The Last Rike: Book One - The Wanderer and The Girl
By Matthew Jones
Swirling sands shifted underneath the heel of the Wanderer as he made his way down the one road leading into town. Eyes loomed down on him from the shadows, coveting his unblemished flesh, taut with the apparent vestiges of youth. The looming eyes yearned and wished, but minded their manners. The Wanderer’s sword, displayed plain on his back, and the wanderer’s guns, strapped securely on his hips saw to that. They’d hate their twisted selves in the darkness and think their twisted thoughts, and the wanderer would care, long as they stayed where they were.
The Wanderer turned off the road, moving into the porch of a shadowy tavern offering little solace better than it protected one from the oppressive sun overhead. A slumbering old man with four horns peering out from his forehead kept guard in a creaking rocking chair. Between his outstretch rested a bowling ball. Its chain stretched upward to the old man’s limp wrist. The Wanderer had seen these weapons bowl a man’s chest in and made careful not to disturb him. Beyond the bat-wing doors, was a dim, lonesome place smelling of soured beer and human stink. A pile of broken furniture was placed in a corner and the Wanderer mused about it’d make good kindling and he’d do the occupants a favor by burning the bar to the ground. He took a seat at the bar and noted a drunken flesh pile slowly swaying to his far left. His body rolled inside a filth stained pair of overalls.
The bar maid made odd clatters in a backroom behind the bar and when she emerged, her hands dotted with bits of red. She eyed the Wanderer and hastily wiped the red away on the seat of her loose hanging black dress. The woman had a dog face under a curly mound of graying hair. She was thin with painful seeming hunchback.
“Water,” The Wanderer said in a hollow voice, his head hung low. The bar maid just stared, her fingers unconsciously rising to sword fighter’s face. He shifted his fiery blue eyes to the woman and she repented the hand, placing it between her sagging breasts. The Wanderer could make out a P E R K I on her left breast pocket. At the time, this information didn’t seem important, but he filed it away. The Wanderer knew it was more the big blade glaring off his back like some terrible vulture that stayed her hand, but it all amounted to the same thing. The world was wrong, no better way to put it. Sometime in the long way back when, Man’s started to rot off the bone, minds started to sour in their owner’s skulls, and any signs of health might a life on the run, a life by the gun, by the blade.
“Water,” The Wanderer repeated with more authority woven in his words. She turned away from him to a manual water pump set low at the far side of the bar. She put her hand on the lever to pump and paused.
“How you want it?” She asked in a quivering voice that was more old age then nerve.
“Out a picture, if it’d do you.” The Wanderer said, keeping his eye on the bar top.
“You got coppers for that?” She asked, taking her hand for the pump lever. The Wanderer clicked a gold coin on the bar top and with that she fetched a pitcher from beneath the counter top. The water splashed a brownish hue into the picture, but the Wanderer took it happily. The bar maid dropped her hand over the coin and slid it over to her.
“That a shined up copper? Shined up Bronze, maybe?” She said with a conspiratory flick of her eye to the swaying flesh mound. She wanted to play friendly. She wanted to play motherly. She was saying, ‘Keep your coins close, lest someone snatch them, dear boy,’ with that motion of the eyes. She wanted to believe that he was an innocent, despite the guns, the sword and the hard stare. The Wanderer was fine with letting her think as long as she kept her manners. The Wanderer gripped the pitcher and the bar maid turned toward the backroom.
“Ay, Water ain’t worth gold. Not when you’re sitting on a well. I got something coming back to me.” She paused and issued a nervous laugh.
“Must have slipped my mind. “ She said fishing metals from a drawstring purse of her hip. She dropped a couple coppers on the countertop and hurried to dote on her other customer. The Wanderer took his pitcher out on the porch and took a seat in a counter furthest from the slumbering old man. He sucked down as much of the water as his stomach could hold and poured the rest down on his head, praising its cold. He sat steady in the shade for a moment, staring at the sand roll along the path of the road.
He picked himself up and stepped off the porch, leaving the pitcher behind. In the corner of his eye, he saw the bar maid exit through the batwings and scoop up the picture.
“Come back,” She cried. The Wanderer didn’t turn and the bar maid added a slight diminished, “If you have a mind to.” The last the Wanderer saw of the Bar maid was her kissing the pitcher he’d left. He’d seen that as well, as if health were a disease one could catch.
The wanderer moved his hand to the cold butt of his right gun. They’d been cold for as long as the wanderer had the ancient death machines, and he had no mind for why. His eyes locked on the rivalry of the marketplace. Men, women and children scampered about with packages tucked safely from sudden theft. There was never a place of more lawlessness than that of the marketplaces of this world. The Wanderer moved silently into the crowd of people, his head low, his belongings secured and fastened. There wasn’t mercy in the crowd, but there was anonymity abound for those who wished it. Everyone was afraid of being gut-shot for their goods to ogle a fair faced man making his way by.
The wanderer spilled into a small shop smelling of herbs. Inside sat gun-shot barrels filled with tobacco, feed, thyme, rosemary and on and on. Overseeing the barrels were three gun toting men, two of whom held machine gun that were almost cartoonish in size. A single bullet for one of those guns might have torn the little shop in half. The one without a ridiculously large machine gun narrowed his eyes on the Wanderer and brandished his own hand-canon quickly, so as to make sure everyone was on the same page.
‘I see your guns, you see ours. Let’s not waste bullets over a bag of tobacco.’ That motion said.
The wanderer moved to the barrel containing the tobacco and took out an empty bag of his pack. That motion sent the tingling burn of watchful eye dancing across his neck. The tingle stopped when it was apparent that the wanderer wasn’t reaching for a concealed weapon. The wanderer filled his bag and secured the bundle with a strand of rawhide. Once it was secure, he felt the tingling again and it was shortly followed by a strong, but flabby arm wrapping around his chest. A kiss peppered with gruff whiskers and stinking of strong liquors descended on his neck. The single arm secured him well, and with the other, his bundle was wrenched from his hand. The tobacco pouch hit the ground and the Wanderer was propelled backward, a hot stiffness pressed into the small of his back.
