Desert Thorns

The evening air dried the day’s sweat on their skin, pushing it past the surface and into their bones. The slavers didn’t care if they succumbed. Only the strongest were fit to serve; the rest they left to the scouring sand.

Finding themselves too thinly dressed for the cooling weather, two young women hugged themselves for modesty and warmth.

The cleric’s cruel eyes noticed, gleaming in lustful anticipation.

They noticed him too.

Hakina, the bolder of the two, dared to narrow her eyes in haughty defiance.

With a sneer disguised as a smile, the cleric sauntered his way over to where they sat in their own filth, chained to each other and a heavy steel pole, his nose wrinkling at the stench.

He turned to the bent-back whose duty it was to shadow him and obey his every command, no matter how abusive, disgusting, or self-abasing.

“Clean this one and bring her to my tent at the edge of the camp.”

“Nameless hears and obeys, Cleric Hameen.”

“Nameless pleases. Now go.”

The bent-back shuffled off as his master turned his attention back on Hakina.

She wanted to keep quiet but her hatred wouldn’t allow it.

“One such as you seeks to break me?”

He slapped her down, kicked some foul sand toward her eyes.

“Little bitch, I will shatter you before this night is done.”

“You call me ‘bitch,’ but it’s you who shall howl, pretender!” Her eyes burned and stung as she wiped at them, trying to gain her footing .

He punched her, slamming her down again.

Her mouth was bleeding.

He pulled her hair to tilt her head, wiped her lips hard with a rough hand, smearing the blood on her cheeks as she sought to dislodge herself.

For her defiance, he pressed her cheeks in hard on both sides until she drooled and cried out from the pain. Her hands came up to throttle him, but the clinking of the chain checked her.

The movement and its intent wasn’t lost on him, and he sneered again.

“We shall see.” His quiet voice belied the storm in his eyes as he shoved her away and walked off, leaving her gasping for air and rubbing her jaw.

Her fellow captive went to help her up, but Hakina slapped her hand away.

“Do you seek to have us die before sunrise?” Isani asked.

“I seek to have us free by moonrise, if you’ll help me. The fate of women is ever the same in these places.”

Hakina gained her feet without assistance, looking up at the evening sky as she wiped the tears the cleric forced out of her with the back of her dirty sleeve.

As for Isani, this was the third time she was captured, and she vowed it would be the last. They’d taken her mother and sister too, slaughtering her father as he knelt, crying and pleading for the lives of his family at the expense of his own.

They granted his wish and took their time enjoying it, but set no one free.

She’d managed to escape through playing the ‘broken woman,’ and endured their sick games as they used her. When they were confident she understood her place, she quietly killed them. Blades, poison, acid on their groins after they were gagged. Whatever lay nearby.

The camp guards never questioned her when she left the camps crying, her face puffy and her clothing torn. They sneered, making their own lewd remarks and rubbing themselves as she passed, offering their own crude versions of comforting her.

By the time they discovered their dead, she was long gone.

She sighed, looking after the retreating form of the impious, impure cleric.

“Done, if you manage to include me in the tryst.”

Hakina looked her over, a mirthless smile on her lips.

“I think I can manage that.”

Can’t Swallow Your Poison

I can’t be myself within your parameters

that define me according to what

you think

my limits

should be.

I don’t only belong in the places

you tell me

I can go.

My mind is not limited to your perceptions

of what

I am capable of achieving.

My freedom is not contingent

on your condescension.

My life

is not yours to take

because

you’re afraid.

My will

is not yours to mold because

you hate

what makes you afraid.

My color is not an accident.

My true ancestry is not diluted by you.

My creativity need not celebrate you.

We are on this sphere by divine will.

You are in my sphere through no choice of my own.

But understand, I will not swallow your poison.

You belittle our massive, unspoken love

for this nation of bondage; whenever we are asked to serve,

we do it with dignity and honor, but not at the expense

of our dignity in service to your hypocrisy.

I will not give you water for your pill of denial,

and I will not drink the poison you’ve

slipped into my life.

I give you back your cup, untouched.

Partake of your own bitterness,

And when you leave

I will place coins on your eyes

for the ferryman,

because I won’t carry the weight of

your ignorance on me

anymore.

 

 

 

Chrysalis

Within the dark green chrysalis

I see the torchlight’s glare.

As I walk down the flame-lit hall

I feel the demon’s stare.

He’s hidden and he’s silent

but he’s watching all the same.

