The Wanderer: Chapter 1 – The Codger and the Crone

The following is a free release of the first chapter of my novella, “The Wanderer”. The full version will release on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo on November 15th. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Chapter 1
The Codger and the Crone

Jilian aimed down the sights of her rifle. The autumn wind kissed her skin, leaving a touch of frost upon her cheek. She did not notice. All she saw was her prey, a buck standing proudly perhaps a hundred yards away in a clearing amid the woods. He stopped for a moment, sniffing at the air, and he bent down to nibble at a low shrub. Jilian took a breath, said a silent prayer for the beast, and pulled the trigger.

The shot echoed through the woods. It seemed a vulgar sort of sound. The silence among the trees felt somehow sacred to Jilian, and to penetrate it with gunfire felt obscene. The buck lay on the ground, a pool of crimson beginning to pool beneath his noble frame. He did not move, and Jilian was glad that she had ended his life swiftly. To watch an animal twist and scream as it died was not a pleasure for Jilian, unlike certain others in her occupation.

She stood to gather her things. As she did so, she heard something moving behind her. She spun around, and as she did so her hand shot into her sleeve to grasp the hilt of a knife. A boy stood there. His head was shaved, and he was dressed in the simple messenger’s garb of the Organization. He stood with hands clasped in front of himself, head bowed. Jilian frowned at him, but she released her grip on the sleeveknife.

“You are wanted,” he said in a monotone voice.

“Understood,” was her reply. Satisfied, the boy jogged off towards whence he’d come.

Jilian turned back, eyeing the buck down the ridge which now lay in a blossoming pool of blood atop the soft bed of grass, frost, and earth. She bowed her head in thanks to the beast, and she raised a hand to her forehead in prayer. She said a word of sorrow for its life, now wasted, and she apologized to its spirit for what she had done. She turned her back on the kill, gathered her things, and walked away towards Sanctuary. The scavengers would have the beast soon enough.

The walk through the country towards the outskirts of Sanctuary passed quickly. Jilian’s boots crunched through brittle grass with a satisfying sound. The air smelled of fallen leaves, dirt, and a hint of fires burnt and left to smolder. It was a lovely smell, and it reminded Jilian of long walks through these hills she’d taken with her father as a child. Then she entered Sanctuary, and all thoughts of pleasant strolls through childhood memory left her at once.

She navigated gravel paths, which grew into cobbled roads and cross-streets as the outskirts of Sanctuary morphed into the city proper. She skirted around a market plaza in which vendors of all types hawked their wares. A breeze wafted through the place, carrying myriad smells of breads, sweetmeats, and greased leather garments hung up for sale. She couldn’t decide which smell was most appealing. She turned a corner and nearly stumbled over a man lying on the ground.

“Ey, spare a copper for an ole’ codger such as me’self?” the man grumbled. He looked up at her with bleary sleepful eyes, and she recognized him. He had occupied this same corner for many years, and Jilian often encountered him on her way back from the hills around Sanctuary. She smiled, and she knelt down as she spoke to him.

“No coppers for an old codger, sir, but perhaps I could spare a few for a friend,” she smiled, and with a flourish she thrust a hand into her sleeve and came out with a broad copper coin in-between each knuckle. The man flashed her a toothy smile (though his toothiest smile couldn’t show more than seven or eight teeth in all), and he accepted the coins with thanks.

“Aw, Jelly-win, ye’s the rightest, finest, most dandy-est lil’ cooksy oi’ ever did ‘av the pleasure of seein’,” said the man. The affection was clear in his voice. It was the genuine sort of kindly, pleasant affection that speaks of love for one’s fellows. This was an honest man, true as silver, and Jilian loved him in turn. Many honest men had met worse fates on Sanctuary’s streets than had the old Codger.

“Best of luck to ya, Cauthon, you old coot!” she said, and he performed an odd sort of bow from his prone posture on the ground. She turned and jogged off towards her destination.

Before long, Jilian arrived at a building not too far from the center of town, but far enough so as to be discreet. The marble face of the place sat broad and tall, like an old dwarf standing guard over a horde of loot. She entered through massive oaken doors, which swung inward slightly after a mighty heave with both Jilian’s arms. She slipped through the narrow gap in the double doors before they slammed shut behind her. She brushed herself off and straightened a bit before going further.

She approached a desk behind which sat a nondescript woman dressed in formal business attire. She eyed Jilian coolly as she approached, her gaze half full of contempt, half of boredom. She nodded her head behind herself, indicating a hallway.

“He’s expecting you.” she said. Jilian walked a short ways and knocked on a large reinforced door. Whereas the door to the building was strong in the sense that it was simply large, this door was seemingly built to withstand a frontal assault. The hinges were thick steel knots upon the reinforced doorframe, and the door itself was a sturdy hardwood plated with steel. A pair of muscled goons could bang and kick upon this door for days to no avail, and Jilian suspected that an axe might take hours to break through. Of course, no one in Sanctuary would be so foolish as to take an axe to Snake’s own office door. They’d receive a blade in their heart as soon as the thought entered their mind.

She knocked.

“Enter,” came the voice. She obeyed.

