Look, when I say Let that bastard die, I don’t mean Let the next sad asshole step into my old place and keep him alive.
Revenge is just making up for a costly delayed reaction, except with better planning. I’ve had a long time to plan my revenge. So every man and woman in the supply caravan rumbling through that ravine down there in my way, so they gotta die.
From my hiding place in the crags, I count five wagons, each with three armed guards, all probably crack-shots with those speed-reload crossbows strapped across their chests. The train’s got two horsemen at either end, all stout, solid jackbooted Imperial leather-daddies, with broadswords bigger than they are hanging from their backs. Those guys don’t worry me. That lean, hooded rider in the lead could be trouble, though, the one with a snaky, alert, no-bullshit posture atop that giant draft horse he rides. I’m not in the mood to see what engravings he’s etched in the metal of his blade within the scabbard.
Still, he’s all weighted down in Imperial regalia, and here’s me, moving free and limber across the ridge, the way I like, wearing only cargo-shorts and heavy-duty black leather boots. Maybe I overdid it with the night-vision eye-drops. I have to wear wyvern-rider goggles just so those wagon-torches don’t scorch my eyes out of the sockets. There won’t be much honest fighting tonight. No one’s up here in the shadowed ridges but me…well, other than those scouts they sent to make sure the way was clear. But fuck those guys. They’re dead. By now, I hear, so are most of the citizens left in New Spiralla. They’ve spent the last few weeks starving without medical supplies.
For a moment, I wonder what the place smells like by now. If I never smell New Spiralla again, I’ll still probably never get that rancid zombie-piss stink out of my nose. This isn’t about the smell, though. It’s not about caring whether I’m the good guy or the bad guy here. This is about what Priest King Macose’s betrayal cost me.
This last month ain’t been hard, sleeping in the caves and cliff-side huts the locals used to inhabit…locals I was first hired to fight off. I was good at it, too. There was a time, the people of that city-state used to parade me around through their streets like I was some kind of hero. Even now, those memories are sorta nice. Such times now feel like a hazy past-life recollection.
Like most people Spirelights move in with, those farmers and prospectors didn’t much like it when their new neighbors started throwing their weight around. Can’t blame ’em, but they’re also the ones who kept trying to kill me while I was passing through. Mostly they were descended from bandits who hid in the ranges, mated with whatever women they could steal, and killed off the indigenous pygmies. I don’t know who the pygmies killed off whenever they settled the region.
When old Priest King Macose wanted to hire my sword and magic tricks against the local trouble, I said “Sure, why not?” I didn’t mention what I’d really come looking for. Rumors went it was hidden somewhere in the New Spiralla temple, at least according to some drunks in that tavern in Finiston. Spirelight fighters are nasty pieces of work, scarlet-blonde holy warriors to the core, with no sense of humor. I wouldn’t want to piss one off. But the ones in New Spiralla were depleting like everything else there, so I came in handy. It might’ve been easier to make friends with the other side and just sack the damn place, but the Spirelights were the only folks for miles around with any good music. East Asterland really is that big a cultural sinkhole.
The temple looked and smelled more like a rundown drinkhall than a place for a Priest King to hold court. You know how these crumbling civilizations get during those last gasps of fading glory. What I’d come for was there, though, somewhere. I could feel it. It was just a matter of proving my mettle, then holding the gig, gaining the pompous old windbag’s trust so he gave me the run of the place. Then it would be just a matter of time and sneaky searching.
After the first few skirmishes, Macose really took a liking to me. Funny to recall, I got pretty fond of the old bastard for a while. When you spend your days running an under-equipped guerrilla counter-insurgency, through barren ranges full of enemies who were born with the salty mescal dust in their noses, it’s nice to have such an appreciative boss who likes to stay up, get you drunk and shoot the shit with you.
All my old troubadour gigs had nothing on the rock star these folks made of me. I could probably even have had the run of the temple maidens and gotten away with it…if I hadn’t had Rowan on the brain. I even wound up telling Macose all about her. Macose always looked like a giant peeled hardboiled egg to me, with barely useful marshmallow-slab limbs dangling like a rag doll’s, slimy yellow hair puffing out of the top of his head like puss oozing over those watery eyes and frog mouth, propped on his throne like most such decadent monarchs, a pudgy, petulant overgrown child trying to play petty tyrant. As I talked, though, he swelled up so regally, I could almost see the majestic ruler of his glory days, before his alabaster warrior-king’s build went to sod and New Spiralla faded into the dust of those foothills where it nestled.
It was his rightful pride, he said, at having a rare, extraordinary young man such as me in his service. “Like a knight in the great old tales,” he sighed, “on a quest to reawaken his enchanted slumbering princess…the strong, feisty, highborn maiden, who falls in love with a handsome young rogue, no less. Yet here you’ve paused in this quest, to come to us in our hour of need.”
Yeah, I know. The guy really talked like that. I swear, I couldn’t make this shit up! Still, you should have heard the rhythm and cadence in his voice. I’ll give the Spirelights this, they know how to bellow the lofty idealism so you want to believe it. I reminded Macose that I was just there ’til the situation was under control, which shouldn’t take much longer.
“But beware the charms of sleeping princesses, Cassias my boy,” he said. “You go on dreaming your waking dreams as you fly off on your wild quest. But remember, the princess dreams also, beneath the spell…and dreams deeper. Who knows what realms her dreams draw her to. When you draw her back from the void, you don’t know what she’ll bring back with her, or where that shall draw her anew through this waking life.”
“Yeah, well…” I leaned back in that immaculate chair and took another snort of top-shelf royal whiskey. “I guess we’ll just see.”
Oh, I knew what he was really getting at. I was supposed to come to my senses, abandon my self-serving quest over a girl, realize my true calling, my true duty, stay here as the Champion Sword-Mage of New Spiralla. I just kept drinking and talking about Rowan. Priest King Macose just smiled and shook his head, in that bittersweet way old men sometimes do, when they hear young men going on like that, making silly, starry-eyed asses of ourselves.
“New Spiralla can rise again, over time,” he said. “Our people won’t fade into the night, Cassias. You won’t let us.”
He kept asking about the etchings in the palm of my right hand. That’s when I should have known something was off. A bit about those etchings: they line up with those on my sword handle. When the two press together, it creates a synergy that magnifies every deadly muscle memory reflex in my body a thousandfold…and I’ve had a lot of those beaten into me. It also turns the blade into an extension of my arm, more or less literally. I carved both renditions of the pattern myself, my palm and the sword handle.
Here’s what you might not get about Spirelights, though: they’re real big on racial distinction between folks, particularly when it comes to magic. Yeah, I know, wherever you go, you have all these rules about who is and isn’t allowed to learn what spells and traditions, based on your class, rank, race, affiliation, sexual orientation, all that horseshit. Whenever I decide to learn something new, I like telling the rule-keepers to shove it up their ass. I figured I could be honest with the Priest King, considering my unique mix of skills was keeping his little city-state from being overrun. To the Spirelight mind, though, there’s no distinction between socially acceptable and metaphysically possible. I didn’t realize the number it did on his mind, whenever I opened my mouth. Just by accomplishing everything I had, I’d become a being that couldn’t possibly exist. Yet there I was.
To find out what happens, pick up Story Time With Crazy Uncle Matt, a collection of wild, weird, dark short fiction by Matt Spencer, now available from Back Roads Carnival Books, or read it as a Kindle Single for just 99 cents, by clicking on the cover images below:
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