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The poet smiled in his peculiar way, lips twisted in long-suffering grace. "All I have done since I made my promises. I am a killer."
The pause that ought have followed split with the distant shriek of imperiled terror. Fatal calm settled over the beleaguered land, and the two hunters forded the brook that captured their conversation and bore its sentiment beneath a cold pool. Northward, they ran the road found after, and where it bent, a wagon lay ruined, its drivers bled and rent. Just beyond, wicked fiends, a dozen of them, maybe more, tall as a man and half again, toyed with dead meat. One stood larger, imperiously observed the ruin, patient with its lesser kin ere he'd order them march on.
The hunters slowed in approach, and one looked to the other. The poet brandished his burning spear. "At your leisure, Wulfrik." He ran ahead, and the devilish host turned as one to see the errant lancer. Destin raced onward, into their midst, eyes set upon one fiend's heart as he leveled his spear. A dozen arguments of lighting and fire blasted the paladin, striking as thunder, and he spun through the air, a flailing cyclone that gracelessly crashed into the earth. One of the horned fiends already loomed, barbed fork plunging toward the prone poet's throat.
A burning blade came between, swept away the deathly thrust with the clarion ring of sparked steel. Wulfrik stood between man and mortality and barked some defiance before a thick tail cast in cold iron swept into his side and sent him careening toward other violence. Destin rolled to his feet, a talisman dangling from a black-gloved hand, and he threw the swelling light of his faith against the devils. The fiends screamed the clamor of hateful fear, scattered and stumbling, desperate to be gone from the poet who hung judgment from a leather string.
Wulfrik's eyes found fire as he hamstrung one devil in flight. It crashed to a ruined knee and turned in rage against the hunter. Wulfrik hilted his blade in the stunted thing's breast, and he made it lie down with the strength of his arm, braced it against the earth with his boot as he ripped his sword free. Arrows chased the deserting, an archeress come lately and game for the fight, death in the wind for the rapacious.
Destin stalked, righteousness spinning from his grasp, the two-visaged coin pierced and run through with leather. Devils scrabbled and died, their hearts burst by a spear guided by zeal. It came to murder. The lancer sung the devils the opus of their sins, and they dreaded to hear it. Fearful, they fell to arrow and sword and spear, disgraced and banished until the road was calm again.
It was some time later that one man offered the other a drink, and the other declined.
"I do not remember fear, its thrilling sense."
The man kept beneath the broad brim gave a dry chuckle as he steadied behind a tipped bottle.
It was later, still, that the poet again forded the brook that captured their conversation and bore its sentiment beneath a cold pool. Southward, he walked, to make way for a shadow. Destin smiled in his peculiar way, lips twisted in long-suffering grace.
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Left of him, there was a whisper in the grass, and she stood there, the abominable made art, speaker of tongues, confessor. She was kind to his memory, arranged as he remembered, and she set no eye upon him as one slender, ebony limb crossed her middle, made a brace for the other. Atop one carefully listed hand, she set her slender chin.
"Tell me of your adventuresz."
In those perilous lands, where men and women made love and war, where victory was sung with the ritual of godly devotion, a man in piecemeal mail bound in buckle and lash stood in sand ringed with tall stone. The effortless embrace of a black mask, streaked thrice with the white impression of lightning, bathed him in his own breath, patient and deep. The sun prevailed, burning gaze bathing a bloodless field rich with the gore of uncounted hallowed contests. There were vile things in the amphitheater that circled this ground, but they disturbed him not. What sound there was, was the eager hysteria of spirits incensed with the expectation that the violence to come was ordained. His spear hung in a limp and bare hand, its point buried in the sand.
Perhaps it was.
