There is something about moving in the dark, something primal and powerful that surges from within one’s soul when they stalk through the shadows, secure in their power and knowledge. Power in every step, control expressed through every tight movement, hunger peering through the gaze of the individual that dared to make the dark his ally. It was this essence, this specter of the night that could send orphans scuttling and the homeless into a shuddering panic, clearing one’s path through whatever decrepit darkness they dared to tread.
Though, I have had far more dangerous allies than those demons that stalk the night, so the effect was somewhat lost on me.
What sparked this veritable overflow of descriptors, you ask? Why, it’s quite simple- For the last hour or so, I had been silently watching a genuine monster of a man, a hulking behemoth of muscle, fat, and scars that put even the youthful knight to shame. Easily three heads taller than myself, and three to four times as wide in every conceivable way, the man was wrapped in mangled leathers and scraps of mail, without a single genuine piece of armor to be seen- Not that the Blackhand was poor, mind you. Rather, this giant was simply too large for any set of armor made for a normal man. Shard was his name, and the second-in-command of the Butchers was his title, though most just called him by his name alone. A name, just by-the-by, which he earned by crushing those he fought so forcefully that they literally shattered. And not just those he fought, either- Women who failed to please him, children who got in his way, men who didn’t bow low enough or didn’t seem overly terrified, all had met grisly ends and been painted over the walls of the slums to the accompanying music of their screams, and the screams of their loved ones.
Honestly, I thought him little more than a ham-actor and an amatuer in a craft I had long ago mastered.
So why was I following this pathetic, terror-inducing beast, you ask? Well, to make it to my meeting on time, I had to do two things before the moon was high in the sky. The first was simple- Carve down a few of the thugs on their way to my new inn as I myself made my way deeper into the slums. This I accomplished with little trouble, thanks mostly to the fact that the thugs decided to split up and move through the alleyways to reach the inn, a decision that left them scattered and unaware of each other’s circumstances. Circumstances that often involved blades flashing from the shadows, rocks landing on heads, and ropes gently encircling necks in a facsimile of loving tenderness before a pair of pitiless hands quickly tightened the embrace.
All told, it took me about an hour to cut their numbers down by about ten, which I estimated to be between a third and a half of their total forces this evening.
The second thing I needed to accomplish was wring a location out of Shard, and to accomplish this I needed sufficient space to move about in. However, to my ire, Shard had yet to leave the system of narrow and miscreant-filled alleys in which I had found him shortly after I finished with the thugs. Indeed, he seemed content to simply stride up and down the alleys, filling them with his girth and snarling at any beggars that got too close. In the last hour all I had seen him do was eat some skewer of greasy meat, shout at a group of rather persistent-if-foolhardy beggars, and crush the head of some orphan that had been lying in the alley, too sick or too hungry to move.’
Added onto my impatience and irritation, I had noticed a pair of eyes upon me almost immediately after I had left the inn, which only added to my aggravation because I knew only my party in the inn could have known about my departure- I had sent Carilo to deal with any spies nearby shortly before my departure. Which meant I had either been betrayed, or there was an idiot in my merry little band. In either case, someone was going to die a violent death, and I wanted to hurry and be rid of the uncertainty slowly coiling in my mind while the problem remained unresolved.
After all, I only enjoyed loose ends when I was the one creating them. Yes, I know that to be reckless, though in fairness to myself, the unexpected surprises that such loose ends generated were often far more amusing than one might think, and so I feel justified in allowing myself this vice.
Among my many others, of course.
However, I had no time to deal with the watchful mouse at this moment, and so I contented myself with simply planning the multiple forms of torture I would employ to extract all information that my little watcher might contain. In the meantime, I kept my eyes locked on Shard’s hulking shadow and patiently tapped on the hilt of my blade, waiting.
And so it was, that the watcher watching the monster was watched in turn by the waiting watcher. And as time flowed by, the watcher waited and watched, and the waiting watcher watched while waiting for the watcher who was waiting to stop waiting while watching.
When I felt the moon’s rays upon me, I knew I was out of time. Sighing heavily, I stepped from around the corner that had shielded me from sight and began to approach Shard, leaving my own watcher to occupy my old hiding spot. It took me only moments to stand before his hulking mass, but that was all it took for the occupants of the alley to focus solely upon me. First were the orphans, who ran up to me and tried to distract me while one of their number attempted to cut my purse. I broke his nose for that, and the remainder of the children scuttled away again, but not so far as to miss out on anything I might drop. The beggars in their rags just watched me, silently wondering at this odd sight and undoubtedly awaiting my death at the hands of the beast now looming above me with a greedy glint in his eye.
