re the ones that didn’t have anything to offer or lose in the first place.”
“Yeah, but the dumpee’s always the dumpee, right? I mean, there’s gotta be something wrong with you, right?”
“No, man! No there isn’t! You were just shafted on the deal, that’s all! Shouldn’t let that shit get you down! Just because you had a hard time with one ungrateful bitch, doesn’t mean you’re gonna be woman fodder for the rest of your life! You’re stronger now, man!”
“Don’t feel stronger.”
“You used up all your dumb moves and your mistakes on Nancy. You’re not gonna repeat it on the next girl. You’re gonna be a relationship veteran, wearing those scars like armor, you’ll see.”
“You think so?”
“I know so, man. Now turn up the volume, something’s happening.”
Tom, the smoke is clearing and our pilot is going to attempt to move closer to the figure…it appears to be humanoid in shape, but the size of it...it’s uncanny, Tom. It appears to be completely motionless, not showing any signs of life so far.
Thank you Trisha. We’re waiting for an update on this. But before the facts, we need some theory to back them up! Dr. Escher, what’s your opinion on this mysterious event?
Now, Tom, calling this thing a sighting is farfetched…
“I think I’m gonna scare off the next girl I’ll get, man.”
“What? Why?”
“Cause I’m gonna be all distant and careful and I’m gonna push her away, you know?”
“No you’re not. Don’t be dumb, man. You can’t be on your guard for the rest of your life. You’re gonna be just the same, just a little bit smarter, little bit rougher. You’re gonna make mistakes, but they won’t be that big like last time’s.”
“Yeah. I mean, I know I let Nancy drag me around.”
“Plus you spent all that money on her.”
“Yeah. Well not next time. Next time, I’m gonna be be ready. I’m not gonna fall for it. Next time…”
“You’ll see when the time comes. Hush now, something’s happening.”
Tom, we’re close to the figure, just on the edge of the dust cloud. We’re going to attempt entering. There might be some disturbance or some feedback delay during transit, so we’d-
“The hell was that?”
“Must have lost their signal.”
Trisha’s team is off the air for now, ladies and gentlemen. Please wait, while we attempt to re-establish contact.
“What the hell was that?”
“I’m telling you, it’s a hoax.”
“Like hell it’s a hoax. The anchor guy’s scared shitless.”
“That’s what he gets the big bucks for. Where was I? Oh yeah. Don’t let this crap take you down, man. Get off the chair. Wanna go for a jog?”
“One sec, I need to see this.”
We’re reestablishing contact…just been notified by our studio technicians…give it some time until it clears…Trisha? Trisha, are you there? Trisha, can you hear me?
“Holy shit!”
“AAAAIIIEE!”
Jesus Christ!
“What the hell’s wrong with her, man?”
“I don’t know! Oh god, her eyes…”
Aaargh!
“Turn it down! Mute it! Mute it!”
“What the hell was that sound?”
“Don’t know man. Sounded like something dragged its nails in my brain or something.”
 “How the hell can she scream like that?”
“Why the hell is she still holding the damn mic?”
“Okay, the anchor guy stopped squirming. Turn it back up.”
Trisha, what is happening in there? What’s going on? Did you establish contact with the figure?
YES
Trisha? What happened in there?
THE SONG OF UN-CREATION. THE TOUCH OF UN-TELLIGENCE. THE FIRST SACRIFICE ON THE PATH TO OBLIVION.
Trisha, what the hell are you talking about?
WE WERE MERELY THE FIRST IN LINE, TOM.
“Doesn’t look like a hoax at all, man.”
“What the hell is going on? Is this even happening?”
“Says here something about a disturbance or something. Not quite clear on the details.”
“Turn it off, for God’s sake!”
“What, are you crazy? Do you wanna miss this?”
“What if it fries our brains?”
“Look, I’ll keep it muted all the time, okay. We’ll just read the headlines. Just…just talk to me, man.”
“You think this is an alien?”
“What the hell do I care what it is?”
“This is important, dude! We need to know what it is!”
“What for?”
“Well, if it’s alien, then it’s just gonna enslave us after it tears down our defences, which means that it’s gonna suck. But, if it’s just here for mindless destruction, then that means we need to start pillaging now, so we can beat the rush.”
“The hell’s wrong with you, man?”
“Sssh. The headline’s just changed.”
DUST CLOUD BREAKING.BREAKING  FOOTAGE OF THE MYSTERIOUS SIGHTING.
“Why do they keep showing her? What’s that dumb bastard anchor doing, talking to her?”
“She looks like a horror movie victim, man. Makes me sick to my stomach but I can’t look away.”
“Turn it up, just a bit.”
“What the hell is this?”
“I think they’re talking. Let me turn it up some more.”
“That’s not talking, man.”
“Sounds like growling and trying to vomit at the same time.”
“Shut up for a sec, man. Think I’m making out something.”
“What the hell is he doing?”
Plop. Plop.
“Bastard just took out his damn eyes!”
“Shit, I’m gonna hurl!”
“Oh God…oh God…headline’s changing! What the-“

“Christ. You seeing this?”
“Yeah. Oh God, what the hell is it?”
“I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea.”
“It’s talking. It’s talking. What do we do?”
“Turn off the TV, man!” Let’s get the hell out!”
RRRIIING! RRIIINNGG!
“Leave the goddamn phone, for Christ’s sake!”
“One sec! Hello? Who? Where are you? Nancy’s all alone! I gotta go get her!”
“Dude! What the hell?”
“Nancy? I don’t have caller ID so I need you to tell me where you’re calling me from. Nancy? Nancy?”
“What’s wrong man? You look pale. Give me the phone. Hey, Nancy? Hello?”
“”
Crank!
“Let’s get the hell out!”
“And go where? You heard her! You heard how she spoke! Like that newscaster! The damn thing must have reached all the way here! There’s no way out!”
“Listen to me and listen good: dumb bitch ex of yours got her brain fried. Now you get a move on, because I’m not in the mood!”
“Wait. You hear that?”
“What’s wrong?”
“Sounds like a crunching sound. Like biting into real stale pizza.”
“What the hell is this? Where’s it coming from?”
“Now it’s kinda like ripping.”
“What the hell is this? Who the hell’s making this noise? Did you mute the TV?”
“Yeah. Doesn’t sound like it’s coming from the living room. Seems like it’s echoing. Oh crap.”
“It’s outside the damn window! Oh God!”
“What the hell happened to the wall?”
“I think it ate it.”
“We’re gonna die, aren’t we?”
“Yeah.”
“Some tens of thousands of years of civilization gonna go down the drain, aren’t they?”