Had his abductor been hasty and took the Wanderer with the unpaid goods in hand, the abductor would have had a bullet between the eyes, and a few more everywhere else. The Wanderer squirmed his arm downward toward the butt of his left gun and touched the cold iron whilst in the midst of the bustling crowd. The Wanderer wrapped his fingers around the handle, pulled and shot in the only direction his arm could move. The Wanderer aimed for where the flabby abductor’s foot should have been and relished the cry of pain that followed the blast. The abductor loosened his grip and the Wanderer burst out of it. He returned the gun to its belt as the marketplace emptied. Screams had echoed louder than the blast and were dying and the Wander waited. He drew his sword; he wouldn’t more bullets on the drunken flesh pile from the bar. The chaos had died enough that his voice could be heard and the flesh pile had collected himself enough to see the Wanderer hadn’t run. The flesh pile stepped forward, he wasn’t backing down either. He had fresh flesh. Taut flesh. Young flesh. He had flesh that would sting his prick if he got to stick it in, it didn’t matter to him, if that the hole he was looking to invade was on a man.
The Wander put the sword between the two of them and recited the line had offered to countless fools looking to fulfill some ambition.
“This is the sharpest thing in all the world! She’s killed better man than you! Cry off!” The flesh pile wasn’t looking to reason, he was hurt and horny. He charged forth and the Wanderer made a swift motion across the men’s chest, moving from the top of the right shoulder, going cleanly through the man’s body and exiting just above the man’s left hip. The flesh pile fell into two pieces, both splattering the sandy marketplace with black blood. The crept forward and the Wanderer stepped back onto the Herb Shop’s porch to avoid it touching his boots. This wasn’t for vanity, but common sense, the blood of the wrong folk burned to the touch. The flesh pile would spend a long while in the sun, drying out, before someone would try and move him.
The Wanderer wiped his blade off with a cloth and threw it to the dead flesh pile, a consolation prize. He then slid his long sword back into its sheath and returned to the shop. On the floor, as it had been, was his tobacco pouch. He scooped it up and dropped a single gold coin on the countertop before the gun toting storekeepers. One of the men had his ridiculous machine drawn and aimed at him; he was expecting vengeance, but the Wanderer held no bile for their inaction. He’d played this scene out a number of times. He expected them to, just like he expected the sun to rise. He walked toward the door way when one of the men called after him.
“Wasn’t anything personal.” The man with the hand canon said.
“I know it.” The Wanderer replied, not breaking his gate. He did stop just outside the door, however. He looked over his shoulder and asked a question he’d asked in every town he’d been in.
“Flower-men come through, at all?”
“Us don’t mess with the Flower-men. Probably the man you killed might have, but we Christians. Ever if the good book said it were fine to take bed with babies, it’s still wrong.” The hand canon man said. The rifle man who had aimed at the Wanderer was still aiming.
“Have they come through?” The Wanderer repeated.
“About a week back, I reckon.”
“Who does mess with the Flower-men?”
“No one round here. We’re good folk, ‘cept for some exceptions” The Wanderer drew his sword and suddenly he had two ridiculously big machine guns aimed at him.
“Who are the exceptions?” The Wanderer said, heedless of the guns.
“The Perkins Boys over on High Hill road. I don’t know for sure, but if anyone would, it’d be them. Nasty Bastards, them.” The Wanderer stepped back out of the shop and down along the road.
2. The Death Of Super Soldiers
The Wanderer’s life had been saved by the competitive nature of the Child Prostitution Industry. That is, his ability to take in air was saved by their relentless chase for money. The Wanderer was found, along with three others, in hibernation pods, deep under that the Mountains of what once was The Lost River Ranges. Scavengers had broken a thousand year seal and looted what once was cutting edge testing equipment for scrap metal. The biggest find, however, were the four live babies, four live, blonde babies. Blondes were worth so much more than regulars. Those babies were found a midst of dead ones. At least two thousand by final count.
What those scavengers stumbled upon was, the last great Nazi Eugenics Project. The Annexed Nazi scientists from after WWII had grouped together and shared notes. They revived their beloved super soldier research. When the world turned, the successors of the original scientists sealed the laboratories and instructed the computers to only reopen when the seal when men of proper genetic heritage and of proper mental faculties came calling. Those scientists hadn’t anticipated how much corrosion a thousand years would breed and how many explosives an average mutant scavenger carried at any given moment.
The computers tried their best to keep all two thousand specimens alive, feeding them their own protein injected waste and filtering in liquid air for them to breath. But the specimens began to fail four centuries after the doors were sealed. As children died, never breathing real air, or using the eyes, the computer redirected power to preserving the surviving children. This continued until there was but the sole four who were stole away to the Flower-Men.
3. The Flower Men
The flower men hadn’t any interest in whoring out babies just taken from the womb. Their business was in preparing those babes for their careers. A child who knew a life other than that of their master’s home were more likely to try and return to it. They made lifetime companions, too stupid and afraid to want better. The flower men kept their flowers healthy enough until they were old enough to undergo the roughness of their future masters. But the Flower men weren’t ones to coddle their babes.
‘In all thing, a firm hand’ was their mantra and the evidence of that was found in the broken jaws and bruised flesh of their flowers. The young Wanderer wasn’t immune to these injuries and suffered worst because of his inability to let an injury go without retaliation. At the young age of five, the young wanderer could knowledgeably describe the violent inelegance of electrocution and the blinding pain of a snapped femur. The flower men broken him down, mended him and started the process over again. That cycle only ended with a chance discovery by the young wanderer.
He had found a girl in a shit-house’s shit-pit. She was blonde like him. In fact, she was one of his pod-mates stolen from the laboratory. She lay dead down there, her skull dented in. One of the Flower-men probably got overzealous, or maybe couldn’t wait for his flower to blossom. It didn’t matter to the young wanderer, it meant all the same. She was dead and was discarded like something worthless. The same might happen to him. He had no reason to expect better. He had decided he should die and he thought he knew how he should die.
He climbed down into the toilet and he waited. It took a long time and he spent it cradling the girl in his arms. The time came with the dying of the light, with the calling of his name and with a fat ass sitting on the seat above. The man’s bullocks hung low and the young wanderer could easily grip and wrench on them. The man screamed and clawed at the young wanderer and, to the young wanderer’s satisfaction, the man bled. It had to hurt, it had to bleed, the man needed to lose control or if the young wanderer was luck, he had to die and someone else would have to lose control. The man managed to wrestle to wanderer’s fingers off and ,to the young wanderer’s misfortune, he didn’t lose control. The man thought he might have, he beat the boy until his hands were sore and shaking. He beat the boy to a bloodied pulp and he left the boy, bloodied and covered in shit, by the outhouses.