“That blade. Gimme it, boy, an I’ll let ya leave with ya teeth still in ya’s gob.”
I smiled and drew my sword, the wolf’s head glowing silver in the moonlight.
“‘The only men who walk this earth that may touch this blade are you, Wild Wolf of Ice and Snow, and those upon whose flesh it feasts.’ Such are the words of those who bestowed me with a wolfsworn blade, the Sisters of Bloody Snow. If you wish to have this blade, first you need to kill me in combat, then you will need to carry this blade back to the far north while bathing it in the fresh blood of a mighty warrior every night. Should you succeed on such a journey, then you would need to prove your worth by besting a series of the north’s most formidable fighters in a competition to claim the blade, and finally you would need to sheathe the blade in your own flesh for one night longer than the previous owner did. By the way, I lasted six nights with this blade through my thigh, though it did damn near cost me my leg.”
Grinning, I thumped my leg with the pommel then lunged forward, raking the tip of the sword across Shard’s leather-wrapped stomach. Against a lesser blade, or a more inexperienced fighter, the armor alone might have been enough to deter a strike, but not against my blade nor me. I felt my smile grow as Shard howled with pain and blood began to waterfall out of the flapping wound I had made across his gut. Not that it was in any way fatal- Shard’s fat and muscle had succeeded where his patchwork armor had failed, and so my blade had been unable to reach any of his organs or major arteries before I was forced to dance back to avoid his own sweeping strike.
Shard’s weapon of choice, a brutal warhammer nearly as patchwork as his armor, blew past my nose and struck the wall beside me, punching straight through the semi-rotten wood and showering anyone within with a storm of splinters. A scream rang through the hole, but I ignored and instead lunged forward again to repeat my previously successful attack, again scoring a painful wound across the monster’s flank, and again failing to inflict anything resembling fatal damage.
Sighing, I resigned myself to a long fight, and slipped into an easy stance as Shard tore his hammer free of the wall and cursed at me. I just grinned in response, and gestured him forward with a little wave. Howling with rage, he complied, and the dance began in earnest.
The hammer would swing in wide arcs, smashing walls and caving in errant heads with utter disregard for their presence, leaving a trail of destruction in its rampaging wake.
The blade would glide and dance in the moonlight, possessed with a gleeful bloodlust as it carved through both the armor and the flesh of its prey with ease, lashing out to cut down any who came too close to its blood-covered blade.
Whenever the monster of a man lunged forward to crush his foe, the smaller man seemed to drift away from the attack by the slimmest of margins.
When the sword-wielder struck at the behemoth, he could never seem to cut deep enough to end the clash.
And so it was that the alley fell to pieces around us, as blood splattered to paint the walls in dripping gore and the hammer tore the walls to shreds, leaving only ruined holes and broken bodies in its wake. Our fight raged ever backwards, as I only ever dodged and never truly succeeded in driving Shard back, and woe to anyone who drew to close- We both struck down intruders with impunity, he in a blind rage and myself out of caution and no small amount of bloodlust. I cannot claim with any accuracy how long we fought, though I know it was a far longer battle than a man of Shard’s skill warranted. Rather, his obscene size and stamina were what proved to be my greatest opponents, though indeed his strength was terrible and more than capable of killing me in a single strike- If he ever succeeded in landing one.
To make a point of it, he did not.
It ended suddenly, with a thud, a flash, and a pig-like scream alongside a gout of blood. The idiot had been so blinded by rage, he hadn’t noticed me hacking away the armor on his arms until I finally brought my blade up in a red-stained ark that took his right hand off at the wrist, leaving him with a blood-spurting stump to stare at dumbly until I repeated the process on his left arm, and only then did the pain seem to register. Dropping to his knees, he howled and shoved his new stumps into his armpits, desperately attempting to end the flow of blood before he became the city’s largest cadaver. Shaking my head, I stepped forward and gently set my blade against his throat- Even kneeling, his head was almost level with my own, and for a moment I contemplated how terrifying a foe he might have been, if only he had been trained in some way. However, the possible choices of the past hold no bearing on the present, and so I set the thought aside to ask my question.
