Thursday, April 19, 2018

No Better Life - Chapter 2

 by Gerard "Gray" Chartier
[Editor's note: click here to read Chapter 1]

Gray glanced at Darvan as they walked down a dusty street of broken cobblestones.  “You’ve been fairly quiet,” he said.
Darvan looked at Gray.  “Yes.  Something’s bothering me.”
“What’s that?” Gray asked.
Darvan shrugged.  “I can’t quite place it.  It’s just that there’s something…familiar…about this city.”
“I can’t imagine why that might be,” Gray remarked, “Seeing as you’re from…”  He wiggled his fingers towards the darkening sky.
They approached an intersection, three of the corners occupied by rickety rebuilt half-ruins, the fourth occupied by a sprawling garden bordered by a wall of rubble – probably from the building that had stood there at one point, Gray surmised.
Darvan pointed to one of the stones low in the wall.  “Have you been seeing those?”
Gray took a better look at the stone.  Darvan wasn’t pointing to the rock so much as the figure scrawled on it.  “Huh.  Good eye.”
“I’m a shooter.  I spot things,” Darvan said, “What does it look like to you?”
Gray squatted down to examine the figure.  “Like a burning man under a crescent moon.”
Darvan nodded.  “That’s what they look like to me, too.”
“They?” Gray asked.
“I’ve been seeing them all over this town,” Darvan replied.
Gray straightened back up.  “Gang territory marking, maybe?”
Darvan shook his head.  “We’ve crossed at least two territories since we left the inn.  I’ve seen them in all of them.  Got any idea what it means?”
Gray rubbed the back of his neck.  “Not sure.  It strikes me as kind of ominous though.  Especially considering two things.”
“Which are?” Darvan prodded.
Gray held up a finger.  “One, the man in the figure is painted a metallic bronze color.”  He raised a second finger.  “Two, the phase of the moon tonight is waning crescent.”
Darvan looked up at the sky.  “We’d better get back.  It’s going to be sundown soon, and I’m not confident we can afford to wait for tomorrow to see this Scholar.  Plus, think we want to lose the tail we picked up.”
Gray nodded.  “Two guys in dark cloaks with their hoods pulled up?  Them I noticed.”
Darvan resumed strolling the way they’d been going.  “Take this right with me.  When we round the corner, we sprint and take the next right.”

Gray glanced over his shoulder at the pair emerging from a makeshift stable. “Bugger,” he grumbled, “I hate running.”
Darvan grinned at him as they took the corner.  “It’s good for you!”
Gray didn’t get a chance to deliver his retort, as Darvan sprang into a run.  Gray was obliged to lumber after him to keep up.  They rounded the corner and kept going, Gray following when Darvan hooked a left around a shell of a building no one had yet decided to rebuild and repurpose.  Gray followed as the red-clad warrior darted through a gaping doorway and ducked into the shadows.  He struggled to quiet his panting breaths, envying the younger man’s agility and vigor.
A few minutes of tense waiting produced no shouts or footsteps running after them.
“Think we lost them?” Gray whispered.
“One way to find out,” Darvan replied.
Darvan peeked out of the doorway, then crept out into the street, looking both ways.  His posture relaxing, he beckoned to Gray to join him.  “Keep your eyes peeled for trouble.”

