Sometimes, I hate the rain.
I spend too much time out in the storms for much else. Whatever deity decided that there ought to be constant upward spilling torrents in this grand forest of ours really needs a lightning bolt between the eyes. Right now I’m split between my desire to think of a way to do it myself, and my more important duties.
Water ripples up the leather of my storm coat as I watch my quarry. I am perched upon a branch of a tree far taller than anyone would reasonably think to climb. I am counting on that fact, for if someone below does think of it, my life is probably forfeit.
Looking down at the idiots and thugs beneath me, I do my best to think like a predator, as I have done many times before. I still should be frightened – I’m already risking my life, and that’s only going to get worse, but for now the nerves are only tickling at me. The terror will come later, amid blades and projectiles.
Listening past the evening bird calls, insect buzzing and mammalian howling from deeper into the jungle, I strain to catch any fragment of conversation from the two people directly below.
“Tonight,” one of them growls, through a scowling gash of a face, “This one will be done tonight.”
I intend to prove that true, though it will not be the payday they are hoping for. This gang has a reputation, built on the backs of their victims. They take children for ransom, but that’s nothing compared to what they do if not paid – or lately, even if they do.
Two victims were returned missing arms. The latest had an eye cut out.
I hate kidnappers, and I particularly hate ones too stupid to follow the deals they’ve made. If this group had given back the children unharmed after getting their blood money, they wouldn’t have my attention now.
“Think Telaki will let the boy keep all his bits this time?” says the other brute, this one a woman with as much muscle as the man, if not more.
“There’s a pool on it if you want in,” says the man, cutting away any moral objections I might still have held over the killing that will likely soon be necessary. These are monsters, and in the depths of this forest that we all live in, that’s more than appropriate.
When the storms get really bad, you can sometimes see things in them. I’m never too curious as to what the shapes are, inside the watery curtains – there are too many stories of what happens to people that look too closely, and some of them I believe. No need to go out too far in it tonight though – these kidnappers have made their lair on stone, though it’s so broken and worn that water droplets still leak through the seams and on into the sky.
The two targets below have moved on a little up the battered path, back towards the ruins they are working out of while I contemplate. Good news for me, it means I can get started, and that means jumping off this branch, a whole five storeys up. Refusing to think any further about this decision, I make my leap.
Dropping so suddenly makes my lunch try to make a reappearance, and the plunge whips back my dark hair, which does its best to get in my eyes along the way. My storm coat would do the same, were it not strapped to my ankles, as designed.
As I near the ground I feel the wood of the tiny Windwhisperer totem around my neck grow hot, then something invisible grabs me and ushers me gently to earth unharmed. The totem’s charge is burned – I won’t be doing that again until I get chance to make the appropriate sacrifices later.
Good thing I remembered to charge it – ‘Jom Briarthorn, Human Smear’ is not what I want carved on my grave marker. I hold in place for a moment, wanting to be sure that no one spotted my descent.
My prized storm coat does its job, directing the upward flowing raindrops away from my admittedly soaked body through the various little channels in its dark green leather, until the water travels up my back and away into the sky. Mine is designed to be as stealthy as possible, however inclement the weather, but the raggedy garments worn by the people I stalk are far lower in quality.
Even if I were not close enough to see them, I would be able to spot the streams of water heading skywards from their storm coats as they walk. They won’t see me that way if I remain immobile, and will struggle to even when I move.
That moment comes as soon as I’m sure that my targets are continuing back into their camp without looking back. I grind what’s left of the smokes they had come out here to poison themselves with under my boot as I steal forwards with what stealth I can summon, and that’s no small amount. I may not be the toughest in this line of work – that honour belongs to Zuma, my occasional partner in affairs like these – but I can slink with the best of them.
I take a moment to regret that she is busy on other matters – probably breaking bad men’s skulls, as she so often does. Matching her count seems like a good idea, so I continue my path, using what cover I can get from small piles of stone that litter the roadside.
This is a well-chosen hideout, far enough from the giant trees of the city that only the half-crazed would come out here, but not so far from civilization as to be truly insane. No one goes that far out into the forest if they want to be seen again.
Stone carved ruins dot the area, hazily connected by paths like the one I am following. This place was built long before I or any of this gang were born, by a civilization most of the way forgotten. Their secrets have been overwritten by worse ones that these men choose to keep. Vines and moss cover everything as part of the forest’s slow devouring of everything humans put in its way – if indeed human hands built this stuff. These days, we aren’t so stupid as to build down here, on the forest floor. Not often, anyway.