“Where is the Blackhand? Answer, and I may spare you, Indeed, a man of your size might be useful, even without his hands.”
He looked up, hatred and fear evident in his eyes, but before he could speak I leaned forward and dropped my mask entirely.
“ThiNk VeRY CaRefUlly, NoW.”
The hatred in his eyes shattered, along with any rational thought he may have been capable of, and all that remained was fear as he began to shudder.
“P-please, spare ma life. I tell ya, I tell ya, the Boss, ‘es over at Rose’s Thorns. Its ‘is favorite whorehouse.”
I smiled kindly at him and nodded.
At my words, some small amount of relief seeped into his eyes.
“So you, you’s gonna spare me, right?”
Still smiling, I reached into my cloak and pulled out a roll of relatively clean wrappings.
“Of course. I did say so, after all. Here, give me your arms.”
He nearly whimpered with relief as I quickly wrapped his stumps, stopping the worst of his blood loss. That done, I strode past him and prepared to head off, but then stopped as something drifted through my mind, and across my vision.
“Oh, thats right. I did kill quite a few of you, didn’t I?”
Before me stood a crowd of ragged individuals, orphans and beggars, all armed with stones, sticks, and here and there in the small crowd I saw a rusty blade. Around us lay the ruined remains of crushed bodies, broken and limbless corpses, and shredded organs. One of the orphans near the front stumbled forward slightly, trembling with fear or anger, and spoke up.
“Ya- ya killed my brother, ya fucker! He didn’t do no wrong! He were just slow, is all, but ya killed him!”
I smiled ruefully and shook my head.
“Probably. But there’s something you should know. Compared to those I serve, to those I challenge, even when compared to those whom I order about, you all are nothing. Your lives are nothing, your hopes are nothing, your rights are nothing. You contribute less than the murderers and thieves that prey upon the weak, indeed, you contribute less than the weak! You are even more worthless than that newly-made cripple behind me, and do you know what he is worth?”
I spun and plunged my sword into the back of Shard’s neck, wrenching it side to side to decapitate the giant, then drew it back to allow the now-headless corpse to collapse. Turning back to the crowd, I wiped the gore-coated blade on the corpse’s back.
“He was worth that much, or rather, that little. He was worth so little, I saved his life and then took it, and still lost nothing! Do you see now, what you are worth? Do you see now, you worthless little brat? I could slaughter every vagrant in this city, and within a week a new batch would occupy these alleys. In the face of this, what does it matter that I killed your brother? If anything, you should be thanking me- I have seen the fate that awaits most orphans, and it is far less kind than a sharp blade. Really-”
I was cut off by a feral scream as the boy ran at me, tears running down his face and a rock held above his head. I just shook my head, then flicked my hand forward and sent a blade spinning into the boy’s thigh. He collapsed, screaming in pain and clutching at the wound. I sheathed my sword and stepped forward, palming two more throwing knives as I did so.
“Well? Will there be any others, or is a child the bravest among you?”
Silence met my words, and in the back of the crowd a few of the smaller figures broke off and slipped into the night, but the remainder simply grimaced and tightened their grips on their makeshift weapons. Slowly but surely they began to advance on me, and I laughed.
“Oh my. Trying to be cautious? What a brilliant idea. Please, by all means, take your time. However, I have a meeting to get to, so I’ll be speeding things up on my end.”
So saying, I plunged my blade into the orphan’s corpse and reached into my cloak with both hands. The eyes of the beggar in the lead widened, and he opened his mouth, but it was far too late as I sent blade after blade into the crowd, striking arms, legs, shoulders, and feet with every throw.
It took me only moments to break them, and moments longer to retrieve my weapons from the screaming survivors, and by that time I was totally alone in the alley with the exception of the wounded and the dead lying about me. The ease with which I dealt with them did not surprise me- Many of the crowd were under-nourished, and none seemed to be any more trained or experienced than Shard had been, which spoke well for the party back at the inn. Many there were either near my level in their proficiency with murder, or were far more efficient in their actions. And of course, Jules was there as well, so I felt secure in thinking that the slums had experienced quite the population decline tonight.
What did surprise me, however, was the feeling that I was still being watched. I had lost the sensation midway through my fight with Shard, but now I felt almost certain that if I were to look back at where I had first been hidden, I would catch a hint of my pursuer.
Always one to trust my instincts, I did exactly that.
And managed to glimpse a flash of fiery red hair peeking around the corner.