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 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 was 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.
She stood to gather her things. As she did so, she heard something moving behind her. She spun around, and 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. She raised her pendant to her forehead, pressing the intersected circle of silver to her flesh 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. Her sleevecoat blew gently behind her in the wind. The wide sleeves pressed against her skin, the contents within the many insewn pockets jostling in their containers. The air smelled of fallen leaves, dirt, and 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. Distantly, she wondered where he was now. If he was even alive. Jilian’s attention returned again to the pendant which hung between her breasts. Then she entered Sanctuary, and she refocused on the task at hand.
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. Jilian 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. 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 I could spare some 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 o’ 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 facade of the place rose broad and tall over the street, like an old dwarf standing guard over a horde of loot. She entered through massive oaken doors, which swung inward slightly after a mighty shove. 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 leathers. She eyed Jilian coolly as she approached, her gaze half full of contempt, half of boredom. She tipped her head backwards, 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 doorframe, and the door itself was 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 even 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.
“Enter,” came the voice. She obeyed.
Snake sat with his back to the door. The room was constructed entirely of a singular material, a pristine greyish-black marble. His desk was of the same. The effect of the dark stone upon the senses was quite intense. The very air in the room seemed chilled by it. 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 marbled darkness.
A man stood at Snake’s shoulder, his back against the wall, arms crossed, staring at Jilian with his one eye. He was not a cruel man, as many assumed by his gruff appearance and the brutal scarring upon the right half of his face. He would slit your throat without a thought, but he was a better man than most. Rat, as he 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 fists were each larger than Jilian’s head. His body was long and lithe, yet also immensely muscled. His form flowed with a bestial grace, despite its bulk. Rippling sinew covered the monstrous man from neck to ankle. After her father had disappeared, the enormous man had taken her under his wing. He’d taught her everything she knew about thieving.
Jilian bowed to her employer. Deftly she pulled a small drawstring pouch from her sleeve, and she placed it gently upon the desk. She remained in her bowed posture until Snake turned and spoke to her.
“You are late.” he said. She raised her head and met his gaze. 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 most apologetic tone she could muster.
“Yes. Regardless, you are here now, and I have need of you,” Snake did not continue. He made her wait as he examined the contents of the bag she’d placed before him. He smiled, nodding at her, and she knew her task had been done to his satisfaction.
“I believe you recall the small sum of debt which you owe to the Organization. Are you aware of the current remaining balance?” he said the words casually, though his eyes belied the malicious nature of his question. Rage stirred within Jilian’s gut, and she desired nothing more at that moment than to strike the man in the vile snout he called a nose.
“Yes,” she said.
“And how much remains?” 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,” His face showed no expression, but Jilian’s jaw dropped.
“I don’t understand, I… Why…” she stammered. Snake smirked. Hatred for the little man flooded into her again upon seeing his pallid white lip curve over the points of his teeth. 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, without bothering to disguise the disdain in her voice. 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, shorter than Jilian’s own modest height, but he oozed a sense of threat which the bulky man behind him lacked. His dark green velvet suit clung to him like funeral clothes upon a fresh corpse. He leaned in towards Jilian and planted his palms upon his desk.
“Your 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 begone!”
Some hours later, Jilian stood staring at a manhole cover, looking back and forth between the surrounding area 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 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, with merchants hawking their wares and mothers walking about with children in tow behind. You could find just about anything in the undercity if you know where to look, even normalcy.
Jilian 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 in a renovated sewer network, but as she navigated the tubular streets, Jilian couldn’t help but admit that the place 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 constructed inside an old crossing of pipes which had been refitted with concrete floors and walls. The place was a hub for the surrounding undercity, with paths in the square leading to pipes which led outwards in all directions. The whole place was lit in a dull blue light which emanated from the walls and ceiling.
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.
After referencing Snake’s instructions several times, passing through twisting tunnels and down long corridors, Jilian neared her destination at last, which was a small metal door built into the side of the tunnel. The doorframe was a circle of iron, painted over to resemble the pipe wall, and cut into a concave shape so as to match the contour of the pipe. The craftsmanship was impeccable. Whoever built this thing had a keen interest in privacy.
From her sleeve Jilian produced the final item from Snake’s envelope of instructions, a small 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. She waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the faint bluish darkness, then she closed the door and locked it behind her. The apartment was windowless, save for a few small slits cut into the wall for ventilation. Small glowing fungus covered the walls, the same which was cultivated in many places of the undercity. The small mushrooms painted the room in faint blue light, though there were proper braziers upon the walls which could provide proper illumination if needed.