Ahead of him, across the sand, she stood there, whom he first thought divine: the liar, the practical. She was much like his memory. Raven hair gathered behind her slender shoulders, ends barely kept and bound to frame the strands. Even so many paces away, deeply brown eyes like rain-wet earth shone with vibrant luster and stared toward him. In mail like his, she cradled a spear in one hand, its metal tipped toward the earth. Sandals lashed well up her leg dressed her feet as she sauntered toward him, the predatory bounce of her hips setting uncertain tempo. She ceased with enough field between them that she could not kill him yet.
A crier stood upon a distant dais broke the clamor with his bellowing as he named the champions.
"Erin Tarmikos! Avenger! Champion! Sworn in faith to Assuran!" The mass burst into the sustained roar of a champion's adulation.
Awash in the deafening ferment, the man in his mask watched Erin Tarmikos smile as she righteously thrust her spear into the air. The crier's broad span stilled the crowd with soothing strokes of his hands through the air.
"Brings damning judgment against! Destin Owlspur! Sedition! Treason! Murder of the faithful! The destruction of His righteous avengers!" The wind split with piercing whistles, howling perdition as Erin Tarmikos smirked against the hapless poet.
"Isn't it perfect, Destin? Mm. Maybe a touch . . . too much . . . for your delicate heart."
"You taught me well to waste no want on a stranger's love, Erin."
She laughed, airy and light and lost in the din. "You still wear the mask."
"It seemed to me to be the best last thing you might see, a last mercy you cannot decline."
The crowd quieted again before the crier, who swelled his belly with a funereal breath. "We resolve these crimes beneath the dire gaze of Assuran! Lord of Three Thunders! He will guide the spear of the just, and the guilty . . . will . . . perish!" Thousands of voices surged and swelled, shouted the primeval passion for blooded truth.
Erin's mouth widened and bared her white teeth in a marauder's smile as she coiled away from the poet, aligning her spear against him. "All this blood on your hands, Destin, all of these avengers, who brought justice for the meek, and you are the good man who stands in the way."
Destin's eyes watched the woman's gaze as she made ready for his death. He knelt and carried his empty hand, his left hand, through the sand, its fingers coiling around a fist of the finely fractured rock. He stood, and he waited. He clutched that costly sand, suffocated it in his grip until his hand shook, until his heart ached for all that the bloodborne earth stood for. He opened his hand, he let go, and the sediment streamed from his dusty palm, fell in a shattered column to return to its broken origin. He kicked the leaning shaft of his spear, sent his hand rushing down its length to grasp it at its center as it straightened toward the avenger prepared for him.
Each rushed for the other in sudden stride. Erin fell to the earth listless and limp, Destin's spear through her breast, a prop robbing a corpse of repose, a body in artless mien.
"Yes," he spoke to the dead woman pitched in the sand at his feet, voice an uncanny hollow behind the face of their mask. "I am."
He straightened and bore his whispering lips away from the woman's ear, fell into her gaze, soft and gray. He held those eyes, kept them until his heart ached for all they might have stood for, and he let them go.
"You will learn," he said before he left, familiar melancholy steadying his timbre, "that I am always kind." He walked north.
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“What man would command you to be rid of your vice, then be well of your own device?” The poet’s hands captured the woman’s face and cradled it still as he washed the thin skin just beneath her eyes. “There’s no sense in doing a thing alone when there’s one willing and well able.”
He clutched the cloth into a ragged ball and set it aside, then bent and plucked something from the basket he’d brought: a mug yet steaming. He held it aloft for the woman’s gaze. “Broth,” he murmured, the man’s lips and tongue announcing the sustenance with breathy reverence. “You do have to eat.”
Her legs bent and slowly eased her back up against the headboard. She gave herself a moment to catch her breath, to ease her nausea and the aches. Her eyes fluttered down to the broth, already accusing it of treachery. She lifted her hands toward it; each rattled like leaves in the fall. She growled and let her hands drop, frustrated. “Why do you care, anyway? A lost Uthgardt without allegiance drunk of her own failings. One would think you had better things to do, better people to keep company.” Even as she retained a smile plain upon her features, her eyes betrayed thoughts of a more melancholy corner of her mind.