“Yeah.”
“That’s a crying shame, you know that?”
“Don’t think it cares, man.”
“I was gonna get over Nancy.”
“I was gonna get myself a job. Proper one, none of this temp shit.”
“I was gonna write a novel.”
“I was halfway through my first podcast and everything. Would have taken the internet by storm, you know.”
“I know, right?”
“Well, at least now we aren’t gonna mope anymore. It could be worse, you know.”
“How could it possibly be any worse?”
“Could have fucked Nancy. That would’ve been awkward.”


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Δευτέρα, 13 Φεβρουαρίου 2012

Stone Cold Countenance-part 5


This is the story of Jonah Warden. Some say he was a just a man, dealing out the Old Guard’s retribution from beyond the grave, riding a horse black as night, a beast meaner than a hungry wolf. Others say he was so much more than a man, a hurricane trapped in a man’s body, a curse uttered by the Emperor’s dying lips, come to punish us for our sins.
For some, he was a blessing. To others, a plague. The stories said he’d been of the Old Guard, last of his kind. That he’d hidden in the Rift for a decade, amid winds so fierce they could flay the skin from your body, in the invisible heat that would burn you from the inside out. That he had made his black revolvers himself, melting down the Emperor’s Iron crown. That he’d made his bullets out of the badges of his dead friends, whom he’d seen die, on the day the old capital burned.
They said he’d trained himself, made himself a thing that was rough as a rock, its soul tempered in the fires of retribution. Said his horse was a Thing of the Rift, with unimaginable powers, that he’d broken himself, in a battle of wills that lasted for months. Others said the horse was the Devil, which had offered him its service in exchange for his soul, giving him resilience far beyond that of mortal men. Said that was why his eyes were so alien.
Like pitch-black beads, they were.
But I know now, that despite what everyone said, back then, Jonah Warden was a thing of fury and determination. I know this, because I knew him. Knew his ways and his thoughts better than any other human being might claim.
I will tell you this: a man is defined by something more than the sum of his parts. Even the toughest, most merciless, unrelenting, kind, generous, understanding being on God’s green earth is nothing more than an animal on two legs, if it lacks humanity.  It is the element that brings these things together, to make him a man in both his own eyes, as in the eyes of his fellow human beings.
You see, when I met him, Jonah Warden was so much less than a man.
I saw him before the Gwynn Gulch massacre, for the very first time. Saw him cross the main road, riding that black, mean horse of his. People all over stopped just to look at it. The children stared at the animal and us, the adults, felt a shiver run up our spine. We hadn’t seen a horse for ten years now. They’d gone extinct after the Vas’Iiri invasion, see.
I looked at this strange sight for a while. He was riding it without a saddle, his back straight, his hands hooked on the reins. You can’t blame me for mistaking him, then. As I looked at him, I could tell: his posture, the line of his jaw, the way he stood on the saddle, crossing the town as if he owned it.
If it hadn’t been for those mysterious, incomprehensible eyes of his, I would have still thought him for the real Jonah.
The town was buzzing at the site. The man simply stood there, like a statue, a monument that seemed impervious to our attentions. My hands shook as I looked at him, thinking how strange, how impossible it all was: the man I was to marry, a captain of the Old Guard that had died when the old capital was bombed, alive and well before my very eyes.
I don’t know how long I stood there, not speaking a word, frozen in place. But as I saw him, coming closer, I thought that he was coming at me. That he had seen me from horseback, recognized me. My foolish eyes thought he was smiling at me, that grim, hard smile of his that crept up to his eyes oh-so-slowly.
I was about to run to him, to take him in my arms, when Dob Haight, the runt of the gang, shoved me aside.  I staggered then, the contact with Jonah broken. Terrified, I saw the youngest of the Haights move through the crowd, in his way. Jonah stopped the horse with a tug at its reins. The beast whinnied and let out a groan.
“That’s a mighty fine animal you got there, stranger.” Said Dob Haight, brushing his moustache. “How much for it?”
“You can’t afford it, boy.” He grumbled and I felt my knees give way. His voice, it was so much like Jonah’s. It seemed much rougher, but I couldn’t mistake it. I was a fool then, see.
“Heh. No, I don’t have the money, stranger. So how about we make a trade?” said Dob, grabbing his revolver, pulling it off its holster. “How about, you give me the horse an’ I don’t put a bullet in your belly?”
Dob was a mean bastard, I’ll give him that. He was quick, rough, born a ruffian. He was barely eighteen and second in command in the Haight gang. Most of us feared the damn bastard. Still, he shouldn’t have died the way he did.
The horse, you see, it bit into his face as he was about to point his gun on its rider. Its teeth clamped on his cheeks and tugged, ripping flesh and muscle. Dob tried to fire his gun, when the horse got up on its hind legs and struck him across the chest with its hooves. He fell on the ground, wheezing. I could tell the blow had shattered something in his ribcage. Blood was gurgling out of his mouth, his hand desperately trying to raise his gun, defend himself, when the horse got up on its hind legs and stomped his head.
Dob Haight twitched, then was dead.
It had all happened so fast. We all just stared at this black horse, its mouth stained with blood, its hooves planted inside the boy’s caved-in skull. And all the while, the man I thought was my betrothed just stood there, expressionless. When at last he spoke, the crowd jumped back.
“I’m looking for Simon Haight!” his voice echoed through the street. A thunderous roar, like a  shot from a gun. He sounded so much like Jonah, then.
From the salloon’s door, I saw them come out in single file. The Haight gang, the six roughest bastards to ever plague the South. All of them armed, dressed in black. Long faces, full of angles, with beady eyes, all of them. They’d come here a year ago, made Gwynn’s Gulch their own and not one living soul ever stood up to them. They’d heard the challenge, but hadn’t seen the sight.
Standing in line there, backs straight, chests out. You could tell they used to be military men. One-time Expungers, they said, kicked out of the force. Their hands on their holsters, as if they’d been born with sidearms strapped to their hips.
Took them a minute to realize who the man with the crushed face was, under Jonah’s hooves. Then they started raving. Every one of them but Simon.
“Dob?”
“Sonuvabitch killed Dob!”
“Kill the bastard!”
“Poke his damn eyes out!”
 Simon Haight raised his arm then and they fell silent. He was the eldest, the tallest, roughest one of them all. He was hardly phased at the sight. After all, everyone in town knew Dob meant nothing to him.
“I heard you’re looking for me, stranger.”