Another of the flower-men had happened upon the young wanderer and thought him dead. He thought so until he looked into the child’s eyes. They were opened and twitching with the rage his broken bones couldn't express.
It was decided that the young wanderer was ruined for the bedroom, but also that he would make them money yet.
4. Knuckle Dragger
The Wanderer walked up the weed ridden path marked by the locals as High hill road. It was lined by bleached-white, skeletal desert trees which clawed down toward him in the oppressive light. He noted an old, two-story homestead, very much near collapse. The stead hadn’t known a refresh of whitewash in what might have been year, making the wood look soured and rotten. Busted rockers waited on the porch for someone to fix them or turn them into kindling. The ladder seemed more likely. He sniffed at the air and smelt pig shit. The region wasn’t right for pigs, or livestock of any merit, but the Wanderer smelt it all the same.
The Wanderer stepped up on to the porch, dropping his hand to the butt of his right gun and with his left hand, he pounded on the door. He had no idea if people had fear of lawmen in that town, but an authoritative hand wasn’t much of a gamble. An indistinct holler rang up from the far back, a deep voice, a man’s voice. The Wanderer waited on the porch, though he heard footsteps approaching from around the south-facing corner of the house. A thin man came around the side. He had a sunken chin, bloodshot eyes and bloodstained hands up to the forearm. He made no effort to clean his hands and possibly, he was hoping the blood would scare off the intruder who dared to disturb his afternoon.
“What you want?” He said simply.
“Heard talk, you and ours had dealing with the Flower-men.”
“What of it, if we did?”
“I don’t got quarrel with you, none worth killing for, but I’m taking your purchase, you hear.”
“Doubt that’s going to happen, pretty.”
“You want bloodshed, then that’s on you, but I’m taking what I came for.”
“Nice, little sticker you got there on your back. Here’s mine.” He reached round to his backside, but the Wanderer put a bullet in his belly behind he could show off his weapon. The man fell to his knees, clutching his belly. The new blood made little difference as it mixed in with the old.
New hollers kicked up inside the homestead. The Wanderer counted three additional voices separate from the original voice he heard. He stepped off the porch and lifted the diminished chin of the gut-shot man.
“I’ll kill each and everyone one of them. Five coffins for some little bitch. What sense is that? Where is your purchase?”
“They kill you. They will.” The gut-shot man said through chokes and coughs.
“No. I’ll kill them all, just like I killed you.” The Wanderer corrected, drawing his sword and pressing it softly on the gut-shot man’s throat.
“You do that, pretty. You’ll be joining me anyhow.” The Wanderer obliged, severing the man’s head from his neck. While the man bled his dark blood across the sand, the Wanderer stole a glance at what he was reaching for, a hooked knife with a considerable length to it.
He stepped back on the porch as the blood spread. With the gut-shot man not coughing and dying, the Wanderer could hear motion on the inside. The fact that they didn’t run out right away meant they were going out the back or they getting guns. The ladder turned out to be true, as a bullet broke a pane of glass and whistled passed his ear. He planted his boot on the wood of the front door and forced it down. The shock of the intruder forced the shooter to forget himself for a moment, but not for long. The shooter got off two shots from a long-barreled revolver, before the Wanderer sprung behind a moth-eaten couch. Two more shot through the couch, but were more random.
‘One more bullet on that gun. Trigger happy idiot.’ The Wanderer thought. Half-clumsy, hurried footsteps approach the pair, but to the benefit of the Trigger happy idiot. Whispers were exchanged, but the Wanderer didn’t need to hear any of it to know what they saying.
‘You idiot, he could have taken your head off. He’s behind that couch.’
A sudden, metal thud told the Wanderer that the newcomer had something bigger than the Trigger happy idiot’s revolver.
He released his own death machine, but didn’t send his blade to bed. He tested the weight of his cover. There wasn’t much in there, but it’d throw them for a second. He gripped the couch from the bottom, gave a violent jerk upward. As the couch flipped up and forward his swiped his sword through it, turning the blade, so as to disturb as much of the insides as possible. The two halves crashed to the ground in a cloud of shrapnel. The Wanderer charged between the two halves, as bullets whizzed passed him. The newcomer did, indeed, have something bigger than a revolver. He wielded a shotgun twice his, four foot, size. The midget was having trouble getting shots off with the big rifle and therefore, the Wanderer took to his side. The trigger happy idiot wasn’t much of one, he’d been refilling his gun in the silence before the shooting. The Wanderer got to the midget and halved the shotgun before he could get off his third shot and the trigger happy idiot killed him, trying to shoot the Wanderer. The midget fell, his skull painting the wall behind him. The Wanderer turned, slashed the trigger happy idiot’s gun hand off and shoved his death machine between the man’s teeth all in one fluid motion. The barrel punched the back of his throat and the man fell backward onto his ass.
“You get to live if you take me to the boy.” The Wanderer offered.
“Fuck you.” The trigger happy idiot said in a shivering, broken voice. The gun had done some damage to his teeth and his mouth was filling up with blood. The idiot spat at the Wanderer and the Wanderer halved the idiot’s skull, long ways.
The Wanderer holstered his gun and moved on through the house, the sounds of silence bothering him more than the gunfire had, prior. He knew there were two more men and for some reason, they were being quiet as the grave. There was a sudden knock, a purposeful one. Someone was trying to pull his strings, lead him away. The knocking was coming from a west facing hallway and the Wanderer let his blade lead him down the hall. A second knock sounded, high up on the wall. He wanted to let the Wanderer know how tall he was or that he had access to a ladder. The third told the Wanderer how big a fist the man had. The man probably wasn’t on a ladder by the Wanderer reckoning. The four shock dust off the walls, along with bits of splintered debris. By the Wanderer’s reckoning, he was a big man, cocky to boot. He probably had a good weapon on him, probably was expecting his intruder to rush around the corner, rush through the doorway. The Wanderer also noticed that the man was moving around. The Wanderer couldn’t hear the footsteps, but he noted that the banging sounded from different walls. He wanted the Wanderer to come, but to come blindly.