Strange faces once sharply etched watch from the stone, now worn almost smooth by time’s unkind embrace. Their meaning is lost on me. I have no time to care right now, for my task is beckoning with a crooked finger – those I am tracking have stopped at what might once have been a road intersection ahead.
The woman says something to the man, causing him to grunt out something resembling a laugh, before both round a corner, going out of sight behind one of the better preserved ruined buildings. I wonder which of these structures might house more lurking thugs, or even the kidnapped boy that I am looking for.
This lot picked on the wrong family this time – ones who had friends who had heard my name and had the money to hire me. Distraught rich families with money to burn make good customers, good enough that I didn’t take advantage. Not much, anyway. The money, while welcome, isn’t important right now – finding the boy is.
My stalk becomes something close to a dash as I close the distance, though I press against the corner wall cautiously when I get to it. A glance brief enough that even a jungle cat wouldn’t have spotted me, and I know that both of the kidnappers have stopped, the man only a couple of paces away. Both have their backs to me, Great Spirits be praised.
As I am busily concentrating on how to deal with them both, I hear the high pitched piercing shriek that only a child can make. Whatever monsters there are out in the world, I’d say that it might be a more chilling sound than anything they can make.
The child is right here. That complicates matters, but doesn’t change my plan all that much. I didn’t intend to leave without each of these crooks in bonds, or ready to go in the ground. One of them would have told me where to look for the boy with enough convincing – at least that’s one less dirty job for the day.
I see him moments after I hear him, another gang member dragging the child by an arm. The child doesn’t look well-treated, his face marred by grime and not a few bruises. Nothing that won’t heal though. He is crying, quite loudly as he is pulled up to the others. The thug has the face tattoos of a Marked Man, but he’s obviously left that culture behind if he’s out here, doing this.
A door on a nearby building opens. It is a recent wooden addition to the ruin’s frame, or it would have rotted an age ago. A man steps out, wearing a tattered brown storm coat and an expression of distain.
“What’s with the noise?” he says.
“Sorry boss, boy won’t shut his mouth,” the underling replies, cuffing the child lazily across the back of the head, which does nothing to quiet him.
The gang leader – the one they had called Telaki – looks like he has been through a war or two, or at least tangled with a jungle cat and come out the loser. He has paler skin than the average brown, as if he doesn’t get much light. I also note that two of his fingers are missing, and the way he walks suggests that at least one of his legs is missing a chunk. It all sums up to a sense of foreboding, and the first thing he says cements my opinion of him.
“Look, if the boy keeps bawling, take his ear off. He’ll soon learn.”
The child’s terrified shouts turn to whimpers in a moment. Telaki regards the boy for a moment, and then says,
“You know what? Even that snivelling is too much. Give him to me, I’ll sort it out. We can sell on a few extra flesh pieces. Blackroot’s always willing to buy more.”
He takes the boy by the hair and near throws him through the doorway, before heading in himself and shutting the door.
I’m not ready for this fight yet, but there’s no way that’s happening while I watch. Now comes the fear, as if on cue, welling up as I take my last breaths before battle begins. To stay focused, I assess the situation. There are four of them in the street, plus Telaki inside. That should be most of them, if reports are accurate. Three are in a group near the door, the last on my side and all of them have their backs turned.
A couple of paces is all I need to get behind the closest man, and I am about to make the first strike when he stretches, twisting slowly around. My hand goes to the lightning rod strapped to my thigh, where some might carry a lightweight crossbow, but now is not a good time to use it – the crackle of blue lightning will alert the others to my presence.
Fortunately, he does not turn all the way, and with the Great Spirits’ mercy, I have an opportunity. Sometimes, the Spirits are nice to me.
Instead of using my weapon, I surge forward and grab the man by the head, twisting hard as my heart hammers out in objection to the stress of the moment. My target’s neck snaps all too easily under my rough care, an act I have practiced until it has become rote. It is a necessary skill in my line of work.
I ease the collapsing man down carefully, lest his fall bring the attention of his still living comrades. A swift drag by the collar around the corner buys me a few more seconds without discovery, and I use them to peek at the three other criminals I’m about to take on. They haven’t noticed my attack, and are still standing where they were. It’s too much open ground to cross unseen, which means only one thing. I can’t put it off any longer. The fight starts here.