He’s changing into something

that will want to play a game

of cat and mouse and hide and seek.

I’m not up to the task.

I’ll have to kill him quickly,

so no one will ever ask

Who won the battle tween the two?”

I’ll win it handily,

And slice the chrysalis apart

and finally be free.

Making Warr (new chapter)

Check out the latest chapter of Making Warr.

He’s in WAY over his head, but that’s where he thrives…

 

Making Warr:

Warren Bradley was retired, the victim of a failed experiment that not only would have increased his strength, but his intelligence as well. When a decision is made to re-launch the project, a botched attempt to bring him back in by force results in his wife being killed. 

He is now determined to obtain and destroy the information that led to her murder, and get the people responsible.

There’s just one problem: The information’s been stolen and taken overseas. And an ex has re-entered his life on the side of a rival agency. And the chemicals in his system are starting to degrade. Okay, that was three problems…

http://channillo.com/series/making-warr/

Happy Valentine’s Dead (3)

Too early to go home, too late to go back to the office.

I’d put something maudlin on the stereo, and grieve with an expensive bottle of single malt; the picture of that in my head was too pathetic, even for me.

I went to the Full Moon Saloon instead; it was everything it promised.

My favorite barmaid, Sandy, was there; she didn’t like the term though. She preferred bartender, because she had her reasons, which oddly enough, were pretty valid.

“Hey, Kent.”

“Hey Sandy.”

“I heard.”

“Who hasn’t?”

She leaned forward, searching my face, all compassion. “What can I get you?”

“The usual, stronger than usual.”

She gave a little smile, but there was concern as she pulled back. “You sure you want to…?”

I sighed. “Sandy, I’ve been second guessing myself since I heard about Valentine. I just had a young cop get in my face and second guess me too. I consider this place a refuge, and a haven, which may be the same thing, but I don’t care right now, and I’d like to think I know my own mind, at least here.

“So yeah, I’m sure.”

“Hey,” she said, leaning back over. “This place is a refuge for you?”

“Yeah.”

She smiled. “Does that make me your refugee?”

I groaned, smiling in spite of the fact my heart felt like a sledgehammer hit it.

“Really? Is that the best you got?”

“Ha! I got a million more like ‘em.”

“That’s why you’re here.”

She stroked my cheek, then gave it a little slap.

“Fuck you, big man.” She went down the bar to make my drink.

“When I watch you walk away, anything’s possible.”

She looked over her shoulder, then it registered, and her mouth dropped.

I started laughing, then she joined in.

We actually did have a thing once, but she wasn’t going to walk the path I chose, and truth be told, I didn’t want her to do it either; she had an innate sweetness, despite the jadedness of the surroundings she worked in.

The place was a dive, but it was ‘our dive.’

She came back with the drink, and poured a shot for herself.

“To Valentine,” she said. We dribbled some of our drinks on the bar; she let it run down a bit, and the scent wafted up like sinful incense.

“So what happens now?”

“Word’s getting around; by tomorrow there’ll be a manhunt.”

“You in it?”

I sighed.
“No, Kent. C’mon. Those jackals that do this stuff for real are great at it, way better than guys like you.”

“I’m motivated.”

“By what? Were you…?”

“No. She was like a daughter to me. Sort of.”

 You didn’t admire your daughter’s legs. or let her roam the world in short, tight dresses killing people for obscene amounts of cash.

“You, and other guys like you. C’mon, Kent! She’s played the role on stage a million times to guys like you.”

“You keep saying that, Sandy. What do you mean by that?”

“Careworn, world-weary. Guys like you, carrying weight you no longer need to carry, having problems that should have gone away by middle age. Guys like you, trapped by money and no way to get out ‘cept through the morgue.”

She put her hand across my folded forearms.

“It was never going to be enough, Kent. Don’t you see that? You’ve got blood on your hands, your conscience, and no one to inherit anything good, because nothing good came out of it.”

She dug her nails in a bit.

“All you have to show, for all you’ve done, for all the years you’ve been supposedly cleaning up the streets and changing things for others, and profiting from it, is an onset of cirrhosis, and a dead young girl with her guts steaming in the rain.”

Her words felt like someone jammed a double-barrel to my head and pulled both triggers.

I felt myself convulse, and she took her hand away.

There was such a rush of mixed emotions, I wound up acting on none of them: I wanted to slap her, I wanted to throw the glass as hard as I could and watch it shatter, the way Valentine shattered when the bomb went off. I wanted to shoot something or someone, I wanted to scream, and I wanted to die.

