Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Cave Dragon

Summary: This is two-fisted weird fiction set in Ben Massey’s city-state of Sarabande. A dying mercenary  is offered one last chance at meaning before he passes away. Perhaps there is no better time for an adventure than when your life is already forfeit, but on a real adventure you could risk spending your last moments in hell on earth. What do you choose?

He couldn’t taste the coffee. It was all about the heat and the clink of the china at this point.

He looked at the cigar stub laying on a clean white porcelain ashtray atop the fishscale glass table.

“Parasitic worm,” he growled at it, and smiled.

Hunter Flintridge was cold. It was a crisp, sunny, bright-aired day in Ascension. The thick little leaves shimmered and shivered in the breeze on the gleaming gray trees lining the clean, uncracked lane.

Hunter tried to bury himself deeper in his gray felt overcoat. He crossed his legs in his black corduroy slacks, squeezing his thighs and knees together as if to extract a little more warmth by friction or some impossible melding of flesh and bone.

He coughed long and bloodily. Tasted like he’d been shot. All the little round holes on his body gave him the authority to say this. But he couldn’t recover from his latest wound. He smacked his lips and wiped them with the back of his hand. The foam he was coughing up wasn’t as pink as it would be in the evening. At least there was that.

Two men walked up the sidewalk towards him. Black peacoat on the first one, gray tweed slacks, black loafers. Smoked lenses in round wireframe glasses. Black flat cap. Companion in a light brown bomber jacket. Brown cords. Brown combat boots. Red scarf.

If Ascension even had an intelligence service, these boys seemed to be likely candidates. Handler and security. Or they were outsiders looking the part. Hunter was used to being approached this way. He hated to disappoint, but he’d been forcibly retired.

They stopped a few paces from him.

“Hello Hunter,” said the foremost man with a brisk smile.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Hunter and took a long, loud sip of coffee.

“It was distressing to hear about your prognosis. Such a talent. Such a career.”

“Hope no one died for you to discover that secret.”

“On the contrary. It might end up saving lives.”

“I’m touched. Let me finish my lunch so I can barf something.” He picked up the cigar stub, popped it into his mouth, looked up at the man and swallowed it.

The man’s smile didn’t waver. “You’ve got spirit, Flintridge. To this day you’ve got nothing to prove.”

“That’s the Grimwall in me, sport. I wasn’t born in paradise, and now that I’ve made it here I can’t wait to move on.”

“That’s what I was hoping you’d say,” said the man. His smoky lenses flashed.

“I’m retired. You know that. An eight-year-old with a bad attitude could take me. So what the fuck do you want? A speaking tour?”

“In a way. We’ve got a job that only you could do, Hunter. Your life has been one long mission. You’ve never spent your fortune, except in service of your missions. Your extravagance is legendary there. We know you don’t want to live out your days dying at a cafe table.”

“Huh. So you boys from the Tribune or the Association of Psychoanalysts?”

“We represent a host of interests, and to the point, it’s been decided that things would be better if Hemmer IV Adarga of Sarabande did not become absolute monarch of her ill-favored city-state.”

Hunter cracked a coffee-stained smile.

“Adarga. That’s big game, tiger. Be careful, the ill-favored can be touchy. We don’t have a lot to lose.”

“Precisely the concern about a permanent Adarga government in Sarabande. We aren’t after an assassination. That’s not likely anymore. Queen Adarga’s condition is worsening. She’s moving around less and less so as to preserve her life into the foreseeable future. Her body is becoming harder. Gunfire, explosions, poisoning are becoming less viable day by day. What Sarabande needs is a domestic opposition. They’ve got one, but they have no tradition of internal espionage. They’ve never needed one. Don’t like your monarch, just weather the storm for a few years.”

“Advisor, then, that’s what you want.”

“That’s right.”

“But any son of a bitch who takes you up on this is gonna get the barking fever.” The woodrot. The body-stiffening disease endemic to Sarabande.

“It wouldn’t be a letter-writing campaign.”

“So I should go to Sarabande and get my nuts turned into acorns on top of my lungs turning into nuts?”

“We could leave you alone if you’d like.”

“Yeah, yeah. Who’s the opposition?”

“Varnishing Commissioner Garland Millsborough. Minister in the public affairs office.”

“Alright. I want a ticket today. Flight, boat, horse and carriage, I don’t give a shit. I wanna leave before sundown. Pull some strings. Second, I want some cash up front. I’m gonna live a little before the game’s up and I want a bankroll to burn. Don’t care if it’s in the barkbone colony.”

The man drew a black velvet coin purse from his coat and set it before Flintridge.

“This is the advance I’ve been authorized to give you. Now, would you come with us to the transit bureau? It would be easier to get you a berth if you’re present.”

“Nope. But I’ll do you a favor and sit right here till you’ve got tickets in hand. Course, I was gonna do that anyway.”

It was a merchant cruise. Some exports, but mostly consignors and importers looking to make a deal and skip town that same day. The cargo exchange would be touch and go. No one wanted to linger in the sickening city of Sarabande.

They’d just passed the island of Tincaro, the burgeoning colony of Sarabande. The people of Sarabande were generally not welcome abroad, but those seeking a degree of productive isolation could leave the sawmill city and take root on Tincaro for however long they lived. The homes and statehouses were more developed, the port quieter and less prominent, but it was a place that took in the sun.

Hunter stood at the very bow of the ship, leaning on the light metal railing. The mainland coast loomed, spilling foliage over the water everywhere but around a trident-shaped concrete jetty which awaited the ship’s flighty passengers. A few miles inland Hunter could make out the dark stony towers of Sarabande.

A merchant came and took hold of the rail at Hunter’s elbow.

He wore robes composed of dozens of diamond-shaped pieces of red fabric set with hundreds of little gold outlines of squares and intersecting triangles. Tassels fell from his earrings as if from the bottoms of tapestries.

“There it is,” said the merchant, “How far we are from the light to be trading in such a place as this.”

“Not looking forward to the plunging necklines of Sarabande?”

“In case you couldn’t tell, that’s not what I consider good taste. So what’s your racket?”

“I’m a socialite. Here for my health. Better climate.”

The man’s eyes went wide.

“Are you mad? Do you know a thing about Sarabande?”

“I’ve heard about the woodrot but I think that’s overblown. Why don’t you come check out the town with me once we dock? Gonna try and find a really happening dive bar or a dancehall, somewhere nice and packed.”

The merchant looked at Hunter like he’d exposed himself.

“Man, are you-“

Hunter grinned. The merchant walked away, shaking his head.

The dock was lined with stevedores waiting to receive the ship. They shifted, crossing and uncrossing their arms, flicking little white cigarettes into the water. Further back there were big blue parasols on steely poles. Saber-wielding security slaves from the nearby tribes were manacled to the poles, crouching on their heels and chewing some kind of herb from the forest’s heart. They were tattooed as if they were covered by unpleasant animals; thin-legged spiders, mandibled millipedes, twin-tailed scorpions and climbing cockroaches with wide-ranging antennae. There were potbellied slave overseers standing nearby; they’d dressed as they pleased but they had bolt-action rifles slung over their shoulders. They periodically handed down cigarettes or mouthfuls of chaw to their slaves.

It was a two mile walk to the city from the docks. Hunter hired a palanquin to be carried by a pair of slaves. He didn’t give a fuck. He wasn’t walking that.