I rip my lightning rod free of the leather sheath that holds it at my side. Six carved hawk faces with glowing blue eyes scowl at me from the wooden totem, one laid on top of another and each empowered with blood from my own veins. It is covered in nicks and scars, from years of heavy use, each one a reminder of how reliable this weapon has been, and how many times it has saved my life at the expense of ending others. Now is the time for it to do so again and maybe this time, it can preserve an innocent’s life into the bargain.
I step out from my hiding place, hoping that the sound of my thunder will not summon reinforcements, or alert Telaki as to what’s happening to his people. The rain has been getting heavy and I may get away with it, but it’s dicey at best, much like this whole hasty plan.
Three on one would be suicide to their faces, but I have the advantage of surprise and firepower. None of them have lightning rods, just crossbows. That said, the wicked little devices will kill me all the same if I let them stick me with a quarrel. I aim not to give them the chance.
Power swells in the rod as I bring it to bear, power put there with my blood and sweat and the assent of things pleased with my sacrifices. The eyes of the topmost carved face wink out, and the storm surges from the tip of the lightning rod.
The blazing blue bolt hits the first thug in the face, removing most of it and burning the rest ‘til not even his mother would know him. Not a great loss. This sudden violence stuns the second one long enough that by the time she gets her quarrel up and pointed at me, it is far too late to dodge my second bolt, which burns through her chest. Muscle spasms from the lightning cause her finger to twitch on the trigger, and I am forced to dive to the side in order to avoid being skewered. As I roll back to my feet, a second quarrel whizzes past my head, fired from the last of the gang, the Marked Man.
He makes one of the better decisions that he could have, and runs. It isn’t good enough though. The Marked Man has not realised that I can’t let him run – there might be others he can alert, or he might find his courage and return. I’m not risking my life, or the boy’s on that chance.
I have to fire more times than I am happy with before I hit my target. Devastating my weapon may be – accurate at range, not so much. Still, the job gets done, the body dropping to the stone, charred. Telaki is next, and I take a stride in the direction of his door, but before I can take another, the sound of boots scuffing on stone causes me to swing around. Another gang member is coming at me, from between two ruins, a wicked curved blade in hand.
He’s got the jump on me, but he’s not quite fast enough to drive the knife point home before I get the lightning rod pointed at him. Though he might have been better pushing forward and taking his chances, he stops short, and we both freeze less than an arm’s length from one another.
I’ve used up a good chunk of the power in my lightning rod, and I’ll need what dregs are left for Telaki, so I try a different tack than simply blasting him. Before he can muster some kind of thought out of his rotten mass of a mind I ask in as calm a voice as I can manage under the circumstances,
“How much do you know about magic? Totems, shaman, the whole thing.”
The knife point wavers, but not much.
“Your ooga-booga doesn’t scare me,” he says, doing his best to sound tough.
Oh good, one of the stupid ones. That actually might make this more difficult, but I’m already committed – no choice now. If I die because I went up against the one fool that doesn’t believe in modern magic, that grave marker will have to read ‘Here Lies Briarthorn – Unluckiest Shaman Ever’.
“You saw what happened to your friends. You want to be turned to ash too?” I ask, hoping for the easy answer, but that damned knife stays right where it is. Instead of dropping it, the thug screws up all the energy his brain can manage, and vomits out,
“You threw a lot of lightning. You haven’t killed me yet – maybe you’re out of power.”
He makes a good point, but now is not the time for him to try and get clever.
“The question you should be asking is, how many bolts did I fire?” I say, “The way I see it is: if I’m empty, you’ll be able to stick me with that thing, but you’ll fry before you can twitch if I’m not.”
I gesture towards the knife with the lightning rod, and add,
“I don’t need to kill you. Bounty’s good alive or dead. Drop the knife, and you get a tap on the head and go sleep – maybe the temple takes a few things, but you keep your life. The other way, you may not be so happy with.”
There’s a long, tense moment that I cannot afford. My arm muscles are starting to demand that I lower the lightning rod, but thankfully, his arm falters first. As the point drops away from me, I don’t waste time finding out if he’s giving up, or just tired.