The place was furnished quite simply with an emphasis on functionality. There was a bed in the corner, neatly made-up with grey 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 an iron padlock.
Jilian 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. She hefted it in one hand, feeling its dead weight in her fist. The metal felt unnaturally cold upon her fingers. She pressed her back against the wall, positioning herself beside the closed door so that when it opened, she would be hidden behind it. She tried desperately not to think about what would come after.
Before long, voices of worry began to claw at her mind. What if the man had friends with him? What if he brought a lady home, would Jilian shoot the both of them? And what of the guards on patrol, who would surely hear a gunshot echo through the tunnels? Would she fight her way out of here like some swashbuckling hero from a children’s bedside story? 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. Two hours passed. It felt to Jilian a tortuous eternity. She did not move, even to wipe the gathering beads of sweat from her brow. 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. Her muscles quickly grew sore with the extreme tension of careful 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. 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 Jilian 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 deep ocher hue, 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 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 laid her finger over the trigger.
“Do it,” said the man. Jilian nearly dropped the gun in surprise. The man did not move. Jilian stood frozen. Her finger hovered a hairsbreadth 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. The scraggly beard upon his chin was faintly speckled with grey.
“You are the worst assassin I have 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 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. His name is Snake.”
“I see. This Snake fellow, he is a killer?”
“The worst you’ll ever meet.”
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. He examined her weapon appreciatively, turning it over in his hands.
“Flintlock, eight round capacity, low-carbon steel alloy. A fine enough weapon.”
“What?” said Jilian.
“Cover your ears,” 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. She didn’t understand, but the urgency in his tone convinced her to obey. She shifted her prone body 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 dim bluish light. 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 the 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 slept in a tavern and wakened in a pigsty.
The door creaked open, and two burly men entered the room cautiously, guns in hand. Jilian locked eyes with the fellow whose voice she’d recognized, and a grin spread across his face which sent shivers down her 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 knife found his neck. He died with the grin still upon his lips. The dead man’s 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 companion.
“We best get moving then, yes?” said the blood-spattered man in black.
Jilian stared at him. Her mind could hardly process the raw violence she’d just witnessed. The corpses on 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.
“I would wager these are your employer’s minions. I noticed them following me on my way here,” said Ronin. Jilian suppressed the urge to vomit.
With a sinking feeling in her gut, Jilian realized she had never been intended to succeed in this mission. Snake knew she wasn’t 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. Or, maybe Snake simply wanted her out of the way, and having an outsider kill her was more convenient than using his own men. Either way, Snake had miscalculated. The man had shown her mercy.
“What’s your name?” Jilian asked.
The man flashed her a wide grin. “You may call me Ronin,” he said. He bowed slightly and offered his hand. They clasped arms at the forearm and shook once.
“I’m Jilian,” she said. Her voice sounded hollow in her ears. The dead men on the ground tugged at her attention from the corner of her eye.
“Well, Jilian,” he said, “we better get the hell out of here.”
She nodded. Ronin turned towards the thick wooden trunk beside the bed, and he produced a key from his belt. He pulled a sword 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 shock vibrated through her body like an electric current. The feeling passed in an instant, and before long Ronin was ready to depart.
Oddly, the fellow struck Jilian as an almost regal figure, like a noble knight from her father’s tales. He stepped over the corpses and exited the room. Jilian followed. Then, without a word, they ran. To Jilian’s relief, no guards stopped them, and no one seemed to care about two strange figures running through the tunnels.
They left the same way Jilian had come in, though they had to sneak past a few guards in the tunnels. They walked through the undercity town square, out the gate, up the ladder, through winding streets and backalleys, and at last to Sanctuary’s grand plaza. 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 Cauthon nor any of his gang of like-minded coots. Alone in their spot sat a raven-haired woman, clad in a black 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 her pursed painted-black lips.
Jilian paused at the sight. The old codger had claimed this spot long before Jilian was born. He and his gang had shed blood defending it. They wouldn’t simply abandon it.
“Ye keep odd company, dear girl,” squawked the old woman.
“What’s it to you, lady?” Jilian said curtly, still scanning around for where old Cauthon might have gone. She didn’t have much 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. The woman had pulled down her cowl, revealing an ancient, wrinkled face, framed by long hair the color of night which hung in clumps about her head, almost resembling the feathers of some foul bird.
“Best be wary, girl, lest ye incur the wrath of those above ye. A sword alone wain’t sever that which haunts ye,” spat the woman.