The words that Jonah spoke then, he repeated to me, a few days later:
“Simon Haight, of the Irregulars. With your brothers, Farrel and Ned, you swore an oath to serve the Emperor in exchange for pardon from your execution, during the Vas’Iiri war. When the war was over and the Irregulars officially disbanded, you instead chose to turn against the very hand that fed you and opted to use your expertise and the aid of your colleagues, ex-convicts like yourself, to support the coup.”
“Yes, I did. And I won, too.” Said Simon, looking at his brothers. Farrell and Ned smiled at the stranger.
“Before the coup, you took place in a number of operations aimed to destabilize the Empire. One of them took place in a small town housing a Gunsmith facility, called Prosper. There, you attacked the garrison and took the populace hostage, in exchange for the foundry’s weapons stockpile.”
Simon stopped smiling then. He looked at the stranger with a puzzled look on his face, as if trying to remember him.
“When the Gunsmiths gave you the weapons, you set fire to the town hall, where you had placed the populace, leaving them there to burn alive. You doomed three hundred people to an agonizing death. I am here to make sure you repay this debt to them.”
Then Jonah drew his guns, those black, heavy things of his. The Haights were halfway through the draw, when he opened fire. To this day, I swear I can’t explain how he drew so fast. There was just this blur and then the cocking of hammers, before the roar.
Clive was killed first. Saw him stumble as he was about to take aim, his gun drawn. His head jerked backward and he fell on the ground like a ragdoll. The rest scattered, but I saw Pearce stumble, blood dripping from his thigh. The stranger must have got him.
They ran for cover, then, into the crowd who were running away in panic, throwing themselves behind old stack of crates. I felt a hand grab me by the neck, pulling me onto him. Simon was using me as a shield.
Jonah spurred his horse. Saw the beast run across the street, straight toward the crates Ned and Pearce used for cover. Farell took a shot at him from the saloon’s window. Saw the bullet tear through Jonah’s shoulder, blood dripping from the hole in his duster coat. He hardly took notice. This should have been my first clue, but I was a scared fool, then.
His horse crashed through the crates. Ned, who had raised his head to peak, had his neck broken, as the horse rammed onto him. Pearce cursed and took a shot at him, missing in his panic. Jonah shot him twice in the head. I’ve been told he put one bullet in each of his eyes.
“Kill him! Somebody take that bastard down, for God’s sake!” shouted Simon, at the top of his lungs. He dragged me inside the hardware store, wheezing and cursing. I couldn’t stop smiling. Thought myself as a damsel in distress and pretty soon, my vigilante would burst through the door to save me.
Dougal and Farrel got help, then. I couldn’t see it, since Simon was cowering, looking for cover, but I know this much: their lackeys, ten highwaymen they had dragged into Gwynn’s Gulch with them, came blazing out of the town’s houses, rushing to aid their bosses, weapons in hand.
There was thundering and the roar of guns and the chocking smell of gunpowder in the air, mixed with blood. There were curses and commands and screams of terror. Then, there was silence. Just the sound of a horse’s hooves, trotting closer to the store.
Click clack. Click clack. Click thunk. Thump thunk.
Simon got out of cover. He saw the figure of Jonah, on top of his horse. He’d led the beast all the way to the wooden steps to the store. Standing in the terrace, blocking the sun, he looked like an eclipse, shaped like a man.
 “Let the woman go, Simon.”
“You want her you bastard, you come take her!”
As the man I thought was Jonah climbed down his horse, I felt a shiver of delight and terror at the same time. Felt like the helpless dame, used to lure the brave gunman. Wouldn’t have that. Searching around, I saw an old screwdriver tucked under the counter. If only I could reach it…
Creeaakk. Thump. Thump. Thump.
“Not a step closer, you bastard!”
“I have killed your brothers and their lackeys, Simon. Let the woman go. Now.”
“Put your gun down, or I smear the wall with her brains, swear to God!”
He put his black revolvers down. My eyes were fixed on the screwdriver, my fingers inches away.
“Did as you asked. Now let her go.”  
“Kick them toward me.”
Thunk. Hssssskk.
Simon tossed me away then, as he reached for Jonah’s guns. I grabbed the screwdriver and lunged at him, shoving it into the back of his thigh.
“AAAGH! YOU BITCH!”
He tried to turn, but the man was already on him. Simon tried to raise his gun. I saw Jonah grab his arm, breaking it at the elbow, before he smashed his face into the counter. The last surviving Haight fell on the floor, unconscious.
I saw him then, covered in blood, his duster coat full of bullet holes. Saw him caked in blood and gunpowder and was very much afraid of him. His eyes looked at me and I felt like I was falling in pools of boiling tar.
“Jonah? Jonah Warden?” I asked, my voice trembling. “Is that you?”
The man I thought was Jonah helped me on my feet. Then, he took Simon away, on his shoulders, put him on the back of his horse, as if he were a goat, knocked out from the heat. I stumbled after him, waiting for a reply. He looked around and said:
“I will need rope. And fuel for a large fire.”
Someone rushed and gave him a tank of vegetable oil. Another brought him a length of rope. He nodded and got back on his horse, galloping away, without a single word. The man I thought was my betrothed was running away from me, again. I had to know, though. I was still young and reckless, see.
I ran after him, following him for many hours, until nightfall. Found him setting up camp by a cave. Hidden in the nearby bushes, I saw him tying Simon Haight up against an old, dried up tree. The horse whinnied as the man woke, screaming.
Jonah was talking, but the Haight was screaming obscenities at him. Couldn’t make sense out of either of them. But the gunman kept talking, on and on, despite Simon’s screams. When he was done, he took the stopper off the tank of oil and showered the poor bastard with it. Took him a while to realize what was going on.
 Simon sobbed and pleaded and cursed. But the gunman didn’t stop until he’d emptied every last drop.
Then he struck a match and threw it at him. Simon caught fire immediately then.
To this day, I cannot believe there can be a worse death, than the one by burning. The screams he let out, as his clothes, his skin, his hair caught fire, the steady roar and crackle of the flames as they devoured him, this is a sound that creeps into your dreams at night and pushes your sleeping mind in lightless, terrible realms, that smother you. And the smell, that terrible smell, of human flesh burning black, skin cracking, muscle popping. The body makes small, crackling sounds, like when setting fire to a log full of termites. You hear it screech and pop and make terrible noises, noises that go on for much longer than the screams.
I saw the burning remains of Simon Haight fall on the ground, and then lost consciousness.


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Παρασκευή, 10 Φεβρουαρίου 2012

Stone Cold Countenance, Part 4


The yellow dog had been walking through the Salted Desert for days, its paws and fur matted by the stuff on the lifeless dirt. From time to time, it would lay down to alleviate the pain in its legs. They were full of cuts made by the rough terrain and the salt had seeped on the exposed flesh underneath, intensifying the pain.