Darting a hand into a pocket, I throw a handful of yellow dust from it into his face. Trying to knock people out by punching them only works in fireside tales and the fantasies of people playing at soldier. The sleeping powder only has the barest hint of shamanistic power, but it’s enough to send him into deep dreams in seconds. He’ll wake in the hands of the law. It’s possible he’ll wish I had killed him.
He’s barely drooling on the ground by the time I’ve stalked over to the door to the ruin that I saw the boy taken into. I would burst in through it, but I don’t want Telaki spooked if he’s holding any sharp objects near the child. Instead, I open it slowly, trying not to let the shoddily installed thing creak.
The first thing I notice as I enter is that the walls seem to be papered with some kind of skin, the source of which I prefer not to think on. It is not the most disturbing part of the room though. That honour goes to the altar at one end, where the gang leader is standing. It is flat stone, and would not be recognisable for what it is, but for the gore that is spread across its surface. I don’t know what each of the bloody lumps is, and I have no desire to.
I doubt any of the rest of the gang has seen this horror show. Then again, they were taking bets on what got sliced off the boy – I wouldn’t put much past them. Telaki is standing in front of his altar, with the boy held in one hand, and a surgical looking knife in the other. My entrance must not have been as silent as I hoped, for my first step inside gets his attention.
“What are you doing out there? I told you no interruptions,” he says, as he swings round. I would bring him down in that moment, but he has the boy held tightly next to him. Neither a crossbow, nor a lightning rod would be precise enough here, so I am forced to try dialogue.
“Never been great at taking instruction,” I say, thinking the bravado may annoy him into a mistake. It doesn’t. He doesn’t engage in conversation, just darting his beady eyes across me, taking in what’s happening.
This is a smarter man than his minions. Talk is cheap and often deadly, and I would have exploited it had he offered me any. We stand there for a long breath, taking one another’s measure, but when the time comes, I’m the one to take action.
A fistful of sleeping powder arcs in his direction, but before it hits, the air bends and an invisible force disperses the cloud with the familiar tang of power that I associate with my own Windwhisperer totem.
He is a shaman, as I expected. He’s hidden it from his men well, but with them all unconscious or worse, there’s no longer any point in that. All his victims have provided him a lot of resources to build and empower totems, so I can’t be reckless here.
I wonder what he has prepared a moment before he shows me. A little bone totem, carved with a vile face is held between the finger and thumb of his mutilated hand. It explains the missing fingers, and does not surprise me all that much that he is willing to sacrifice his own body this way.
He’s taken shortcuts to power. No legitimate shaman would do anything like this, but on his side of the law, it pays to have that kind of surprise ready for the worst rainy day. I know I’m about to get hit with something bad.
I need the last of the totemic toys I’ve brought with me, a chiselled granite band around my upper arm with a tiny roaring face. The Stoneskin totem activates a moment before Telaki triggers his weapon.
I’ve seen a Bloodtear totem before, but not its use. Usually, no one is stupid enough to make them, let alone charge them, and actually firing one off is more foolish still. Though I feel my body changing, temporarily hardening to a near impenetrable statue, I have no idea if it will be enough to take the power that Telaki is busily unleashing.
The red glowing eyes of the bone totem wink out the instant after my transformation completes, and the world bends before crumpling in on itself. Everything in front of Telaki disappears in an instant, walls, ceiling, most of the floor, probably even a chunk of the road and forest behind me, though I’m unable to turn and look.
Thunderous noise splits the air, as do red cracks, power leaking through from somewhere other as they widen and spread like creeping, evil smiles. I can feel the ripping even through my rock-like armour, and it’s not just the air being pulled apart, it’s something more, like reality itself is being torn.
My armour holds, but it’s a close thing. I can sense those tendrils of power trying to worm their way through right up until the storm abates and the cracks slowly vanish back to where they came from, as if trying to stay clawed on to this world.
His power discharged, Telaki picks up the boy and flees, surprisingly swiftly, through a doorway at the side of what’s left of the devastated room. It leads downwards, deeper into the ruin. Still paralysed by my Stoneskin totem, I can do nothing about it for several seconds, until my fingers snap back to flesh. It’s long moments more before the rest of me sheds its coating of rock flakes that are the evidence of the magic I’ve just done. I’ll be shaking the stuff out of my hair for days.
As soon as my feet are free, I make a run for the passageway down after Telaki. At least, I try to – my legs aren’t quite working properly yet, and I almost sprawl on the broken stone in my rush. Pushing onward, I take the plunge into the tunnel, barrelling down the stairs two at a time in an attempt to make up for the distance he’s already gained.