The Wanderer stopped before a closed, wooden door as the fifth bang sounded. It shook the door in its frame and the Wanderer knew he was in the right place. He pressed his foot against the wood of the door and broke it open. As the door swung inward, he launched himself out of the way of any potential gunfire. None sounded. He moved forward, stopping just before the entrance way. He watched the reflection off the length of his blade, angling it to see in the room.
“Dragger.” The Wanderer whispered.
“Is that my sword?” Knuckle Dragger asked along.
Knuckle Dragger was, indeed, a massive man with arms as big as refrigerators and long enough to plant his hands flat on the ground. He held a big metal stick that might have been ripped from the ground somewhere. The Wanderer walked forth into the room, his sword drawn and his eyes planted upward to its prior owner.
5. The Bad Games
The Flower-men had healed the young Wanderer, as they had before, and then they burned him with their mark. This as customary for anyone submitted to gladiatorial combat. The killers, young and old, deserved trophies for their effort. A hunk of flesh would do instead of their freedom. As customary, the young Wanderer fought with other boys and commonly, the Wanderer killed them. He realized the strength he had in his hands and he realized he was buying more and more with every kill. He would learn years later, when rage died some, that he was spending peace of mind. If you were to search his pack, you’d find a tooth-marked leather strap. He used it to prevent him from injuring himself in his sleep or screaming his location to some vulture with a knife.
To keep the fights interesting and profitable, they put the Wanderer up against lesser and lesser even odds. The young Wanderer drew two types of spectator, one who cooed at his beauty, how much a shame it was that such a beautiful blonde was ruined for the bedroom and one who yearned to see such a beautiful blonde bleed. To satisfy both groups, the Wanderer was given little to fight in and nothing to fight with. Even with these odds, the young Wanderer failed to die and this fact, more than his blonde hair, made him valuable. Ownership of the young Wanderer changed hands a number of times and a number of times, the young Wanderer suffered new marks being burned into his skin. He had seven marks on his back by the time he found himself the property of the Bad Games. His previous owner had been killed in the crowd after one of the man who owed his master chose not to pay. The young Wanderer was in the fighter’s pen without someone to collect him, so the games kept him.
In those days, the games were run by Knuckle Dragger and his men, and for a long time, Knuckle Dragger entertained the thought that he’d have better luck killing the young Wanderer. He started the boy against monster man standing two stories high. The young Wanderer, as per usual, killed his opponents, and, to Knuckle Dragger’s surprise, the boy swiftly gained Dragger’s respect. The opponents only got harder. The crowd expected more vicious combat, but the young Wanderer was offered his first weapon, a staff with a sharpened end. The young Wanderer did good killing with that staff and tried it with an affection typically reserved for living beings.
The first time the young Wanderer saw the sharpest thing in the world slung on Knuckle Dragger’s hip, the Wanderer felt a mixture of lust and guilt. He couldn’t articulate either emotion, his outlets of expression being his fists, but he knew want and he knew wanting that blade meant betraying the one dependable thing he had ever known. So, he ignored the blade, averted his eyes at its presence, but still it called to him. In the dark hours, when nothing wanted his life, he thought he heard it call him. It didn’t use words, just images and inclinations. The Wanderer wouldn’t be able to say whether he or the blade planned their uniting, but every night, it told him more and more. It wanted him to show his intelligence to Knuckle Dragger, it wanted him to show promise, because Knuckle Dragger had a habit of noticing promise and beginning it in closer to him.
The young Wanderer wasn’t sure what qualified as promise, but he knew man like Knuckle Dragger wanted something more than the life and death, savage scramble he’d been giving. They wanted art, they wanted showmanship, they didn’t want the kill, they wanted the hurt. The young Wanderer would deliver.
The man standing before the young Wanderer, in the blood-spattered ring, was different somehow. He was smaller than the others the child had killed. He was man-sized and man-shaped. He could fit into the sand colored cloth armor of the old days and boar a sword similar to the sharpest thing in the world. Still, as the young Wanderer stripped the armored man of his sword, he thought of it as somehow stupid, dull, incomplete. The Wanderer found himself standing on the armored man’s chest with the sword poised to bite. He stayed his hand and tossed the sword away from the both of them, as did he, his staff.
Bugged eyed, the man stood before the boy and that man felt fear. The young Wanderer read the tell-tale signs and the tell-tale bluffs. The widening of the irises, the twitching of the nostrils, the slow tensing and relaxing of the neck and shoulder muscles, it was all there.
The man burst forward and the young Wanderer charged the same. The young Wanderer knew nothing of the inner workings of the human throat, but he knew how, completely, stole one’s breath. He struck and skirted away from the man’s still accelerating mass. He crashed to the ground, choking on his own swelling throat. The Wanderer waited as the man climbed a mountain to get to his knees.
The young Wanderer knew nothing of the sensitivity of the Vagus Nerve. The particular branch of medical terminology was foreign. As, one would expect, were any branch of medicine. He knew nothing of the Vagus Nerves, but he knew how it dropped a man and left him seizing in the dirt. He drove his knee into the man’s back, just around the liver and the man dropped. The boy’s instinct said, ‘Kill. End this.’ But he fought that thought and instead, dropped his knee right into that sensitive nerve ending. The man vomited into the dirt and tears escaped his eyes. Part of the boy thought it was a problem that Knuckle Dragger would hear the man scream. The man’s throat ruined, his body shivering like it was mid-winter. It was too quiet, he was afraid Knuckle Dragger wouldn’t be entertained. The abandoned staff was taken up in the hands of the young Wanderer and the crowd hissed and whined as he sat with the staff placed on his lap.
In the young Wanderer’s ownership, that staff had seen such battering. It’d been worn ragged with splinters sticking out from the wood. The young Wanderer had taken to using these scars to his advantage. Before, the staff was most effective in stabbing, but with the splinters, it could maim. He found it best for the eyes, blinding his opponents. But stabbing because more effective as well. Bits of wood would embed themselves in his opponent’s inner workings, stabbing and tearing more and more as the man moved. Also, it just hurt more to be stabbed with the ragged spear. Wounds never cut clean, always ripped and only getting worst.