From time to time, the yellow dog would forget and lick at the wounds with its long, forked tongue. The salt would sit on its tongue and make it retch, filling its head with a horrible, burning sensation. This place was toxic to both its kind and to the bipeds that had sent it here, for vastly different reasons though. 
As it lay there, its nostrils picked up the scent of something in the distance. Craning its head, it searched for the source. Focusing, despite the merciless heat beating down on it, the yellow dog saw the scent as it lingered above it, swirling in the air, a thread extending itself from the main body, like a thin tendril.
Sighing in a manner that was very much like its master’s, the yellow dog got up, flinching at the pain, as its scabs touched the salt. Letting out a yip, it then looked back at the main body of the scent and adjusted its sight. There it was. Just a stone’s throw away.
It slowly trotted toward the source. No longer having any reason to hurry, it closed in on the small, desiccated thing that had been its target. Looked human in shape, though just barely. It was a bundle, curled into a ball, its arms frozen round its belly, its knees all the way up to its chin. There was a circle made out of dried blood around it that smelled foul, like human waste. Its face was a mask of agony, its jaw unnaturally distended. The thing that was once this bundle must have died screaming.
The yellow dog crawled closer to the bundle and stuck its muzzle up to it, gently poking till it turned the thing around, so it could get a second whiff. The side that was on the ground, away from the sun’s rays, was caked in salt, but reasonably well preserved.
Yes. This was the one it had been looking for.
The yellow dog placed its paw on the bundle and extended its neck, opening its mouth wide open, much, much wider than a dog would. Its forked tongue crawled out of its mouth, extended and let out a soft schlipp sound, as wicked barbs extended from it. The tip of its tongue slid under the bundle’s eyelids and wrapped itself around the soft eyeball, tugging at it.
Releasing the eye from its socket, the yellow dog gave it another tug and severed the withered nerve. Then it retracted its tongue and placed the eye behind its back teeth, taking great care so as not to pop it.
Its mission accomplished, the yellow dog realized it had no real reason to hurry and decided to make the most of it. Moving the eyeball under its tongue, it shoved its muzzle into the dead man’s mouth and chewed on his tongue. It was salty and dry, but it was spiced with the terror of a slow and violent death.
The yellow dog savored the taste. It tasted like a five-day hunt through the desert, like the slow death of hope and death by agonizingly slow poisoning. It tasted also of a man, with a face like chiseled granite and eyes like pitch black beads.
It was the best meal it had had for a good while.
“Last train to Raker’s Bluff! All aboaaaard!”
The gambler shut the suitcase that contained his wares (and his entire fortune), tucked it under his armpit then rushed inside the wagon, as it began its crawl across the station. The wagon was packed and he almost fell onto a large man dressed in black, who looked him all over.
“ ’Scuse me, sir” said the gambler, tipping his hat. He gave the man his best smile, making sure he hid his missing teeth. Then, he noticed the conductor’s badge. His smile faded.
“Tickets, please” grumbled the conductor.
The gambler hadn’t been counting on that. The conductors hardly ever made the rounds this late.  Now he’d have to give the bastard that one ticket he’d been saving for the trip to the capital.
“Here you go.” Said the gambler, grudgingly handing the conductor a weathered old envelope. The conductor tore at it and took out his ticket, ripping at the paper.
Go easy on it, you fat bastard. Know how many cons I had to pull to get that?
“Third wagon, cabin 2b. You can find your own way there.” he grumbled, handing him the ticket. “Watch out for cutpurses, old man.”
“I’m a man of the soil and the desert wind, my good man. Ain’t got no purse worth cutting.” Said the gambler, taking back the ticket.
Pressing through the throng on the way to his cabin, the old man silently swore at his bad luck. Round him, the mass buzzed with the sound of conversation.
“So I tol’ him, I tol’ that sunovabitch, you tryinna trick me, you bastard? Then I socked him right between the eyes.”
“So a reverend, a gunman and a tax collector walk into a bar-“
“Say there was this man, on a black horse-“
“Get outta here!”
“I was passing through Vane flats, then see, so I suddenly hear some gunshots and then-“
“Hear that talk about Government people disappearing all over the place?”
“I heard that there was a Vas’Iiri agent done got killed in Thornsville…”
“Keep having this weird dream. There’s a yellow dog, see…”
“Watch it, old man!”
“Stop shoving, it’s bad enough as it is!”
The gambler went through the wagons, entering the third. He let out a sigh of exhaustion. Human conversation always took a lot out of him. Conning a man, now that was easy. There was just two of you and you steered the talk any way you fancied. But this? This was like trying to eavesdrop in a swarm of angry wasps.
Crossing the corridor, he looked for his cabin. There was someone already in there, his head hung low, sleeping soundlessly.  That’s a shame, thought the gambler. Could’ve passed the time with a bit of chit-chat. Opening the door quietly as he could, he sat across him.
He’d just opened his suitcase, ready to open himself that bottle of wine he’d been saving, when the man across him woke up. The gambler almost shot up on his feet.
“Damn. Scared the bejeesus outta me.” He muttered. The man across him straightened the creases on his duster coat and tipped his broad-rimed hat at him. The gambler could tell he was armed.
“I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“No problem.”
“Care for some wine?”
“I don’t drink.”
“Going through the day sober? Man oh man, you play it rough, don’t you?” Pop. “Got a name or should I call you stranger?”
“Stanger sounds good. What’s yours, then?”
“Uh-uh. You don’t give me your name, I don’t give you mine. I’m the gambler.”
“Con-man, huh?”
“Nope. Just a poor lonesome gambler with a peddling problem. Been called a cheater by sore losers across the regions numerous times, though.”
“What’s your game then, gambler?”
The gambler smiled, as he leaned to snap his briefcase open. Fumbling inside, he took out a weathered old deck of playing cards.
“Klaberjass, bezique, ombre, you name it, I can play it, stranger. Take your pick.”
“Got anything else in there? Or is it just stacked with playing cards from top to bottom?”
“Just my wares: leather belts, playing cards, tobacco, some things for the ladies to pretty themselves up so they can sink their claws in unsuspecting men.”
“Sounds like you’ve set yourself quite a trap there, haven’t you?”
“I’ve never tricked someone into playing with me yet, stranger. And I see you still haven’t picked a game.”
“Ever heard of Spite and Malice?”
“You play Spite and Malice sober? Brave man.”