Down here in the dark, I’m at a serious disadvantage. He knows the way and I don’t. Not only that, but there’s probably another one of those Bloodtear totems where the first came from. I can’t worry about that now though.
I jump the last few stairs to land on the stone floor at the bottom. It’s not complete pitch down here – some light sneaks in from holes in the ceiling, either old or caused by Telaki’s irresponsible use of power. He and the boy are nowhere to be seen, but there is only one corridor, so it’s clear where he’s gone. I pad down it, watched by more stone carvings, doing my best to join haste with silence.
“So, who are you?” he yells from somewhere up ahead, hoping to get me to give away my position.
Jomacoatl Briarthorn, I think, but he will get no use out of the name. Maybe he has heard it before, but I’d rather stay alive than find out. I have to get him out of here, away from any little snares he may have carved into this place. I know it’s not going to happen. This will be ended on his terms one way or another.
Rain has got trapped in here, falling back to the ground after hitting the ceiling and forming a long puddle down the corridor, and I need to step around it to keep what stealth I have. My eyes are drawn to the carvings on the wall as I pass – they are a disturbing relief of skeletons, smiling and burning in cracked, painted fire. Worth a shiver, but I have worse things to fear right now.
Just beyond the puddle, there is a large room, full of shadow and the promise of death. I have no desire to set one foot in there, with Telaki still holding another Bloodtear totem. Maybe he will choose not to use it, since the thing would probably bring the ceiling down on us all.
A single second’s pause is all I need to force myself to go in, for that’s how long my conscience needs to remind me of the boy he still holds, and the consequences if I fail. I dart inside, half expecting an instant blast of power, but nothing comes. The room is filled with pillars, making it difficult to see, but with a few more quietly placed steps, I spot the child huddling into a corner like a turtle retreating into a shell.
He’s left the boy behind, likely expecting to come back later for whatever he was intending to take before I got here. Before I can think of how much of an idiot I am being, I hurry towards the child. My punishment for this momentary lunacy is an impact in the chest so fast that the human shape cannoning into me flashes away before I even hit the floor. A lance of pain shoots through me, but if I take the time to nurse it, there’ll be much worse to follow.
I forgot about Telaki’s leg. Maybe that limp came from missing toes, maybe from shaved bones, but whatever it was, he has tapped another reserve of power. The sudden speed will not last, but he doesn’t need it long.
Jumping to my feet is all I can do before he thuds into me again, like an angry bull. This time I manage to turn aside enough that I am not knocked down, but nor have I time to point the lightning rod I still hold. I can’t hit him – he’s too fast and it will waste the last of my charge if I try. Maybe I could buy time ‘til his power runs out, but I doubt it. There’s only one other thing to try, so I dive back for the door.
I retreat back into the corridor as fast as I am able, sure that he won’t miss the opportunity to chase me down. He won’t want to waste his charge. The proof of it comes a second later, when I hear his boots rapidly pounding against the stone. His pace matches the beat in my chest, as my body screams at being put so close to death once again.
Skidding to a halt a few paces beyond the long puddle of rainwater, I spin and point my lightning rod just in time to see my enemy race out into the corridor in a blur. Even in this confined space, he’s moving too quickly to trust my aim, but he is not what I’m targeting.
He is a fraction of a second away from the pool edge, and little more than that away from slamming into me with force enough to break me in two. Death is smiling at me, flipping a coin to determine my odds. I take the chance that I have constructed, knowing that I will not get another.
As I fire the lightning rod, I desperately hope that I haven’t misjudged the number of charges I’ve used. The blue bolt flies true, crackling into the water Telaki is splashing through and scorching most of it into steam.
The writhing power tears up his leg and through his torso, ripping his consciousness free of its mortal vessel, and sending it wherever such malevolent things go. Somewhere with hot irons and spikey objects, I hope. His corpse slides forward in a lifeless heap, just so much charred meat. The skeletons watch, still smiling, their fire still frozen in place.
Getting any kind of reward will be difficult with that as evidence, but I am still satisfied. I’m alive, and so is the boy – that’s good enough. The boy probably won’t be sleeping well for the rest of his life, but it’s better than the alternative.
I look down at the still smoking lightning rod in my hand. It still has one set of glowing eyes staring back at me.
Turns out I had two bolts left.