The armored man suffered this fate as soon as the man pushed to his feet. The man shuttered and wiped the slobber and vomit from his chin. The boy loomed behind him. If all gladiators weren’t perpetually alone, someone might have screamed, ‘Behind you’, but instead the boy drove the ragged staff through the man’s lower back. The shift skirted the spinal chord and burst out his belly along with his stingy, red intestines. The staff avoided the lungs completely, so the man had the ability to them into exhaustion. These actions were quick enough that it wasn’t the goring, but the scream of the armored man that silenced the crowd’s hissing.
The armored man leaned forward and gripped the staff from where it exited his lower belly. It couldn’t be known if the armored man intended to break the staff as he fell, but as the young Wanderer attempted to wrench it back out, it held secure. The force of the initial thrust and the contrasting motions of the armored man falling forward and away and the young Wanderer pulling up and back snapped the staff into splinters and jagged shards.
The armored man kicked and squirmed and was the only sound to be heard. Knuckle Dagger called down through the silence for the young Wanderer to end the suffering. He held the shattered pieces of the ragged staff and offered a pitiful look of helplessness.
“The sword, boy.” Knuckle Dagger called down from his high place.
The young Wanderer stood still, staring stupidly at the wood in his hands. He stayed in that manner until some focus outside of him, centered him. He moved without thought or intention. His fingers closed around the sword’s stupid steel and he drove the blade through the man’s neck and deep into the sand. The silence that followed was deafening.
6. The Boy
Knuckle Dagger crowded the room where he waited and his metal cub took up a fair deal as well. He was grayed, scarred and a blue magic hand. The old one’s would call it robotics, prosthetics, basically, machines. The weapon was ridiculous in such a small space or would have been for any other man. The Wanderer knew of the vicious strength Knuckle Dagger held. He knew that the walls would fall in a storm of debris. The Wanderer also knew his name was a misnomer. Smart and vicious and familiar with the Wanderer’s blade and fighting style.
“How long has it been, boy?” The Wanderer didn’t answer, he just remained behind his blade.
“Fifteen years, I ‘d bet. If not that, than sooner.” The Wanderer remained in the doorway, his blue eyes blazing with near insanity.
“I’ve been gimped for too long without satisfaction.” Dagger said, lifting his massive south paw.
“You’ve been taking good care of that, haven’t you.”
“Yes.” The Wanderer said.
“From what I heard, you still kill with the best of them. God Damn, like a force of nature.”
“Those your boys?”
“Can you tell? Yeah, not by biology though. Adoption. I’ve settled since the Bad Games. I haven’t been near Perdition for years.”
“Does it hurt less, them not being yours?”
“ Doesn’t hurt at all. My wife has a spoiled womb. She wanted the babies. She forgot, You forget, I used to kill them. She used to help me.” Dragger pointed to the blade.
“ Asking you to give me the boy would be pointless right?”
“She’s a girl. Dirty blonde, maybe fourteen. I sent my boy out to kill her. Maybe you’ll stop him. But first thing’s first.” Knuckle Dagger exploded, toward the Wanderer, into the Wanderer. The Wanderer had a second to act and he used it poorly. The sharpest thing in the world bit into Dragger’s meaty, thick hide of a shoulder, but not deep enough to stop the massive man and it wasn’t enough to stay in as the two of them crashed through the homestead wall and out into the mud and shit of a walled-in pig-pin. The sharpest thing in the world flew into the flying debris and smacked the ground with a metallic twang.
Mutated Pigs scattered away from them, squealing in terror and the Wanderer was too clumsy and confused to realize that his sword was missing, his guns were wet with pig waste and Knuckle Dragger was swinging his big cub straight at him.
The Wanderer was lifted up and dropped into the newly congregated crowd of pigs. More squealing and a handful of hooves punished his ears and body, respectively. The Wanderer limped and stumbled his way to his feet as Dragger moved through the filth. The Wanderer was on his feet and ready for the next cub strike. It sliced the space above the Wanderer’s head with a violent rush of air. He stole the time Knuckle Dragger took to recover to launch himself forward. He drove his shoulder into the monster man’s waist and the man gave up little ground. Dragger moved to grab, but the Wanderer intercepted it, jabbing at the inner wiring in the wrist controlling grip. Even as the closing hand recoiled, it’s finger s bending back ward further than would have bee n comfortable, he knew that Dragger’s metal hand would have any such weakness. The same must have occurred to Dragger because the prosthetic slammed into the Wanderer’s back seconds after the natural one failed.
The Wanderer slammed back into the shit, but he kept thinking. The man had two hands and neither have the cub. Why’d he put it down? Balance. He lost the cub when he tried to steady himself. The Wanderer’s attack was more effective than he’d imagined. The old man had some issue with either his ears or his legs. A place to start.
The Wanderer figured that the best place to attack first would be the ears. A slam to the ear, healthy or not, was distracting enough for the Wanderer to get to his blade. He could feel her calling out to him. He launched himself up and away from the oncoming danger Dragger was looking to provide. An explosion of mud and shit blew somewhere behind him, but the worst of the damage was the splatter. The Wanderer turned to his enemy, a mountain of man wheezing under a thin layer of filth.
“You tired, old man?” He asked.
“Yeah, not young like I was.” The Wanderer charged. Knuckle Dragger braced himself for another blow to the waist, but the Wanderer launched himself upward. He gained purchase on the monster man’s forearm and from there, he launched himself up by Knuckle Dragger’s shoulders. He jabbed at the man’s ear. Dragger groaned and fell away. The majority of his weight was delivered from his feet to his massive arms and his height changed very little. The Wanderer dropped down and stamped on his Achilles’ heel. Dragger roared and dropped further. When the Wanderer was satisfied that Dragger’s recovery was sufficiently hindered, he slopped forth through the filth, hearing his blades call. He climbed back into the destroyed homestead, ripped up splintered debris. His hand fell upon the cold steel of the blade as a feeling like sexual release and like near death gripped and would not let go. He crashed down upon his blade, its intentions, now, screaming in his head. The sensation ended, but the Wanderer’s muscles still twitched. A blow flipped him on his back and there Knuckle Dragger towered, shaking with some shifting mixture of pain, rage and exhortation. In his metallic hand, Dragger clutched blue arcs, dancing wildly through his fingers.