The gambler took out his deck, removed the two Gremlin cards and shuffled. The stranger stared at his hands the whole time, tracking his every move.
“That’s a northerner’s game, isn’t it? You a rockbiter, stranger?”
“Is that what you southern softskins call us nowadays?”
The gambler stopped shuffling and placed the deck on the collapsible tray between the benches.
“Cut it.”
The stranger cut the deck slowly, never taking his eyes off the gambler. Returning the stare, the old man drew the card at the top of his pile. The stranger did the same, not missing a beat.
“Empress.”
“Hermit. Guess I’m going first.” Said the stranger.
They went through the first round, drawing cards and throwing them on the piles. The gambler seemed about to win that first round, when the stranger went ahead and drew an Emperor, taking the entire pile in his hands.
“That’s one-nil, gambler.”
“Bet you’re pleased as punch, beating a man three times your age. Bet your mother would be proud.”
“She would. She taught me, after all.”
The gambler gathered the cards and started shuffling them again. The stranger stared the whole time.
“What’s a rockbiter like you doing this far down south? Thought you people melt in the heat.”
“I’m here on business.”
“What kind of business requires carrying a gun?” said the gambler and saw the stranger tug at his duster coat, obviously alarmed at this.
“How can you tell?”
“You sit like you’re carrying a gun, you look at me like you’re carrying a gun and you talk like you’re carrying a gun. You ain’t exactly discreet about it, stranger.”
The stranger kept his silence. The gambler placed the deck on the tray.
“You Government, stranger?”
The stranger cut the deck in silence.
“See, I can tell you’re not a gun for hire, because guns for hire don’t take the train, especially when they’re packing. Too many Marshalls move around in trains, see. It’s too risky. Bishop.”
“Marquis.”
“Damn. See what I’m talking about? There’s no discipline to this damn game. It’s just blind luck! No skill, no finesse, just…drawing cards!”
“Thought blind luck was the name of the game with you gamblers.”
“You thought wrong, stranger.”
The second round was way more hectic than the last. The gambler and the stranger tossed cards, shuffled the piles, each trying to outdo the other with every draw.
“How about we call it a tie?”
“A tie sounds good. Where was I? Ah, yes. I was saying how you don’t look like no gun for hire. You look more like a Marshall, what with the black clothes and the grim stare and the long, dark silence. Am I getting closer?”
“You’re getting way too nosey, gambler.”
“Struck a chord there, didn’t I?” said the gambler, as he began to gather the discarded piles. The stranger stopped him then, taking the cards into his own hands, and then started to shuffle.
 “You’re here about the murders, aren’t you? All them people turning up dead?”
The stranger stopped shuffling and placed the deck on the tray.
“That’s just plain old hearsay.”
“Oh, come now, it’s all over the place. Heard talk of a man on a black horse, dealing out justice with his guns. Heard he waltzed into Vane Flats, took a Government official hostage.”
“Cut the deck.”
“Week later, hear people say he showed up in Thronsville, killed a man that turned out was a Vas’Iiri Jaguar. “
The gambler flashed the stranger a grin, as he cut the deck.
“Heard he took buckshot to the chest, didn’t even flinch.”
“Didn’t have you for a sucker for tall tales, gambler. Twelve.”
“Tall tales don’t spread like wildfire cross these regions, lest they got some truth in them. So what’s the score, Marshall? You better own up now. Aces.”
The stranger drew his first card and tossed it on the tray, making it slide on the varnished wood. An eight. The gambler could feel him crack. He drew the next card slowly, chipping at his nerves.
“There’s talk of the Old Guard, dealing out vengeance from beyond the grave, stranger. Of the Vas’Iiri trying to pull off another invasion.”
The gambler drew his card. Bishop. He slid the pile on his side.
“The Vas’Iiri aren’t a concern. Most of them are agents, left behind by the main invasion force. No organization, no ties to each other, no agenda worth speaking of. It’s the Old Guard that’s0 been a thon at the Government’s side. Ever heard of a man called Johren Crom?” said the stranger, drawing a card from his deck, tossing it on the tray. Empress.
“Can’t say I have.” Replied the gambler, drawing a card. Sixes. The stranger slid the pile on his side of the tray.
“He was an Imperial Gunsmith, see. Finest one there ever was. There’s word he’s still out there. That’s he’s the one behind all this.”
“Thought the Gunsmiths died off with the rest of the Old Guard, when the Revolution ended.”
The gambler drew his card. Four. He sighed and tossed it on the tray. The stranger smiled and drew his own. Four. Tie. Both cards stayed on their pile, untouched.
“That’s what the Government thought, too. They thought dropping the L-Bomb on those bastards would wipe them all out. Turns out Gunsmiths are hardier than cockroaches, however.”
“You mean they survived the Bomb?”
“No. They had gone into hiding, most likely, about the time the Revolution took off. The Government has reason to believe there are cells of Old Guard remnants just lying in wait, ready to stage a coup any day now.”
“But it’s been ten years. There’s no way someone could hide that long and make a coup happen at the same time!”
“Not unless they’ve been planning for that since the Vas’Iiri war ended. What with the dehydration bomb and the rain of salt, there’s no way the Empire couldn’t have seen the Revolution coming.”
The gambler stopped halfway drawing his card. The stranger went on.
“So, I started thinking, see. What if people like Johren Crom and the rest of the Gunsmiths had stockpiled Imperial resources just for this eventuality? What if they’d planned a decade ahead, so they could bring down the Revolution by causing a panic, strategically striking at Government officials?”
“Sounds like too much trouble. Besides, how could they take over, now that the Emperor’sdead?”
“Well, I’ve got every reason to believe they aren’t planning a takeover. They’re just in it for revenge, see. If Gunsmiths are behind all this, then they lost everything on the day the Government dropped the bomb on the old capital. They’d have lost their purpose, their backing, they’d be desperate people after a desperate cause.”
“That’s why they’d be killing people left and right.”
“That’s why I decided to check up on them. Why I decided to pour into every last bit of information on them, to track them down and find each and every one of them.”
“Don’t sound like a Marshall’s job to me.”
“It’s not a Marshall’s job.” Said the stranger, as he removed his gun from its holster. It was a heavy thing, well-oiled that clicked lightly as he cocked it. Looked like it could take down a bear with a single shot.  The gambler had gone pale. “It’s Expunger jurisdiction.”
“What the Devil do you think you’re doing?”
“Taking you in. I know you’re Johren Crom, see. I’ve seen the stills. I’ve been after you for six months now. Was gonna give up, go back to the Capital, when all of a sudden, you pop up right in front of me.”