Snake sat with his back to the door. The room was of a singular material, constructed entirely in pristine greyish-black marble. His desk was of the same. The effect of the marble upon the senses was quite intense. The very air in the room seemed chilled by the stone. The light from torches mounted in each corner sank into the floor and walls, as though consumed by the amorphous maw of some nightmarish beast residing within the darkness of the stone.

A man stood at Snake’s shoulder, his back against the wall, arms crossed, staring at Jilian. He was not a cruel man, as many assumed by his gruff appearance. He would slit your throat without a thought, but he was a better man than most. Rat (as the man was called) stood so tall that his head nearly grazed the ceiling of Snake’s office. His arms hung low past his thighs, and his hands were each larger than Jilian’s head when made into fists. His body was long and lithe, yet also intensely muscled. His form flowed with a bestial grace, despite its bulk. Rippling sinew covered the monstrous man from neck to ankle, and Jilian wondered how he could perform simple tasks without destroying anything that came into his hands.

Jilian bowed to her employer, and she remained in her bowed posture until he turned and spoke to her.

“You are late.” he said. She raised her head and met his gaze. He had turned to face her. His hands were clasped under his chin, over which his eyes bored into her own like a hawk gazing over a tree branch before swooping in for a kill.

“I was quite far from the city when I received your summons, sir.” she said, in the best apologetic tone she could muster.

“Yes. Regardless, you are here now, and I have need of you. I believe you recall the small sum of debt which you owe to the Organization. Are you aware of the current balance which remains to be paid?” he said the words casually, though his eyes belied the malicious nature of his question.

Do I remember my debt? The debt my asshole father left behind when he disappeared? The debt you’ve forced me to work to pay for the past six years? Ah, yes, I believe I do recall. Jilian felt rage stir within her gut, and she desired nothing more at that moment than to strike him in the vile snout he called a nose.

“Yes,” she said.

“And how much remains?” he said. The beginnings of a sneer crawled over his lip.

“Five hundred sixty-six crowns, forty-two imperials, and eighty-eight coppers,” recited Jilian. Snake tutted, a pleased sort of clicking sound with his tongue. Jilian suppressed a scowl.

“Diligent as ever. Good. Today, you may consider your debt absolved in its entirety.” he said. His face showed no expression, but Jilian’s jaw dropped.

“I don’t understand, I… Why…” she stammered, and Snake smirked. Jilian gathered her wits, and her hatred flooded into her again upon seeing his pale white lip curve over the points of his teeth, that despicable sneer sparking a fire of anger in her heart. This man would never free her, not until he got his full pound of flesh and then some.

“What do you want from me, Snake?” she said the question without bothering to disguise the hatred she felt for her employer. For once, he did not seem to care about her disrespectful tone. He slid an envelope across his desk towards her. She took it.

“Enclosed you will find the details of a certain apartment in a certain district of the Undercity, belonging to a certain man. You will enter this apartment at a certain time, await the man’s arrival… And you will kill him.”

“Snake, I told you, I won’t do -“

Enough!” Snake roared. Jilian took a step back despite herself. Snake collected himself somewhat and stood from his chair. His gaunt, pallid figure stood small, though somehow he held himself in such a way that inspired fear. His dark green velvet suit clung to him like funeral clothes upon a fresh corpse. He leaned in towards her and planted his palms upon his desk.

“You debt will be absolved today, young Jilian Scumspawn, daughter of a traitor, bastard of a whore. Whether it is absolved by completion of this task or by your blood, I do not care. Now be gone!” She fled from that place then as tears began to fall upon her cheeks.

Some hours later, she stood staring at a manhole cover, looking back and forth between it and the photo she held in her hand. This was the place. She looked around to make certain she wasn’t being watched. She thought she heard someone speaking softly around a nearby corner, but all else in the deserted streets was silent. She knelt down and pulled the circle of metal from the ground. Deftly she slid her body inside, secured her footing on the ladder, and replaced the metal slab over her head. She descended slowly at first, quickening once she came into the light of torches which lit the dry earthen chamber below.

Soft dirt puffed softly beneath Jilian’s feet, and for a moment she forgot that this was originally a sewer. The place was well kept, unlike many districts in the Undercity. The floor was clean, and the torches were well stocked with oil. Jilian approached a door, and knocked in a distinct pattern as per her directions. The door slid open after a short delay. So far, so good. Now, all she had to do was commit murder in cold blood, and she could go free.

She slipped through the door into a narrow street. At first she saw nothing, merely a dusty old corridor with a cobblestone guardsman’s post tucked into the wall, but she turned around a corner to find a bustling town unfold before her eyes. The place was remarkably normal, considering its location, with merchants hawking their wares and mothers walking about with children in tow behind. A fellow could find just about anything in the Undercity if he know where to look, even normalcy it would seem.

She passed by all manner of folk, though mainly they were the typical disorderly types who made the Undercity their home. It took a certain kind of person to live down here (an impulse to which Jilian could not relate), but as she navigated the narrow tubular streets, she couldn’t help but admit that this literal pipe-dream of a city had a certain grim charm.

The street upon which Jilian walked was in fact an old abandoned metal pipe, though it had been covered with a layer of dirt and gravel so as to level out the surface and to more closely resemble a normal street. The large market square was the remnants of an old crossing of pipes which had been refitted with concrete floors and walls to form a singular mass which formed a kind of hub in the center of pipes which led outwards in all directions.