They walked him over the well-worn trail to Sarabande. He smoked and spat over his palanquin door. Sarabande came into view; a city of raised promenades wrapped around the hills, half-subterranean houses stucco-clad or like squat stone towers, newly built lumber mills, mining seams cut into the rocky hills and ridges, foundries and smelters with a whiff of metallic dust and phosphorous. Everything outside of the old town seemed to have been built of lacquered logs and planks; this place must be fearsomely fire-prone, but all the newest buildings had a glossy, dewy appeal like they’d just been soaked in rain.

Hunter dismissed his palanquin once they’d cleared the city’s fire-treated palisade. Riflemen and tribal auxiliaries knelt among the stakes, watching.

Hunter walked among the smoky streets and hacked pink phlegm onto the gleaming, veined stone thoroughfares and the rich, dark soil that seemed to surround the city’s every house and edifice.

Damp goddamned smoke, he growled to himself, How’d they pull that off?

He found a cafe that consisted of a ring of stone countertops around a stack of cages. There were strange little muskrat marsupials hanging from their tails from the roofs of their cages; every few minutes one of them would defecate a coffee bean then catch it in its little pawns and tuck it into its pouch. The tender of the cafe moved between the cages with bright red coffee cherries, deftly tucking them into the marsupials’ mouths while simultaneously running fingers over their bellies to slide gestated coffee beans out of their pouches. These beans were placed in a grinder on an elevated blue marble dais, and when customers came the coffeeminder would serve them espresso or black coffee as their preferences ran.

All of this sat beneath a bright orange water tower. As Hunter stood gazing at the cistern among the treetops, he saw a hatch open and a number of tattooed and muscular young men in tan overalls come leaping from a chamber at the very top with fire axes in hand. They came and slid down smooth poles that undergirded the water tower’s legs, the tops of which were ribbed so as to serve as stepladders.

Hunter stepped up to one of the countertops and a thin young man with a rag over his shoulder stepped up to take his order. The boy had bright eyes and weak features, except for a Neanderthal-like brow which jutted visorlike over his friendly eyes. Hunter also noted that the backs of his hands were incredibly gnarled, to the point that he looked like he had extra knuckles across his fingers.

“Hey sport, I’ll take a doo doo drip, don’t much mind the kind so long as it’s hot and steaming. Some fire boys, eh? Spot a smoke signal and down they come. Good job for a young guy.”

The server waited for a few moments until the last of the fire brigade had trooped up off the woodmulch hillside.

“Well, sir, it’s likely they’re going on a raid, not a fire callout. I’m afraid things have been a bit topsy-turvey in Sarabande lately. The fire brigade have turned into the Queen’s paramilitaries. They’re chopping more than wood with those axes. I see them coming back and washing blood off them right into the tower cistern.”

“Nice,” Hunter smiled grimly, “Hey kid, I’m here to see the Varnish Commissioner. Any chance you could point me his way?”

The boy thought for a time, then said, “A friend of mine works in that ministry. I can tell you where he lives, and he might be able to set you up with the Commissioner.”

Hunter drank his coffee in one glug.

“Lay it on me.”

Hunter walked up a steep stone stairway under an upside-down sea of jostling boughs. There was a house above, wood and painted brown, with a flat slat deck and a roof and eaves like an upside down heart. He knocked at the door and a young man with sharp, burning eyes and a tight-lipped expression opened the door.

“Hey killer, name’s Hunter Flintridge, I’m from out of town. Wanna pull on the Varnish Commissioner Millsborough’s coat about commissioning some varnish for Grimwall, you know, kind of a rough looking town as you might imagine.”

“Sure,” said the boy, “Follow me.” He slipped past Flintridge and went down the stairs two at a time. Hunter hustled after him but choked up halfway down the stairs, leaning on the walking-stick wood banister, coughing a thin stream of gore over the side, then sat down, breathing deeply through his nose.

The boy glanced over his shoulder, held up, then came back near the base of the stairs.

“You said you’re from out of town but you’ve got the rot.”

“Nah kiddo,” Hunter wheezed slowly, “Wood rot might have this market cornered but it’s not the only game in town. Just gimme a sec, I ain’t the tiger I used to be.”

“You want me to get you a stick?”

“Nah, my knees are bad but they ain’t transformed on me yet. Just hold up.”

He breathed for a few moments until his head cleared, then he stood up and walked after the young man.

The Varnishing Commissioner lived behind a high wall of cast iron bars; this was difficult to tell at first glance because the entire structure was totally blanketed with ivy. The boy led Hunter across the fallen leaves until they reached a seam in the ivy that would have defied Hunter’s passing attention; presumably this was the gate.

“Here you are, sir,” said the young man.

“Thanks kiddo, I’ll put in a good word for you. What do I call you?”

“Don’t worry about that,” the young man said and walked back towards his home.

“Oh-kay…” Hunter breathed. He tried the gate. It was locked.

He stepped back.

“Anybody there?” he shouted. His voice petered out and turned to an aural wisp by the end of it. He bent over his knees and began a rasping, coppery cough that continued until he was brought down on one knee. When he finally got a grip on his coughing, he was wheezing and light-headed. He looked up to see that the gate had opened. A badger-haired man in an orange tartan blazer and black slacks had opened it.

“Here,” the man said, holding out a palmful of copper coins.

Hunter smiled. “Man. I’m sorry about that. Mr. Millsborough? I’m Hunter Flintridge. I’ve heard that you’re in need of a security specialist. Well, that’s why I’m here. Had a lifetime of infiltration and counter-infiltration. Intelligence-gathering and counterintelligence. ‘Active measures.’ Obviously my days doing fieldwork are over, but I can get you and your people set up in a watertight front that’ll keep your secrets, bounce off any prodding tendrils, and give you something to strike with should you ever find that necessary.”

Millsborough nodded. “Very well. I never wanted things to get to this point but I suppose I’ve got to be realistic, hadn’t I?” he said with a faint smile, “Please come in.”

Hunter followed him through the gate towards the man’s home, which was a stately three-story wooden building that had been painted a mint color with a white trim. Millsborough stepped up onto the deck, which wrapped around half the house, and sat down in one of a pair of wicker rocking chairs with a little table between them. He indicated the other for Flintridge, who accepted it with a smile.

“The situation has evolved dangerously these last months,” said Millsborough quietly. “We’ve begun to suffer murders committed by the fire brigade. In every case the rationale is self-defense, but that’s a fig leaf. Everyone who’s died was in some way related to the Committee for Monarchical Sacrifice. The Queen is weakening their influence across every level of society. It’s becoming less of a certainty that we’ll have a sacrifice this year. No one seems to want to bring it up at chamber assemblies. And there have been new hires in the Ministries. Young people from the Royal Academy, or fresh out of the fire brigades. It’s a goddamned infiltration if the chilling effect it’s had on all my colleagues is anything to go by. But the desire for mutual defense is there, and for a hardening of the will come the next sacrificial season. We just need coordination.”

“That’s where I can help you. I’ve seen situations like this all my life, works the same more or less every time. I was in Atrialia when Goval came into power and trust me, I left behind more than my faith in humanity on that island when I escaped. But I took a lot of wisdom with me too, more or less all of which applies to our situation. The key is to get in communication, get in cahoots early so that everybody knows that they’re not gonna be acting alone. Otherwise it’s like an assault where everybody’s looking at his buddy to make sure he’s not the only one making the charge. You gotta start to insulate-”

There was a banging on the gate.

“Sorry, do you mind if I get that?”

“Go head.”

