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theblunderbuss
Jul 4, 2010

I find dead men rout
more easily.


In. Hit me with some awful bonus fact.

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theblunderbuss
Jul 4, 2010

I find dead men rout
more easily.


One Last Job
Caladrius
Wise men know that the caladrius cannot stand the light of the moon.
999 words

Sand downed his vodka with a wince, feeling it burn all the way from gullet to stomach. It hurt more than the last one. Not a good sign.

"Another," he said.

The barkeep gave him a wary look. "You sure? It's not good for you to --"

Sand managed half a profanity before the coughing fit took over. He spat blood into the glass once it passed. "Another."

"You got it."

The bar was a dingy one, nestled deep in the Peddlers' Quarter. The back door opened onto a canal, which was useful when you needed to dispose of a body in a hurry. There were no windows.

"You're not catching, are you?" the barkeep said when she brought a fresh glass. Sand snorted.

Five days now. He'd seen the light glint off the viper's eyes just too late, felt that nauseating sense of overwhelming, fundamental wrongness as it nicked his calf. Served him right for robbing an alchemist rich enough to keep exotic guard animals.

You've got a week, the apothecary had told him afterwards.

What then, he'd asked.

Then your guts dissolve and you poo poo out your lungs, she'd said.

"It's hereditary," he said, and knocked the glass back.

The door opened to reveal Bari. Good kid, Bari. Did what he was told. Not long now since the gang was more than the two of them, but, well. poo poo happened.

"Coast's clear, boss," Bari said.

"Let's do this." Sand dropped a half-crown on the bar. "Keep the change. Probably won't need it myself."

The streets were empty, rendered silver by the full moon. The night was humid, stifling. Bari fell into step behind him. "You okay, boss? You don't look okay."

"No, of course I'm --" Sand caught himself. Kid meant no harm. "I'll manage."

"They brought the bird in today," Bari said as they passed into the Regal Quarter. "Pride of the menagerie, they said. They sent any guard with so much as a cold home, just in case it looks at them and does its healing thing and then --"

"Shut up, Bari."

"You got it."

The caladrius could cure any disease, they said, just by looking at you. That was why the Duke had spent thousands on this one. That was why they'd hang Sand if they caught him. It was worth more than he was.

The Menagerie dominated the skyline here, a wide tiered building too large to patrol effectively. They crouched in an ornamental hedge by the side wall and waited for another coughing fit to pass.

"Right," Sand said, once he could speak again. "You make yourself scarce. When... If I'm not back by dawn, you leave town, got it?"

"I'm coming with, boss," said Bari.

"No, you bloody well aren't."

"I am."

"Maybe," Sand said, "you weren't listening when I said they'll send any trespassers to the gallows. Or maybe you're just an idiot."

"I was listening, boss. They'll hang you too."

"Do I --" Sand began, and broke for yet another fit. "Do I look like I care?"

"If you go in, I'll follow you. I'm fitter than you. Let me help. I want to help."

"For gods'... What are you, a puppy?"

"I'm a person, boss," said Bari, confused. "I thought you knew that."

"No, I mean... Never mind. Fine. Just keep quiet."

Bari went in first, scaling the wall like a ladder and lowering a rope after him. He was a good climber. Sand hoped he didn't die.

They dropped into the bestiary through a skylight, between a siren and a pair of halfbreed cerberi. They slipped past the guards into the aviary, where golden doves and rukhs and a newborn phoenix slept fitfully in cages too small for them. The room was dark and preternaturally quiet.

The caladrius sat alone in its cage, motionless. Someone had covered its head with a hunting hood. It was tall, white, thin. Regal, somehow.

"Let me get that for you, boss," said Bari. It took him seconds to pick the lock. He was good at that, too.

Between them, they manhandled the bird out of its cage and set it down on the floor. It didn't seem to mind, or possibly notice.

Sand sat down in front of it.

"Careful, boss," said Bari. "They say it can break your arm with one wing."

"That's swans, Bari," said Sand, with his last dregs of patience, and pulled its hood off.

They stared at one another, man and bird. Sand fixed his gaze on the caladrius' depthless eyes, waiting. He saw something there.

What do you expect me to do? its eyes said. I'm just a bird.

Sand started to laugh.

It hurt. Gods, it hurt so much, but he couldn't stop, even once he could no longer tell whether he was laughing or choking.

The caladrius honked quietly and looked away, more interested in the rest of the menagerie than in him.

"Boss?" said Bari, concerned.

"It's... it's just a bird," Sand managed. "It's a bird. What did I expect?"

"Maybe it can't see you." Bari hurried to the nearest window and pulled the curtains apart. The room shimmered into dazzling silver light.

The caladrius' head whipped around, eyes wide in the moonlight, and it screamed.

"Whoops," said Bari.

One by one, other birds woke and joined the cacophony. Sand heard distant shouts of surprise, barely audible over the din.

Bari grabbed his hand. "We have to go, boss."

"Go where? The only way out is through --"

Sand stopped.

If they catch us, they'll hang us.

If they catch me, they'll hang me.

"Hide," he said. "Let them find me. When they do, you sneak out."

"What about you, boss?"

"I've got this."

"But --"

"Bari," said Sand. "Piss off. Now."