Houses and shops and all manner of such things had been constructed into the sides of the pipe network, stuck into corners, and generally crammed into any place that would fit them. The more spacious sections had ceased to be pipe at all. The pipe in these places had been carefully chiseled away, and in their place tunnels and caverns had been dug to form great spaces such as the one through which she had entered.

Jilian was certain this section of the Undercity was rather exclusive, as demonstrated by the gate outside, but she supposed the quality of the place warranted such measures. It was the kind of place she could imagine a successful small-time crook retiring to after making a big score. Jilian could imagine herself robbing some rich fool of some massive sparkling stone, paying it down towards a little house down here (plus some aside for herself of course), and living out her days throwing rocks at the wall. She’d climb out at night, gaze up at the stars, and ponder the great questions of the world. She knew such a life was out of her reach, but she couldn’t help but daydream. The Undercity was the place for daydreamers, after all.

After referencing her instructions several times, passing through twisting tunnels and down long corridors, Jilian neared her destination at last, which turned out to be a small door which she walked by twice before realizing it was built into the tunnel and disguised therein. The doorframe was a circle of iron, painted over to resemble the pipe wall, and cut into concave shape so as to match the contour of the tunnel. The craftsmanship was impeccable, and Jilian couldn’t help but whistle softly at the sleek design of it. She was not a craftsman, but she appreciated fine work when she saw it. Whoever had built this thing had a keen interest in privacy, or, more likely, catered to clientele who desired the same.

From her sleeve she produced the final item from Snake’s envelope of instructions, a contoured silver key. She slid it gently into the lock atop the doorhandle, and it turned to the right with a soft click. Jilian entered the room and allowed her eyes to adjust to the dark for a moment, then she closed the door and locked it behind her. The apartment was windowless, save for a few small slits cut in the wall for ventilation. The place was lit by a bioluminescent fungus which grew in many places upon the walls of the Undercity, and which had been cultivated to grow in abundance here. It shone with a faint bluish light. The fungus smelled faintly of earth, and it reminded Jilian of the times she’d ventured underground with her father in her youth.

Quickly she scanned the room. The place was rather simply kept. There was a bed in the corner, neatly made-up with greyish-brown linen sheets. A wooden rocking chair sat atop a thick woolen rug, beside which sat a round wooden sidetable. Various instruments of writing could be seen there, including a notebook, various scrawled upon papers, and a small jar of ink. A large wooden trunk occupied one wall opposite the bed, secured by a large iron padlock.

Jilian sighed. This was the moment she had been dreading. She had done plenty of unsavory jobs for Snake in the past, often following equally odd instructions, but never this. Her hands shook as she reached a hand through her sleeve into a pocket sewn close to her breast. From this pocket she drew a small pistol. The polished wood and steel shone dully in the faint luminescence. Jilian’s mind raced as she tried to comprehend the magnitude of the situation.

Could she truly draw this weapon upon a man who had done her no harm? Could she slay a man who, for all she knew, was the kindest soul in all of Sanctuary? Could she draw this cold weapon upon that man, squeeze the trigger, and end the life of a man guilty of no crime, other than drawing Snake’s ire? Was her own life, her own freedom, worth the price of her soul?

Jilian did not believe in any God, despite her keeping to many of the old traditions. However, the concept of a soul held some sway over her. Perhaps there was a soul within her. and perhaps her action this night would mark her for eternity. She did not know. She knew for certain, regardless of what may become of her soul, that her own mind would bear a black mark for the rest of her days should she go through with this task.

Now, however, was not the time for such debates. She pressed her back against the wall, positioning herself beside the closed door so that when it opened, she would not be visible. The door would close, her gun would be drawn, and whoever entered here would fall.

Before long, voices of worry began to claw at her mind. What if the man had friends with him, or what if he brought a lady home, would Jilian shoot them down as well? And what of the guards in the market, who would surely hear a gunshot echo through the tunnels? Would she fight her way out of here like some swashbuckling hero from the tales her father had told her at her bedside as a child? Not likely. This plan was suicide, but she would die just the same if she failed. Dead was dead, regardless of cause.

So, she waited. Perhaps two hours passed there, but it felt to Jilian a tortuous eternity. She did not move, even to wipe the beads of sweat from her brow. She stood sentinel there, waiting. Each dreadful moment passed, marked by the deafening beat of her heart. To draw attention at the wrong moment would mean death, and this fact loomed over her like Death himself. She drew breath cautiously, and her muscles quickly drew sore with the extreme tension of motionlessness. Each sound of passersby outside sent a jolt of fear through her body like a wave of electricity tearing through her flesh. Her hand clenched around her weapon, and her knuckles turned white and bloodless.

At last, the man arrived. He was announced by the soft clanging of a key unlocking, a doorknob turning. Jilian’s heart began to race anew, pounding in her chest, threatening to leap from her breast. She tried to breathe, but the air came in ragged bursts. Time seemed to slow down in her panic. The door swung open. She heard boots impact the floor. For what felt like an eternity, the door remained open, her target presumably standing on the other side. Finally, the door closed, and she saw him.