Millsborough stood up and walked across the sun-streaked, leafy lawn to the ivy-girt gate and opened it a little. It was suddenly pushed open in his face and he staggered backwards.

Flintridge blanched at the ogre who stood in the opening.

He was easily seven and a half feet tall. He had huge, muscular arms that curled across themselves like ingrown oaks, and his barrel chest was ridged strangely like his ribs had shifted into a vertical disposition. His muscles were wrapped around their anchorages and strained to transmit power between his gnarled bones and twiglike sinews. His hands were horrible: his fingers had grown long, thin and segmented like some kind of scarecrow, and rather than being flat along a palm they seemed to emerge in a bundle from his knotted wrists.

He had a tightly-shaven, misshapen head and a malign simian brow with thin-spread sootstreaks of eyebrow, bloodshot red eyes and teeth that were unnaturally spaced by the growth of his gums and jaw.

He wore a long sleeve white collared shirt that he filled to bursting and had on custom-made office slacks and huge loafers with stitchwork showing between lengths of rawhide leather.

He strode forward and with every movement Hunter could hear cracking and creaking coming from his body like he had to force his joins and bones past each other to walk. This didn’t seem to bother him; he was grinning right at Hunter. Hunter gave him a fierce, mirthless smile back. But Hunter’s rictus lapsed slightly when he saw who was standing behind the monster: it was the boy who’d led him here. The boy shot Flintridge a look, then turned and walked out of sight

“You’re having guests and I wasn’t invited, Garland? Taking on lodgers now? Is your post in Her Splendor’s government leaving you that unsatisfied?”

“It’s not hers,” Millsborough hissed at the giant.

“I’ll tell her you said that,” grinned the monster, “And what have we here?”

He stood in the grass and the leaves before Hunter’s rocking chair.

“Why don’t you introduce yourself first, since I’m the one who’s sitting.”

“Garland, didn’t you tell him? I’m Nefaro. The Security Commissioner. Let me guess. You didn’t register with the Foreign Affairs Bureau before you arrived?”

Millsborough cut in,

“That bill was only just passed, Nefaro! He hasn’t been told!”

“Is that a legal defense?” grinned Nefaro.

“So what you gonna do? Take me in yourself?”

“Hmmm… I was going to serve you macaroons, but I like your idea better. In fact, I think I’m going to carry you all the way to the mines by your head like a springball.”

The monster twitched to take a step forward and Flintridge already had his .38 in hand, firing one, two, three, four in the chest, five, six in the head. Lung cancer couldn’t stop him from being the fastest quickdraw this side of a Mayhew Brothers sideshow. Millsborough jumped and lurched to the side as the shots shattered the morning calm. Hunter peered through the smoke at Nefaro. The giant hadn’t collapsed yet.

Then he put his hands on his hips.

“Aahahahahaha! I love it when they do that! Should have saved one for yourself, you silly thing.”

Hunter gaped at his target, then looked down as his revolver. Had he loaded it with blanks? No. No way. His life had just been cursed since he coughed his first puff of blood in Attar. He thought maybe it’d been some tincture-gone-wrong that he’d smelled. No. Perhaps it was the revenge of those he’d slain.

Hunter set his pistol on the little wicker table between the rocking chairs. Then he got up and walked to the edge of the deck.

The ogre’s chest and forehead were bleeding. His skin wasn’t bulletproof, but the rest of him seemed to be.

“Mr. Millsborough,” Hunter said, nodding to the Commissioner, who was pale and holding a hand over his mouth.

Nefaro reached behind Hunter’s neck and picked up him up by his coat collar. He carried him through the haze of gunsmoke, through the yard, the sunshine and the chirping birds, and out through the gate.

By the time they reached the mine, Hunter couldn’t feel his arms. The rubbing of his shirt and coat on his underarms had reached a burning furor, and he couldn’t tell if the dampness there was sweat or blood.

It was a place of stripped-stick scaffolds like geometric wicker men around mineshaft entrances, mechanically screaming gasoline conveyor belts, and fraying baskets of glittering coal and dull tetrahedrite filthy with other minerals. Cauldrons of hot grease were kept boiling here and there across the artifice; these were used to fry the raw food slaves were fed at mealtimes, and they were also used as a source of discipline. When a slave was regarded as being in need of punishment, he was brought before a cauldron where an overseer dipped a cat o’ nine tails into the boiling grease and whipped him with it; if it was a light punishment the overseer would stop short of actually making contact, instead just sprinkling the slave with hot grease, but for a severe punishment the overseer might lash him until the grease cooled, then dunk the cat o’ nine tails again and continue.

If a slave was to executed for e.g. killing an overseer, he’d be lowered headfirst into one of these cauldrons.

Most of the slaves and the overseers were deformed in similar ways to the Security Commissioner, but to a far lesser extent. His disease was either far advanced over the average case, or it had simply taken to him with a vengeance.

The commissioner set Hunter down near a 5’ tall mineshaft. Hunter looked with unease at the large steel bowl of boiling, hissing, leaping liquid next to it. An overseer and a pair of guards approached. The overseer carried a cat o’ nine tails, and the guards carried axe handles. No one appeared to have a firearm here. They’d obviously been phased out.

“So, who are you? Why are you here, my friend?” asked Nefaro, putting a massive, sandpaper-rough hand on Hunter’s shoulder.

“I’m here to commission varnish for private citizens in Grimwall.”

“Quick on the draw for a decorator! And you’ve sought out Sarabande’s greatest malcontent.”

“Grimwall’s a rough spot. And my impression was that Millsborough’s a harmless civil servant.”

“Oh, sweet little man. You want to protect Millsborough. You can’t protect him. Especially not since he retained an armed foreign mercenary in secret. I could crush your skull, but we’re going to get some labor out of you instead. If someone comes and offers a great ransom for you, we might let you go. Otherwise, you’ll never leave that mineshaft.” He pointed a wandlike finger to the mouth of the mine.

Hunter grinned. “You’re wasting your time. Nobody’s coming for me and I’ve got lung cancer. You won’t get a nugget of coal out of me, you hideous, dimwitted freak.”

Nefaro gave his shoulder a squeeze, which was sharply painful like his muscle was being cut on bone, and grinned back darkly.

“Mazranai, induct him into slavery.”

The two guards seized Hunter and roughly stripped him of his shirt and jacket. Sure enough there were livid bands showing across his shoulders and armpits, bloody at the very bottom. They turned him to face the dark mouth of the mineshaft with the burbling cauldron behind him.

Slaves were glancing at him. Some with pity. Some with resignation. Others with a sadistic thrill.

Hunter looked up into the blue skies through the canopies of the trees that loomed over the mineshaft. They were bobbing gently in the wind, oblivious to all this. He’d tempted fate one too many times and this was his comeuppance. Life had been without color when he was waiting to die in the sterile streets of Ascension, but this was a far more terrible way to end his life. There was no need for it.

“You know why we use tribesmen as overseers?” asked Nefaro.

“They’re the only ones stupider than you are?” said Hunter quietly.

“No. They’re the only ones crueler.”

There was a sizzling noise.


Hunter screamed. It felt as though someone had put serrated kitchen knives to his back and ripped them down with great force. The pain did not relent. He wanted to run forward to escape his own back, but the guards held him with iron force. Their muscles were stronger than his, and their joints and ligaments were hardened by their disease.


He felt himself being cut to the ribs and backbone. He felt sick and clammy. Rivulets of hot grease ran down his back like razorblades, burning away the hair and peeling up healthy flesh.


