The moon had firmly begun its descent by the time my feet came to a halt atop the slanted roof of some peasant hovel. Below me the narrow street teemed with bodies- Muscled men in rags, arms banded with the tattoos and scars that only members of the Butchers could have earned. Across the street lay the cause of such a large Butcher presence- Rose’s Thorns, the only brothel in the slums that didn’t have Velera’s stink upon it. Though admittedly, that was only the case because the Blackhand used the place as his personal palace, so it wasn’t as though it was a truly free establishment. I grinned as I settled into a crouch, safely hidden in the night’s loving shroud as the crowd below me milled back and forth, shouting and drinking in nearly equal amounts.
I wondered what they were celebrating. Their pitiful slice of this city, itself merely a speck against the backdrop of the shattered lands? Or perhaps they were merely trying to lose themselves in the moment, trying to forget the fact that even as kings in this world of theirs, they were still trash to most others.
It mattered not.
I let my hand fall to rest on the guard of my blade, absentmindedly tracing the details of the wolfshead with one finger while I contemplated my next course of action. This was no group of hungry beggars, and while no man below had anywhere near the same girth as Shard, I still had no intention of trying to cut my way through the mass of at least twenty armed figures celebrating below. I was not Jules- I had neither the skill nor the bloodlust to risk my life in such a manner, and so the direct approach was discarded. However, neither was I Carilo- I may be capable of lurking through the shadows with the best of them, but I could never hide in plain sight as well as that slight, presence-less killer could. And while I could climb, my armor and bulk made it a slower, louder affair than any true assassin could be proud of. And so taking the long, silent way around and up was discarded as well.
“Well, if I can’t go around, and if I can’t go through, then I can’t get in. So instead, let’s bring them out.”
Grinning, I straightened up and quickly reviewed my surroundings, eventually focusing on a pair of men laughing drunkenly next to a uncovered barrel. One man held a clearly homemade spear, the other had a hatchet through his belt and a low-burning torch in one hand. The ground before their feet was wet with many spilled drinks, or maybe piss, and I knew I had found my targets.
Moving carefully, I worked my way back down the slanted roof and dropped lightly into an alley that ran parallel to the main street, then began the process of working my way silently through the maze of alleys while avoiding contact with the few Butcher patrols that weren’t too drunk to stand up straight. It took a while, but eventually I found myself deep in the shadows behind the drunken guards and their barrel. Unfortunately, one more had joined their number around the barrel, but he seemed just as drunk as the other two and so I remained unconcerned. I ignored their drunken laughter and instead quickly measured the distance between the barrel and the brothel- It would be a stretch, but I thought it would work. Besides, even if it didn’t reach the brothel itself, there were still plenty of buildings lining the street that were well within range.
Feeling my grin return in force, I strode forward from the shadows and approached the barrel. The men didn’t even notice me until I was among them and staring down into the barrel- It was still two-thirds full, and judging from the smell its content was a homebrewed rotgut, likely produced in some stinking cellar in the slums. Still grinning, I reached for the man with the shoddy spear.
“Pardon me, I just need to borrow this for a moment.”
None of them were sober enough to stop me from breaking his knee with a sharp kick, and as he fell with a startled howl I quickly drove the butt of the spear under the edge of the barrel and pushed down of the haft, leveraging the barrel up and over until it could no longer withstand its own weight and toppled over. I danced backwards to avoid the wave of spilled alcohol, kicking the barrel as I did so to start it rolling towards the brothel across the street. As I moved back, I smashed the butt of the spear into the third man’s jaw, shattering it and leaving him a gibbering mess on the ground as I turned to the last of the three still standing, the man with the axe and torch. To his credit, he had managed to draw his weapon and had even attempted to look somewhat threatening, but his squinted eyes and shaking legs gave the lie to his sobriety. I lunged, batting aside his pathetic attempt at a swing and driving the sharp end of the spear into his throat, grabbing the torch as I did so. I left him there, choking on the blood welling up from around the spear, and turned back to the barrel which had come to a rest against the wall of Rose’s Thorns, a trail of spilled liquor cutting diagonally across the street from my feet to the front door. All around me the revelries had come to a screeching halt, and I could feel dozens of eyes upon me even as I heard numerous blades being unsheathed.
“Too late, far too late. The fox is among the hens now, the wolf among the sheep, so let me hear you squeal.”
And with that, I dropped the torch into the puddle of liquor at my feet.
I admit, the most I had hoped for was for some flames, some confusion, and to hopefully scare the inhabitants of the brothel out into the street. After all, I just needed the Blackhand, everyone else was inconsequential.
However, it appeared that the slum-dwellers had quite the taste in drink, because as soon as the flames hit the puddle a wall of flame sprang up and raced down the trail left behind the barrel, neatly bisecting the street and trapping roughly a third of the revelers on the same side as myself. Additionally, the liquor must have gotten on the walls of the brothel, because nothing else could explain why the walls caught like dry tinder, flames racing higher and higher until the thatch roof was alite like a bonfire. Then the adjacent building caught fire.