I was out of tears, but my face must’ve gone rumply like I was going to cry again.

“Sorry, Kent. I care about you; I don’t want you to do this.”

“You’re really saying you don’t know if I can.”

She turned that over, took a sip of her drink, then focused back on me.

“Yeah, at the core of it, that’s what I’m saying. Let the hounds loose, and they’ll find him. Swoop in then, and take him away and butcher him all night when they do, but don’t join the chase.

“Please, Kent. Don’t do it.”

I took a sip of the malt.

“You had me at ‘butcher’….”

“Kent?”

I took another sip.

“Ahhh, dammit, Sandy…”

She beamed, leaned over, kissed me quick.

“That’s my man…”

We had another round, and I caught a cab home, and watched the rain run down the window, and the red neon lights colored it, and it was Valentine’s blood again, running down the window, down the gutters, down the drain, down to wherever the damned souls go, crying for peace.

 

*****************

 

When I got in, I booked a mid morning flight to Valentine’s hometown.

I hung up, feeling a bit guilty, remembering everything Sandy said, but there was one thing more important than anything else that stood out.

“Sorry, love.

“You really did have me at ‘butcher.’ ”

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Dead (2)

When I stopped bawling, there was work to do.

It should’ve frightened me that I wanted to be the one to do it, and if I’d known the depravity my own heart would reveal, I would’ve put a bullet in my head that instant.

But Valentine always said I was a hardhead.

It was raining. There was a white sheet over a red blob, and the sheet was soaked through.

“You sure about this, sir?” the cop said, standing just outside the crime tape.

I wasn’t, and he took my hesitation as an answer.

He waved over the ME. I knew him: Larson Hughes, smartest in the business.

Hughes looked up, saw me, put something away in a case, and walked over, peeling off a bloody latex glove.

“Kent.” He nodded.

“Larson. What happened.”

“Explosive of some type.”

“Thrown at her?”

“No. Found traces of it in a briefcase she was carrying.”

My heart sank.

“What color was it?”

“The case?”

“No, Larson, her blood. Yes, the fucking case.”

“Silver. Why?”

“Cuz he gave it to her,” the cop said. “There were money fragments all over the place.”

“Larson, shut this kid up.”
“You opened the door, Kent.”

“I didn’t give her that case. I paid her two days ago, and she disappeared. That’s how we worked. That’s how we always worked: I paid her, and she went away while the cops scrambled their eggs and came up with nothing.”

The cop’s jaw hardened.

“Walk away, Gilliam.” Larson advised.

Gilliam took a moment to let me feel the weight of his wrath, and walked off.

“Don’t be stupid, Kent. You’re gonna need them at some point.”

“This ain’t that point.”

Larson sucked in a breath.

“You’ve been at this awhile, so I’m gonna let it go, because I know you know better. Don’t be an asshole on this. Everyone knows what this girl did, they just can’t prove it.

“Either she met somebody better, or the whole thing was a tragic accident, and there’s nothing that’s ever gonna get proven either way.

“You know that too. Don’t’cha.”

I nodded. “You know what I have to do then, ‘don’t cha.’ ”

“If I catch you Kent, you know what I have to do.”

I nodded again.

“Too bad, Kent. Sweet kid, when she didn’t have a gun.”

“Somebody unsweetened her a long time ago, Larson. I need to find out who, and why?”

“Does it matter? Chick assassins are as commonplace now as—“

The look on my face stopped whatever he was going to say next.

He looked away, lit a cigarette. “Head back. Get outta here. I’ll see to it she’s taken care of.”

“Thanks, Larson.”

He waved and turned away.

I stood there a moment longer, looking at the white sheet soaked red, the blood and rain mingling in rivulets that sluiced down the drain in the gutter.

“Ah, Valentine.”

I understood Larson’s point; he’d known her too, before I did, in a different life, when she was a teenager. A lot had happened, and he tried to mentor her, but she wanted something more than the straight and narrow, and my other friend provided that, for awhile.

She would’ve moved on from me too, in time. Perhaps she already had someone else lined up. She never really worked for anyone; she was freelance, and handled her own affairs.

Her rep in the underground markets was impeccable. I’d been lucky to get her.

Most of my problems were gone, but not all, and none of them were good enough to get her like this.

I had to work up a list of her enemies, and her competition; there was room for overlap there, but true pros always left it at competition, and never made it personal.