He sat there, watched the kid duck into the shadows by the door, waited for the guards to come arrest him. The caladrius sat beside him, screeching every time the stupid thing caught sight of the moon.

"You're an arsehole," he said.

It helped, somehow.

theblunderbuss
Jul 4, 2010

I find dead men rout
more easily.


In with:
"General Clap did not understand the way of the ancient warrior. However, the Shadow Wolves did."


Also thanks for this!

theblunderbuss
Jul 4, 2010

I find dead men rout
more easily.


The Relic
999 words

General Clap did not understand the way of the ancient warrior. However, the Shadow Wolves did. And so the wolves followed the warrior, and the general followed the wolves, and with my lantern and my pack of food and bandages and coin, I followed the general.

Clap was a squat man with skin like crumpled paper, his body and mind scarred equally by glories long past. I don't remember when he first took it upon himself to fight the warrior, but as with all his passions, it was immediately and inescapably all-consuming.

"Look at this!" he would say, with every abandoned town we passed through. "More young lives wasted! And does anyone do anything? Not a soul!"

There were always bodies. Every time, some blacksmith or huntsman or idiot son trying to impress his parents would have stayed to face the warrior. We would find them strewn about the streets, limbs severed, tooth marks deep in any exposed skin.

"Carrion feeders," Clap would say as he scoured the area for any remaining wolves, and as I built pyres for as much of the dead as I could find. He never found any. I always did. "Vermin. But useful."

In this, he was right. The shadow wolves never struck first. But, it seemed, they had some preternatural sense of the warrior's journey. They would appear at night, flickering around the edges of firelight. They would howl, or gnash their teeth, or terrify the townsfolk into fleeing. But they never attacked. Not first.

Unerringly, days later, the warrior would pass through, and in her wake the wolves would feed. And so we followed them, hoping that eventually we might hear of their arrival early enough, and thus catch her.

"Grandfather, I have a question," I said one night, as we ate dinner by pyre light. In the early days I had been sickened by how the scent of burning flesh would make my mouth water. That had long since passed. "Why do --"

"What did I tell you, son?" Clap interrupted me. He was strict, but not unkind.

"Sorry, General," I said. "Why do you think you can kill the ancient warrior, when no one else can?"

He laughed, pleased with the question. "Well, son," he said, "the ancient warrior is a simple creature of base instinct. Whereas I," he tapped his temple, "am a creature of strategy."

He had forgotten that I had asked him the same question the week before, and the week before that. It always cheered him.

In truth, I hoped he would never catch her.

-----

He did.

We caught up with the shadow wolves one day in winter, where a lone cottage sat precariously on a sloping riverbank. A witch lived here, the locals said. She was already gone, which pleased me. She had been smart enough to heed the wolves.

The sun was low, and the shadows long. As we approached, the wolves emerged to meet us, stalking back and forth where light met shade. We stopped beyond their reach, Clap with his sword drawn, and me with my lantern held just so, to ensure we cast no shadow strong enough for them to live in.

"Now, then," General Clap said, "fall in, son. We've work to do."

At his direction, I dug pits around the grounds. I felled trees and sharpened stakes for the traps, and covered them with branches and leaves. In the cottage I found a hoe, and with it I tilled the earth and scattered the detritus about until neither of us could tell by sight where our traps were.

"Strategy," Clap said, satisfied. "You see?"

We ate our dinner in the centre of this battleground by the light of my lantern. The wolves circled, waiting. On a whim, I tossed them a hunk of salt beef. They fought over it for a while.

That night, the ancient warrior walked into our light, and General Clap stood to face her.

She towered over him. Her skin was terracotta and her armour mostly rust, and her stone sword was longer than Clap was tall. She moved with singular, thoughtless purpose, I saw now. She had no face, but in the lanternlight I saw a hint of colour, as though one might once have been painted there.

Clap drew his sabre and waited for her by our first trap.

The warrior planted her foot on the flimsy tangle of branches covering the pit.

The branches held.

Surprised, Clap stepped in and swung at her.

His sabre shattered against her skin.

She raised her sword.

I was close enough to see Clap's confidence break. He turned and scrambled, and her sword cut the air behind him. He ducked past another trap, and she walked across that one as well.

"Hellfire!" he snarled. "Damnation!"

The wolves were agitated, angry. Their barking was a chorus.

The warrior swung again. Blood sprayed from Clap's leg, and he stumbled. She drew her arm back.

Frantic, I cast about for something to throw, and my fingers closed around my lantern. It shattered against her head in a flash of fire, and then the darkness rushed in, and the wolves with it.

They swarmed over us, fangs and claws sunk into our arms and legs. They dragged us past our pits, away from Clap's battleground. One leaped at the warrior, and she cut it in two. It fell to dust with a yelp. Another followed. She killed that one too.

We were on the ground, now, and she was walking past us. She wasn't looking at us. She had some other purpose in mind. The wolves scattered and faded away into the night.

I sat there, dazed. We were alive, Clap and I. Bloodied, but alive.

"Get back here!" Clap bellowed after her, trying to stand. "Coward! Fiend! You --"

I laid my hand on his shoulder, and he quietened. We should have heeded the wolves' warning, I realised now. We should have understood.

"Grandfather," I said, "it's time to go home."

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