He cried out raggedly. The carnage of his back was scrambled and deepened by this final blow. It was like he was on fire; he could not escape the pain. His eyes were clenched, his head was spinning, and he was getting chills and spasms.

The guards had dumped him in the dirt without his notice. He lay there, blowing dust with his rattling breath.

“Get him to work,” spat Mazranai, the overseer. A pair of slaves gripped him roughly by the biceps and pulled him across the cool dirt of the mineshaft.

There was an explosion. Hunter was consumed by fire, ice, lightning. He leapt up but his body was maimed; he couldn’t move it. He forced his eyes open into a smog of whirling darkness. Finally he saw a pair of legs in wrappings of diamond-patterned linen.

There was a tremendous splitting crack on his head as the overseer dropped a wooden bucket on him. He heard it spin on the rough stone floor, and then it came to rest against his head. He was wrapped in a rough, filthy, wet wool blanket. The slaves had cocooned him in this to stave off shock.

He was soaked. He began breathing deeply through his mouth and tried to free himself from the sodden wool blanket. The overseer came around behind him and kicked him in the back, which caused his whole body to arch as if he’d been electrified. The kick was accompanied by an aura of splitting pain emanating throughout his entire back from the point of contact.

“Up,” said the overseer. Hunter had been passed out on the stone and could barely move, his left arm dead asleep, but he managed to stagger into a kneeling position. His trousers were soaking wet now, too. The overseer picked up the bucket and raised it. Hunter staggered away from him on all fours and fell over on his side, unable to balance himself properly.

“Go down and get a piece of coal at least as big as your head. Bring it back to the mouth of the cave, then go down and get another one. Keep at it till you get called for food. If I hear you’re malingering, you get painted again. I’ve got lots of eyes and ears down there. I’m a charming guy and your compatriots are eager to please. Got it?”

“Yeah,” Hunter breathed, and staggered into the darkness away from the overseer. He saw some torchlight and went towards it. It was a burning torch, which seemed profoundly dangerous in a coal seam, but he continued as he seemed to be losing elevation. The shaft narrowed and shortened, and soon he was walking bent over at the waist, stumbling and twisting his ankle on the uneven stone floor. He began to pass slaves who were carrying hunks of coal. They seemed to balance it on their thighs and were moving with a natural crouching lope. Human question marks gone troglodyte in the mines.

They eyed him mercilessly. “Better hurry up,” one of them whispered in singsong.

Hunter’s thighs began to ache. He could barely breathe in this cloying air. These tribesmen had been fashioned by hardship. Their joints were flexible. Their sinews strong. Some of them were so gnarled by disease that their skin had begun to split; Hunter saw one hulking, cracking monstrosity whose skull was showing through his scalp and it had developed lichen like a fallen log. Men like this inevitably carried the largest hunks of coal.

He fell to his knees on the stone floor to rest. A pair of slaves passed by and one of them slapped Hunter’s rear end. They both guffawed as they continued their assent.

His back itched terribly. He felt the skin around his wounds and instantly he yanked his hand from his back, arching his chest flat against the ground like he was praying for the dawn. A pain of fire clawed at him from the place he’d touched. He would not make the mistake of allowing anything into contact with his maimed flesh again.

Down and down. How far was it to the coal? He’d have to traverse this entire thing again, uphill. He went to his knees again after an indeterminate stretch of darkness. A slave passed him and just spat on him.

How degraded he was. He’d left his wealthy, idle life in Ascension chasing a high, and ended up in hell on earth.

No. Not a high. Chasing meaning. He looked up into the darkness. I rolled the dice. I crapped out. Fair game. Time to give up the ghost.

“Get up man, before the prods catch you.”

Hunter looked up. He could smell a slave and just barely see a glint in his eyes.

“You got coal?” he asked.

“Yeah, what of it?” the slave asked defensively.

“Beat my head in with it, friend.”

“Don’t say that.”

Hunter shrugged invisibly.

“If you won’t, someone else will.”

The slave was silent for a few moments, then leaned in very close to him.

“Keep going. Feel for a hole. Go down that thing. Be real careful. There’s a priest down there. Tends to some of us. Talk to him. Then come back up.”

The slave hurried on. Hunter looked after him. What else was there to do? If all else failed he could go down the hole headfirst.

He crept forward through the tunnel for a long time. He didn’t know how long or how far. It seemed endless. It was the most laborious task he’d ever done. Slaves passed him by and passed comments. His cuts were splitting as he reached around on the stone and his sweat was tormenting him, but he was not going to miss that hole.

Finally he found it. It wasn’t large. Just a pit where the floor met the wall. There was a little light up here, but there was none down there. The hole was so dark it was almost fictional, but Hunter felt around and got a sense of its dimensions. He began to lower himself into it gingerly and felt a rock he could brace on. A slave passed by and glanced down at him.

“The fuck you think you’re doing?”

“Taking a shit,” said Hunter.

“That’s not the shitting spot.”

“I know, but what’s it to you? Would you just fuck off already?”

“Yeah, I’ll fuck off.”

“Thank you.”

The slave continued his ascent.

Hunter reached down with his second foot and felt around the wall but couldn’t reach any footholds. His tenuous grip on the rim of the pit gave way and he fell into the darkness with a gasp. His left foot hit the stone first and he felt it fold beneath him. He felt the cold panic of a broken bone where he lay in a pile on himself. He’d struck his head against the wall but this was nothing; his leg was limp and numb underneath his body.

That was it. There was no coming back from a broken leg here. This nightmare would soon reach its crescendo and its terminus.

He pushed himself around until he was able to get off of his leg; to the degree he could feel anything it was deeply-piercing pins and needles. He seemed to have fractured his femur, his shinbone and possibly his foot. He felt around the walls in a cold sweat and found where the tunnel went: downwards and away from the mineshaft above.

He dragged himself through it for a long time. He began to see an ephemeral glow up ahead of him. He couldn’t tell if it was a light or ‘the light’ but he decided to make for it anyways and picked up his pace, expending what strength he had left.

He reached the edge of a glowing cavern. It looked like a vast sea of cigarette ash punctuated with glowing blue pylons like a landing strip. On closer inspection they were bioluminescent, translucent mushrooms.

Hunter reached up and scooped up some of the ash; it was a wet sludge! He tossed it with a glop and immediately the cavern erupted with ear-splitting screeching like he’d triggered the linked alarms of eight bank vaults.

His ears were ringing when the screeching died, but he could still hear a voice in the darkness.

“The bells toll, service is in session…”

“Who’s there? Are… are you the priest?” called Hunter, afraid he was hearing a hallucination.

“You wouldn’t ask that question if you weren’t going to treat me like one.”

“Please, I’ll treat you like whatever you like, but I’m really hurt. Can- can you tell me what I should do?”

This felt hollow and pathetic.

“You can do little now. Why don’t you crawl down into the muck and get warm while you pass away.”

Hunter squeezed his eyes shut and grimaced. This was a waste of time.

“You’re my only hope. Please. You’re a priest. You care for people. Please, can’t you do anything?”

“There’s little of you left. Not much worth saving. You won’t like what I have to offer. There’s no going back.”

Hunter almost laughed.

“Oh, I’ll like it. Trust me, I’ll take my medicine. You just tell me what to do.”

“Come closer. Come to my voice. Let me look on you and see what can be made of you.”


Hunter slid himself forward into the ashen muck. It was warm, and there were living things inside of it; worms, and something like sand fleas.

“Closer… closer,” called the voice.