Valentine had been one of those.

There was the matter of an estate, if she had one, and I decided to start there.

Someone made a ton of money if he was able to take her out, and I decided to find out whom that might be.

A niggling feeling told me I was getting into deep waters: Valentine was international: passports, money, tech, anonymous drops, first class hotels and flights. She knew the ropes, made the loopholes, and walked wires that would make other assassins quit.

She was the best, and someone had taken that away.

I wouldn’t be the only one hunting whoever it was that thought they could replace her.

They were off to a good start, but Valentine was well-liked.

Whoever you are, you better have killer legs and a sunny personality. Being a crack shot might aid your cause too. Explosives were over-reach, cowardly even; just put it down, and slink away like a vole.

She was the only one I knew her age who would get my jazz references.

The last thing I’d said to her was the opening line from a jazz standard, and she knew what to say.

That alone was cause enough to marry her, in my book.

“I’ll find them, Valentine. And when I do, they’re gonna wish I blew them up.”

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Dead (1)

As always, she delivered. There was never a trace, never a mess.

Honestly, I don’t know how she did it, and I never cared to ask.
She came referred to me by someone she used to work for; they parted on bad terms, and she shot him in the knee, but even then, he admired her work.

“Best I ever saw.”

“Rate?”

He told me. It was up there, but workable.
”All right.”

 

*****************

 

She came in looking like new pearls; guess that made me the swine.

Short red dress, body like a tight spring, killer legs, not too made up, soft perfume, the whole nine, then nine more.

Now I realized why he kept her after she shot him; she was the kind of woman who could do that to a man and be forgiven instantly. Hell, I forgave her, then and there, and she never even took her gun out.

She crossed the killer legs, let me look my fill and travel my way up; when I finally got to her eyes, they were amused, and she was smiling like the Cheshire Cat.

“Do I pass…inspection?”

“With flying colors.”

She uncrossed the legs and leaned forward, eyes no longer amused, and told me her terms.

“I work alone. No cops, no tails. If I get wind of anyone, anyone, I’m giving you a refund, but I’m coming after you.”

I sat back, steepled my fingers, intrigued.

“You shouldn’t tip your hand so early.”

“I don’t care; I need to get to Mexico.”

“Why Mexico?”

She looked at me as I’d just fallen on my head and changed color.

“Why not Mexico?”

I shrugged. “Why not?”

I told her the job, and gave her a down payment, the rest to be paid upon completion.

“So, just to be clear, I work for you now?”

I held out my hand: “You can always give it back.”

We locked eyes for a few moments, before she brightened, smiled, and winked, all flirtatious play, like a shark bumping a hole in your sea cage.

“See you later, boss” she said, and left.

She did it in two days. No trace.

I paid her double.

 

*************

She went on to do a few more jobs.

I liked her sass; you didn’t see girls with sass anymore; in my day, I might’ve held her for a bit, but she’d have burned me like acid.

I’d have melted away a happy man…

“My money?”

“Right there, Valentine.”

I pointed to the briefcase.

“Yes, they’re not marked, blah blah,” I said waving a dismissive hand.

“I trust you, Kent.”

“You should. How long we been together now?”

She smiled. “A gentleman remembers her birthday, never her age.”

“Ha, listen to you. You’re still in diapers, and you didn’t make that up.”

“I read, peasant.”

I laughed.

“Anything else for me,” she said.

“Might be, Valentine. Gimme a day or so.”

“You’re the only one that calls me ‘Valentine,’ Kent. Everyone else says ‘V’ or ‘Val’.

I got up, stretched, yawned, then said to her, “I ain’t everyone else. I like the way your name sounds. I like you, and I’d love to…well, if you’d let me, but that gets…”

“Expensive?” she teased.

I cleared my throat, then answered her.“Costly.”

She laughed then. “Charmer.”

She picked up the briefcase.

“Til next time, lover man.”

“If you’re ever feeling lonely…”

“I’ll call you.” She turned and blew me a kiss. “Promise.”

I never saw her again.

When they found what was left of her, I bawled like a kid.

The Breaking of Chrystal Belle

“Is she dead?”

“Mostly.”

“Why not completely?”

“I’m not finished; you said to prolong it.”

“It’s been prolonged enough. Finish it.”

“She’s said nothing. If I finish it, you’ll get nothing.”

“It’s been three hours. You’ve done everything but…”

“I could do that. She’d need to be cleaned up first, but I can do it.”