The blond man brought the cup to the woman’s lips, gold-flecked gaze peering over its rim to address the woman’s own bloodshot blue. “I have only my promises; all else flees. Don’t wonder that I keep them."
His flesh cooled, grew cold, and he closed his eyes. In the umbral span, he sensed the gentle, sincere encroachment of the frigid upon flame. He wanted to shiver, to twist, abandon discipline . . . be warm. He bade his palms show their faces beneath the water, made them when they tarried, and he raised his blind features to the thin light cast from the pale sun. His eyelids made a red curtain over the blue orbs within; they denied the warmth.
The world around continued to wake; the poet dreamed.
In his own dark halls, he crashed to the stone floor, victim of too-careful intervention on his behalf. She dropped her knee in his chest, left the other to his side, and thrust the end of her crossbow into his throat. It made an easy way to follow, and his eyes climbed the stock of the taut weapon, saw a plush, wide mouth wrenched into a killer's sneer and strands of a blood-red cascade cutting lines through golden eyes that should have had an easy time of malice for all the fiend in them.
There was none.
When he overcame her, pressed her against the stone wall and demanded she be still until at last her heart gave out, there was none.
"Why?" she asked him for the second time. He told her, and she left with no more understanding.
For all the memories etched in her skin, she still looked like the woman he had loved, illustrated love with upon a limitless canvas with perfect complement. Silver hair, at least, was as it ever was, hung away from sapphire eyes and a cheek that swelled angry from a blow he'd not been there to see.
"You forget so easily," he softly admonished, and he laid a bare hand on the woman's shoulder. Healing light flared and went out, and her face, at least, was as it once was.
The woman shuddered and sighed as she was restored, and she sent shining strands swaying as she shook her head. "I haven't forgotten anything."
A little farther away, reclined on a bench, blood-red cascade fanned around subtly blue skin set with golden eyes, a fiendling ravaged an apple, four rows of shark-like teeth savaging the sweet fruit.
He emerged from the arctic pool, drenched and cold, naked symmetry shuddering its protest against a sharp spring breeze carrying the first scents of life. He clambered into dry clothes, dry boots, their shore-bound sentry ended, and he threw a heavy cloak about his shoulders and sunk within. Unsettled steps took him next to the fire he'd prepared, and he sat close by, the gold in his eyes made bright by the dancing tongues. He mastered his frame and settled its shaking fiber, and he breathed the long sigh of brief, coveted peace.
Named me, already, and perfectly. Prescient irony, appellation well made, well seen, and never before so soon. Precious agony puts fire in my breast, lest I am not kind enough, and my good sense is slipping. I am dripping still with the cold bathing of tempered melancholy, waring folly, and I do not chase it, but destined man, loving heart, you've eyes that see, and they will not miss what they've sought.
I love the rain, I love the rain, but an honest heart is hard to mind. I love the rain.
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Blue eyes steeled to ice peered through holes angled and their size, their guise the herald of thunder, thrice cut through the face of a black visage. A man lay dead, watched by such a face, in a place lit by shadow and torch. The living breathed a soft sigh, a stale exhale coiled in his mask, warming his own lips. He knelt beside the fallen, the cop of his knee steeped in pooling blood, cooling blood, and laid his hand, gloved in black leather, over the pommel of a dagger sunk to its hilt through black, still heart. He turned his wrist, slipped his fingers around its handle, coiled them closed and pulled the blade from its slick sheath. The sound of steel pulled through flesh: wet, torn velvet.
The gold in his gaze shined stark against the metal, considered its sanguine state before his other hand, gloved, too, in black leather, came to clutch his crimson favor, and he pulled the knife through the red-stained cloth, burnished bright, iron price paid and made red in his favor. The unhappy dagger had a scabbard, behind the dead's pierced tabard, bandolier concealed thereby, and so he returned the knife that had been meant for his back.