7. At his Right Hand
Applause. The young Wanderer heard slow applause. Not from many, but from one. Dragger stood and offered applause.
The young Wanderer had been summoned to view matches with Dragger, to advise in betting. The young Wanderer had broken many and could see how hurt manifested. The young Wanderer was never much for speaking, but his tongue would loosen with when killing was involved. The path to Knuckle Dragger wasn’t his stomach or his groin, it was his wallet and the young Wanderer aided in making it all the more burdensome. Though, the man and the boy had formed a lucrative relationship, Knuckle Dragger never trusted the young Wanderer. The two were never alone together, were never found without at least four armed men in toe and of course, Knuckle Dragger always had the sharpest thing in the world. She made wordless promises of safety, of happiness, of freedom. She soothed his wildness, slowed his temper. He’d seen dozens of opportunities to kill Dragger, but she reminded him of the hired murderers that Dragger had. Kill him and they’d kill the young Wanderer. Savagery is a strange thing, it protects itself from civility. It will bite the gentle hand. It will scream at the soft voice and this truth led to the deaths of two dozen fighters in the course of three days and the ultimate disobedience of the young Wanderer to his sword.
He thought he was sly. He learned in secret, how to turn skunk weeds and fermented meats into a potent poison. He slipped the poison into Dragger’s drink while a choice blow distracted the him and his man. He concealed his smile as Dragger brought the cup to his lips and his heart sank in horror as Dragger turned the cup on its side, pouring the contents out on the ground. He knew.
Dragger drew the blade with a sudo-dramatic flare and his men followed his lead, not knowing who they were preparing to killing. The young Wanderer’s mind whirled and panicked. Thousands of voices screamed in his head, each one with their own ideas of what to do next. Five men, two with guns, but if they used them, it’d be in the young Wanderer’s favor. The spectator’s box was small and he was agile. If guns started to fire, it’d be more likely that one of the five would get hit instead of him. The two gunners also had fat-headed club wrapped in barbed wire. The other two had swords, ugly ones with jagged teeth. The last and most damning problem that the young Wanderer faced was his lack of a weapon. ‘He was going to died’ he thought. Part of him liked that thought. Part of him believed that this was the freedom that the sword had promised.
“Poison...” He said in a gravelly voice. “ Disappointing. Kill, boys, kill.” The four men who stood to either of his sides erupted forth. The spectator’s box was small and the young Wanderer’s instincts were lively. A fat-headed club arced upward to strike him, but caught the ceiling, ripping some of the barbed wire loose and slowing the strike considerably. The young Wanderer evaded it the strike easily, as did he evade a jab of a sword. In the small space, he could have evade forever, he could have picked them off one by one, how clumsy their attacks were. Dragger must have figured this out because decided to open up the spectator’s box with the impossibly sharp sword. He only needed a handful of slashes to take down the wall. The young Wanderer wanted to keep it in the box, but was ripped out by the neck. The box sat ten feet above the dirt ring and the young Wanderer felt every foot once he smacked the ground. He was half-conscious and expecting to be shot now. They had the high ground, they had clear space. The young Wanderer thought that this was his day of freedom, that he would finally not be someone else’s property. The gunshots did not come. Instead, the young Wanderer heard weight pressing down on the wooden stairs. Knuckle Dragger was coming down. He was going to kill the young Wanderer like he had some many of the Wanderer’s victims. Dragger was alone, his men stood staring down at the two. The young Wanderer was sprawled out in the dust, not attempting to stand, not attempting to defend himself and Dragger was hulking with a coolness that belied his intentions. He looked as though he might help the boy up instead of shove a blade through the boy’s chest.
The young Wanderer still couldn’t think straight. His mind could only coil around the loveliness of death, but something penetrated his mind. It told his mind to stop whirling and just shut up. He couldn’t argue with it, just obey. It wanted him up, so he stood up. It wanted him to evade, so he evaded. It wanted him to attack, and he did. He launched himself into the monster man’s waist. It wanted better of him, it knew he could do better than some childish scramble. He gave it his knee. He drove his knee into the man’s crotch. Dragger fell back, sucking in shocked breaths of air. The young Wanderer charged forth, firing the stronger muscles of his leg into the man’s knee. The young Wanderer’s instincts had switched to the kill. His mind went squirrelly, he needed to move, need charge and strike. All the while, Knuckle Dragger swung the sharpest thing in the world.
Next thing was gunfire from the spectator’s box. The young Wanderer reacted by sticking close to Dragger. They’d shot carefully, or they’d shot him. The shooting did slow and Dragger demanded that it stop all together. The young Wanderer took the opportunity made by that command to Dragger’s men to strike. He shoved his foot into Dragger’s ball and taking that purchase gain, he rammed his fist into the man’s gut. The man shrank back and the sword flew from the man’s fingertips. The blade sank solidly in the ground, but far enough away that if one of Dragger’s men chose to disobey him, they’d have a clear shot at him. The young Wanderer stuck close to Dragger, evading the man’s massive hands. He attempted his best in breaking the man down, but he was strong and he wasn’t simple. The young Wanderer worked hard to keep himself close to the monster man and himself in between the man and the sword. He knew what the young Wanderer was after and what the young Wanderer was afraid of. They moved around the ring, Dragger moving slower with his worked over knee and bullocks. Dragger still had the advantage, he didn’t need to dance with the boy. His monstrously long arms could reach the child easy enough, closing his fingers around the boy was another matter. Knuckle Dragger finally did wrap his fingers around the boy and slammed him like an ape might slammed a melon against a rock. The young Wanderer was sickly still. One might think the blow had killed him, but he slowly gathering his senses. Dragger had made his way to the sword, he wrapped his fingers around the blade and the blade bit him with vicious lightening. He gasped horrible and convulsed until his massive bulk slammed against the ground with a perceivable thud.