“Would you? Would you really? Even now?”

“Why not?”

He looked at me a long moment.

“You’re going to tell me I’m a monster? A fiend? A devil?”

“No.”

“ ‘No’,” I imitated his voice, “ ‘I’m just going to think it.’ Right?”

“I…I’ll leave you to your work.”

“Ha! It’s your work, wizard; I’m just the tool you’re using.”

That stopped him in his tracks, but he didn’t turn around, and after a heartbeat or two, walked out.

I went back to work.

 

****************

“You heard him, Chrystal?”

Her voice was raspy from screaming and the smoky torches, deliberately dabbed in something to make them so.

She nodded.

I leaned in close: “He doesn’t care if I kill you. Do you?”

She nodded again.

“I’m going to take off the gag, all right? Just tell me what I need to know.”

She gasped, and I gave her some water to wet her throat, clean the blood, and deceive her into thinking I just might be merciful.

“Where are the others?”

“He told you to rape me.”

“Yes.”

“You told him you would, if he wanted.”

“Yes.”

She paused a moment, then said “What if I said you didn’t have to force me?”

I smiled in shocked amusement at her pluck.

“Do you think I’m so easily bought? I could have you whether he granted me permission or not.”

She gave a smile of her own, red rimmed as it was. “You know that’s not true.”

Interesting. It had been a statement meant to rattle her.

“You’re stalling, Chrystal. When he returns, he expects me to hand him your corpse.”

“You’ve broken me up inside already, and what have you gained?”

“I told him that, but I believe you know where the rest of your kind is hiding, and…”

I picked up a branding iron, spit on it to let her hear the sizzling hiss.

“I would so hate to ruin that lovely face.”

“Do it. I don’t know where they’re hiding, and it no longer matters.”

I took off the hooded mask I wore, and she flinched at my appearance.

Walking toward her now, I saw her shrink back, and I smiled, which made her flinch even more.

“Before I do…”

Gripping her chin, I forced her lips to mine a long moment, heard her retch in her throat, and I stuffed the gag back in, and jammed the brand onto her thigh.

As she thrashed against the bonds and screamed behind the gag, a thought occurred to me.

Maybe I am going soft…

 

*****************

The pain shooting me through me made me drop the brand, as if I’d burned myself with it.

Chrystal was still kicking a bit, her eyes watery, and mucus and saliva pooling around the gag made her unlovely.

I knew immediately where I’d made my mistake, and I could torture her no longer; everything I did to her, I would now feel. Already I could see bruises appearing, feel the aches she felt, saw the cuts I’d made on her now slice my own skin open and weep with blood.

I could see the brand on my own leg.

Her eyes were still defiant, and if I weren’t going to go blind in the doing, I would’ve gouged them out with my thumbs.

The gag dissolved, and her smile had that same smarmy slyness when she told me I couldn’t have her without permission.

“Free me. Now.”

“You marked me.”

“You marked yourself with your lust, Bressal. You knew, or said you did, of our powers.”

I freed her.

“Are you going to kill me?” I asked her.

“No. You’re going to kill the wizard for me. When he comes, don’t bother dragging it out.”

She walked over to my array of bloodletting toys, and picked out an axe, one I’d trusted through the years for other duties, but it was somewhat dull now, as I’d not used it in some time.

I bowed my head in defeat.

“Put this through his skull,” she said.

“It’s dull.” I could no longer meet her eyes.

She laughed. “As are you. My husband has made his choice, now I’ve made mine. Strike as many times as you have to; I’ll be back to see what you’ve done.”

Her eyes narrowed, and I felt something like a fist around my heart.

“And if I see no body, Bressal, I’ll know you’ve betrayed me, and make you wish you were never born.”

The fist let go.

I didn’t like being threatened. She’d bested me, and now felt emboldened to boast.

“We will one day have reckoning,” I said to her retreating back. “I will break this spell, and then you, Chrystal, into shards of bad memories your husband’s maid will sweep under thick carpets.

“My ruined face will be the last thing you see, my kiss the last thing you feel, as I take your womanhood along with your life.”

The door shut on my tirade.

I wiped at the tears in my eyes that baptized me into her service, but I couldn’t stop them, and decided to blame it on the acrid torches.

Then I took the axe, put it across my lap, and waited.

 

 

Black Snakes Cast No Shadows

It was over, just as the moon rose.

The men were exhausted, barely standing, to tired to cheer as the last of the enemy fell.