He was older than she expected, perhaps fifty years of age. He had long black hair, tied back in a horsetail, and he was clad in a finely sewn tunic of dark cloth. His skin was tanned, a stark contrast to Jilian’s pale white, and she saw several faint scars upon his face. He stood there motionless in the entryway. He did not look in her direction.

With shaking hands she raised the gun and pointed it at the man’s head. A tear fell hot upon her cheek. She tried to suppress her breathing, but she found it came to her in ragged gasps. She regained control over her hands. She gritted her teeth, breathing faster. She sobbed silent, bitter tears which bled profusely upon her face. She laid her finger over the trigger.

“It’s OK. Do it,” said the man. Jilian nearly dropped the gun in surprise. The man still did not move. Jilian stood frozen, her finger still hovering an inch away from the sliver of metal which stood between life and death.

“The first is always the hardest,” he said, and he bowed his head slightly. They stood there motionless for a long moment, then Jilian lowered the gun. Her hand continued to shake. The man turned towards her. He had a kind face, with high cheeks and a softly edged jaw. He wore a scraggly beard upon his chin which was faintly speckled with grey.

“You have to be the worst assassin I’ve ever encountered.” the voice was deadpan, but Jilian detected a hint of mirth in it. Who could be amused by someone trying to kill them?

“So, who sent you?” he asked. He spoke conversationally, as though he were asking her about what she ate for lunch. She saw no reason to lie.

“My employer, the man who owns my debt of service, is known as Snake.”

“I see. This Snake fellow, he is a killer?”

“The worst you’ll ever meet.” said Jilian.

“I doubt that,” he said with a laugh.

The man strode over to the door. He held out his hand and asked politely for her gun. To Jilian’s own surprise, she handed it over. She didn’t think this man would kill her, though she couldn’t put a finger on why she believed that. He examined her weapon appreciatively, turning it over in his hands.

“Cover your ears,” he said. He raised the weapon towards the back of the room, clicked the hammer back, and pulled the trigger. Before she knew what was happening, he rushed towards her. Her hand flicked towards her belt knife, but there was no time.

Get down!” he said sharply into her ear. He pulled her down to the floor and gestured for her to move, to hide. She didn’t understand, but the urgency in his tone convinced her to obey. She moved between the bed and the far wall and peeked her eyes up over the rim.

The man sprung to his feet with surprising agility. He positioned himself carefully next to the door, much as Jilian had done. From his sleeve he produced two long, curved knives with black blades that glistened in the bluish dark. He crouched there motionless. Nothing happened. After one painfully long minute, however, a knock came at the door.

“What’s the commotion in there?” called a voice behind the door. Jilian thought she recognized the voice, but she couldn’t quite place it. The bladesman in black nodded to her.

“N-nothing, all is well,” she called back. The words sounded ridiculous, but it was the best she could manage given then circumstances.

“The job’s done then, aye?” said the voice after a long moment of silence. Jilian recognized the fellow’s voice at last. It belonged to one of Snake’s henchmen, a nasty fellow who always smelled like he fell asleep in a tavern and wakened in a pigsty.

The door creaked open, and two burly men entered the room, guns in hand. They entered the room with small, wary steps, eyes scanning the room as they did so. Jilian locked eyes with the fellow whose voice she’d recognized, and a grin spread across his face which sent shivers down Jilian’s spine.

The hiding bladesman dropped to a low crouch and slashed the first intruder’s ankle with a savage swing of his black blade. He fell. Before his large body hit the ground, a black knife found his neck. He died with the grin still upon his lips. His comrade charged forward. The bladesman was ready for him, however, and a curved blade took the charging man in the belly, ripping upwards. Entrails and blood sloshed free from the wound. He fell twitching next to his downed comrade.

“Well, we’d best get moving then, eh?” said the blood-spattered man in black.

“What?” said Jilian. The sight of such raw violence shook her. The corpses upon the floor seemed to stare at her. The grin upon the fellow’s dead face sagged into a deathly grimace as she gazed upon him.

“These goons are friends of that Snake, I’d wager. I noticed them following me on my way here,” said Ronin. Jilian suppressed the urge to vomit.

Jilian had never been intended to succeed in this mission. Snake knew that she was not a killer. He knew she would fail. She was merely a distraction to occupy her target’s blades while Snake’s brutes came in and did the job right. Snake had miscalculated, however. The man had shown her mercy, and he had seen the men following him. This man had somehow understood her situation before she could comprehend it herself.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

The man turned and flashed her a wide grin. “You can call me Ronin,” he offered his hand for her to shake. Jilian returned the man’s smile with a wan smile of her own. She clasped his hand in her own.

“I’m Jilian.” she said wearily.

“Well, Jilian,” he said, “we better get the hell out of here.”

She nodded. The man turned back into the room, towards the thick wooden trunk beside the bed, and he produced a key from his belt. His back was to Jilian now, and the thought entered her mind to run him through, to kill him while he was occupied with collecting his belongings to flee. She was ashamed of the thought, and the mere imagining of committing such an act disgusted her to her core. Jilian trusted this man, somehow. She felt he was a good person, despite the still-warm corpses at her feet.