The sword was screaming in the young Wanderer’s head, it forced him to regain his senses all at once. The sudden shock stung horribly, but he knew it was necessary. The men still in the spectator’s box still had their guns, could still shoot, but now they didn’t have to worry about hitting Dragger. The shock of Dragger dropping for no apparent reason wouldn’t save him for much longer. The young Wanderer stumbled to his feet and limped forward, moving as fast as his injured body would allow. He wrapped his fingers around the sword and it came loose with easy. He rose the blade and tasted the death he would soon deliver. Dragger blinked awake and saw the blade raised high over his head. He put his hand up in defense and lost it. The young Wanderer chopped it off and smiled as it dropped onto the monster man’s face. He was going to drive the blade down, but gunshots sounded and the young Wanderer scampered away with the blade in hand. Generally speaking the ring wasn’t easily escaped, but the sharpest thing in the world was aptly named. It carved the walls away as easily as room-temperature butter and it carved through any and every man who tried to stop him. He cut his way to freedom and those who were too slow and too afraid to get in his way had their hands full recapturing the fighters who were being housed for the oncoming fights.
8. Blue Magic
The Wanderer had rarely seen blue magic, a lot of the old things were dead to these times, so it came to reason that the Wanderer wouldn’t have many effective defenses against such a potent attack. Dragger lifted the young man up with his natural hand, high off the ground and well away from his mistress’s call. His mind whirled in frustration as he commanded his arms and legs to act and they under-performed for him.
Knuckle Dragger’s metallic hand made a low, crackling whine as the blue arcs grew. Dragger slammed the fist into the Wanderer’s chest in an explosion of blue, jerky flame. The Wanderer crashed in an eruption of dark brown, back into the shit. This injury did more good than harm for the Wanderer. The jolt sent burning adrenaline through the Wanderer’s veins and forced his limbs to regain their lost strength. The first task was to get to his feet. That task was simple enough, the lightening firing over head made it more difficult, but not impossible. The Wanderer made the journey to standing and fell in time to miss another streak of blue lightening. With his limbs perform to some usable degree, his mind turned to the blue magic hand. Dragger hadn’t hit him with the lightening, not at a distance. The Wanderer was a sitting target and it didn’t matter, why? Possibly because Dragger couldn’t aim lightening. Overhead, in the stormy, night skies, lightening appeared to be untamed, maybe this was something similar. Like any other elemental force, one might make use of it, but would be killed if ever they tried to master it. His philosophizing was wasted neurons fired, all he needed to know was that Dragger needed to be close to make use of his blue magic. The Wanderer picked himself up and hobbled to the furthest moment point to the pig-pen. More lightening dancing overhead, this time licking the air near him, but not ever landing. This new information didn’t revealed a new problem. Dragger couldn’t hit him with the lightening from a distance, but the Wanderer couldn’t end this from a distance either. He removed a gun from his hip and toyed with the idea that it somehow evaded damage. That somehow one of the bullets had stayed dry, but holding the weapon confirmed that it’d need cleaning and repair soon. He then thought of the last refuge of desperate gun men, throwing one’s gun. Hefting the shooting iron would make for a fair distraction and the other would make for a fair club. He didn’t like the idea because that idea was also a fair betray of his loyal shooters. He apologized as his launched the gun at Dragger, As it flew, the Wanderer charged with half clumsy footsteps and closed the gap with his other iron drawn and gripped about the muzzle. He launched himself into the air and back up the path he blazed prior.
Dragger had taken the bait and attempted to shoot at the twirling gun. It landed harmlessly, but the other iron connected with Dragger’s temple. He stumbled backward, but keep his balance, The Wanderer struck again and again, roaring viciously. Each blow he landed dropped the monster man another inch or so and each blow welcomed the little savage that he tried to leave behind in the blood spattered rings of the Bad Games.
Knuckle Dragger finally fell, his large half crushing the Wanderer in the fall. Dragger crashed face first into the shit, but still wasn’t dead. Shallow bubbling noises sounded from his mouth, which was half-submerged under the brown filth. The discomfort of being half-submerged and therefore, utilizing only half of his breathing capacity, might have brought the old monster man around, but by that time, the Wanderer had his blade clutched in his hands and drawn to end the old man’s life.
“It would be quick.” Dragger said breathlessly.
“If I wanted it to be.”
“It’d have to be if you want that girl you’re after.” This was true. A single killing swipe would have been necessary, but Dragger deserved more. The fire in his belly, which had been reawakened, demanded better. A single killing blow seemed pity, so the Wanderer didn’t take it.
“How do I find your boy?”
“Slaughterhouse most likely. I didn’t tell him where to go, but it makes sense he’d be there. You’ll find it easy, just sniff for the blood.”
The Wanderer was off, soaked in shit and chewed up by Dragger’s blue magic.
The slaughterhouse was like the homestead in that it looked like it should have been torn down, except the slaughterhouse had the add charms of the pig-pin. The shabby structure stank of shit and noxious chemicals. The Wanderer noted a drain ditch which jutted out from one end of the slaughterhouse and thought of the water he drank back in town. He waved the thought away. He figured that the Perkins place was far enough away from the well in the tavern that it’d be impossible for seepage into the water table to occur. Otherwise, he’d be dead by now.
The structure was quiet, but not the dead quiet the Wanderer had feared. Be it his impossibly sharp sword, which he believed it was, or be it his honed sense, but he could feel the difference. She was still alive because something in her that the Wanderer couldn’t hear, touch or see was far too noisy. The Wanderer crept forth into the slaughterhouse and listened for the inevitable reaction. It didn’t come and the Wanderer questioned if the last Perkins had expected he would need to kill the girl. From past pigs, spit open and hung from the neck on rusted iron hook, and past leaking barrels of something black like crude oil, a whimper sounded. The whimper came from behind strong fingers and was out of terror and not defiance.
The floor was slick will fresh blood, the first of the Perkins had it on his hands. The blood wasn’t everywhere though and where it wasn’t told the Wanderer where the two hid. Two pairs of feet led to the very back. A narrow passage which probably fed the pigs from the pen had been purposefully and in artfully concealed by a few over-turned barrels.
Low and behold, those barrels were cast aside and there, in the stink of shit and black blood, did the last Perkins and the Perkins’ purchase cower. The last Perkins, a smaller copy of the first, with big, bloodshot eyes and a sunken jaw, struggled to do up his pants and crab walk down the passageway at the same time. It seemed that both activities demanded both hands to do, so he got nowhere with either.