We won, but what that was exactly, then and there, I could not tell you.

I reeked of the blood and guts of others, and my own blood mingled with theirs, to drip into my eyes, down my arms, and dull the gleam of my blade in the moonlight.

Falling to my knees, unable to stand any longer, I looked around me.

Bodies everywhere, in stacks, in pieces, ending in wetness, ending in white bone.

And someone lit the field on fire, and howls began in the woods.

“Koyah, we cannot stay here.”

My second in command, Sengo, my brother in arms, long trusted, bedecked also in gore.

He grasped my forearm, helped me to my feet.

“You fought bravely,” I told him.

He nodded. “As did you, and all the others who are left to tell the tale.”

I looked around.

“We burn our dead,” he told me, “and leave theirs to rot.”

“It is done well.”

.   “Do we push on toward the city, Koyah?” Sengo asked.

“We push on, but in the morning we rest, bind our wounds, eat, and mourn our fallen.”

His smile was wan, and his nod weary. He left my side to go marshal the survivors; they weren’t as many as before, but they might prove to be enough.

Heaviness settled across my shoulders, as if the hands of a giant pushed me to the ground.

I dropped my weapon, flexed my hand, wiped my eyes free of tattered red flesh, and let the energy of the slaughtering day dissipate, and I pitched forward, and lay in a cool, clean patch of blood-soaked grass.

And not for the first time, thought that maybe it was time to set this whole fighting thing back down into the cave which spawned it, and the dream came afresh, with vivid detail, so real that I felt the breeze across my skin like a palm leaf’s kiss.

I felt my lips form a silent curse my father would have smacked me for uttering, and I turned to face the king again.

 

He shook his head, eyes full of malevolent pity; his voice was soft, deep, almost fatherly.

    “Fool boy, turn your army now, while there is yet time. Your souls are forfeit when you see the city wall. I will reap among you with all the effort of a child in high summer fields, and the vultures and dogs will glean the scraps of your corpses.

    “Koyah, do you not grow weary of this? Turn aside.”

   “I will never turn.”

   Last time, his throne had been in a natural alcove, surrounded by exotic, vibrant birds, and women that fawned on his corpulence, and guards with serpentine eyes and charcoal skin.

    This time, he was in darkened hall, with nothing of mock gaiety around him. This time, there were countless  thick black serpents, gleaming and sleek, uncoiling around his feet like living smoke, slithering in languor up the height of his throne, and cloaking his body like a scaly robe;  their eyes of fiery emerald and ruby and tourmaline glittered with preternatural intelligence as they looked at me, and almost seemed to smile.

    The chills that gripped me did not come from the wind, but the yawning, bottomless grave.

   “You had no right to kill us, enslave us, burn us…”

   “You had no right to keep my tribute, my gold, my children-“

   “OUR children, you –“

    He merely put up his hand, and I choked on my own tongue as it bent backwards in my mouth.

   He released it, speaking over my retching coughs, my eyes stinging with tears, made more acrid by the fires around me.

    “Watch your tongue, child. You only think you lead, but you are a boy playing ‘warrior,’ not fully understanding all that means, for yourself, and others.

    “Turn aside.”

     I was able to breathe enough air back into my lungs to defy him once more.

    “I will not.”

    “Then come, child-warrior, and learn at the point of my knife, as it furrows your throat, what it is to become a man.”

 

********************

I woke up sweating.

“How long was I…?”

“Not long, Koyah. The men did not see.”

“Did I…?”

“No. You did not cry out…this time.”

I put my hand on Sengo’s shoulder in gratitude.

“He put you to sleep again?”

“Yes. And commanded as he always does.”

Sengo leaned forward. “But we have nothing to counter him, brother. The closer we get, the smaller our numbers become; these …things…he sends after us, are more than dead, but less than men, and they are weeding us out, and down.”

“What are you saying, Sengo, that we turn back?”

“No. He is using rituals that were old beyond writing, dark and forbidden; these are workings, and dead things, that would drive most insane.”

He seemed to consider what he was going to say next, which meant it was portentous, but I’d known him long enough to let him form his thought.

“We need someone like him.”

“In our ranks?”

“How else can we fight him?”

The fires did their cleansing dance, and the flesh of men I spoke with only yesterday, smiled with, drank with, told ribald jokes with, wrestled with and fought beside, now curled and blackened and drifted up in red sparks under the waxing moon and the wheeling stars.

Sengo’s smile was tenuous.

“He will be here tomorrow.”