“Let go of me!” The old wench only tightened her grasp.
“Faith to keep your mind, hope to keep your soul,” The woman stared deeply into Jilian’s face with narrow black eyes. After a short struggle, Jilian pulled her arm free at last. She turned and ran with a frantic look over her shoulder, but the crone did not move to follow her.
Jilian found Ronin beside a small blacksmith’s shop, crouching down over a small rucksack. He was packing various parcels into the bag, finishing up just as she approached behind him.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Ronin eyed her quizzically, but he did not question her. He tightened the strings on his bag, tossed it over his shoulder, and they were off once more. They did not run, so as to avoid the attention of whoever may be looking for them, but they walked as swiftly as they dared until they reached the city gates.
As surely as the sun sets at dusk, Snake would find them. Jilian knew this. But at least they could 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. The guards stationed at the city gates examined the two of them with suspicious eyes. Luckily, the drying bloodspatter on Ronin’s tunic was largely invisible against the black fabric. The swordsman nodded to the burly gaurdsmen and offered a warm word of greeting as he passed. Jilian did her best to look innocent. Shortly they were amid the trees in the familiar foothills surrounding the city. The shade provided by the sprawling branches always felt safe to Jilian.
“This way,” said Ronin, pointing. “I know a place.”
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, though quite cozy, with animal skins on the wooden floor topped by comfortable looking leather chairs. Jilian plopped herself down in a chair and put her feet up on a small table.
For a moment, Jilian could somehow feel that she was going to survive this. A sensation settled in her bones, deep down in the soles of her feet, in the back of her mind. The feeling came upon her in a wave, cresting over her consciousness as though she were upon a beach of pure calm. She would not die here, and all doubt of this fact lifted from her mind.
“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. Perhaps her feelings were mere wishful thinking, but she recognized wisdom in it. 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, thirty or forty years Jilian’s senior, but he was well muscled and moved with the subtle deftness of a man half his age.
Ronin set down his bundle of items outside, and he laid them upon the frosted earth. As he unfolded the tarp which enfolded the items, Jilian saw what the man had purchased. There were several big bottles of liquid, two long wooden staves of limber wood, a bundle of straight, narrow sticks, a small ball of coiled string, a large iron hunting knife, and a leather pouch containing small pieces of sharpened steel.
The swordsman gave Jilian instructions, the point of which she did not entirely understand, but she followed his orders regardless. He had kept her alive up until then, so she saw no reason to doubt him now. After their trap was set, Ronin pointed to a tall tree nearby the cabin.
“Can you climb that?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. She had been hunting for her own food out in these hills for nearly a decade. She knew her way around the tree-branches.
“Good,” said Ronin, “You must retreat there when your friends come to kill us. Do not come down until the danger has passed.”
“Snake will probably send his second in command. He’s a bleedin’ giant. I saw him crush a guy’s head in his fist once,” Ronin nodded, a grim expression upon his face.
Dusk came, followed swiftly by night, and the two of them retreated into the cabin. A restful time passed, an hour or two spent waiting and watching, their preparations done.
“Hey Ronin,” said Jilian. Something had been bothering her, ever since her first interaction with this strange man.
“Why didn’t you kill me?” He stared at her, and his eyes looked distantly somber for a moment.
“I do not make a habit of slaying scared little girls,”
“What if I had killed you? What if I had shot you in the shoulder or something, what then?”
“Such questions are best left to the philosophers,”
“Come on, man. I’m serious,” Jilian eyed the old swordsman with her best glare. He frowned back at her, but at last he relented, his face softening.
“I knew you were waiting for me as soon as I opened the door. I knew you were a woman, perhaps only a girl. Your heart was beating abnormally fast. I suspected you would not kill me.”
“Why would you risk your life to avoid hurting someone you don’t even know?” Jilian said. Ronin looked at her with a deadpan expression.
“My life is not such a valuable thing,” he said. Before Jilian could respond, Ronin sprang to his feet. He gestured with his finger over his lips for her to be silent.
“Someone approaches” he whispered, “Make yourself ready,”
Jilian quietly exited the cabin, climbed into the nearby 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 almost invisible from the outside.
Ronin had not 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 fifty yards from her position. She saw barrel-thick arms brush aside massive tree limbs, and a hulking body came into view. Rat entered the clearing in which the cabin stood. He paused, taking 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. Rat’s armor must have contained enough leather to hide an entire cow, such was his bulk. 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. A wooden arrow impacted Rat’s torso, and for a moment Jilian thought 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 forced Rat to either advance towards the cabin or to retreat out of Ronin’s firing range.