Ronin pulled a long silver blade from the chest, housed within an ornate silver scabbard. Briefly he lifted the sword from its encasement, inspected it, and thrust it back into the sheath. As Jilian’s eyes fell upon the blade, a vibration seemed to pass through her body like an electric shock. This feeling soon passed, but she thought she felt a faint thrumming which emanated from the sword. Ronin strapped the sheath to his belt. Oddly, the man struck Jilian as an almost regal figure, like a noble knight from her father’s tales. He stepped swiftly over the corpses and exited the room. Jilian followed. Then, without a word, they ran.

They ran out the Undercity tunnels the way they had come, out the gate and up the ladder, through winding streets and backalleys, up towards the market square through which Jilian had returned to Sanctuary. They slowed briefly to rest there, and Jilian motioned to Ronin to wait for a moment. She walked over to the usual place to find her friends among the unfortunate. She did not see them, however. No sign of old Codger nor any of his gang of like-minded coots. Alone in their spot sat a small, raven-haired woman, clad in a black silken robe which rose up from her shoulders to cowl the top of her face. Beneath the cowl, only a long pointed nose showed hanging over pursed lips painted black as though kissed by ink.

Jilian paused at the sight. Old Codger had claimed this spot long before Jilian was born. He and his gang had shed blood defending it from other unfortunates in the past.

“Ye keep odd company, my dear girl” said the woman in a squawking tone.

“What’s it to you, lady?” Jilian said curtly, still scanning around for where old Codger might have gone. She didn’t have a lot of time.

Suddenly the woman grabbed Jilian’s wrist. Sharp claws dug into her flesh, and droplets of blood peeked out between the polished black talons.

Ye best be wary, girl, lest ye incur the wrath of those above ye,” spat the woman.

“Let go of me!” Jilian said, but the old wench only tightened her grasp.

“Faith to keep your mind, honor to keep your soul,” said the woman, and she released her grip upon Jilian’s arm. Jilian ran. The old crone did not call after her.

Ronin had purchased a few items, which he was busy stuffing into a small rucksack.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” said Jilian. Ronin eyed her quizzically, but he did not question her. He tightened the strings upon his bag, and they were off once more. They did not run, walking swiftly so as to avoid the attention of whoever may be looking for them. Surely as the sun sets, they would be found, but they could at least delay the inevitable for awhile. Perhaps they could find help, somewhere, or escape to the ocean, and their lives would be preserved for that much longer. Jilian knew they were as good as dead, as were all who defied the Organization, but she had heard tales of men who survived for decades under such pursuit.

Jilian pushed the thought from her mind. Onward they walked for several miles until at last they reached the gates leading into the wooded foothills surrounding Sanctuary. They passed unmolested through the gate, though the guards examined the two of them with suspicious eyes. The bloodspatter on Ronin’s tunic was largely invisible against the black fabric. Shortly they were amid the trees in the familiar foothills surrounding the city. The cover provided by the sprawling branches felt safe to Jilian.

“This way,” said Ronin, pointing. “I know a place.”

She followed, and before long they arrived at a small cabin tucked neatly into a small clearing in the woods. Ronin plucked a key from his belt and opened the door. The place was small in a cozy sort of way, with animal skins on the wooden floor topped by comfortable looking leather chairs. Jilian plopped herself down in one of these and put her feet up on a small table.

Jilian closed her eyes for a short, sweet moment. For an instant, she could somehow feel that she was going to survive this. She felt a sensation in her bones, deep down in the soles of her feet, or in the back of her mind, or all of those at once. The feeling came upon her in a wave, cresting over her consciousness as though she were upon a beach of pure calm and high tide had just begun. She would not die here today, and all doubt of this fact was lifted from her mind. She stood.

“They will come for us,” she said. The fear in her voice was gone now. She did not look forward to what would come, but she was not afraid of it. Perhaps her feelings were mere wishful thinking, but regardless she recognized the wisdom of her insight. She had never been a fearful girl, and today was not the day to start.

“Yes. Come, we must prepare.” Ronin replied, and he motioned for her to follow him outside. He carried various items in a large bundle in one sinewy arm. He was a small man, and old, Jilian noticed, perhaps thirty or forty years Jilian’s senior, though he moved with a subtle deftness, a strength, which she had never seen in any man, let alone a man of his age.

Ronin hefted a large shovel from his bundle of items and began digging a hole into the hard autumn dirt. With great speed, the man thrust the shovelblade into the soil and heaved loads of it outwards behind him. In mere moments, it seemed, he had created a pit several feet in depth and perhaps a foot across its center. He wiped his brow, and Jilian noticed a wicked scar running across the underside of his forearm.

“How’d you get that scar?” she blurted out, and instantly she flushed with embarrassment. Ronin did not seem to react, however.

“We need a perimeter of holes like this. I don’t know how long it will be before we are found, but if we’re lucky it might take them half a day or more.” he said, ignoring her question, “If great numbers of men are sent against us, it would be wise to be prepared.”

Jilian thought about that for a moment. She knew Snake, knew how he operated, and she did not believe he had access to any great army of footsoldiers, unless he could rally the countless spies and footpads he kept on his payroll. No, if his first attempt at assassination failed, he would…

“Ronin.” said Jilian. “Snake won’t send a big group of guys… He’s going to send Rat.”

Ronin pondered this for a moment, stroking his scraggly beard.

“The enormous man with the scarred face?”

“You know him?”