He dragged himself forward with his slickening forearms. The muck burned his broken leg. Even the smell burned his nostrils; phosphates or sulfates or something.

“Here… I’m here.”

Hunter slipped himself up to the source of the voice. There was a figure sitting cross-legged before him in the darkness. Its legs were very thin. Skeletal. Hunter plucked a mushroom and waved it around the form. It was a wooden man. A wooden mummy. A skeleton with thin, contiguous bark for flesh. Green and yellow lichen grew here and there in splotches.

“Wha… you’re a fucking statue… a wooden statue!”

The mouth moved a little.

“Yes, I suppose I am. And what are you? Soon you will be less animate than I.”

“I… I’m a petitioner,” he gulped, “I’ve come to seek you. The, the other slaves told me I could find you here…”

“And you wish to be saved?”


“Are you willing to become like me?”

Hunter’s mouth fell open. Despair curled around his heart.

“Please, there must… there must be some other way, musn’t there?”

“Do you know why I am a statue?”


“I am the oldest of the wood-rotting ones. My disease is the most advanced. This is the final form, unless I am to become a tree. The multitude die before they reach this stage. But I have found a sustenance that this body can consume.”


“Yes. And because my disease is the most advanced of all, it is most concentrated in my blood and bones. My breath,” he hissed.

Hunter shut his eyes for a long time and then looked at the figure again.

“So my only way to live is to… take in your disease.”

“Yes. And then you must choose. You may remain here as my acolyte, and minister to the slaves once I am unable to speak, or you may return again to the surface and die. Once you have been made host to my disease, you will never again taste a meal. You will die of hunger unless you remain in this cavern.”

“How do you know this?”

“I have done it once before. A slave who wished revenge upon his captors. They thought he was a monster. A dragon. He slew a great many of them before he died. He returned to this field many times, but he still wasted away. If you wish to live, there is no uprooting from this place.”

Hunter gazed at the frail, wooden form. So he was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. He thought he might have escaped that terrible dichotomy but it followed him still, taking on new forms as it went.

This was not the life for him, sitting in this cavern with his blood and bones hardening into permanent fixtures. It never had been, not once in his wandering life. He’d been preparing himself for death over the last months. Doing nothing but preparing to die. He knew there was only one choice. He was going to go forward with death, but it would be in a blaze of glory just like he’d planned.

So this priest could make him into a monster. A cave dragon. Well. That suited his purposes just fine.

“I’ll take it,” he said. “Work your magic. I’m going the way of your last disciple.”

“It will not make you invincible. But it may give you parity with your captors.”

He thought, Parity? With these amateurs? There will be no parity.

“I’m ready,” he said.

“Then kiss the lips of your redeemer.”

Hunter hesitated, then pushed himself up onto a knee with great pain. He hadn’t realized how lethargic he’d been getting. Shock was setting in. He leaned his face in near the wizened wooden priest’s bowed, eyeless head, waited for a moment, then put his lips to the priest’s coin-slot mouth.

As soon as he did so the priest exhaled a cloud of particles like wet sawdust into his mouth and throat. It tasted of cedar. Hunter coughed and sputtered, hacked and choked, gripping his throat and spitting.

“Lay down. Rest. If you can be saved, the process will now begin,” said the priest.

Hunter coughed and retched until he could barely breathe, then laid down on his side in the muck and waited for the shock to take him. He felt himself falling from his body into an infinite underworld.

He was driven back onto the earth by a cosmic scream. His world was nothing but an overwhelming sonic wall of epic proportions. His soul joined in the scream.

The scream died but its reverberations continued in his mind, heart, ears. He noticed that he was warm. That was all he knew. He lay in the warm softness. He was well-fed. He didn’t want to disturb this sensation now that the screaming had stopped.

There was a blast of light across his vision, then darkness. Then another blast, then darkness. What was this annoyance?

“There he is. Oh, what the fuck is that?”

Squelching noises. The harsh talk of men. His father coming to shake him out of bed.

“A mummy… it’s a fucking mummy!”

“Like hell it is… it’s an effigy. The slaves built a fucking effigy down here and the merc crawled in thinking he’d found salvation. Did you know about this?”

“No, master, but this is quite the find I’ve made for you, isn’t it?”

“Yeah… double rations for a few days, I guess.”

“Thank you.”

“Hey, watch this.”

There was a cracking noise.

“Heh, I- oh, God! He’s- there’s-“

“Is that…”

“It was a mummy! Look at that shit! And there’s still blood!”

Hunter tried to open his eyes. His eyelids were stuck together. He kept trying. Finally his eyelids split apart and he could see the scene by the light of lanterns carried by the overseers.

One of the thugs had hit the priest with a sledgehammer. It’d broken his arm off. They could see the bones and blood still lodged in his body’s bark. What eyes he had were closed. His narrow mouth was slightly ajar and moving ever so slightly. He was praying.

“God! Kill it! Break it down!”

The guards had axehandles and hammers, and they began beating the priest apart. His brittle body fractured and split beneath their blows. Hunter recognized the man with the sledgehammer as the overseer Mazranai. He brought the hammer down onto the priest’s head and it splintered into sawdust and brains.

Hunter stood up.

The thugs turned to face him. They were four: two guards, the slave informer, and Mazranai.

Hunter hugged himself and clasped his biceps. His muscles felt hard, rugged, wooden. He slid his hands down his legs and stood up again. There were knots where his bones had fused.

“I’m gonna do to you what you did to him,” he said.

They looked at each other and laughed. They laughed deep, dark and hard. The bats joined in with a wailing sonic screech.

Hunter gritted his teeth and advanced towards them. His breath was free, clear and strong for the first time in many months, though he felt like he was breathing through a wooden chamber like the hollow of a tree. He cracked his knuckles. These were the hardest of all.

Mazranai grinned and rushed at Hunter in the lamplight, swinging his sledgehammer full-force. Hunter ducked it, going so low that his chest almost touched the ground, though he still felt the hammer graze his back. Mazranai took a step back and Hunter lunged for him, grabbing his sledgehammer with both hands. They struggled over it for a moment, bent at the waist while the other thugs stood and hooted encouragement to Mazranai. Hunter lunged down beneath the sledgehammer and between Mazranai’s legs, wrapped an arm around Mazranai’s thigh and grabbed his sleeve with his other hand. Hunter lifted the overseer up across his shoulders and then fell sideways, smashing Mazranai’s head onto the wet rock like the tip of a ball peen hammer.

Hunter stood up and dusted his hands. The thugs and the informer gaped at him in the darkness, lit by the lanterns which they’d set down to illuminate the fight.

“You son of a bitch!” one of the guards cried with fear and indignancy. “Why did you do that?”

Hunter glanced down at Mazranai, whose neck was crooked in an unhealthy way. His lips were working but his body wasn’t moving.

“You have the rest of your life to ponder that question. I think that’s what he’s doing.”

The guards wore expressions of ugly rage. The slave wore an expression of grim resignation. They rushed Hunter all at once. One of the overseers was in the center of the charge and leapt at Hunter with a jumping kick, but Hunter slipped left while throwing a wide punch and caught the man in the jaw while he was still flying. The man twisted in the air from the force of the punch and fell onto his side stunned, gritting his teeth and touching his face as he slid through the guano.