“You better put that gun back in its holster, son.”
“You better be quiet, old man. No one ever said I had to take you in alive. Now, you can be a good lad and come with me nice and quiet, or I can put a bullet in your brainpan. How does that sound?”
“I see.” Said the gambler, his expression suddenly grim. His eyes stared right back at the Expunger. The gambler’s eyes looked like little pools of emerald-green water, surrounding a bottomless pit. The gambler seemed ten years younger, somehow, his very presence taking over the cabin. The Expunger’s hand trembled, beads of sweat formed on his forehead. “You know your gun won’t work on me, boy.”
“Bullshit.”
“Try me.”
The Expunger pulled the trigger. The gun’s hammer struck a full chamber, but nothing happened. No ignition, no flash, no puff of gunpowder smoke. For an impossibly long second, the Expunger prayed to God for his gun to fire.
His prayer was answered, but the very shell exploded in the chamber. Gunpowder burned his hand and face. Shards of metal tore through his hand and bit into his face, like a hundred invisible needles.
The gambler stared at the Expunger, as he writhed and squirmed on the bench, screaming like a maniac at the pain. Calmly, the gambler walked to him, reached his hand out and took his other gun, a serviceable revolver, far less fancy than the gun that had just failed him.
The gambler then struck him with his own pistol across the head, again and again, till the Expunger stopped screaming.
““How old are you, kid?”
“T-t-twenty-five.”
“Like shit you are! You look barely old enough to drink.”
The gambler pressed the gun’s muzzle against the boy’s forehead, pushing his head against the wall behind him. Gently, he cocked the hammer.
“I’m going to ask you a question. You’re going to answer it, truthfully, or I will shoot you through the head and the Expungers will have lost one more stupid bastard by my hand. Understood?”
The boy whimpered and nodded yes.
“Good. There is a man, has been seen in the region. You said he could be a Gunsmith, like me. One that’s kidnapped that Government man in Vane Flats. Know who I’m talking about?”
“Yes…yes!”
“Is there an Expunger squad sent out to find him?”
“There is one…in Thornsville…went to meet them when I was looking for you…”
“How many men?”
“Ten strong.”
“That’s a regular posse, isn’t it? Do you know which way they’re heading? Where they’re going to look for that Gunsmith next?”
“They…they said they’d head for Sarat…said they’d look for help there.”
“Sarat? What the Devil’s in Sarat?”
“Don’t know. Kept talking about a black woman...never told me her name…”
The gambler nodded, thinking about what he’d just heard. The black woman. No, no, that couldn’t be her. They couldn’t have let her live, not after all this. But if she were alive and if she was on the Government’s side…
“Thanks, kid.” Said the gambler, uncocking his hammer. The boy let out a sigh of relief.
Then the gambler wrapped his hands round his throat and crushed his windpipe, staring at him right in the eye as he choked and kicked and squirmed, till he was still and silent, his tongue a swollen thing, popping out of his lips.
He went through his belongings and took his Expunger badge, a thing of hammered bronze, depicting the skull of a large saber-toothed cat, twin sabers crossed between its teeth. Then, the gambler set the kid’s head down, so that he’d look like he was sleeping, sat down on the bench against him and looked out in the distance, watching the world crawl slowly by.
Somewhere in the Salted Desert, the yellow dog was slowly walking home, its belly filled with the flesh of a traitor. Under its tongue, the eye that had seen its body’s killer, taken from the man it had devoured. The yellow dog traced his countenance across the forks on its tongue and saw him in its thoughts.
Now that was worthy prey.
Content and excited at the same time, the yellow dog sat on its haunches and howled. From miles away, vultures scattered and wolves cowered in their caves. In its master’s abode, a silver-lined mirror clouded over.
Somewhere far away, on top of a black horse, the man with the face like chiseled granite felt an ill-wind blow against his back. Despite himself, he raised his duster’s collar flaps and shivered.

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Τρίτη, 7 Φεβρουαρίου 2012

Stone Cold Countenance, Part 3


He turned the key in the lock twice, after stepping into the little room he now called home. Downstairs, the saloon was silent. The last cluster of drunkards had headed home an hour ago. Now, he only heard the steady clinking of the glasses and the groaning of the chair legs, being dragged across the hardwood floor, as the innkeeper and his helper tidied up for the night.
The old broom brushing the floor sounded like an old mouser’s purr, full and content. It soothed his nerves, giving him the strength to unlock his drawer, reach inside and take out an old, weathered notebook. From the hidden bottom, he took out an old, ivory-handle pen (his most prized possession). His fingers traced the small, intricate carvings with reverence.
On the handle,there was the very shape round which his life had so far orbited. The engraved jaguar purred, in his mind’s ear, in unison with the broom dragging downstairs. He could feel the beast playfully dragging its claws across the calluses of his thumb, its teeth nibbling at the hard skin.
He looked at the animal, made immortal in ivory, forever pouncing at its enemies, teeth bare and shuddered. A lifetime ago, there was the sound of drums made from taut human skin and the rattle of necklaces made out of human teeth on ceramic plates of armor.
With trembling hands, he opened the notebook. It was a battered, weathered old thing, its pages cracked and yellow. The faint scent of old ink and the sight of words written by someone he used to be took him back. A lifetime ago, there were barefoot marches across a rocky peninsula, the green hell he once called home slowly creeping away into the horizon. There were azure banners with intricate designs, mercilessly whipping at the morning breeze. 
The words on paper were symbols. Each symbol was a meaning unto itself and a collection of meanings spelled out thoughts, formed and written down by a dead man. It was the story of his life, written in a language that had no symbol that stood for retreat, mercy or hope. It was a language given unto them by bloodthirsty gods, the language of the Sun himself, who retreated into his great marble palace each night, to feast on human souls.
A lifetime ago, there were blades made out of chipped obsidian, sharp, terrible things that, in the hands of an experienced warrior, could rip through flesh and cut through tendon in one swipe. There was congealed blood in the grooves of the temple floors.
He read the last entry. It was written by a warrior tasked to wait among the tall grasses like a snake, hidden near and out of sight of the enemy’s herd. The snake would lie in wait, killing those who strayed from the herd, the weakest (or boldest) among them. He’d keep the herds in a constant state of panic, unable to ally against the common foe, making sure they were weak enough for his masters to crush, once and for all, when they came back at full strength.
Pompous words, written by a hypocrite, which no longer held any meaning. He’d strayed from that purpose long ago, his snakeskin now a part of him. He’d been part of the enemy herd, even made friends with some of them. He’d lived, laughed and shared some of their troubles. He couldn’t bring himself to hurt any of them now, even if he wanted to.