“Not exactly.” Ronin frowned. “Still, regardless of numbers, we need some traps. Maybe I can surprise him and take him out like I did the other two men, but somehow I doubt this will be so easy.”

And so, they set about their work. Ronin dug perhaps ten pits equal to the first, circling a perimeter around the cabin. Jilian chopped thick branches from nearby trees and added them to the staves Ronin already had among his bundle of items. These they sharpened and planted carefully within each pit, topping each pit with tarpaulin and a scattering of leaves and topsoil. Jilian found a tree nearby within easy sight of the cabin and surrounding field. She climbed it and prepared a perch for herself among its branches. Ronin made more preparations within the cabin itself. The remainder of the fading day passed this way, and the work was not unsatisfying, despite the circumstances.

Dusk came, followed swiftly by night, and the two of them retreated into the cabin. Some restful time passed, an hour perhaps. Jilian had almost managed to relax when Ronin sprang to his feet. He gestured with his finger over his lips for her to be silent.

He is here,” he whispered, “Make yourself ready.”

Jilian climbed into the tree, nestled herself deeply into the branches, and covered herself in leaves. She had a fairly wide field of vision of the area surrounding the cabin, but she would be nearly invisible from the outside. Unless, of course, she fired her weapon and drew attention to herself.

Ronin had not yet emerged from the cabin. She didn’t know how he’d known Rat was coming, as she could not detect any sign of the man through her binoculars, but sure enough, before long she noticed some rustling tree branches perhaps a hundred yards from her position. She saw barrel-thick arms brush aside massive tree limbs, and a hulking body came into view at last. Rat entered the clearing in which the cabin stood, and he paused, seeming to take stock of the place.

Rat was impossibly large, which was clear even from Jilian’s elevated vantage. He was garbed in battle-leathers similar to what the city guards wore. Such was Rat’s bulk that his armor must have contained enough leather to hide an entire cow. His head was covered by a leather helm which had been extended on one side to cover the scarred half of his face.

The giant stepped forward into the clearing and approached the cabin. Suddenly, one of the cabin windows exploded outward, and a brown streak flew through the air. It impacted Rat’s torso, and for a moment Jilian thought perhaps the battle had been won. Ronin’s arrow had sunk into Rat’s leather jerkin, however. Rat pulled it out in annoyance, and Jilian could see that the flesh beneath the thick leather had not been pierced. The arrow served another purpose, however, for it force Rat to either advance towards the cabin or to retreat out of Ronin’s firing range.

Rat advanced, hurrying into a trot, and Jilian could almost feel the earth shake beneath each footfall. Another arrow fired, and another, and another. Each arrow did little more harm than the first. As Rat came nearer to the house, Ronin fired a final shot, and this one connected at last, sinking into the flesh of Rat’s shoulder. Rat roared ferociously and tore free the arrow. A spurt of blood sprayed from the wound. Rat payed this no heed, however, and he continued his reckless charge forward.

He ran directly into one of the spike traps which Ronin had placed around the cabin, and Rat roared once more at the pain of it. The spikes were sharp, and they were crafted of the sturdiest of wood which could be found around these woods. An ordinary man would certainly have been crippled by such a trap, but Rat merely pulled his foot free from its impalement upon the snare and continued onward. Small splotches of blood remained whence he trod, but he seemed not to care at all.

Rat charged into the cabin. The door was solid wood, but he crashed through it in an explosive rush. The door shattered into wood fragments, and Jilian lost sight of him. An instant later she heard a shattering of glass, and she saw a body fly through a window on her side of the cabin. She was afraid she would see Ronin’s corpse there, but to her relief she saw him, unharmed, crouching amid shards of glass. He was clutching a bottle in his hands, and with a quick motion he set a fire to a cloth which protruded from the lip of the glass bottle. He tossed this into the cabin. Ronin hastily retreated a few paces, and the cabin exploded into a massive fireball. Jilian felt the heat from thirty paces away, and she had to look away to preserve her eyes.

The cabin had been doused in alcohol, she knew, and the insides had been packed to the brim with various flammable materials. The entire cabin was a firebomb, and Rat had charged directly into the middle of it. Ronin stood perhaps ten or fifteen yards from the blaze, and even so he had not escaped the blaze unharmed. He stood, seeming not to notice his burned and bleeding arms, nor his singed hairs, nor the smoke rising from his clothes. He stared into the raging fire with grim intensity.

There, from among the flames, came Rat. He walked calmly from the fire, his hulking frame a black silhouette within the blinding light of the flames. His exposed skin was burned and bloody, and his leathers had been scorched, torn, and in places they seemed to have merged into black nothingness against Rat’s flesh. The helmet and short cropped hair alike were gone from Rat’s head, replaced with soot and bloody, burned flesh.

Rat did not flinch at the pain as he walked. At this point, Jilian was unsure if he felt pain at all. He strode towards Ronin, his reddened skin glistening in bloody firelight. Ronin drew his sword and stood at the ready, his blade held aloft before him. Rat stepped coolly towards Ronin, and he made a whipping motion with his arm. A long metal chain fell down from his shoulder, which Rat then twisted around a hulking bicep, forearm, and wrist. At the end of this chain was a curved silver blade. He spun the chain in a circle around his wrist, faster and faster, until the weapon was a spinning blur in the air about his hand. In his opposite hand, he produced a long silver knife. In Rat’s hand, the weapon could only be called a knife, though if Jilian were to grasp it she would certainly require both hands merely to lift the enormous blade.