The other two were on Hunter in a heartbeat. The guard wrapped his arm around Hunter’s bicep and struck him in the shin with his axehandle while the slave began to strangle him. Hunter bent over at the waist, pushed his hip into the slave’s pelvis and then raised his leg to the side between the slave’s legs, lifting him off the ground just enough to dump him flat. Then he hugged the guard’s arm tight to his body and whipped himself away from him in a circle, dislocating the guard’s arm at the elbow. The guard gave a ragged scream and slid to the ground, pliant as a kitten. Hunter let him go.

The man who Hunter had punched midair had rolled over and pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. Hunter walked over to him and gave him a kick in the jaw like he was teeing off a jettyball game. Hunter could feel the man’s jaw break and he fell face first into the muck. Hunter didn’t lift him.

The informer got up and rushed at Hunter, who took up a handful of guano and threw it into his eyes. The man gave a roar, clawing his burning face, and Hunter slipped him without difficulty. The man tried to run for the entrance but ran straight into a rough stone wall with a smack, falling down and holding his head.

Hunter approached the man and leapt into the air, drawing his knees into his chest as he went, and then stomped on the man’s head with both heels as he landed. Hunter could feel cartilage break free beneath his feet, and he fell on his rear at the bottom of the attack, his guano-slick feet slipping on the ground after exiting the slave’s face. When Hunter got up, the man’s eyes and jaw were hanging open, and he didn’t seem to be moving under his own power. Hunter gazed down at the man in a state of burning rage, but then felt a pang of regret at having done something so ruthless. He went and grabbed a lantern.

“Rest in peace, stool pigeon. Today I get mine, too.”

Hunter shone the lantern’s beam in the face of the man whose arm he’d dislocated. He was sitting in the guano rocking back and forth, cradling his dislocated arm in his lap, pale and sweating.

“Hope you guys told someone you were down here.”

Hunter went to the vertical tunnel and shone the lamp up it. With a light it was a damn easy climb. He dried his shoes on the rock as best he could, then ascended.

He made his way up through the tunnels. His bones were getting heavier. His muscles were hardening. His ligaments were stiffening as he walked. This shit worked fast, indeed, he thought. He rotated his shoulders, elbows and neck as he walked. He intended to stay limber as long as humanly (or woodenly) possible.

Hunter reached the mouth of the cave. The sunlight blinded him. It must have been the next day after his transformation. He could smell the stale grease. What a marker for a slave’s life; food and punishment at the door to his prison.

Hunter walked into the open next to the great cauldron of grease. The sky was blue and the birds were chirping. He saw them alight here and there in the boughs. He looked at the wood mulch spread across the ground here and saw a little blade of grass with an electric green bug clinging to it. He saw ants. The scene was unbearably beautiful.

Two overseers approached him, one of whom had a cat o’ nine tails on his belt.

“Why the fuck are your hands empty?”

“Why are yours?”

The overseer looked at his scourge and then back at Hunter. He turned and called up to a guard on the hillside scaffolding, “Niron, we got a hard case.”

“K, one sec,” the guard called from where he was sitting and began descending the network of little stepladders made from sticks.

Hunter advanced on the two.

“Hey, woah!” the overseer cried. He staggered backwards and threw his cat o’ nine tails at Hunter while the other one, quicker on the uptake, stepped forward and launched a high punch. Hunter ducked it, grabbed his leg and bowled him over onto the ground. The overseer stepped in to grab Hunter, but he spun around, launching a fist from near the ground and bashing it into the overseer’s jaw with a visible ripple. The big man fell woodenly. The man who’d been thrown got up and squared up with Hunter, who rushed him and gave him a stunning crack on his collarbone straight through his guard. The man staggered backwards on his heels, then fell on his rear. Hunter rushed forward and straddled the man’s legs, then delivered a sharp kick into his jaw. The man’s face went tense and his arms straightened and began to flap ever so slightly. Out of it.

The third guard stood watching from a platform made of long, thin poles carved from nearby trees. He reached up and began to ring a silver bell that hung from the scaffolding. This would be heard for hundreds of meters around the mine. There would be reinforcements.

“Come down here and I’ll ring your bell,” Hunter grinned.

“With pleasure. But I do have a job to do,” commented the guard as he finished his descent.

The man came in at Hunter low, juking left and right with his fists by his mouth. Hunter faked him out with a couple high swings, then clasped him by the back of his head and delivered a jumping knee into his mouth and nose. The man seemed to leap backwards and then fell flat on his back with blood pooling in his nostrils. Hunter rushed the guard and he rolled over on all fours, shielding his head with his arms. Hunter could have begun kicking him in the kidneys, but this was practically a stalling tactic on the part of the guard.

Hunter straddled the man’s head and punched him in the back a few times to keep him in place, then pivoted his right leg above the guard’s head, seized his left arm and fell flat on the ground with his legs beneath the man and the man’s arm across Hunter’s pelvis. Hunter wrenched it up across his body and the man let off a high-pitched scream as his arm broke in two places.

“You know why I picked that arm?” Hunter hissed at him.

The man screamed, “I rang the bell with it!”

“Ding ding ding!” said Hunter, viciously rapping the man’s head with his knuckles. Then he got up and left the guard to the judgement of the slaves, ascending the hill to Sarabande proper.

He cleared the lip of the hill and saw a blue marble promenade with several lacquered wood houses around it and a few little shops with orange light inside. There were a gang of fire brigade paramilitaries coming towards the promenade from the nearest wooded hill. Some carried ropes, some carried Sarabande midwives (broadheaded splitting hatchets), and one carried a full fireaxe.

Hunter advanced on the square with his arms raised.

“I’m unarmed!” he called.

“Good! We’re not!” yelled the man with the axe.

Hunter grinned. The fire squad rushed him.

The first man who reached him was supernaturally fast. Maybe he was infected with balsa wood. The squaddie launched a wild swing and crashed into Hunter but Hunter ducked it, rose with a hook of his own and clipped the man across the nose. The fire trooper fell on his rear with blood pouring from his nose, wearing a curiously calm expression.

Another man wrapped up Hunter from behind while a man with a Sarabande midwife raised it to split Hunter’s skull. Hunter bore the man who was grappling up onto his back and ran headfirst into the man with the midwife, who was knocked off balance. Hunter wrestled his way around in the arms of the man who had him in a bear hug, grabbed him by his suspenders and spun around, throwing him at the gang as he released. Hunter had momentum from this, too, and staggered into the doorway of a candle shop. Fighting the fire squad in a circle was suicide, he knew that well enough. A woman screamed and threw a patchouli candle at him before ducking into the back room.

A fire squaddie came into the doorway with his fists up. He threw a jab but Hunter leaned back at the waist and the punch was too short. Hunter leaned forward again and popped the man in the cheek; when the man raised his arms to defend his face, Hunter ducked and launched a massive thrust into his stomach. The man staggered backwards with his cheeks puffed down to the side, and Hunter kicked him in the bridge of his nose. He was felled by the blow, his unconscious face wearing an expression of beatific despair as he collapsed amongst his comrades. They dragged him back.

The first man Hunter had hit was on his hands and knees behind the gang, holding his mouth as blood poured between his fingers, and two squaddies made their way around him. Hunter simply shoved the foremost man. He was pushed back into the second, who fell over the man who was on the ground.

Hunter dove in low, grabbed the stumbling foremost man’s heel and leapt skyward, flipping him onto his side. He booted the man across the head, yelling, “Gotcha, bitch!”

A big fat squaddie pushed his way past the jumble of bodies. Hunter came in and gave him a right cross into the jowl with a wet slapping noise. The man launched a couple swipes at Hunter, who leaned back and then threw a cross at the exact same time the big man launched a punch. Hunter’s blow connected first and took the wind out of his opponent’s punch; it connected, but was a mere discomfort, while Hunter’s fist struck true and felled the man, who hit the marble pavillion and bounced.