He stood, black mailed, black masked, unbled, but blood dripped from his knee. He stepped over the slain, walked a floor slick with the single-struck carnage he’d wrought, felt the squelch of viscous claret squeezed beneath the hard sole of his black boots. Swinging gait bore him around another dead man, and passed wide of another, and by eerie echo did sound the report of black boots upon stone.
She is not asking him to be free.
Seventeen. Seventeen, near a score; three more and the number could be held imprecise. A poet sat on a vast sofa in listed repose, face aglow by crackling hearth. The gold in his gaze seemed to sway, to play by the dancing flame, a broken sun unbowed. One bare hand, arm unsleeved, carried a tumbler of something brown to his pliant lips, tipped to spill the burning liquor through a thirsting throat. A loose shirt with deepened neck did little to disguise the sculpt of the man’s chest below and neither hid the tangled vine of talismans hung against his skin. He’d have had an empty hand, but it clung to his sanguine scarf, draped over one thigh and strewn to the side, and his thumb caressed the face of a token pierced through: a golden brooch of inimitable sentiment, crafted by heavens’ grace and the feywild, cage for quartz that shone as the moon, heart for a cluster of particular stars known and named.
A man died once, sin the deceitful trespass against a poet’s conscience. He had a black heart, and it burst by a spear thrust once through prayers proved temporal. Where one is slain, two claim vengeance divine, and a path winds violence in the wake of a man who does not chase. A lure, allure of a poet alone that should be easily destroyed, ripples in blood stepped upon and splashed as echoes through dark halls. Seventeen, and last of these she, the genesis of his faith, claimed divine right to fight in sun and sand, banded in a fervent throng, sung song of justice in murder. She died as did the first; poet, unrehearsed, they cannot say you have no sense for the story.
And one came after, blue and red, to ask why men she knew died by his grace. Truth spake, much to take, lingered a little and left, bereft of belonging, but could have stayed, a Huntress made better than her forebears. Seventeen, seventeen, and not one more, not she, at least. Perhaps she is the last of these, and he is free, but how could he know?
She is not asking for a miracle.
Beneath a tree of orange leaves, he saw the place intended. A door to whatever below yawned, and he descended. Black boots, tall, struck first the steps, and after came his black coat, unbound but for his sword belt and the tethered tome dutifully clung and swung by his right hip. Clear of the portal, it sealed of its own will, its lock clicked into place by a force unseen. He didn’t pause.
A man was asked, and a man answered, and now he saw the reason. An elven woman of pearlescent hair was kept by fiends and wicked blades, made still in a black miasma that threaded as wicked fog, though it could not dim the silver filigree that graced her carved cheek.
That he saw her first was some wonder. Before all that stood a blond man, but he looked not at all like the poet. Bearded, rough, and callous sin dulled his eyes. He gripped the wrist of a crying child, his own arm slicked with the blood bled from his punctured shoulder. Above and beside, between his eyes, an arrow absurdly protruded, blood streaming thereof and painting him macabre.
“Oh,” the dead man crooned, velvet of his voice juxtaposed against his rough shape and worse state. “You brought this one.”
“Shut up!” the elf commanded from her bonds, but her struggle yielded nothing. “Disgusting, disreputable creature! You leave them both out of this and keep to your word!”
The dead man’s mouth made a wicked bow as his free hand swept a single digit across his bleeding brow. He slipped the slicked finger through his lips as he watched for what would come from the paladin in such a place.
The blond man twisted his stole from his neck, a brooch of brilliant gold scintillant in its motion, and he showed a talisman hung beneath: a coin of two faces, tethered by leather and taken by his left hand. “Hells dare manifest before me.”