The two men stared at each other for a long moment. The silence was penetrating. Jilian strained her ears to hear.

“Your days of obstructing the Organization are over, Ronin.”

“Last I checked, you fellows were the ones obstructing me. Seems I can’t even take my breakfast without a few of your thugs trying to slit my throat.”

“Your crimes in this world alone are enough to warrant ten executions. I regret only that I may deliver just one.”

“If you want my head, come and take it, you sniveling porcine beastspawn!” shouted Ronin, and he suddenly whipped a dagger through the air. Rat was fast, however, and the blade merely grazed his side instead of taking him in the gut.

“You’ll pay for what you’ve done, mongrel!” Rat shouted, and he charged towards Ronin. The blade and chain he spun wove a shimmering pattern through the air. Ronin stood his ground. Rat advanced and shot his arm forward, launching the chainblade towards Ronin’s chest. Ronin pivoted to dodge, but Rat continued charging forwards. As the chain flew by, Rat’s hulking body followed. The giant raised his own sword over his head to strike, but Ronin was fast.

The smaller man rolled to the side and slashed his blade down and through Rat’s leg. A spurt of blood sprayed from the wound, and Rat stumbled momentarily before recovering. The limb was not severed, but the flesh had torn in a gaping gash which oozed blood. Ronin jumped backwards to avoid Rat’s raging counterattack, as the long iron sword swung through where Ronin had been a moment before.

Again, Ronin stood at the ready. Rat began to swing his chain once more. Ronin was ready, however, and he leapt upwards an incredible height and landed briefly in a crouched posture along the trunk of a nearby tree. In the instant he landed, he shot three throwing daggers in rapid succession towards his foe before springing off the treetrunk towards Rat. Rat deflected two knives with his spinning chain, but the third took him in the shoulder and stuck there with a thunk.

Ronin landed on his feet behind Rat, who turned to face him. The giant was a bloody wreck, covered in burns and wounds, and the remnants of his leather armor was in bloodsoaked tatters. Rat grinned mirthlessly at Ronin, and spit a bloody mass onto the ground.

The giant suddenly threw his iron sword towards Ronin, who hopped backwards away from the weapon. As Ronin retreated, Rat uncoiled a second chain from beneath his leather jerkin, and he wrapped it around the arm which previously held his sword. He had two chains, now, though he did not have a sword with which to parry Ronin’s blows. The second chain was much like the first, although at it’s end was not a curved sickle-like blade, but instead what appeared to be a long knife in the shape of a spearhead.

He spun both chains, now, and the metal seemed to make the very air around him vibrate with motion. Rat plunged his first chain towards Ronin, but again Ronin was ready. He dodged much the same as he had done before, quickly sidestepping the blade. Rat launched his second chain, which went high towards Ronin’s face, the spearlike knife aiming to pierce his skull. Ronin twisted his torso around, and the blade hissed through the air a few inches from his throat.

The spearknife plunged into the wood of a tree behind Ronin with a dull thud. Rat’s arm remained aloft, and it appeared that the blade was strongly lodged within the wood. Ronin went on the attack, dashing forward with his sword ready to strike. The curved bladechain was spinning again, now, but Ronin was fast. He came within striking range of his opponent before the chain could be brought to bear.

Rat dove to the ground to the right of Ronin. The chain which had been lodged within the tree held fast, and it caught Ronin in the chest as the giant man rolled crossways of him. He was knocked to the ground. Ronin rolled to the side an instant before Rat’s enormous fist crushed into the ground where his head had been. Rat ripped his spearknife free, and the tree in which the blade had lodged toppled to the ground.

Rat charged. Ronin slashed forward with his sword as the giant came towards him, but Rat caught the blade in one chain-wrapped hand. Rat stepped forward and punched Ronin in the stomach. Ronin reeled backwards. Blood sprayed from his mouth. His eyes bulged, and he fell to one knee. Rat towered over him. Ronin’s sword was still grasped in the giant’s fist. Somehow, Ronin maintained his grip on the weapon.

Ronin attacked with lightning speed. One hand had dropped from the sword as he was struck, and this hand now gripped a narrow dagger with two prongs on either side. This weapon he thrust upwards towards Rat, and it sank deep into his stomach. The giant reeled backwards, pulling Ronin’s sword from the smaller man’s hand. Blood seeped from around the hilt of the three-pronged knife. A terrible roar erupted from the giant man, and he launched his speartipped blade towards Ronin. Still stunned from the earlier blow, Ronin could not dodge swiftly enough. The chainblade struck him in his chest, and he fell in a spray of blood.

Until this time, Jilian had remained in her perch atop the tree. Ronin had told her not to move, to stay hidden, even if it seemed that he would die. He had seemed so confident, so certain that he would win, or at least, that he would survive. She sprung from her perch without regard for the height and ran faster than she had ever run in her life. If she continued to sit and watch, Rat would crush Ronin’s poor skull like a spoiled melon.