A man rushed in as soon as the slugger was out of the way and grabbed Hunter around the back of his knees, pushing forward. Hunter was driven backwards out of the doorway and fell down with the man’s head in his groin. This was extremely dangerous as the squad was doing everything it could to get up and through the door. Hunter got his feet underneath him, grabbed the man around the rib cage, deadlifted him up into the air and then rode him skull-first into the wooden floor of the candle shop. The man sprawled out limp as a mannequin.

Two of the squaddies had broken free of the tangle and came in one after the other. The first kicked Hunter in the face. He sprang to his feet and turned, tasting blood around the molars. The man had a midwife in one hand but jabbed with the other, and Hunter fell back between two racks of shelves.

Hunter cocked back his left fist and the man ducked. Hunter cocked his right fist and the man ducked the other way. Hunter sent his left fist into the man’s jaw and he went reeling backwards.

The second man had gone around the back of the rack and clinched him. Hunter elbowed the man loose, put his leg across the man’s knees and twisted him to the ground, breaking free of him and stomping on his head. There was a tremendous flash and a crack as the man Hunter had just punched gave him a right cross to the cheekbone.

Hunter lunged in and grabbed his belt and shirtsleeve, and then fell to his knees, whirling around in midair and pulling the man across his back as he dropped. The man flew face-first into the floorboards with a crack and flopped out, totally still except for his head which lolled and bobbed from the force of the impact. He’d been killed.

Two of them remained standing and they rushed Hunter where he stood near the center of the store. One had a Sarabande midwife and the other one had the fire axe. The man with the midwife came first and made a downward slash at Hunter, who dodged inward and body slammed him. The man tried to clinch him but Hunter grabbed him by the thigh, put a hand in his face, lifted him up a little and slammed his head down into the floorboards.

He picked up the Sarabande midwife as the man with the fire axe advanced on him with the handle raised to shoulder height, the head of the axe almost scraping the ceiling. Hunter leapt forward and struck the midwife into the top of the man’s head with a flick of the wrist, outranging him. The axe stuck into his skull and he staggered backwards, dropping his fire axe with a clatter, trying to wrest the midwife free With both hands. He couldn’t do it and fell to a knee, holding the axe like some kind of displaced horn.

The man who Hunter had last kicked in the head ran full force into Hunter’s back and carried him clear into the shop’s window, which broke into huge shards with a plaintive crash. Hunter’s scalp was cut and blood flowed freely down his face, blasting out in a mist as he exhaled. He windmilled his elbows to get the man off him, then spun around to face him. This man’s scalp had been split, as well, in the center of the forehead where Hunter had kicked him. He had a stripe of blood running down his nose like warpaint. He moved his fists with speed and had a spring in his step. Hunter sighed.

He was exhausted. This wasn’t lung cancer. It was the simple fatigue of fighting fight after fight and ascending the underground labyrinth. The man gave him a flashing cross to his jaw. Hunter tried to hop in for a knee but was granted a right cross for his effort and staggered back against the window, dropping his hands. The men stepped in and gave him a jaw to the chin and a hook across the brow. Hunter tried to give the man an uppercut, driving him back, and then followed with a heaving straight but missed both. The man cracked him in the eye and Hunter was knocked sidelong; he reached for the floor to stabilize himself if he fell, then threw that hand in a cross that was slightly deflected but clipped the other man’s scalp.

This guy had a fucking guard. Hunter launched a barrage of blows into the man’s hands to get as close as possible, then spun full circle and caught him in the jaw with his elbow. It let off a clapping noise. Hunter whirled to face his foe and was about to strike him again, but the man’s head was lolling on his shoulder; he was already unconscious. Slowly he collapsed sidelong and lay on his back.

“There’s a time and place for everything.”

Hunter looked around at the manifold fallen forms. His head was ringing, his knuckles felt broken and his legs felt like lead. That was ok. They’d done their job.

He walked out through the front door. The man with the hatchet in his head was sitting miserably against the doorjamb.

“You want a hand with that?”

“No, no, I’m good…”

“Suit yourself.” Hunter stepped over the man’s legs and set off for Millsborough manor.

He saw the ivy-girt gates before anything else, but shadows loomed before them. Hunter advanced and saw that crates marked “kerosene” and “naphtha” were being stockpiled by the gate. They were planning on burning Millsborough manor.

Hunter came near them. There were pallets for the crates and several large trucks which had been used to carry them in. A few stevedores were still unloading the trucks, and a pair of fire brigade troopers stood guard over the stockpile of incendiaries.

“I guess that’s why they’re the ‘fire brigade.’”

Nefaro, the vast security commissioner, was pacing back and forth before the steel gate. He could climb it, this was no problem, but he could not burn the manor alone.

Up above, in Millsborough manor, Hunter saw Garland in a wide window with his family and associates at his shoulders. They were pale, tight-lipped, and were comforting children at their thighs or breasts. This was their last refuge on the mainland.

“Just you and these two clowns, big ugly? Don’t anybody wanna play with you?”

Nefaro froze, then looked over his shoulder.

“Not looking so beautiful yourself, now. Though slightly more robust…”

“Don’t let the growth spurt fool ya. I’m just as dead as you are.”

“I’ll take that bet,” Nefaro grinned, and advanced on Hunter who could feel the ogre’s footfalls. It was like staring down a grizzly bear. Hunter didn’t think he could have done it if this wasn’t his last day. But he did. The fire troops and stevedores stood and gaped.

Nefaro lurched his shoulder inwards a bit and then gave Hunter a massive backhand. Hunter got his hands up but it was like getting hit by a car and he went tumbling head over heels, absorbing most of the force in his face and chest. He looked up with double vision, split lips and a numb nose as Nefaro came looming over him.

“He’s gonna kick my head out my asshole,” Hunter thought and rolled to the side over and over in a way that felt comical and pitiable to him. He leapt up, woozy, and Nefaro was just six feet from him. He rushed in at Nefaro and swung at his jaw; this was risky but Hunter had to find out just how fast his opponent was. He hit Nefaro right on the tip of the chin; the giant let out an angry puff and smashed Hunter in the back as he passed beneath his armpit. Hunter had the wind knocked out of him, tripped, hit the ground hard and tumbled end over end again, his legs whipping him around. He felt the skin of his back rip. What the hell?

He staggered to his feet, Nefaro already lumbering towards him. This was not fair. He reached back to feel his skin, and between the bloody rips in his flesh there was a strange knotted surface. He wondered if he’d gripped a tree for a moment, but it was there even when he moved his back around.

Hunter rushed away from Nefaro, sliding on the grass. Nefaro had stopped and Hunter glanced over his shoulder. Nefaro was glaring at him with a furrowed brow.

“Can you blame me running?” panted Hunter with a stinging face.

“You… how long have you been in Sarabande?”

“A day. Or maybe forever. Depends on what you call me,” Hunter said with a half-cocked smile.

“Don’t trifle with me, fool,” said Nefaro, “I was mighty before I ever showed signs of the woodrot. Whatever strange, advanced case you may have developed can bring you no closer to matching my prowess.”

“You know more about it than I do. I just broke down a whole squad of your boys so you might be right about the ‘advanced case’ part.”

Nefaro’s eyes went wide and livid. He glanced in the direction that his fire squad had departed in, then back at Hunter.