Rat advanced, hurrying into a trot, and Jilian almost thought she could 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.
The giant slammed his shoulder into the door and burst through it in an explosive rush. An instant later Jilian heard a shattering of glass, and a body flew through the window nearest her tree. Jilian 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 it. He tossed this into the cabin. Ronin hastily jumped backwards several paces, and the cabin exploded into a massive fireball. The heat felt close upon Jilian’s skin, despite the distance.
The cabin had been doused in alcohol, and the insides had been packed to the brim with various flammable materials collected from the woods. The entire cabin was a firebomb, and Rat had charged directly into the middle of it. Ronin stood ten or fifteen yards from the blaze, yet even at that distance had not escaped the blaze unharmed. He seemed not to notice his burned and bleeding arms, though, nor his singed hairs, nor the smoke rising from his clothes. He simply 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. 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 were gone from Rat’s head, replaced with soot and bloody, burned flesh.
Rat strode towards Ronin, his reddened skin glistening in bloody firelight. Ronin drew his sword, holding the blade 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 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.
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 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, 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. He dashed forward with his sword ready to strike. The curved bladechain was spinning again, now, but Ronin was fast. He entered 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.
The giant charged. Ronin slashed with his sword as the giant came towards him, but Rat caught the blade in one chain-wrapped hand. A bloody grin spread over the giant’s burnt lips as he stepped forward and punched Ronin in the stomach. The swordsman reeled backwards. Blood sprayed from his mouth. His eyes bulged, and he fell to one knee. Rat towered over him. Ronin’s blade was still grasped in the giant’s fist. Somehow, Ronin maintained his one handed grip on the weapon’s hilt.
Ronin attacked with lightning speed. With his free hand he pulled from his belt 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. Blood oozed from around the hilt of the three-pronged knife. Ronin’s sword fell to the earth at Ronin’s feet. A terrible roar erupted from the giant, and he launched his speartipped blade towards Ronin. Still winded 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 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. Ronin’s face showed no fear, rather he bore an expression which Jilian could not quite place. His features were somewhere between exhaustion and amusement, which struck Jilian as quite strange, but there was no time for such matters. She raised her pistol.
She fired a warning shot, which sailed inches over Rat’s head. Suddenly she had the man’s undivided attention. His one 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. While she did believe him, she still had to fight the urge 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.”
Rat glanced at the swordsman, and the fact was clear. Ronin would die. Maybe in minutes, or hours, or after a long, bloody night. 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 glanced down at his own injuries. It was clear that he would require immediate medical attention. Perhaps he could survive the gunshot or two he would take from Jilian if he charged her, 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 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 am 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… Uh, make you more comfortable, or…?” she asked, skirting around the obvious fact of Ronin’s condition.
“Yes, actually. Let us build us a little fire and have a camp-out for the night. Also, you must cauterize my wounds before I die of blood-loss.”
“Caught ‘er what?”
“Cauterize. Imagine you are branding a cow, but instead of marking a cowhide, you are burning shut the holes in my flesh.” Jilian grimaced 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 flint and 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 spread over his bloodied lips. Jilian 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. The smell summoned a nostalgic 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 will hold until morning,” he said matter-of-factly, and he crossed his hands behind his head and laid back in the grass.
“What, that’s it?”
Ronin produced another flask from a coat-pocket and drank greedily from it. The greying swordsman was tough, but he was not immune. He had almost seemed inhuman to her until that moment. “All that remains is to make camp for the night,” he said. “You had best prepare for the cold.”
Jilian thought Ronin should be worrying about surviving the night himself rather than about her warmth, but she did as he asked without protest. There was nothing to do for him until they could get to a healer. 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. At last, she sat herself down beside Ronin in the small circle of debris she’d piled up around him. She laid a large piece of linen over him, and she laid back against a piece of burnt wood.
“What are we going to do?” she asked, “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 her leg.
“Do not 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 noticed the man had picked up his sword and returned it to his belt at some point. As the swordsman began to snore, a faint vibrative thrumming emanated from his sword, before quickly fading away.
Jilian laid back and covered herself with their makeshift blankets. She almost believed the old fool, despite everything. Perhaps everything would be well in the morning after all. She laughed bitterly to herself at the ridiculousness of the thought. Jilian said a short prayer, kissed her father’s pendant, and she drifted off to sleep.