The girl, on the other hand, just curled herself in a ball, so as to conceal her half-exposed and blood-burned flesh. She had once been wearing a flower-pattern dress, but that had been ripped to shreds in the last Perkins’ haste. She also had a complete of cuts on her, cross-hatching along her shoulders and back. The Wanderer noticed that some might grow gangrenous without attention.
The Wanderer drew his sword and stopped the progress of the last Perkins. The blade just tapped the crest of the man’s lip and that was enough to draw blood. The blood didn’t bother the man at all, his attention was focused on the long blade, thirst for more.
“Take off your shirt. Give it to the girl.” The last Perkins did as he was told, make nervous whimpers as he did so. He tossed the sweat stained shirt over the girl’s bare shoulders and backed away from her as quick as he could.
“Now go see to your daddy. I’m coming back to kill. I’m doing it right once I get the time to.” The man just sat there, with his gaze going stupider and stupider by the moment. Finally, the Wanderer repeated the command while pulling the man to his feet. He still stalled in the dull light of the slaughterhouse, but soon enough his mind sped up with the current events. His siblings were dead, his adopted father wasn’t and neither was he. The man that had done the killing had given him a reprieve and that reprieve was dwindling with every second he wasted. The last Perkins boy ran from the slaughterhouse, his pants improperly buttoned and falling around his legs.
The Wanderer knelt by the girl as she shivered and rocked back and forth. He knew that she was terrified, that rough hands spiriting her away against her will would do far more harm than good, but the Wanderer had little choice. He wasn’t the codling type and he had miles and miles to go before he slept. He had money to make and people to kill.
9. The Red Convoy
The girl had stayed close-mouth, though she was clearly terrified of the Wanderer. This condition was frustrating to say the least. The Wanderer was after a convoy of red-covered wagons which the girl would have come out of. There were literally thousands of them, selling children wholesale. He’d found and broken up a total of seventeen in his time and he was eager for his eighteenth, the one she came off of. Because she continued to remain mute, he had to revert to forcibly carrying her. The first order of business became cleaning her wounds. The Wanderer expected he was a little ways behind the convoy and he couldn’t have her dying on him along the way. He needed clean water and clean rags. The most obvious place was the tavern, the Perkins place might have had a pump of its own, but he wouldn’t trust the ground water away here. Beside that concern, the last Perkins might have gain some balls with the addition of a gun. He could kill him easy, he could possible kill Dragger in the state he was in, but he wasn’t adept at protecting someone else while doing so.
The Wanderer made his way down the town’s lonesome road with the blonde girl, swaddled in the last Perkins’ shirt. She was a skinny thing with long limbs spilling out from his arms. She might have been close to his height, but he can’t have been sure, since he had never seen her standing.
She shivered terribly and crying continually. Her muscles were tense with her unfulfilled intention to fight with him. As the Wanderer moved up the stairs into the tavern and placed the girl on a table in a far corner. The dog-faced barmaid with the P E R K I on her breast pocket made to protest his filth and her bleeding nudity, but she recognized the girl and attempted to shrink down into nothing. Her face was pale and sickly as the Wanderer clicked a silver piece on the countertop and demanded another pitcher of water and some clean towels.
“Now!” He barked when she stared stupidly at him. She flopped a hand full of cotton towels on the countertop and moved to the pump behind the bar. She dropped the pitcher on the floor the first time she attempted to fill it, but had better luck the second time. She filled the pitcher and handed it over. The Wanderer kept his back turned to the woman as she moved away toward the porch, where the elder bull man still slumbered with his bowling ball betwixt his legs. The Wanderer gingerly dabbed at the girl’s wounds, wiping away the filth as she shivered like the rape victim she was. Once her wounds were cleaned, the Wanderer started on the uncut flesh with a new towel. The damage wasn’t as horrible as he had feared, but it easily could have been.
The girl shrunk away from the cold water and made whimpering sounds, but the Wanderer worked on her, she seemed to relax her muscles. Maybe it was fatigue and maybe it was trust, but the Wanderer doubted the ladder.
Lastly, the Wanderer made crude bandages with the last of the towels. He managed to appeal a few of them before the ball who launched.
As per his instincts, he launched himself away from the path of the ball, but recanted to snatch the girl out of harm’s way. The ball punched a hole through the wall and then rushed back along the path it came to rest in the hands of the old bull man. His face was still pallid from his sleep and Ma Perkins, the bar maid hid behind him. The girl had started howling on the ground, which drew the bowler’s attention. The ball flew with its chain snaking behind it and the Wanderer intercepted the strike with the edge of his sword. The Wanderer slashed the ball and a hefty chunk of the marble crashed down onto the ground, splitting again into two pieces. The bowler returned the ball to him and gave a grimace to his injured weapon. The girl wasted little time after her salvation. She got open and started toward the door. The bowler launched the ball again and instead of hitting her, it passed her. The girl became tripped up in the bowler’s chain nevertheless and she smacked the floor with an ugly thud. As the returned to its master, the Wanderer charged and managed to knick the ball from its chain. With no control over the cut sphere, the bowler sidestepped the ball and started at the Wanderer with the chain.
His whirled the chain overhead in widening arcs, creating a circle of protection. The chain whined and clanked as it sliced through the air. The Wanderer mimicked the motion with his sword, managing better with figure-eights in the air in front of his body. He charged forward and as the chain descended to strike, it broke appear into several pieces. Each piece launched itself into a different direction like shrapnel. The bowler still had maybe a foot and a half of the chain, but he also had the Wanderer’s blade on his neck. A small display of mercy, if the old man would take it. The old man dropped the chain.
“What’s your name, boy?” The old man asked, raising his hands into view.
“Clod.” The Wanderer said in almost a croak.
“I’ll remember that.” The old man said, his eyes trained on the blade as it left his neck. The Wanderer sheathed his blade and picked the girl up by the arm. She was still sobbing, though she didn’t fight his grip.
He stepped out onto the porch where Ma Perkins had escaped to at some point in the fight. She shrank backward into the street, her face going paler and paler. She was a bleached skull by the time she stood on the street and tears where traveling down her cheeks.
“My boys. Are they all gone?” She asked with a quiver choking her voice.
“Not all.” He said and moved on down the road.
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