There were only two pages left now, in the little battered book. He tried to come up with something to write down, something that would undo everything that was in the pages that came before it. Something that would tell his story here, among the enemy herd, which would somehow tear down the sovereignty of the symbols that he would no longer even acknowledge as his mother tongue.
 He uttered one of the symbols. The sound that came out his mouth was the sound a stone ax-head makes, striking a tree. Surprised at the sound escaping his lips, he shut his mouth. In his mind, the jaguar growled menacingly.
A lifetime ago, there was the sound of a severed head, tumbling down the steps of a ziggurat.
Thump. Thumpthump.
“Doc? You in there?”
The man in the room nearly jumped with terror. He had almost replied to the innkeeper in his mother tongue.
Thump. Thumpthump.
 “You all right? You didn’t look that well tonight.”
“I’m…I’m fine. Thank you.” He muttered. His fingers traced the pouncing jaguar.
“You can come down, if you want. There’s only me and the kid down stairs, so we’re gonna shut down for the night. Care for a drink before you hit the sack?”
“I’d love to.”
“See you downstairs, doc.”
He let out a long sigh of relief after the innkeeper walked back downstairs. How could he be all right? He’d seen his future in the trail of the sortes bonesthis morning. He’d seen, at the borders of his mirror, his killer’s face. He was destined to die,this night.
He’d been prepared for this. For a faceless, terrible death.  For every kind of torture imaginable. He’d been told that, when he died, his soul would descend into the lightless depths of the Inverted Heavens, to fight against the Tzitzime with all the other dead warriors before him at the Sun God’s side. There, he’d be immortal. No wound, no matter how great, would make him back down from the fight. Were he a good and able soldier, then the Sun-god would deign him fit to return among the living, to serve the Emperor, his son.
He was no longer a soldier, however. The Sun-god was no longer the preserver of the universe for him. This life he lived, it was no longer just a pause between wars, an endless cycle of pain and violence. It was a life he wanted to keep on living.
He got out and walked down the stairs, to the saloon. The old wood creaked with each step. For some reason, he was unable to shake the feeling he was a stranger in his own body, one he had hijacked years ago from its rightful owner.
The saloon seemed so much smaller, now that the patrons were gone. Its benches and tables were like elderlyleopards, covered in spots from spilt drinks and cigarette burns. The old piano hunched in the back, an old, sad thing, wilting in the corner, deprived of affection. The innkeeper sat behind the bar counter, keeping an eye on his help, as he kept polishing the old wood.
“Hey there, doc!”
“You closed down early tonight.”
“It’s the good Lord’s day tomorrow, doc! All my patrons are going to ask Him for something, see and they can’t all be wasted!”
“Always thought God was above such petty matters.”
“No he’s not. The only ones he cuts some slack for are innkeepers, doctors and whores. It’s in the good book, see.”
The boy laughed, pausing his scrubbing. The innkeeper whacked him in the back of the head.
“You’re still under scrutiny, boy. So get scrubbing.”
“Don’t be so hard on the boy.”
“He was a boy two weeks ago. Became a man when he stuck it to my daughter, that ungrateful little hussy. He’s working for me till his sins are paid off in full.”
“What about your daughter, then?”
“I absolved her first, after she got belted. What can I get you, doc?”
“What have you got that isn’t watered?”
“Doc, you know I’d never serve you any of that horse-piss.”  
The innkeeper took a small jug from under the counter and poured its contents in a shot glass. The doctor gulped it down, before even taking a whiff of the liquor. It was  bitter enough to make him want to retch and made his tongue go numb.
“What is this thing?”
“Root wine, doc. How was it?”
“It was like getting my tongue bit by a damn viper, that’s how it was!”
“Have a couple more glasses. Bet you’ll like it then!”
 The innkeeper filled his glass again. This time, he sniffed at it, carefully. It had an acrid, metallic scent that crept up his nostrils and set the back of his eyes on fire. He let it settle in, feeling it turn into a slow, happy buzz. A lifetime ago, there were bare chested women with emerald-green eyes, their skin the color of sunset.
“How long have we known each other, Rom?” asked the doctor, peering into his glass.
“Five years, by the end of the month. Are you gonna buy me an anniversary gift?”
 “No, it’s just…I got to thinking. About my life, that is. Can you believe I can’t really recall anything since I got here?”
“Can’t handle your liquor, can you, doc?”
“That’s not what I meant. I meant, I can’t remember anything vividly. Sure, I can dig into my brain for some facts, some faces, but that’s all. The rest is just sight and sound. They don’t seem to have any weight anymore.”
“You sound like my father. He thought the same way, since he got back from the Vas’Iiri  war. He was a Salted Desert veteran, see. Just him and a handful of men came home after that nightmare was over. I must have been fifteen at the time. Kept pestering the poor bastard, trying to get him to tell me what happened back there. He gave me pretty much the same talk you did.”
He gulped down his drink, then. The glass fell from his hands, on the bar. A few drops creeped across the wood’s surface and formed a familiar shape.
“Kept thinking the old man was holding back on me. That he was somehow trying to shelter me from whatever I could have found out about that day. Looking back, I just think he didn’t have it in him anymore.”
From the shape, a word emerged. The word which had haunted him, that had burned itself into his brain that day.
“I think that what he saw…hurt him, somehow. In his mind, see. And he never really recovered from that.”
Death.
“When the Government got in power, they made us move, all of us Old Guard families. He died a few days after we got in town. I remember my mother was relieved. He’d found a way out of what he’d seen then, she said.”
“You’d never told me about your father. My condolences.”
“My father was dead long time before we even came here, doc. I remember my mother told me he was like a sick tree. Rotting from the inside.”
The doctor looked right back at the shape on the bench. Had a single drop been off, then the word it formed would have been Peace.
 “It was the Vas’Iiri, that did this to him. He killed a lot of them, on that day, this much I’m sure of. Heard everyone talk for days about the way they beat their retreat. Hope they all got their holes in their backs, like proper cowards.”
“Have you ever seen a Vas’Iiri?”
“I haven’t and I never will. We pushed them far from our borders and killed those that were left behind, hunted them down like they were dogs.”
“What if some of them evaded capture? What if you found out there were Vas’Iiri agents everywhere, scattered across the regions, hidden for a good part of a decade. What would you do then?”
“I’d buy myself a mile of rope and find a good, tall tree where I could hang them all. One by one.”
“And what if one of them was a good friend of yours?”