“Always,” Gray agreed.
Unfortunately, Broken Bridge was not laid out in as orderly a grid as the city’s original inhabitants may have intended, with rubble blocking some streets and the later construction sprawling out into others.  By the time Gray was confident they were heading back to the Leaping Trout, they had a pair of extra shadows again.
“Our friends are back,” Gray muttered.
Darvan nodded.  “Just keep going.  We’re getting close.”
They were halfway down a deserted alley when another pair of hooded figures emerged in front of them.
“Strangers,” one hissed as they drew pitted short swords from under their cloaks, “Here for the Bronze Man.  You will not take him.  Instead, we’ll take you!”
Darvan drew his swords and dropped into a fighting stance.  “Watch behind us!”
Gray dropped back a step and pivoted, drawing his dagger as he did so.  Their extra shadows were also advancing on them, rusty blades in hand.  “I’ve got them.”
The pair approaching from behind advanced with more confidence than the two Darvan faced, but only because they failed to reckon with Killer.  The squirrel’s scream of pure rage echoed off the crumbling stone walls of the alley, and he launched himself at the face of one of the hooded men as soon as he came close enough.
Gray didn’t have time to keep track of Killer’s melee, as the other hooded figure came in, raising his weapon high and swinging down hard.  Gray deflected the first blow with his dagger.  Not given enough time to draw in sufficient power to strike the man down with lightning, he instead extended his palm to his opponent and launched a ball of raw magical energy at him.  The man staggered back, gasping as the magic missile exploded against his chest.
Gray risked a half-turn to launch another missile at one of Darvan’s opponents.  The man howled as the energy scorched his arm, flinching away enough to give Darvan an opening, the Mayerlinger’s right-hand sword slashing at the man’s midsection, but bouncing off, ringing against armor concealed under the cloak.
Gray’s inattentiveness to his foe cost him as he stabbed at the mage’s lower back.  His ensorcelled cloak turned the blade, but his back still exploded with pain, the impact dropping him to his hands and knees.
His opponent’s next stroke was blocked by one of Darvan’s swords, giving Gray a moment to draw power.  Dropping his dagger, he launched another magic missile at his foe, blasting a hole in the ring mail shirt the man wore.  Darvan, quick to exploit the opening, ran one of his swords through the hole.  The man gasped, gurgled, and slid limply to the ground.
Darvan’s opponents took advantage of his distraction to press their attack, one of the short swords finding the gap between the sleeve of  his scale armor and bracer and slicing deep into the muscle and tendon of his left arm.  The Mayerlinger cried out, one of his swords dropping from his crippled arm.
Gray rose to one knee, launching a magic projectile that impacted one of the pair’s legs, blasting flesh and exposing shinbone.  The man shrieked and toppled, writhing and clutching at his ruined limb – until Darvan plunged his sword in the man’s throat, yanking it free with a spray of blood.
The last man, suddenly finding himself outnumbered, whirled and bolted.  Gray began drawing power to blast him with lightning, but Darvan beat him to the punch, stabbing his sword into the ground, then drawing his dagger and flinging it with one fluid motion.  The blade found its mark in the back of the man’s neck.  He sprawled face-first just short of reaching the street.
Darvan turned back go Gray and offered his good hand.  “You all right?”
Gray took the offered hand and groaned as his friend helped him back to his feet.  “I will be.  The blade didn’t penetrate, but I think I’ll be pissing blood for a week.  You?”
“My arm’s bad,” Darvan grated, “Can you take care of it?”
Gray nodded, sucking air through his teeth at the cut and the blood pouring from it as he rested his hand over the wound.
“Keeper of the Night I call, for future bright or dim,” he chanted, summoning power through the words that had been passed from mage to mage since probably the first man or woman had learned to shape magic to their will, “I your servant need your aid, restore this wounded limb.”
When he removed his hand, Darvan’s arm was still bloody, but the wound was healed, without even a trace it had been there.
The Mayerlinger retrieved his swords.  “What happened to the fourth man?”
The pair looked over to where the fourth man had been just as Killer emerged from his pants leg and bounded up onto his chest, chittering in triumph.
Darvan’s eyes widened at the squirrel sitting atop his prize.  “Is he dead?”
Gray strode over to check the man’s pulse.  “No, he’s alive.”  He looked the man over – he had a nasty bite wound on the bridge of his nose, his face and neck were scratched, his shirt was partially torn open, and he had a swelling lump at the back of his skull.  “Looks like he lost his balance and hit his head on a rock in the ground.”

“Well, grab him and bring him with us,” Darvan suggested, “If these cultists were able to intercept us on the way to the inn, they know where we’re staying.  And if they’re looking for Mayerling elves for their rituals…”
Gray hoisted the unconscious man over his shoulders and began lumbering down the alley, Killer following and complaining about Gray stealing his prisoner.  “Less talk, more move!”
Darvan pelted past him at a dead run.  For once, Gray didn’t mentally berate him for his vigor.


To Be Continued in Chapter Three....

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