Neither man seemed to notice her as she came close to them. Ronin sat dazed upon the ground, clutching his chest and peering upwards at the man who stood towering over him, the man who would surely kill him. His face did not show fear, rather he bore an expression which Jilian could not quite place. His features showed something between exhaustion and amusement, which puzzled Jilian to no end, but there was no time for such matters. She raised her pistol.

She fired a shot. It sailed over Rat’s head. Suddenly she had the man’s undivided attention. His one good eye bored into her. His attention carried an oppressive weight. She fought the urge to shrink before his gaze. She stood strong, and she leveled the gun at his chest. Ronin laughed weakly on the ground beside her.

“Fool giant! I’ve an ace up my sleeve! Flee, foul knave, for my hero has come to slay thee!” Ronin said, in mocking grandiose tones. He barely got the words out before spitting up blood, still chuckling at his own jest.

“Back away, Jilian. You know nothing of this man. Will you betray the Organization? Betray your family?” said Rat.

“My family? You arseheads are the reason I have no family!” she pulled back the hammer on her revolver.

“That business with your father was none of my doing,” said Rat, with a regretful grimace. She stared at him, and while she did believe him, she still wanted to put a bullet in his head. She took a breath.

“Get out of here Rat. Go, and never come looking for me again. Ronin is a dead man anyhow, just look at him.”

Rat did look at him, and the fact was clear. Ronin would die. Perhaps in minutes, or hours, or after a long, bloody night of suffering. But still, he was a dead man, although one would not guess it from his demeanor, which was one of gloating victory (or perhaps he was delirious from blood loss, though Jilian was not qualified to judge such things).

Rat seemed to examine himself, then. It was clear that he would require immediate medical attention. Perhaps he could survive a gunshot or two long enough to finish them both off, but he would not likely survive the trek back to Sanctuary whilst bleeding his guts out all over the grass.

Rat grunted, and he turned to leave.

Ronin called out to the man, “Kill ya later, you ugly son of a gun!” he laughed maniacally and coughed up more blood. Rat disappeared over a hill, and a weight fell from Jilian’s shoulders. At last, after what felt like an eternity of anxiety, she was safe. For now. Rat would be back, but by that time she would be long gone. She turned and knelt down beside Ronin.

“Are you alright?” she asked, though perhaps what she would’ve like to say was, “are you insane?”, or, “are you an idiot?”, but seeing as he was a dying man, she would spare him the criticism.

“Ahh yes, my dear. I’m quite fine, though these little scrapes do smart a bit,” he said with a sly grin. She had thought him to be delirious for certain, but his eyes revealed a sharp lucidity.

“Can I do anything to… Make you more comfortable, or?…” she asked, skirting around the obvious fact of Ronin’s condition.

“Yes, actually. Let’s build us a nice little fire and have a camp-out for the night. Also, I need you to cauterize my wounds before I die of blood-loss.”

“Caught ‘er eyes?”

“Cauterize. It’s like you’re branding a cow, but instead of marking a cowhide, you’re burning shut the holes in my flesh.” Jilian shuddered at his description, but she hurried to do as he wished. Perhaps his life would be extended long enough for him to seek medical attention.

She fetched some firewood, made a hasty pile of it, and lit it with a flask of alcohol which Ronin gladly provided from upon his person. He took a large gulp of the stuff before handing it over. The fire blazed, and she heated the tip of one of her knives to a glowing red point. She asked him if he was ready.

“I can take it,” he said, a confident smile spreading over his bloodied lips. She cut away the shirt around his impaled chest. The wound was deep, and she had to wash away a sickening amount of blood to reveal the wound itself. She took a deep breath, gathered her courage, and pressed the flat of the heated blade over his ravaged flesh. The wound sizzled, and it radiated a smell similar to the aroma of roasting barbeque which permeated the foodmarket streets of Sanctuary. Somehow the smell produced a nostalgic kind of hunger in her belly. She resisted the urge to vomit. Ronin gritted his teeth but did not scream. After several sickening seconds, Jilian pulled the metal away from Ronin’s flesh. Jilian stepped back, and Ronin bent over to examine her handiwork. He grunted satisfactorily.

“This ought to hold ’til morning,” he said matter-of-factly, and he crossed his hands behind his head and laid back in the grass.

“What, that’s it?”

“I could use another swig of rum, but yes. All that’s left is to make camp for the night. You’d best prepare for the cold.” Jilian didn’t understand how he could be concerned for her warmth at a time like this, but she shoved that thought aside for the time being. She gathered various items which had survived the cabin’s destruction: some scraps of charred linens which had survived the fire, some broken chunks of wooden cabin wall, and various other debris which she used to construct a rudimentary shelter and bedding around where Ronin lay. He eyed her with an amused smirk as she worked, and Jilian almost wanted to kick him despite his injuries. At last, she sat herself down beside Ronin in their shelter.

“What are we going to do? We can’t go back to Sanctuary, but we’ve got to get you to a doctor, or…” she trailed off. Ronin raised a hand and patted her warmly on the leg which was situated next to him.

“Don’t worry, dear girl. All will be well upon the morning,” he said, and he closed his eyes and began to snore gently in the chilly air.

Jilian laid back and covered herself with their charred makeshift blankets, and she wondered… She almost believed him, despite everything. Perhaps everything would be well in the morning after all. She laughed bitterly to herself at the ridiculousness of the thought, and she drifted off to sleep.

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