“I’d hang him first.” The innkeeper unsheathed a long-bladed knife with a curved blade, a thing made out of chiseled obsidian and nailed it down on the stool. “First though, I’d cut his belly open, so I could watch him spill his insides before his neck snapped.”
The sight of the blade unearthed secrets he’d thought long buried from his mind. A lifetime ago, an instructor had taught him to split the enemy open from side to side: a single swipe, one end to another, shaped like the Moon goddess, as she rests.
“You know of any Vas’Iiri, doc?”
“One of them is going to die here, tonight. That’s all I know.”
 The innkeeper was about to speak, when the door to the saloon creaked open. The doctor looked at the figure walking in. His every step seemed to reverberate across the hardwood floor.
“We’re closed, stranger.”
“I just need to rest for a while. Just came from Vane Flats.” Said the stranger and sat by the bench. The doctor snuck a peek at his face, then looked away. His eyes were pitch-black beads.
“You a messenger?” The innkeeper asked.
“More or less. What are you serving?”
The doctor stole a glance at the stranger. He wore a duster coat and a broad-rimed hat, both caked in dust. The stranger looked as if he’d just burst out of the desert. A lifetime ago, he’d heard the legend of the clay warrior, sent by the Sun god to slay the men who had sided with the Tzitzime, many years before the first sunset.
The innkeeper poured some root wine for the stranger, his eyes darting back and forth between the doctor and the boy. The stranger took the shot glass, sniffed at the content as if he were a dog, then put it back on the bench, untouched. He looked at the long, curved knife and said:
“That’s an impressive knife. Yours?”
The doctor tried hard not to look at the stranger. He could feel the hairs on the back of his head stand at attention, every time he’d hear his voice. Keeping his head down, he stole glances at him.
“It’s my father’s. Ripped it off a dead Vas’Iiri Jaguar’s hands, after he crushed his windpipe.”
The stranger nodded. His right hand slid down his coat, all the way to his waist. The doctor looked then, at the mirror across the stranger and noticed in it the outline of his face, for the very first time. His heart skipped a beat, right then.
That was the face in the mirror. That was the man that would kill him.
It was then that his instinct dug up years of training he could have sworn he’d forgotten. His hand went for the knife with blinding speed, his muscles taught under his skin. His fingers wrapped round the handle and applied just the right pressure, enough to free the blade’s tip. With the blade now freed, his arm made a horizontal sweep, aimed at the stranger’s neck. His momentum and the sharpness of the blade would be more than enough to sever the stranger’s head from his body.
Each move was carried out perfectly. The angle, the blade’s path, were both sublime. All that was left was for the blow to connect. Trace the blade in the likeness of the Moon goddess, as she rests. For an instant, he shut his eyes and waited for the soft, almost inaudible hiss the stranger’s thick neck would make, as the obsidian edge would cut through flesh, muscle, tendon and bone in one motion. His only regret was that, after this, he’d have to kill the innkeeper and the boy and leave this town for another. He’d have to hide all over again, somewhere else. But at least, he’d be alive.
Opening his eyes, he saw that the stranger had ducked his dead, dodging the blow. His right hand was a blur, reaching at something on his waist. The next instant, he was staring right in the bottomless depth of his gun’s barrel.
“You’re a Vas’Iiri Jaguar.” Said the man, in the doctor’s mother tongue.
 “I am a Jaguar clad in snake skin.”
“A spy.  You’re an agent with the intent of enacting sabotage and causing panic behind enemy lines.”
The innkeeper looked mortified at the scene. He kept glancing back and forth between the doctor, a close friend of his for five years now and the stranger, as they spoke in gibberish.
“What the Devil is this?” he exclaimed. He received no reply.
“There’s no way you’re Government. I didn’t see any badge.”
“I was sent by the Old Guard. Came all the way from the Salted Desert for you, once I’d taken care of a traitor.”
“You can’t be Old Guard. The Government killed them off..”
“I’m not one of them. I’m just carrying out their revenge.”
The innkeeper stepped back and made a vague signal at the kid. The boy creeped to the other side of the bench and took an old, well-oiled shotgun from its hiding place under the counter. The boy placed it in the innkeeper’s hands, then backed away.
“You made me lose my cover. I’ve been living for a half a decade here now, not having harmed a single soul in this town and with nobody being the wiser. I was one of you. Now I’m just a Jaguar.”
“I’m sorry to hear this. But I have to kill you.”
“Spare me the drama, stranger.”
 “Doc, get down!” shouted the innkeeper, as he cocked both barrels of his gun and shot the stranger. The man was blasted right on his chest, falling on his back. The doctor raised his knife, pouncing at the incapacitated man.
The innkeeper barely had time to see the doctor in mid-air, his blade already at the end of a deadly arc, as the edge ripped through the coat, into the man’s flesh. A trickle of blood ran down between the ripped folds of the fabric. The damn thing seemed impossibly sharp, then and there. Another second, and it would have cut the stranger’s arm clean off.
Then, he heard the gunshots. The doctor was tossed back in the air, then fell hard on the floor, clutching at a hole in his chest. He stared at the stranger, as he got up, with a huge white spot on his duster coat, where the shot got him. There was the smell of cordite, seeping from the barrels of his revolvers.
I never saw him draw that other revolver, did I? How the hell did he do it? How could he draw the other damn thing then shoot, when he was getting his damn arm cut off?
The stranger walked toward the doctor, who writhed on the floor with a hole in his belly. Turned him on his back with his boot, as if he were a dying turtle. The doctor coughed blood, then said, in his mother tongue:
“In my room… top floor. There’s a pen and a notepad there. Please, take them. Don’t let them find out who I really was. Don’t…don’t want them to think I was going to betray them…”
The stranger shot the doctor once with each gun, before he was done pleading. A bullet in the chest and one between the eyes. The doctor was still, then. The innkeeper was shaking like a leaf.
“Shot you… I shot you right in the damn chest! Why are you still standing?”
The stranger looked at the white spot on his chest and smiled a mirthless smile.
“Next time you want someone taken down, use buckshot.” He tossed a tarnished silver dollar on the counter. “Rock salt is for kittens.”
The stranger turned around and left the saloon then, just like that. In the doctor’s room, on the top floor, the dry desert wind rustled the dead man’s journal pages. The paper ruffled, silently narrating the story of his crimes. He was absolved in the final pages, but he was a proud sinner and a traitor in the first, once more. The man who died on that night was a Vas’Iiri Jaguar, with the snake skin he had once donned lifeless and cracked on the salloon’s floor downstairs. The doctor, who thought he’d escaped the burden of slaughtered children, poisoned wells and the curses of widows was gone, just like that.



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