“Yes,” purred the man shot through his skull. “Hells dare, and should you, poet, dare step a foot beyond my commands, the child is forfeit.” A rope slipped from behind a box, length uncoiled, and slithered across the wooden floor, to a girl seized by devilry. It tapped twice the girl’s foot, then snaked its way around her ankle in coiling ascent that promised nothing but ill intent. “Oh, but this is too delicious.”
She is not asking for his absolution.
“My love.” A dead man’s eyes told lies, insidious, flicked to the elf snared in the black fog. “Shall you tell him how it was your faith that drove you blind into my snare, or shall I?”
“Spit all you want, creature!” The Wisp sneered through her chains. “He won’t believe you.”
The dead man laughed, sharp and short, and his fingers unwound, coiled again, better threaded snare around the child’s raised arm. He turned to the poet, an arrow reversed through his skull an accusation. “Vengeance for the mentor of her childhood brought her here. To me. The promise of deliverance for her mentor’s long-lost child . . . oh, not this child.” His teeth closed over his lower lip, raked the caked blood into his mouth to savor. “This one is just some whelp off the street.”
“Came to you?” An oathsworn posed rhetorical as he drew his talisman overhead, hung the token by a bare hand, a pendulum suspended, swaying as a clock. “Came to me, and mine, to bind in dark halls that you defiled, covetous thing. Naught here is yours. Not a Wisp, not a child, not this ground.”
The serpentine rope struck the child’s throat, curled in unconstricting vice—a cruel scarf that threatened worse.
“You will do nothing but take the child!” Fiendish dissonance shook the room. “A deal has been struck: this one’s life for Wisp’s.” He noted the child by a sharp wag of his empty hand. “A bargain my love agreed to.”
Wisp’s pearlescent crown tilted upward at the call of her name, eyes to the child, then the fair-headed man, lips drawn down by a frown. “It was going to hurt her. I couldn’t let it. I couldn’t . . .”
The dead man’s jeering wrath pathed to sinister sneer to witness misery.
Golden scale in darkness suspended, appended either side: a woman, a girl. Already outliving, giving ever after laughter, sacrifice of a soul that another can try to be grown, made woman and buried in years the first has already known. Aching, heart breaking; is aught of her making? Mistaking a man again for delicate. Hells dare. Her choice, his conscience. Plates sway by golden chain; save only one, one safe in the night, brave knight, sword of the light.
Man unentitled, knight not, still bright, but not the light; the fire.
“Thinks this trespasser he loves a Wisp less than a child? His Huntress is his child. Woman or girl, impostor, unloved, you propose a life against a soul. His Wisp will not be damned, and you will wear your sin.”
“Mmmmm.” The other blond man’s crooked teeth raked his lower lip at the oathsworn’s speech. "This is better than I could have possibly imagined. Am I to take it that you, a man of holy oaths, would sacrifice an innocent child to my whims and to her own damnation?”
“I don’t sacrifice; you murder, and that you say I choose is—”
The dead man yanked the street girl’s arm, wrenching the sobbing child closer to his side.
“. . . is false device.” The lines of his defined jaw coursed through clenched teeth, and the molten gold of his eyes asserted upon the murdered man standing.
The dead man screamed by devilish bellows. “Do you think semantics matter to me? Your twisting of words make a pretty show, but they—like you—are nothing more than that, and I will have blood or I will have my love."
“Wisp,” spake the poet, his talisman yet hung in his hand, listless sway to and fro. Dark lashes fluttered as her name was called, brows crinkling and melting nearer to her nose. Twin pools of pale blue danced upward to the man; she did not speak.
“A Hunter does not kneel.”
All she asks is for a little peace
so that he may sleep
without his fists clenched
battle-ready at his sides
and ice dripping from his bones.
The elfling awoke among her own blood, the oathsworn knelt just beside, the child quietly crying under his arm. The cuts that had killed the elf were fully undone, their memory the ruined garment that had spared none of the flesh beneath. He sang, did the paladin, a soft-timbred lullaby, and led the two distressed into the city streets above.
She is his.
He is hers.