“And can you squish ants, too? Come, prove yourself against a member of your own species, brother!” Nefaro stomped towards him. Hunter rushed in and launched a punch at his nose, connecting. Nefaro tried to clap Hunter’s head between his loglike palms and woodspire fingers, but Hunter squatted and made a diving roll between his legs, correctly predicting that he’d have clearance. Punching Nefaro in the nose was like striking a tree, and Hunter’s knuckles burned. He glanced at them and his eyes popped: the bloody skin had flaked away where he’d used it to strike, and his knucklebone was covered in a knot of what looked like smooth mahogany. He almost fainted at the sight of this, glancing over at Nefaro in wonder and disbelief.

“Pfeh! You can strike!” exclaimed Nefaro. “Come closer! I’d like to feel something again!”

Nefaro bore down on Hunter. Hunter bladed his body and raised his fists, considering how to manage this attack. He leapt in to kick Nefaro in the testicles. Nefaro grabbed his pant leg but Hunter ripped it free. Nefaro caught Hunter’s forearm as he was spinning.

“Got you! Any last words?”

Hunter’s flesh felt strangely numb under Nefaro’s grip. He had a premonition.

“Yeah. My skin’s yours. Might help with the blemishes.”

Hunter wrenched his arm free of Nefaro’s grasp. His forearm and hand were bloodily degloved by the iron grip, and Nefaro was left only holding only a ragged, calloused, fingernailed length of flesh.

Hunter darted back and raised up his aching hand. He had strange calcite-like buildups of smooth wood on his bloody bones, there were woody vines entwining his pale ligaments now free to flower with budding leaves, and he saw cellulose fibers in the interstices of his muscle, coloring it coconut brown.

Nefaro hurled the hand-flesh; it thwacked into the side of a nearby truck and began sliding towards the ground.

“Then give me what I’m owed!”

Nefaro lurched for him but Hunter rolled to the side. Nefaro tried to kick him but he juked out of the way and slipped behind the ogre, slugging him in the gut as he went. Nefaro whirled on him and reached out with both hands, seizing Hunter under both armpits and staggering forward with him until they came to a crashing halt in a broken crate of kerosene bottles. Wood dust rose around them and they were both drenched in the ruddy smelling fuel. The smashed bottles lacerated Hunter’s skin, but it was a curiously weak pain and only went skin deep.

“Now I’ve got you. Ironic that we ended up here. I would have loved to see you burn, stack of faggots that you are. But I’m going to pull your head off first.”

Hunter reached into his pants pocket and drew out his cigarette lighter.

“No, no, I’ll oblige you,” he said, and looked at his silver lighter as he flicked it. “I always knew you’d kill me.”

The inferno spread over them in a heartbeat. The air became a rushing gout of blue and pale yellow flame joined by booming eruptions of naphtha from the stockpile. Not only was everything in Hunter’s view set on fire, it seemed the very trees above had been set alight and were weeping burning matter into his field of vision.

Hunter’s mind was split in half and he was gripped by cosmic agony as his skin burnt up and died. There was a constant high-pitched scream in the background, even above the all-consuming breath of the fire. It was Nefaro; he had been made into a torch and was staggering away from the stockpile like a maimed yeti of fire.

I should be blind, Hunter thought. He looked at himself and he too was burning. He got up and walked through the numb heat towards Nefaro.

The fire was cutting through the body of his nemesis. Much more of Nefaro was flesh than Hunter had realized, and his blackened and scorched body contained much charred meat. Hunter had expected Nefaro to be like him. A statue of wood and ivy.

Nefaro rounded on him, a blackened shadow demon of ruined flesh and malevolent countenance. He burned.

“Still I will destroy you,” uttered the monster.

Silently, Hunter moved towards Nefaro, picking up speed with a trail of fire behind him. He could throw pebbles at Nefaro all day, but only a boulder would fell the giant. Hunter had to take a risk; he had to make one, perfect attack or Nefaro would surely finish him. But there would be no escaping the aftermath of a strike of sufficient magnitude. He had to get it right or Millsborough manor would burn.

Hunter arrived at his quarry and snapped a kick into the ogre’s chest. Nefaro brought his hands up to deflect it. Hunter followed the kick into a second spin and leapt into the air, coming parallel with the ground.

He delivered the top of his wooden foot right into the jaw of the monstrosity. Hunter dropped to the ground, and looked up with wide eyes. Had he failed, he would now feel the giant’s deadly stomp.

Nefaro leaned sideways, wavering for a few moments, and then pitched sidelong into the leaves in a heap and there his body burned.

Hunter walked to the ivy-laden gate. He gripped it with woodbone fingers and climbed, singeing the ivy as he went. He straddled the top of the fence and looked upon Millsborough’s beautiful manor.

“Millsborough,” Hunter rumbled through the flame, “The way is clear!”

His voice sounded strange; resounding, but reedy and monotone.

Millsborough left the window and his supporters followed him after gazing upon their burning savior for a moment. Millsborough led them, perhaps a full hundred, in procession through the gate. They bowed their heads to the strange, burning wooden statue as they passed. The Queen’s siege works were consumed in flame, but they loaded themselves into the trucks and sped away for the docks. This would be the end of their chapter in Sarabande, but perhaps not of their role in the future of the city.

Hunter walked through the city streets and overlooks. People screamed, gasped, held hands over their mouths at seeing this burning figure. A specter of legend. Myth. Fairy tale. It was making for a tower.

There Hunter Flintridge stood and gazed over the glittering bay of Sarabande for the last time. He saw the waving boughs of the forest and beyond them a red steamship making for the isle of Tincaro and a new life beyond the Queen’s deadly grasp and the reach of her enforcers, the chief of which was now firewood.

From the deck of the ships, the Commissioner, his family, and his supporters could see little of Sarabande but a single burning figure bidding them good fortune from the city’s tallest tower.


  1. Your action sequences are so much fun to read! Couple of standout things I noticed - "take root on Tincaro" - really clever wordplay.
    "Human question marks" - I really like this metaphor! I can see how you could use other punctuation marks as metaphors for people too - how someone who was an exclamation point might have been surprised or is suddenly on guard or attentive, how a human ellipses might be someone lying down, resigned, etc.
    And last - "holding the axe like some kind of displaced horn" - wonderful image and this is a situation where I think some kind of actually totally works, lol.
    Great descriptions of how the woodrot / flux changed the body, in places the description was enough to make me wince in sympathy - the descriptions of the hands especially, or the bit about forcing the bones past each other. Once again, really nice work, I found it a fascinating glimpse into the city!

    1. Thank you very much! I appreciate you pointing those things out and I’m glad you enjoyed it. With these stories, I’m trying out different things while also trying to keep the adventure as tight as possible, whereas with a lot of my previous stories I focused a lot on trying to depict remarkable places. My goal is to get these into harmony so that I can have remarkable environments depicted in a phonaesthetic way without unduly sacrificing pace

  2. Great stuff! Honoured to have something I rolled up written about.
    I love the damp smoke. Very much in keeping with the Sarabande aesthetic.
    As has already been said, very fast paced, very punchy - reminds me of an old pulp story (in a good way!). I can just see the illustrations now.

    1. Thanks a lot Ben, and I was glad to write something set in Sarabande given the way you characterized it. I’m glad you found it fast and punchy; that was my intent for this one, and I’m happy that it turned out that way given that it was about a physically broken man for the first half (before turning into weird fiction Streets of Rage)


Art - First Run