I shrugged, unconcerned. The farthest the fire could spread was about forty houses, thanks to the western quarter being divided up by a series of dry canals, so the damage would be limited and it certainly wouldn’t reach my inn or any other areas that I considered of great importance. And besides, this wouldn’t even affect the potential manpower in the slums by all that much- The western quarter was the least populated section of the slums, thanks to the Butchers heavy handed rule, so I put the matter from my mind and ignored the screams echoing from the flame-engulfed buildings.
Drawing my sword, I turned to focus on the eight or so men left trapped on this side of the wall of fire. Best to deal with them before the fire in the street died down, and the rest of the crowd rejoined my little game.
As always, my timing was impeccable. Or perhaps I was just lucky.
I kicked the last body free of my blade just as the fire died low enough for one to safely cross it, then turned to face the remaining crowd , most of whom were either staring in drunken horror at the conflagration that had consumed half of the street or desperately trying to stem the flow of flame with what little water they had on hand.
I charged forward, keeping low so as to avoid drawing the whole group’s attention, and began to strike down all those who came into my reach. First fell a pair of slack-jawed idiots standing idly by, then one man who was desperately trying to force his way into a burning home. I left him in a pool of blood and tears beside the burning house as panicked screams rose from within, striding towards a man attempting to marshal the survivors into a fire brigade. He fell, still issuing orders until the end, and I smirked as the survivors fell into a new panic, unable to tell where their foe was thanks to the thick smoke and the erratic shadows cast by the flames.
I left them like that- All evidence so far to the contrary, I don’t kill lightly. If it can be avoided, I will often attempt to do so. It’s just that I consider all of my goals to have a greater value than human life, so I felt no obligation to inconvenience myself if the better option involved death.
No matter how brutal or cruel.
We all die eventually, anyway. Innocence and age have no bearing on this fact, and that is a fundamental truth that the North engraves upon all her children, early and consistently. I can’t remember my mother’s voice after all, and the younger sibling I never met never even had a chance to draw breath.
But I digress.
A scream of feral rage tore through the night, and I turned to look at the brothel’s flame-filled entrance. Through the flames came a horde of shadows- Three slight figures, wreathed in flame and writhing in agony, and one much larger individual that seemed to be driving the other three on. The crowd stumbled into the street and collapsed, spreading out as the slimmer figures threw themselves to the ground and desperately tried to escape the greedy flames even now consuming them, while the larger figure fell to its knees and clutched at its face.
Feeling my smirk grow larger I strode towards the larger figure, ignoring the final struggles of the now-charcoal women to stand before the Blackhand himself. Ironically, that title suited him more now than ever before- One of his arms was burned black, and a hideous burn stretched down his face and neck, and his wild mane of black hair was very singed indeed.
He didn’t look up as my boots entered his vision, instead just shaking his large head.
“I- I’m al’aight. Ma’ girls- Help ma girls. They’re hurt, bad.”
I shook my head with mock disappointment.
“Oren, Oren, look at the state of you. I was actually hopeful when you had Kail kill Trol, I thought maybe you were a hidden gem that could entertain me alongside Velera. But now, that state you’re in, it’s hardly inspiring.”
He tried to look up, but howled in pain instead and dropped his head lower. That burn had to hurt.
“Wha- Who the ‘ell are ya? Ma’ girls-”
“-Are dead. My fault, and I am sorry about that. But really, how was I meant to know that you actually cared about some whores? Considering the number of men you’ve had killed, the number of families you’ve torn to shreds, I frankly assumed you were more like Kail then Velera, if less intelligent. But I guess that goes to show, I can’t leave a project alone for over two years and expect it to not go its own way. It’s not a mistake I plan to make with my current production. Anyway, again, I’m sorry about your whores. If it’s any consolation, you’ll be with them soon enough.”
My words hit him, hard, and I actually wondered if the man was going to cry. Frankly, I would have found it comedic if this grizzled and muscular man had started bawling like a child, so I was a little disappointed when he seemed to pull himself together a bit.
“Ya… I remember ya, ya smug bastard. I remember tha’ fuckin tone, always lookin’ down on me and ma’ boys. You were tha’ bitch, Velera’s, lover. Her little fuckin lapdog.”
Something seemed to occur to him suddenly.
“Wait, didn’t ya sell her out? Ya did, I remember, but didn’t ya have-”
I swung my blade in a lazy arc, slashing through his throat with hardly any resistance.
“Not a lapdog, Oren. Never a lapdog. And take care what secrets you spill. Those can get you killed, you know.”
As the Blackhand slumped and blood began to pool around him, I sighed and looked up at the sky. Dawn would be here soon, but I had managed to keep all my appointments for the evening, and had even managed to fit in an unexpected encounter. Truly, it had been a good night.
I smiled contentedly as sparks danced around me, sizzling in the blood as flames leapt through the night.
A good night, indeed.